In this chapter, we will analyse some of the changes to capitalism and society since World War II, the point at which anarcho-syndicalism was all but wiped out by fascism, Stalinism, total war and social partnership. We will see how the post-World War II social democratic settlement limited the space for a re-emergence of radical currents in the workers’ movement by integrating trade unions, as the representatives of workers, into the capitalist system. We will then look at the upsurge of class struggles from 1968 which marked the crisis of the social democratic settlement, and how their eventual defeat paved the way for the rise of neoliberalism and the “offshoring” of the traditional centres of militancy in the mines and factories. In analysing neoliberalism, we bring the analysis up to date with the conditions for organising today, characterised by casualised service sector employment and a withering of the institutions of political and economic representation – political parties and trade unions – which were central to the post-war settlement.

The social democratic settlement in Britain

“The war changed the balance between labour and capital. Most think that it shifted the balance in labour’s favour. The real lesson of the Second World War was that it crushed the independent organisations of the working class.”130

World War II all but wiped out the radical currents in the workers’ movement, with the strongholds of Germany, Spain and Italy crushed by fascism and total war. But following the war, the ruling class feared a repeat of the revolutionary wave which spread across Europe and beyond following World War I. In the first chapter we encountered Tory MP Quintin Hogg’s 1943 remark that “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.”  But this idea had older roots.

“When introducing the electoral reform to the British parliament in 1831, the prime minister Earl Grey said ‘There is no-one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the ballot, than am I (…) The Principal of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution (…) I am reforming to preserve, not to overthrow’”131

The British ruling class in particular had had the longest experience of capitalism and had arrived at the idea of ‘reforming to preserve’ fairly early on. What changed following World War II, almost universally across the most industrialised countries, was that this was integrated into the prevailing management of capitalism. The strategy of repression which had characterised pre-war industrial relations (tanks on the streets in 1926, gunboats in the Mersey in 1911) was eclipsed by a strategy of recuperation. This was not entirely new, but was adopted in a far more systematic way than ever before, particularly in the form of the welfare state. Class conflict was institutionalised and harnessed as a motor for capitalist development, with reforms improving living standards sufficiently to marginalise revolutionary tendencies amongst the working class.

The post-war settlement was the ruling class being forced to accept the fact of the working class as a collective social force. This meant the temporary suspension of the capitalist project to reduce us all to atomised individuals offering our labour power on the market, in favour of the institutionalisation of the working class as a collective entity. This involved taking the reformist tendencies which had emerged within the workers’ movement and giving them a seat at the table. The working class threat was accepted as a fact of life, an overhead cost of doing business. Thus, it had to be given representation within the capitalist system to prevent it disrupting or rupturing that system. The economic representation of the working class was to be handled by the trade unions. The political representation of the working class was to be handled by the Labour Party. We have already encountered these institutions in Chapter 1. Here, we are more concerned with how this model of ‘reforming to preserve’ stabilised post-war capitalism and marginalised the revolutionary tendencies within the workers’ movement.

The other side of this institutionalisation of the working class as a collective was the development of consumerist individuality. Keynesian economics, which became mainstream after the great depression of the 1930s, stressed the importance of aggregate demand, the economists' term for the total money available for consumption. This was to be stimulated by two sources: wage rises and state spending. For the wage rises, the trade unions were brought in as social partners in productivity deals. The unions would guarantee peace on the shop floor and assist management in making productivity improvements (such as through new technology or working practices). In return, management would share some of the productivity gains with the workers in the form of annual wage rises. These productivity deals were the backbone of post-war social partnership in the workplace, and provided the basis for the expansion of the consumer market outside of it. At the same time, state spending, particularly via the new welfare state, provided direct employment for millions and stimulated the economy somewhat independently of the booms and busts of the business cycle. State deficit spending was used to smooth out dips in private sector activity and thus soften recessions, whilst maintaining more or less full employment.

This regime meant building a domestic consumer market to absorb some of the output of the post-war boom, and created a virtuous circle of economic growth, consumerism and relative industrial peace. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew continuously until 1974, and days lost to strikes remained relatively low until the late 1960s. The role of the state, into which the trade unions were more or less integrated, was to guarantee order and social peace. We should note that the basis of this post-war recognition of the working class as a collective force had a material basis, not just in the balance of class forces, but also in the organisation of production. The economy was approximately 70% primary (extractive industries, agriculture) and secondary sectors (manufacturing). Mining and manufacturing had been the backbones of industrial militancy before the war, and would be again in the 1970s. Consequently, large employers often dominated employment in a given town, which meant there were large collections of workers who could be represented through institutionalised collective bargaining. This was fairly successful at keeping workers’ militancy in check, and channelling it away from open class struggle. The social democratic logic is captured in a quote from across the Atlantic. A leader of the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union writes:

“Good unions work to defuse [workers’] anger – and they do it effectively. Without unions, there would be anarchy in the workplace. Strikes would be commonplace, and confrontation and violence would increase. Poor-quality workmanship, low productivity, increased sick time, and absenteeism would be the preferred form of worker protest. By and large, unions deflect those damaging and costly forms of worker resistance. If our critics understood what really goes on behind the labour scenes, they would be thankful that union leaders are as effective as they are in averting strikes.”132

This social partnership was fairly successful from capital’s point of view for the first two decades following the war. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s it began to break down. Throughout the post-war period there had been a slow decline in political party membership, from peaks of over 2 million for the Conservatives and 1 million for Labour to around half that by the late 1970s. However, trade union membership continued to grow, peaking in 1979. The reasons for the breakdown of the post-war regime were numerous. The post-war boom was coming to an end. The international financial system was breaking down, with the US withdrawing from the gold standard in 1971, inaugurating an era of floating currency rates. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo sent energy prices soaring. At the same time, labour unrest was on the rise, and social struggles from anti-racism to feminism, to environmentalism and gay liberation, were also breaking out. A full account of all the factors leading to the breakdown of the post-war social contract could take a pamphlet in its own right. For our purposes, it is enough to note that a convergence of factors put increasing strain on profits and thus on the regime of relative social peace based on productivity deals. This set capital and labour on a collision course once more.

