The ongoing protests from anti-Covid restriction demonstrations to trucker’s protests in Canada, strikes in the UK and farmer’s protests in the Netherlands demonstrate an increasing sense of revolt against the existing economic order, particularly its intensification in the post-Covid era to a technocratic model of governance. However, this doesn’t represent the growth of a holistic movement against capitalism or globalisation, nor even a coherent front for popular mobilisation. Rather, it is the development of fractured pushbacks against distributional decisions.
Capitalist growth, particularly that of the neoliberal era since the late 80s, has been premised on the rising tide lifting all boats. Increasing inequality and wage stagnation have been side-lined as incomes could be raised through asset inflation (house price growth) and easy access loans for consumer goods/spending. As the 2008 and 2020 financial crises showed though, this growth premise increases risk exponentially and makes economic activity reliant exclusively on financial and logistical flows (for investment purposes and the movement of goods respectively) as well as a low-paid service sector.
Distributional conflicts were elided once trade union power was broken and capital was internationalised and flexibilised. But crises reintroduced the primacy of distributional conflict and showed the illusory nature of a depoliticised economy. The growth premise of neoliberalism was reliant on the “deflationary bloc” to maintain a low-price, low-wage service-based economy where inflation was pushed off of the RPI and onto non-listed asset classes.
“The surpluses of exporting countries were sustained at the expense of the American tradeable goods sector and its high paying jobs, thereby continuing to suppress inflation. In turn, however, exporters needed to purchase assets with their dollar-denominated receipts. The American financial sector was more than happy to provide them, financing the consumer credit that made the cycle possible. The demand for dollar assets in the mid-2000s helped fuel the American housing boom that ended in 2008”.
Manufacturing sectors and trade-based occupations had inflationary tendencies due to expanding domestic output and thus higher wage expectations. Even in manufacturing-dominant countries like China, domestic demand has been stunted in favour of export-led growth and financial expansion. This tendency has been substantially strained by three interlocking variables which have either produced crises or are in the process of producing them: 1. Wage stagnation causing a glut in household savings combined with asset inflation outstripping wage packets. 2. Climate change inhering the need for new economic models not premised on international supply chains, mass livestock and crop agriculture or oil and gas processing. 3. Coronavirus and international conflict demonstrating the fragility of supply chain planning to cope with medium-term disruptions and for localised production systems to be introduced.
Workers can no longer afford the products expected to produce a good or normal life, with everything premised on credit ratings (which paradoxically increase as one indebts themselves) as wage packets are no longer a means to a living. The emerging post-pandemic consensus is then a continuation of the norm. We’re now seeing profit-led inflation due to supply constraints increasing input prices, with profits mainly accruing to energy, transport and pharmaceutical companies. Wages have been stagnant for 30 plus years, particularly in the service sectors. When workers look for pay rises to compensate for inflationary increases, central bankers, economists, journalists and politicians raise the spectre of a wage-price spiral, despite mixed productivity and a low skill base internationally. Inflation is already happening, yet wages cannot rise. And this is the essence of the distributional conflict playing out, that between capital which wants to maintain its gains and workers who want to expand their pay.
The lines of this conflict are not cohering toward a general strike or a revolutionary moment, but are instead playing out across a fractured landscape of popular demands. Wages and working conditions are one aspect of the wider field of demands being raised. The crises of the pandemic and climate change are also raising spectres that presage distributional conflicts. The Dutch farmer’s protests are coming off the back of government targets to reduce nitrogen emissions, within a framework quite happy to put farmers out of business and destroy agricultural livelihoods. “‘The honest message … is that not all farmers can continue their business,’ a government statement reads”. And the police response to these protests has been draconian.
The honest message is entirely dishonest, as those on the lowest incomes have to suffer and have their livelihoods destroyed, while the perpetrators of climate change in the fossil fuel industry and military industrial complexes have to do very little apart from alter elements in their accounting. As the 2015 Paris Agreement testifies to, “as far as the current production and consumption systems are concerned, little needs to change. There are no elites consuming the vast majority of the world’s resources, no multinational corporations or fossil fuel industry needing to be controlled, no capital accumulating competitive systems promoting trade and fighting over resources and emitting vast amounts of GHGs through military expenditure and wars, and no governments expanding fossil fuel use and dependency”. Sacrifices are spread unevenly, with the flexibility of international capital and logistics maintained.
There is no emerging systemic moment though. These protests and movements are adhoc, contingent upon the conditions they are revolting against. They lack an overarching ideological commitment to a particular set of causes, whether conceived as anti-globalisation or reformist. Rather, they represent disparate fragments of a disconnected distributional bloc. Their purpose is to secure security and representation for their members, whether these be truckers in Canada or rail workers in Britain. Even the RMT’s more radical aims of opposing globalisation come back to their desire to see an economy structured for their worker’s interests rather than the interests of shareholders, with their aim being the nationalisation of the railways and an employment settlement rather than an ideological conflict. The totalising, utopic aims of the modern left are not represented here.
Similarities exist to the fuel tax protests in 2000 or the poll tax riots. Ideological discourse gave way to distributional conflict over how taxes should be levied, with the impact going to the heart of economic activity in Britain – that of transport infrastructure and domestic fuel supply in the case of the fuel tax protests. Doherty et al note “their political impact may be greatest in making governments more cautious about using indirect taxation. Culturally, they provide further evidence of what Tarrow (1998) calls the emergence of a movement society”. However, I don’t think these are evidence of a movement society. Rather they are evidence of a fragment of a society asserting its position. These movements/protests don’t represent concatenation or continuation, but breaking points along a wider continuum of governmental totalisation and the normalisation of crises. As Kingsnorth says of progressivism and capitalism, “both are totalising, utopian projects. Both are suspicious of the past, impatient with borders and boundaries, and hostile to religion, ‘superstition’ and the limits on the human individual imposed by nature or culture. Both are in pursuit of a global utopia”.
Revolts are then splinters that temporarily lash out against these projects, reasserting their livelihoods and attempting to forge popular demands. Governments and their lobbying partners represent the other side of these conflicts, whether through the forum of climate change agreements or in the increasingly draconian legislation used against “domestic terrorists” and protestors (like the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022). As new legislative initiatives and cultural shifts are implemented which affect and/or destroy the livelihoods of certain demographics, “government policy inevitably degenerates into a series of emergency announcements” which cuts off the political representability of these fragmented groups and movements. This will increase the violence of revolt, as distributional blocs start barricading themselves against government and opposing blocs, increasingly halting economic activity as their demands fragment politics itself from the field of debate to conflict in the streets and picket lines.