It seems there will still be no end to the resistance movements against the depredations of capital that have sprung up in the wake of the economic crisis. Things are coming to a head in France, where hundreds of thousands have gone on strikes and demonstrations against the attempts of the Sarkozy government to raise the pension age across the board. In a brilliant move reminiscent of the powerful miners’ strikes in Britain in the 1970s, the majority of which were won by the unions, the demonstrators are now blockading petrol depots and stations in addition to gathering for protests. The French government has already been forced to admit that it only has a couple days’ worth of stockpiles to supply Charles de Gaulle airport and other major transport hubs with petrol, and it is seeking to prevent panic buying which would further diminish the flow of this lifeblood for industrialized economies.(1) If the protests do succeed at blockading the government’s access to the coal equivalent of the contemporary world, prospects of victory look good: repeated conflicts with the miners in Britain forced governments of both the Conservatives (Heath and Thatcher in ’82) and Labour (Wilson and Callaghan) to cede to the workers’ demands.
Of course, the official rationale is always the ‘necessity’ of the measures in order to keep the pensions system affordable, and the welfare system going in general. But there are a number of fairly obvious rejoinders to this cant. First, cutting deeply into existing welfare structures in order to keep them affordable is reminiscent of the American commanders in the war in Vietnam, who destroyed villages ‘in order to save them’. One can hardly applaud the vigor of rightist governments at ‘saving’ the welfare state from alleged bankruptcy if their way of going about it has the same effect as a medieval quack’s application of bleeding had to the health of his patients. If we are not to believe that such governments are totally naive and incompetent for their purpose, we are forced to conclude that they must well be aware of this, and their clamor to ‘save’ our collective wealth is either merely a fig-leaf to hide their desire to destroy them or else simply the rankest hypocrisy, as in the case of David Cameron’s “Big Society” of austerity for the poor.
But secondly, and more importantly, the accounting of the Sarkozy government and similar such regimes elsewhere misses the point entirely. As with many in economics, they put the cart before the horse, forgetting the purpose of the collective benefits they purport to want to save. After all, for what do we pile up such wealth in our rich nations? For what do we endlessly accumulate? What is the rationale that defends capitalism, if not that it would raise our living standards? And yet our living standards do not consist in money itself, but in what money can buy, and what it will allow. Money without any purpose is mere scrap metal and painted paper. Throughout history, man’s fight for a better way of life consists first and foremost into a struggle for improving our comfort. This consists in housing, in clothing, in being well provided with food and drink and the necessities of life, especially in the first stages of humanity’s development. But as soon as a certain level of wealth has been reached, other comforts come into play as well: luxury goods, entertainment, works of art and of music, books and philosophy, and much more. But although capitalism would have us believe otherwise, high living standards and the wealth they represent do not consist of piles of goods alone. Once the first necessities have been taken care of and even our wider needs are being fulfilled, at least as important becomes the ability of mankind not to work; that is, to enjoy a reprieve from the ‘dull compulsion of economic forces’ and spend an ever greater amount of the span of our life on the full development of ourselves as social individuals. One can represent the degree of any person’s wealth by the amount of time she has to work to fulfill her basic needs, and then her wider needs, and eventually the greatest degree of comfort a person could demand in a society of equals.
By this measure, then, the capitalist accounting of Sarkozy and others is revealing. Rather than aiming to reduce the amount of lifespan each French citizen has to spend on working for their life’s needs, Sarkozy aims to increase it. This cannot serve the purpose of maintaining the living standards of the French people, for it ipso facto accomplishes the opposite. What then can be the purpose? It must be the purpose of maintaining the amount of capital, expressed in money, that the French produce during this time, and of which a share is given upon reaching the legal retirement age. Since the French themselves are none to keen on this, it is quite clear that this constitutes in effect a demand for the French to work more hours for the same ‘return’ on their ‘investment’ in terms of their lifespan. Of course, many people in Western Europe now live much longer in some degree of health and well-being than even just half a century ago, but this move then seeks to reclaim this lifespan-time as time spent on labor rather than on leisure, which is the development of the social individual. One can only conclude one thing: the policy of the Sarkozy government, and that of all governments in Europe and elsewhere pursuing the same things, presents itself as a naked attempt to maintain the stockpile of capital, rather than to maintain the living standards of the people who produce it. The alleged crisis in the finances of the collective systems therefore presents itself as a crisis of capital, not as a crisis of the workers, who are quite content with rejecting these attempts at ‘rescuing’ them on their behalf. They know where their true wealth lies: not in accumulating more capital, and maintaining its rates of return, but in the span of life that nature has given them, and in how much of it is truly theirs, not spent in subjection to the tyranny of working for another. It is to be hoped that this winter will truly show their discontent.
1) Lizzy Davies, “Paris airport fuel is running out amid pension protests”. The Observer (Oct. 16, 2010).