In Britain, the first major salvo in the resurgent class war was the first national postal strike in 1971, which was kept in check by the trade union,133 followed by the successful miners’ strike of 1972. The latter strike had a strong autonomous streak to it, with action led by the rank and file and the union playing catch up. Fearing wildcats would break out, the National Union of Miners (NUM) called an official strike for January. The employers offered a new productivity deal, but this was rejected and the strike began. From the first day, all 289 pits were closed and the strikers at many of them, against the instructions of the NUM, refused to provide safety cover. Having already warned that “pressure from below” would “lead to anarchy”, by the third day of the strike, NUM president Gormley said that "the men are being a damn sight more militant than we would want them to be." The following day he complained that "some men have been overambitious in applying the strike."134

The strike was spread through flying pickets organised mainly by rank and file NUM members and shop stewards. Strikers organised mass pickets of power plants and coking plants (most famously at Saltley), leading to power cuts due to lack of coal. There were solidarity actions by other groups of workers, including transport drivers, many of whom refused to cross picket lines, or even tipped off strikers of their destinations so there could be a flying picket waiting to turn them away. This culminated in a one off, three day week in February with over 1.5 million workers temporarily sent home due to the effects of the strike. The result was an emphatic victory for the miners, which helped set the expectations for workers in other sectors.

“A hastily cobbled together government enquiry recommended wage increases of between 15% and 31.6%, about 4 times what the NCB had originally offered, and a bit more than the miners had originally asked for. Even then, the NUM, under pressure from the miners who had clearly realised the enormity of their power, even rejected this deal, holding out for an extra £1 a week for the non-faceworkers. After appropriately romantic candle-lit beer-and-sandwich-type negotiations at 10 Downing Street, this demand was precisely what the miners got – a pretty good result which boosted working class confidence everywhere.”135

The miners struck again in 1974. Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath called a general election just two days after a union ballot went in favour of a strike, asking the question of voters, "Who governs the country?" Neither Heath's Tories nor Labour won a clear mandate. The miners’ strikes thus more or less ensured the downfall of Ted Heath’s government, which had introduced the 1971 Industrial Relations act precisely to curb such examples of working class power. And they also sent shock waves through the ruling class as a whole. One of the first acts of the 1974 Labour government was to work with the TUC to impose wage restraint. This was agreed in the region of 5%, at a time when inflation was running between 15% and 25%. In effect, these were massive pay cuts. In 1976, Labour called in the International Monetary Fund to bail out the UK, demanding austerity measures in return. The Labour government, the TUC, and international capital were on a collision course with the working class.

What became known as the ‘winter of discontent’ began with a strike by 15,000 Ford workers, emphatically rejecting the 5% pay offer and demanding 25% and a 35 hour working week. They were soon joined by 67,000 more Ford workers, bringing 23 Ford plants to a halt. As the unofficial strikes spread, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) sought to regain control and made their demands official. Strikers returned to work a month later, accepting a 17% pay offer. Next up were lorry drivers and public sector workers, including refuse collectors, nurses and ambulance drivers, and famously, the Liverpool gravediggers. Working days lost to strike action reached 2.9 million in 1979, and trade union membership peaked at 13.2 million. Workers across many sectors struck for, and won, pay increases far in excess of what the government was willing to offer. These went some way to clawing back the income lost to rampant inflation throughout the 1970s. They also marked the definitive death of the post-war social contract.

This was also the point where the strike movement reached its limits. Capitalism was being squeezed by numerous factors, not just industrial unrest, but also international and economic pressures. In many cases employers genuinely couldn’t afford workers’ demands. Now, of course, employers always claim they can’t afford the demands made of them. The difference was that in the 1970s many of them opened their accounts and empty order books to the workers, demonstrating they really were up against it. In other words, working class militancy collided with the limits of possible gains under capitalism. As sociologist Michael Mann wrote of this social contract:

“Britain has enshrined the rule of both interest groups and classes, jointly. The labour movement is part sectional interest group, part class movement, irredeemably reformist, virtually unsullied by Marxist or anarchist revolutionary tendencies.”136

He was right; the post-war social settlement had marginalised revolutionary tendencies on the shop floor. This meant when workers ran up against the limits of capitalism, the movement stalled. Many workers felt betrayed by the trade unions and the Labour Party, but no revolutionary movement emerged. There was no serious attempt to push beyond strike action into more radical action, such as expropriating workplaces (as happened in France and Italy around the same time). Having made the country ungovernable, the working class blinked, unsure what to do with this power. This paved the way for the neoliberal counter revolution, which sought to systematically break the bastions of that power in the mines and factories, and impose a new social settlement based on individualism and debt. But before looking at this, let us consider the movements in France and Italy during this same period, which had much in common with the industrial unrest in Britain, while in many ways coming closer to revolutionary upheaval.

