Since the financial crash of 2008, there has been a marked change in society across Europe, America, and the world over. In the UK in particular, this period that followed the deepest recession since the 1930s has been a period of public service cuts (fondly called “austerity” policy) from the Conservative government, leading to mass outcries from ordinary members of the public. The National Health Service (NHS) – a beloved institution of this country, fought for by workers’ movements and Labour governments in the post-war era – is being increasingly privatized. Waiting lists get longer and longer, and prescription drugs get more and more expensive. Funding for social care for the elderly and disabled is being cut further and further. University fees are rising higher and higher, with fewer and fewer jobs for graduates to go into. Schools are facing dramatic funding cuts, forcing redundancies and over-working the few teachers that remain, and they are being transformed into “academies”; privately sponsored institutions with no accountability to, or involvement from, the local community.
Understandably, there has been reaction from the working class to these draconian cuts to their quality of life. Revolutionary rumbling has been getting louder and louder in the UK as time goes on. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the Labour Party only speaks to this increasingly left-wing, anti-establishment mood in the population. Even the rise of UKIP smells of reactionary and misinformed anti-establishment sentiment. Trade unions have come out in support of Corbyn in huge numbers, including the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) who had disaffiliated from the Labour Party under Blair’s leadership in the 1990s, and re-affiliated formally following the election of Corbyn as leader in 2015.
Union activity has picked up to heights not seen since the 1980s. Railway workers and London Underground staff have been engaged in strike activity throughout the year. But it is not just the “usual suspects” of industrial workers in this rising strike action. Teachers have been on strike over the process of academization, and excessive work-loads. They’ve won battles too; the Conservatives have been forced to back-track on the rolling out of mandatory academization of all schools. Further teachers’ strikes are planned; the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference in March of this year called for “sustained strike action” to support teachers in challenging a “long-hours culture”. The union says teachers’ workload is “intolerable and getting worse”.
University Lecturers went on strike over a pay dispute for two days in May, at a period that critically jeopardized exam marking deadlines. Junior Doctors, facing cuts to pay coupled with increasing workloads, have been engaged in strike activity since the start of 2016. After months of strike action, supported by the general public and left-wing groups across the UK, they have won small victories in amendments to their contracts and increased weekend staffing from the government. Even lawyers have been on strike this year, over legal aid cuts for public barristers and solicitors. Teachers, lecturers, doctors and lawyers; these are layers of society once unquestionably “middle-class”. But as the conditions of capitalism deteriorate, even the previously privileged members of the working class are becoming proletarianized.
University students were once some of the most privileged members of society. In the 1926 General Strikes in the UK, students were used to protect scabs as they crossed the picket lines. Times have changed; with the increased corporatization of universities, more and more working class young people are being pushed to take up loans to go to university. Most of these students came from working class families, and will leave university to become workers themselves. Now, university students are some of the most politically active layers of society in the UK. As University fees skyrocket, facilities and staff face cut-backs, and the focus of the university increasingly becomes profit rather than education, students have fought back. Mass demonstrations of students in London have been taking place on-and-off with increasing fervour ever since the first fee-hike in 2010, and student protests have been growing and growing across the country in response to the increasing privatization and corporatization of universities.
Students and workers are out on the streets for one particular reason or another almost every week. Each movement lends support to the next. They are all “anti-austerity” movements; they are all in response to the cuts to living standards the people in the UK are facing. What must never be forgotten in all of this, is that “austerity” policy is not a whim; it is not simply “evil Conservatives” who simply want to destroy the lives of the working class. Austerity policy is part of the logic of capitalism itself; it is economically necessary, under capitalism. The same policies have been carried out by mainstream left and right parties across Europe. Capitalism, no matter what face it wears, cannot afford the reforms it once could, not in this period of economic crisis.
The dismantling of the reforms previously struggled for by the left-wing is another nail in the coffin for reformism. The post-war economic boom was a period of capitalist upswing, and in such a period the ruling class can afford to make concessions to the workers’ demands. But ultimately, while society is still in the hands of the capitalist class, those reforms can and will be taken away when it becomes necessary for them to do so. Capitalism tends towards periods of crisis, and so no reform is ever a permanent affair. The only way to secure for the working class a decent quality of life, permanently, is socialist revolution. This is the message that must be spread amongst the already agitated populace. If any of this pre-revolutionary action is to come to anything, there must be an understanding that it is capitalism itself that must be fought, if they are to achieve their demands.