At the time of writing, it would seem that we have entered a time warp: a fuel crisis characterised by pickets, blockades and 'panic' buying, topped off with union revolts at the Labour Party Conference. At the same time we have seen street fighting in Prague - the third time in the last 12 months that an international economic summit has been disrupted by the burgeoning world-wide 'anti-capitalist movement'. Following on from the events of Seattle last November, where it appears the critique of capitalism was put back on the agenda, it seems very reminiscent of the 1970s. But are we really seeing the 'green shoots' of a resurgence of class struggle - similar to that of thirty years ago?
The last time lorry drivers seized control of the distribution of vital supplies was in the 'winter of discontent' in 1979. At that time they were part of a nation-wide strike wave of public sector workers who were openly challenging the attempts of the then Old Labour government to impose wage restraint. Since then most of these lorry drivers have become self-employed. Of course the imposition of self-employed status onto lorry drivers amounted to little more than the shifting of economic risks from the employers to the drivers. Capital no longer imposes itself on the driver in the form of the boss but in that of the finance company. In real terms the position of the owner-drivers was little different from what it was when they worked for a wage. So, while many of the participants in the oil blockades were nominally self-employed, they could be considered as little more than proletarians.
However, the movement demanding lower fuel prices was clearly dominated by the large road hauliers and farmers, and this was reflected in the content of their demands. It was a petty-bourgeoisie movement in which lorry drivers clearly identified themselves as small businessmen united in the need to cut costs and taxes.
What was striking about the fuel blockades was the comparatively small number of people involved. How was it that a couple of thousand protesters could bring the entire economy of Britain to a standstill in less than a week? The answer of course is that the protesters enjoyed the barely disguised collusion of the major oil companies and the indifference of the police. Small businessmen felt safe in breaking the law; the oil companies colluded in pickets and blockades; the police put weight on the right to protest; and all this was openly condoned by the tabloids and the Tory Party. All this serves to demonstrate that, at present, there is no working class movement that is capable of posing a serious threat to the established order, and which would force the bourgeoisie to find unity and discipline against such a threat.
Meanwhile, however, thousands have participated in militant mass actions against 'capitalism'. While the shutting down of the WTO, and the premature closure of a meeting of the IMF and World Bank, are no mean achievements, the 'anti-capitalist' movement is ultimately limited by the fact that it is not yet rooted in everyday struggle. While tens of thousands of demonstrators could be mobilised from many different parts of the world to disrupt the deliberations of leading capitalists and politicians, little is done to oppose the daily exploitation and alienation of capitalism.
This weakness is reflected in the dominant ideas within the movement. While many parts of the movement have gone as far as adopting explicit 'anti-capitalist' positions, and while the 'movement' is prepared to directly confront capital and the state, such opposition is still not articulated in class terms. Instead, the 'movement' is dominated by middle-class pluralism (justice, freedom, equality, fairness...) according to which the diverse 'people' of the planet are pitted against 'global capitalism'. The way the more radical elements of the movement distinguish themselves from the more liberal wing is through its forms of action - such as a readiness to attack the cops. But this emphasis on direct action as such only expresses in a more militant form the shared ideological mish-mash. The moralism of the middle class liberal's activism is simply replicated in the extremist violence of the 'autonomen' molotoving the cops on behalf of the 'poor and dispossessed masses of the third world'. For both liberal and militant elements, capitalism is seen as something external to their everyday lives, which they try to do something about. In the same way the foremost organising group, People's Global Action, can declare itself against capital without specifying what capital is nor anything about the class that can abolish it. But capitalism is a mode of production based on the self-expansion of alienated labour through its subsumption as wage labour. Therefore capital is not a thing out there, but a social relation that conditions all of life. While resistance to capital reflects human needs, the essential role of class and of the proletariat cannot be avoided in the movement to overthrow this mode of production.
Following the Zapatistas' land occupations and the subsequent Encuentros, 1994 became 'year zero' for some in the direct action movement. The iconic quality of the Zapatistas for the 'anti capitalist' movement(s) is revealing. The successful presentation of the Zapatista struggle has been as a 'new improved anti capitalism' no longer posing unpleasant issues of class. Indeed, they have opted for a bourgeois language of 'liberty, democracy and justice' - terms which have been in fact also part of traditional leftism since 1789! In our article in this issue on the Zapatistas we demonstrate that while there is indeed novelty to the uprising, it is the class position of the Zapatistas that is central to understanding the strengths and limitations of the struggle.
At the level of ideas, the stuff that Marcos has come out with has hardly had more resonance with proletarians than have the actions of the 'anti-capitalist' movement. However, if at first the incongruence between the present series of 'direct actions' and a proletarian resurgence is striking, it is possible that a more subterranean connection is at work. Just as the upsurge of the late '60s and '70s was prefigured to some extent by movements in intermediate strata, the present 'anti-capitalist' movement could be a reaction, first at the level of middle class subjects that will be followed by a return of the repressed real threat to capital, that is, the proletariat.