France ‘68 and Italy ‘69

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, struggles erupted around the world in both the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, both on the industrial and the social fronts, with anti-war, women’s struggles, civil rights, and students’ movements all coming to the fore. We will focus on two movements, which  provide some of the clearest glimpses of what a revolutionary movement might look like in a developed country: France in 1968 and Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969. Much like in Britain, here we see workers’ struggles coming up against the trade unions, but also pushing beyond them, but also falling short of any revolutionary break with capitalism, and ultimately being recuperated back into capitalism and the trade unions.

The unrest in France began with a student movement. In May, a wave of university occupations was violently repressed by the CRS (riot police). Alleged student leaders were victimised, and mass demonstrations were held to support them. Many of these demonstrations clashed with the police, who suppressed them with considerable force. The demonstrations grew, with many workers joining students in the streets. These climaxed in the ‘night of the barricades’ (May 10th-11th), which saw running battles between students and CRS well into the early hours of the morning. Student and education workers’ unions called for solidarity strikes against the repression. Initially these were resisted by the main union confederations, but workers began striking locally regardless:

“From a few hundred strikers on 14th May at the Sud-Aviation air craft factory in Nantes the strike spread rapidly: 2 million strikers by 18th May, 9 million by 24th May, reaching nearly 10 million two days later.”137

Before going further, a brief note on French industrial relations is in order, as it is somewhat different to Britain. In France, there is a system of works councils (‘Comités d'Entreprise’). These function like workplace parliaments, with workers voting for unions to represent them, and union reps taking up seats on the council proportionate to their vote. Workers don’t have to be members of unions to vote for, or be represented by, the works councils, and as a result of this union density is quite low, around 20% in 1968. Consequently, union branches were not particularly strong, but normal disputes would be run by a negotiating committee, often cross union, in consultation with mass meetings/assemblies of the workforce (although usually treating these as a rubber stamp). In 1968, however, the workers at a rank and file level met and initiated strike actions without the sanction of any of the unions, although some retrospectively made the strikes official as the movement developed.

Consequently the strike wave spread and developed through initiative from below. Without any official strike call, the largest general strike in European history blossomed on a wildcat basis.138 Workers report listening to the radio as they occupied their factories, hearing the movement spread and gather momentum:

“Socialism seemed possible. (...) It was a ten year pressure cooker which finally exploded, and without the control of the Stalinists and other reformists and other professional organisers.”139

Workers set about marching on other factories to bring them out on strike and, in many places, formed joint action committees with radical students, which sought to spread the strike, discuss the political implications and spread propaganda, such as the famous slogans daubed across the walls of Paris ('all power to the imagination!', 'never work!', 'beneath the pavement, the beach!'). However, strikers found the gates of factories policed by union men:

“I went to the gates of 5 or 6 factories and each time I arrived full of enthusiasm. I bumped into the CGT delegates, probably members of the PCF [French Communist Party]. It was impossible to enter the factories and discuss with the strikers. I realised that the factories were not occupied (…) we were not in 1936. I hoped that the demos would arrive and break through this blockade. (…) At no point did we have sustained and political contacts with workers in the large workplaces, independent of the unions.”140

Thus the strikers, who had seized the initiative to generalise the strike, began to lose that initiative. In fact, it would be an exaggeration to say they ever really controlled the struggle, even when they were spreading it. Despite the feeling of many participants that they were making their own destiny, the trade unions remained largely in control:

“In every factory, a strike committee (or occupation committee) was set up to organise and co-ordinate the strike, but its composition and mode of election or nomination varied. Although the unions had not actually called for the strike, they successfully controlled it in most cases: the strike committee was an inter-union committee composed of union officials and shop floor delegates.”141

In other words, while not authorised by the unions, in most places the struggle stayed within the normal forms of French industrial relations, with control firmly in the hands of union dominated committees. As befits the nature of a blossoming movement from below, the demands raised varied from strike to strike, from occupation to occupation. Some focussed on solidarity with the students, others on wage rises, others on shorter hours. This allowed the trade unions to set about demobilising the strike:

“The trade-union strategy had a single goal: to defeat the strike. In order to do this the unions, with a long strike-breaking tradition, set out to reduce a vast general strike to a series of isolated strikes at the individual enterprise level. The CGT led the counter-offensive.”142

This was to be achieved by creating separate negotiations for each strike or occupation in a factory by factory basis, dividing and ruling the movement. Workers, lacking any pre-existing channels outside the unions to allow them to co-ordinate activity, were largely unable to form such direct links within the struggle itself, finding the factory gates policed by union officials. The trade unions gradually succeeded in degeneralising the strike. Both the trade unions and the government united in calls to ban demonstrations and enter negotiations. The CGT, very much degenerated from the radical roots we encountered in Chapter 2, called for a return to work. The strike wave ebbed, and by June was over. Order prevailed once more in Paris.

A final point to discuss is what effect the struggles had on the participants. Indeed, many workers were radicalised by the experience, demoralising though it was to be demobilised and outmanoeuvred by the trade union apparatus.

“The real gain of 1968 for our class was elsewhere. This was the birth, everywhere, in all the factories, of a minority of workers who had more or less broken with the union apparatus. There, something changed and in the ten years which followed, we can talk about the important strikes of the 1970s which escaped, in whole or in part from the apparatus of the PCF/CGT, and there were some big strikes in those years.”143

There was talk amongst Trotskyists that a ‘workers’ vanguard’ had been born in the factories. However, where did they go? Some became sucked into the trade unions, aiming to reform them but finding themselves reformed to the realities of trade unionism. “A good number went to the LCR or LO [Trotskyist Parties] and the Maoists, and the biggest part went nowhere.”144 Consequently, while 1968 created militants who would shape the disputes over the following decade, many were either absorbed into the trade unions and political parties or demobilised altogether.

The following year in Italy saw struggles which, although not as large numerically, in many ways went further beyond the control of the trade unions. The ‘Hot Autumn’ saw waves of strikes and occupations alongside a growing student movement and increasing mobilisations outside of the factory, with mass squatting and women’s movements prominent. In the huge car factories of the north, industrial action was rippling beyond the control of the trade unions. Workers developed autonomous tactics and forms of shop floor organisation. One of the most effective was the ‘checkerboard strike’, where one part of the assembly line would stop work, and by the time the management and union officials had got them to start up again, another part of the line would stop. Due to the linear nature of the production process, these small stoppages would bring whole factories to a halt. A worker at Fiat’s Mirafiori plant described the situation:

“The presses weren’t producing a thing, the crane men and the trolley drivers had nothing to transport, and thus the production lines were virtually at a standstill. This was dangerous for the unions. They had lost control (…) The very fact that the line was not running sparked off meetings and discussions among the men: first of all inside the factory, next to the stationary assembly lines, and then outside, together with the groups of students who had gathered at the gates. The strike spread down the line, and political discussion followed it. Everyone was arguing and talking, and it was suggested that the demands of the Press Shop could be taken up by the assembly lines. The strike had begun in protest against the speed of the line. But work speeds are decided from above in the factory, and are based on the whole way that capitalism organizes work, that is, gradings and wages. So our initial limited protest soon spread to all aspects of the work relationship.”145

This captures very well the dynamics of the struggle, where seemingly everyday demands about the pace of work quickly gave way to an openly political struggle for power, contesting management’s right to manage. In this context:

“[M]any comrades thought that we should begin to push harder. But for the time being this was difficult, because there was nowhere they could turn for organizational support. The unions were out of the question, and the students hadn’t yet arrived on the scene.”146

The workers organised through impromptu assemblies, using recallable, mandated delegates outside the trade unions to negotiate with management. In many places, these delegates came together in factory councils. The trade unions sought to recapture the initiative and turn the delegates into representatives. Many militants saw this for what it was – an attempt to demobilise them and recreate representative structures. Consequently, they raised the slogan “we are all delegates!” and stopped work to negotiate with management en masse. Against this, “union officials aimed to discipline the movement so the workers acted through the organization which represented them, and not outside it.”147

They did this through an ‘institutionalisation from below’, dividing the most active militants from the rest of the workers and sucking them into union positions. The CGIL union (Italian General Confederation of Labour), which had originally opposed the delegate system, did a u-turn and made it the basis of the union structure. As the tide of struggle ebbed, the most active militants found themselves stranded as union representatives, mandated by assemblies which were rapidly dwindling. “Many leading activists became full-time union organizers after 1969, while in 1970 up to 50 per cent of delegates resigned.”148 There was no real organised revolutionary alternative to this, so many of the best militants became absorbed into the trade union structures for lack of a better strategy. This is partly reflective of the fact many of the most organised revolutionary elements in the Hot Autumn were those coming from Leninism. The ‘workerists’, organised in groups like Potere Operaio (Workers Power), Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Avanguardia Operaia (Workers’ Vanguard), had nonetheless broken with the mainstream Marxist conception of the party and support for the trade unions. Instead, they sought to organise politically in the economic sphere, with bulletins and anti-union agitation within the factories. The workerists recognised how the post-war settlement had harnessed class conflict to drive capitalist development, and discerned a ‘strategy of refusal’ amongst the workers in the vast factories of the Italian north:

“[T]he refusal of even passive collaboration in capitalist development: in other words, the renunciation of precisely that form of mass struggle which today unifies the movements led by the workers in the advanced capitalist countries.”149

They made the argument that the assemblies and delegate councils would inevitably be recuperated. Thus, they did not seek to provide a revolutionary counter force to the trade unions, but to organise negatively, against all demands for better wages, conditions and so on and as a refusal of work, of wage labour – of capitalism. However, this left the trade unions unopposed in the factories, while the workerists turned their focus away from the economic sphere towards armed struggle:

“…the majority of workerists chose in effect to abandon to the confederations those militant workers still unconvinced by the tendency's critique of unionism. In doing so, they would help to make their fears of union recuperation a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a consequence, Potere Operaio would encounter great difficulties in building a factory presence outside established strongholds like Petrolchimico; there as elsewhere, a number of its activists would choose to participate in the new councils of delegates. (…) the unions would soon prove successful in overtaking most of the radical rank-and-file factory groups of the creeping May. While Lotta Continua remained influential at FIAT, and the CUBs [workplace committees] sponsored by Avanguardia Operaia continued to spread through Lombardy, the unions' resurgence was to have direct consequences for workerism's political ambitions. In the crucial years of the early 1970s, the tendency's major organisational expression would turn away from the problem of class composition [workplace organisation], towards the all-or-nothing gamble of 'militarising' the new revolutionary movement.”150

The armed struggle proved disastrous, and the state unleashed a huge wave of repression against the social movements, sweeping thousands into prison. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the workerists cut off their nose to spite their face. It’s true that wage demands were harnessed by the post-war settlement as a motor of capitalist growth. But this was precisely a period where workers’ demands were exceeding what capital could profitably concede, opening up a potentially revolutionary moment. As the previously quoted Fiat worker argued,

“For us the password is FIGHT INSIDE THE FACTORY, because it is only through fighting inside the factory that we shall be in a position to outlast a prolonged clash with the bosses and the State. We must put them in the weakest position, where they will have to pay the highest price, and not us.”151

But in time the workerists rejected the idea that these struggles could prefigure a revolutionary break: “this would not be a pre-figuration of the future, because the future, from the working class point of view, does not exist; only a block on the present.”152 Thus, the only struggles within the factory they could conceive of were refusals to make demands, wanting to turn the tables so that management had to make demands of the workers to return. This was no doubt a radical position. It affirmed the political (i.e. power struggle) nature of the class struggle and correctly insisted that revolution is more than the self-management of wage labour. In this sense 'the refusal of work' was not simply an invention of workerist intellectuals, but an attempt to theorise the rejection of the work ethic and the refusal to let life be reduced to work that characterised parts of the strike movement. However, in practice this stance, and the turn away from the economic sphere to armed struggle, left the field clear for the trade unions to recuperate the movement. This meant turning militancy away from the strike movement, where workers were on home turf, towards the armed struggle, where the state had the advantage.

This is not to say everything would have been fine in the winter of discontent, France 1968 and the Hot Autumn 1969 if there had been well established anarcho-syndicalist unions. The point is that there were not, and there could not have been, since World War II had all but destroyed the independent organisations of the working class, and the social democratic settlement had limited the space for their re-emergence. But in all three cases, a lack of an organised revolutionary perspective on the shop floor was one of the factors preventing these struggles pushing beyond the limits of capitalism. Compare them with Spain, where decades of revolutionary agitation meant workers and peasants knew what to do immediately when the chance presented itself for expropriation and a push towards libertarian communism. Likewise, the lack of organisational links outside the trade unions limited the horizontal spread of the struggles and allowed the trade unions to regain the initiative. This was especially the case in France, where the factory gates were patrolled by Communist Party/trade union officials. The attractive idea of forming the organisations needed to struggle in the midst of struggle proved harder than anticipated, in part because the forces of reaction and leftist recuperation had a huge head start.

Finally, we can note that the lack of an organised revolutionary union movement meant those radicalised by the struggle were generally sucked into the trade union bureaucracy, the Leninist and Maoist parties, or drifted away altogether. They certainly didn’t regroup themselves on the shop floor to push a revolutionary perspective and oppose the recuperation of the committee/delegate/council forms developed in the struggle. Compare this with the German Revolution, where the FAUD was able to regroup newly radicalised militants and boycott the factory councils when they were recuperated by the Social Democrat government. Their numbers declined with the struggle, but they remained much stronger than they had been before the revolutionary period and were able to carry on other struggles and agitation. There is no point lamenting this absence. What we can do is see that autonomous, democratic forms of workers’ organisation such as councils and committees are often prone to recuperation if no clear alternative strategy is in play. As was written of the French wildcat general strike of 1968:

“This was the first step towards questioning legalism, the first attempt to enter a revolutionary insurrectionary phase: but there was no follow-up in that direction, and the movement was kept well under union control on the whole.”153

There’s much to learn from the struggles of this period about how a revolutionary movement could develop, and also how it can fail. These discussions could fill a pamphlet in their own right, and we have only skimmed the surface of them here. The failure of these struggles to develop into an insurrectionary movement against capitalism and the state also highlights the necessity to have some organised revolutionary effort by workers to generalise strike movements, to counter the efforts of the trade unions and political parties to return to normal, and to spread militancy between and beyond workplaces into wider society. It seems highly unlikely such a revolutionary workers’ organisation can be created on the fly, especially when the trade unions and political parties have decades of head start. But we also have to acknowledge that the basis of the militancy of this period, particularly in the mines and the vast car factories, has since been swept away through ‘spatial fixes’ (i.e. relocating industries abroad), and economic and social restructuring. In other words, the neoliberal counter revolution has destroyed the bases of these revolts, in the West at least.

The neoliberal counter revolution

Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government came to power in 1979, oft repeating the infamous mantra ‘there is no alternative’. In a sense, she was correct. Workers had pushed more or less up against the limits of capitalism, and been unable or unwilling to push beyond. Consequently, capital needed to counter attack, to restore order on the shop floor, discipline the working class and kick start capital accumulation after a decade of industrial turmoil. Within the capitalist frame of reference, there was no alternative; the working class needed to be broken.

There are a couple of common myths about neoliberalism which we should first put to bed. The first is that it represents a ‘minimal state’ and a ‘free market’. This is false on both counts. While those directly employed by the state fell with the privatisation of the old state monopolies of British Rail, British Steel, British Telecom, British Gas and so on, general government expenditure has remained relatively constant since World War II, rising gradually until the late 1960s and levelling off around 40% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).154 Widespread privatisations have been compensated for by subsidies and state contracts awarded to private sector firms. We should recall that Thatcher reportedly carried a copy of the classical liberal economist Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ in her handbag, and remind ourselves of what Adam Smith had to say about the state and free market:

“Laws and government may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.”155

The neoliberal state is thus only ‘minimal’ in the sense that it is focussed on its core function of class warfare, outsourcing many of the welfare functions and representative organs which were supposed to guarantee social peace under the social democratic regime. It is not the sidelining of the state, but a redefining of its role. Utilities, health care, education and so on are all seen as non-core functions and so there are ongoing attempts to privatise public services across the board. This 'minimal' state, concerned chiefly with the management of disorder, has been called a ‘security’ state. As political philosopher Michel Foucault wrote:

"The essential function of security (...) is to respond to a reality in such a way that this response cancels out the reality to which it responds – nullifies it, or limits, checks or regulates it."156

The neoliberal state is thus literally laissez faire. Rather than trying to guarantee order, it 'lets things happen.' Periodic disorder in the markets, especially the deregulated financial markets, or on the streets is more or less taken for granted, with the state seeking to nullify undesirable effects (such as eruptions of class struggle). This is the link between the market liberalisation and the security state that characterises the neoliberal regime. The dominance of the market over social life and the increase in repressive state power, ubiquitous surveillance, militarisation of the police and so on, are by no means contradictory; they presuppose one another. As the state sheds its social functions, political representation withers; membership of political parties and participation in elections falls. As this happens, the state can rely less and less on presumed ‘consent’ to legitimise its rule, and is likely to rely more and more on brute force. Students witnessed this in the repression of the movements against the tripling of tuition fees and the abolition of education maintenance allowance (EMA). The government’s own official report into the August Riots of 2011 cites “cynicism/anger towards politicians, authority, negative experience of the police” as amongst the causes.157 Such conditions are endemic to the neoliberal regime, especially for those at the wrong end of rising inequality.

However, while disorder outside the workplace is taken for granted, order within the workplace is insisted upon. This brings us to the second myth, that neoliberalism is anti-union. This is only partly true. Everyone remembers Thatcher’s battle with the miners in 1984-85. Indeed, the working class is still feeling the consequences of that defeat today. But in order to take on the miners, Thatcher’s government did deals with other unions. The state picked its battles one by one, and unions which were willing to adapt themselves to the new conditions were somewhat spared. Essentially, trade unions were no longer to serve primarily as the mediators of class conflict by negotiating productivity deals, but rather were to be an outsourced wing of management, disciplining workers and pushing through ‘modernisation’ where bosses couldn’t do so alone. It’s unsurprising therefore that trade union membership has fallen steadily since its 1979 peak of 13.2 million, to around 7.4 million today.

The changing role of the trade unions can be seen in the evolution of industrial tribunals (now employment tribunals). These were introduced by the 1964 Industrial Training Act as a low cost alternative to the civil courts for dealing with labour related matters. The official presiding over the case was known as a "chair", who sat with both a union official and an employer’s representative. They are now known as ‘employment judges’, which gives an indication of the increasingly legalistic nature of the process. In the early days, to prepare for an industrial tribunal didn’t require any specialist legal knowledge on the part of the worker. Although a knowledge of the case law always helped, it was by no means essential. Nowadays, your prospects are pretty slim without an employment lawyer; something which trade unions often provide to their members as part of their service model. While in the past there were many workplaces which would take wildcat action if a worker was unfairly disciplined or sacked (and there still are a few, some post office branches and the London Underground being the most frequent), "wait for the tribunal" is among the most effective ways of making sure this doesn't happen, diffusing anger into an individual, legalistic process.

Thatcher’s government wasn’t stupid, and was not prepared to leave the centres of working class power untouched, trade union mediation or not. While the trade unions had long served to police militancy on the shop floor, they’d proved unable to discipline the working class during the winter of discontent. And there was a strong correlation between those industries with strong rank and file union organisation and wildcat militancy. When the union hierarchy tried to call off strikes, often the branches and shop stewards ignored them to take unofficial wildcat action. Up until 1968, 95% of strikes had been unofficial, and the same was true of many of the conflicts of the 1970s.158 Consequently, the strongholds of the organised working class, particularly mining and manufacturing, were to be dismantled. So-called ‘anti-union’ laws were introduced to clamp down on unofficial action and secondary picketing. But in practice these laws were not so much anti-union as anti-strike, imposing financial ruin (asset sequestration) on unions which didn’t clamp down on their members taking unofficial action.

The National Union of Miners couldn’t be trusted to discipline the miners, who had brought the country to a standstill in 1972 and brought down the government in 1974. The miners had shown a strong capacity for autonomous action at a rank and file level, particularly in 1972. A secondary stronghold was in manufacturing, particularly the car industry. These centres of working class power had to be destroyed lest they rise up again. The defeat of the miners was well planned, dating at least to the 1978 ‘Ridley Plan’ which had been leaked to the Economist. Coal was stockpiled well in advance, some power plants were converted to run on petroleum, a fleet of scab hauliers was recruited in case rail workers refused to move coal, and riot squads were deployed to smash picket lines. Deals were done with other unions to pre-empt sympathetic action. In 1984 the government, via the National Coal Board (NCB), tore up the 1974 agreement and announced a programme of pit closures, costing 20,000 jobs. Without waiting to ballot, miners in the affected pits walked out. They soon spread the strike to other pits via flying pickets. But the story is a familiar one etched into the collective memory of today’s militants, even those who weren’t born at the time. Despite a long and bitter struggle, the miners were successfully isolated. They fought and lost almost alone.

For the manufacturing sector, the process was less sudden. Instead, firms increasingly employed a “spatial fix”, relocating to countries with lower wages and laxer conditions. Often, these were military dictatorships like Brazil and South Korea. Here too, they often found that the workers they brought together on the production lines got organised, fought and won better conditions. But in terms of Britain, the militancy was successfully exported.159 Whereas in the 1970s the British economy had been 70% extractive industries and manufacturing, today it is more than 70% services. The economic restructuring has imposed a generational break in militancy across almost all sectors. Most workers born in the 1980s or since have never been on strike, and for those who have it has been mostly in one day, largely symbolic actions. Certainly, memories of effective industrial action are few and far between, and the sectors where this was commonplace are long gone. We have yet to see much in the way of effective service sector organising, something any contemporary anarcho-syndicalist strategy needs to address.

The advent of neoliberalism thus represented a shift in the balance of class forces, with capital once more on the offensive. Consequently, the meaning of ‘reform’ was redefined, not as concessions to placate the threat of revolution, but as an ongoing process of restructuring society in capital’s interests. ‘Labour market reform’ means casualisation, ‘flexibility’ (for employers), an increasing role for employment agencies, and rising job insecurity. Pension reform means cutting pension pay outs and increasing employee contributions. Financial market reform means deregulation of the sector, leading to greater financial instability, growing inequality and the massive expansion of personal credit (all factors in the current crisis). Public sector reform means privatisation and outsourcing, tearing up terms and conditions and the introduction of private sector management norms. Industrial relations reform means transforming the notion of relations into ‘human resources’, representing the relegation of the working class from collective subject to disciplined, individualised, managed object. Welfare reform means cuts and workfare, i.e. forced labour. Housing reform means the widespread privatisation of the housing stock, and the decline of social housing. In the absence of a strong working class movement ‘reforming to preserve’ was superseded with ‘reforming to develop’.

In short, reform has become a euphemism for attacking our living standards. Unions have been allowed to remain social partners so long as they accepted their role was no longer to police the shop floor in return for annual improvements in pay and conditions, but simply to manage their stagnation and decline with minimal disruption. This is normally called ‘consultation’, a managerial euphemism if ever there was one, since the outcome is rarely in doubt. During the ‘boom’ before the great financial crisis of 2007, pay was cut year on year in the form of sub-inflation pay offers. During the following austerity, this process accelerated. Neoliberalism has thus all but eliminated the space for reformism in the old sense of working through the representative institutions of unions and parliament to achieve gradual improvements in working class living standards. This is the paradox of reformism: without the revolutionary or at least, militant and uncontrollable threat, the reformists lose their seat at the table and capital and the state lose any incentive to concede reforms. Whether they could do so once more if faced with a renewed working class threat, or whether that ship has sailed, is an open question. We would err on the side of caution and say that it may indeed be possible, and as much as possible, we should organise in such a way that is wise to attempts at recuperation or buy offs.

With all this in mind, we can arrive at the counterintuitive formulation that neoliberalism constitutes class collaboration on an individual basis. No longer is social partnership institutionalised via collective bargaining and productivity deals. Rather, productivity and incentives are increasingly individualised. Home ownership and the corresponding mortgages were vastly expanded under Thatcher (and since with the ‘right to buy’ council housing). This formed a class basis for this 'individualised class collaboration', a burgeoning middle class identity to replace the ‘old fashioned’ working class identity associated with pit villages and manufacturing towns, which were in inexorable decline. The expansion of personal debt served to discipline the working class, first through mortgages (which mitigate against strike action which could cost your home) and later through the expansion of credit card lending which, together with rising house prices, plugged much of the gap in aggregate demand which, under the social democratic regime, had been served by productivity deals. Workplaces have seen a proliferation of minor hierarchies – team leaders and so on – to provide a semblance of truth to the ruling ideology of meritocracy that, if you keep your head down and crack on, you can progress your career. With the working class ever more atomised, inequality has risen dramatically. Britain’s Gini coefficient (0 = perfect equality, 100 = perfect inequality) rose from the mid 20s in the post-war period to 40 and above today, a figure which continues creeping upwards.

The atomisation of the working class has gone hand in hand with a mental health epidemic. Depression is rife as stresses, which were once seen as a collective battle between workers and bosses, are turned inwards as personal failings. After all, since our society is now a meritocracy, if you’re stuck in a dead end job, perma-temping or on the dole, you’ve only yourself to blame. Or so the story goes. One in four people suffers a mental health problem in any given year, most commonly anxiety and depression.160 Studies suggest that unemployment and rising income inequality are implicated in rising suicide rates.161 When the Greek economy went into crisis following the global recession, its suicide rate shot up from the lowest to the highest in Europe.162 The depression epidemic is not solely caused by neoliberal capitalism, of course; mental health is far more complicated than that. But it’s certainly an important factor. Writer Mark Fisher notes:

“In Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. (…) it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The 'mental health plague' in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”163

With the fragmenting of working class identity, the Labour Party, whose membership collapsed from 666,000 in 1979 to 348,000 the following year, became 'unelectable'. That is, until they reinvented themselves as New Labour, declaring 'we're all middle class now' (Labour membership was down to 194,000 at the latest count in 2010). Party politics has thus been transformed from a spectacular image of class conflict, where the party of the bosses and the party of the workers would do battle (the social democratic tragedy), into a contest between interchangeable administrators of the capitalist economy (the neoliberal farce). Neoliberal politics consists of a bland managerial face off, where increasingly indistinguishable candidates compete for a handful of decisive votes in marginal constituencies. Personality becomes decisive, but in truth mediocrity reigns. Real power lies elsewhere, and the sharpest of the ruling class no longer aim at a career in politics, leaving social administration to a succession of identikit clones.

Miliband imitates Cameron who imitates Blair; a copy of a copy of a copy, becoming more dull and unappealing each iteration. No wonder interest in party politics is waning! And good riddance. But it’s testament to the weakness of the working class that these mediocrities are able to rule us. With barely a semblance of anything at stake, membership of political parties is in steady decline, and electoral turnout too. Only the occasional short lived spectacle like the hype around New Labour or Obamamania can buck this trend. The incumbents promise a steady hand. The opposition promise change. They change places and change promises. In the 2010 general election, every major party ran on a slogan of 'fairness',164 no doubt after some pollster discovered it was the value that really spoke to the fabled 'middle England'. In the past, revolutionaries had to make the case against parliament as the avenue for social change. Increasingly, parliament makes the case for us all by itself. As a BBC journalist writes:

“…the big parties have effectively given up on becoming mass membership organisations. There will be no return to the 1950s. What we might be witnessing instead is the birth of a new kind of political party. Not so much a religion to be followed by faithful, as a pastime to be pursued once or twice a year, when other commitments allow.”165

This more or less brings us to the present crisis. As of 2012, much remains to be seen. But the Keynesian solution is no longer on the table. Even if there’s the profitability to sustain new productivity deals (doubtful), or the wealth available for redistribution (doubtless), the ruling class aren’t going to give it up, save in the face of a renewed class offensive. This has been contemplated in the pages of the Economist:

“…relatively undemocratic governments have historically extended voting rights in order to convince a restive public of the promise of future redistribution. In the West, that is not an option. A bit more growth and a bit less austerity might take the edge off public anger. But if social unrest has its roots in the effects of structural economic changes, a more fundamental societal reckoning may be needed. A study (…) examined inequality and unrest in India and found that redistribution can quell an outcry. That may well be the outcome of the current turmoil, too.”166

But while one off redistributions might placate social movements, they cannot fix the economic crisis. There is plenty of existing wealth in the world which can in principle be redistributed, but as Karl Marx pointed out, capitalism is a system of producing new, surplus value. Moving existing wealth around won’t in itself kick start that accumulation process. A more fundamental societal reckoning may be needed. The Keynesian/social democratic regime failed due to its own internal contradictions. It couldn’t be sustained for more than 25 years or so in only a small part of the world (i.e. the most developed countries). There can be no return to the post-war settlement, whatever the nostalgic wishes of the left, for the conditions which made it possible no longer exist. But the original neoliberal solutions are now off the table too. The basis of neoliberal individualised class collaboration was the expansion of home ownership and the extension of easy credit to compensate for stagnating real wages. But with the bursting of the credit bubble and the fact much of the housing stock has already been sold off, that option is no longer viable.

What comes next remains to be seen. Neoliberalism may stagger on with further privatisations, casualisation and reliance on repression to compensate for falling political legitimacy. This seems to be the favoured course of the British ruling class. But this can be contested, resulting in either an alternative model of capitalist accumulation, or the re-emergence of a working class movement aiming beyond capitalism and the state, and towards a free society based on human needs. The latter, in fact, is likely to guarantee the former, to the extent it falls short. That is to say, it may take a push from the class struggle to put the final nails in neoliberalism’s coffin, but there may be some other form of capitalism that follows, if we don’t push all the way through to libertarian communism. Certainly, the best capitalism can offer us is alienated boredom and insecure employment; the worst, medicated misery and unemployment. Wherever the present crisis leads, we can be sure that the better organised we are, the stronger our solidarity, then the better prepared we are to influence things favourably in our direction. At the minute we are far from strong enough to do so. But a revolutionary unionist practice seems to us more relevant than ever, especially now the possibility for even modest gains through the reformist unions has been so much eroded.


In this chapter we looked first at the social democratic compromise. This marginalised revolutionary tendencies in the workers' movement by integrating the political and economic representatives of the working class into the state's management of capitalism. When this compromise broke down in the 1960s and 1970s, the working class took the offensive with waves of strikes and militancy. However, these struggles did not reach the intensity of revolutionary working class insurrection, although at times in France and Italy it came close. With the stalling of these struggles, capitalism and the state counter attacked with neoliberal reforms. These destroyed the old bases of militancy, put limited individual advancement in the place of collective struggles, and created a paradoxical 'individualised class collaboration'. These neoliberal conditions by no means mean a minimal or weak state, but a security state which creates the conditions for disorder whilst seeking to neutralise any outbreaks. This shapes the conditions for organising collective working class struggles today.

Further reading

Units 19 and 20 of the SelfEd history of anarcho-syndiclaism cover the rise and decline of social democracy. Aufheben #13 contains a good article on housing and how it was used to decompose the working class.167 Aufheben’s two part series on the financial crisis is also worth reading.168 Salt by Escalate is an interesting take on the current crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism.169 has a good brief introduction to the winter of discontent,170 as well as several good pieces on France 1968. These include ‘Enragés and Situationists in the Occupations Movement’ by the Situationist International, ‘General Strike: France 1968 – A factory by factory account’ by Andre Hoyles and ‘May-June 1968 – A Situation Lacking in Workers' Autonomy’ by Mouvement Communiste. Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s ‘Obsolete Communism – the left wing alternative’ provides a book length account of the general strike in France. On Italy, the complete text of Robert Lumley’s ‘States of emergency: Cultures of revolt in Italy from 1968 to 1978’ is available on libcom and covers the period of unrest well. Steve Wright’s ‘Storming Heaven’ covers the same period, with particular focus on the ‘workerist’ Marxist political currents. Mario Tronti’s ‘Strategy of Refusal’ remains a key workerist text from the time, outlining their unorthodox Marxist perspective. These can also be found on libcom.