By Greg Oxley
Macron’s pension reform represents a major social regression, only the most recent of a raft of reactionary policies implemented by successive governments, including the supposedly “socialist” government of Francois Hollande.
Pensions have been the subject of several counter-reforms, but the current one is the worst of all. It will wipe out a pension scheme where the pension of retired employees is based upon the wages of those still working, rather than on the result of the buying back of a saving scheme.
This reform will also increase the retirement age and significantly reduce the amount of the pension. As a ‘good communicator’, Macron took care to hide the substance of his reforms behind a barrage of lies that the communist newspaper L’Humanité very usefully deciphered in detail. Macron claims that the points system will be fairer and more “equitable”. On the contrary, it will exacerbate to the extreme pensions inequalities already glaring before the reform.
In Sweden, after the introduction of a point system in the 1990s, 92% of current retirees have a lower pension than they would have had with the previous model, and the number of retirees officially classified as “poor” is almost twice as much higher there than in France (7.5% in France, 14.7% in Sweden).
Under the points system, pensions will take into account periods of low wages and unemployment. The more we are unemployed, part-time or on sick leave, the more our pensions will be impacted. The most affected will be women, the disabled, the sick, the victims of unemployment and precarious work. The central aim of this reform is to open a market worth hundreds of billions of euros to the banks and insurance companies, by pushing millions of citizens into ‘provident contracts’ in the hope of compensating for their losses.
A huge movement of strikes and popular resistance is under way to block this new capitalist offensive. During 2018 and 2019, with the railway workers’ strike and then the “yellow vests” movement, we saw the end of the relative social calm that had settled since the great struggles of 2010 in France. The movement currently underway is powerful and encouraging. But we should not underestimate the opponent. For Macron to give up his reform would be disastrous for him, because it would put him at odds with his commitments to the sharks of finance.
If he fails, his government will be paralysed, as was the government of right wing Prime Minister Juppé under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, after the events of 1995. Consequently, for the current strikes and demonstrations to have the least chance of success, they must widen, become even more massive, mobilizing the private sector. They need to further revive the “yellow vests” and seek reinforcements among high school students and students on a massive scale.
Macron will seek to divide the movement by temporary and sectorial concessions and by betting on deceitful and treacherous “union” leaderships, like that of the CFDT, which is a social-democrat union federation which has backed major social reforms in the past. The best antidote to such manoeuvres would be to mobilize more widely and open up the prospect of a possible victorious outcome.
Whatever the immediate outcome of the current struggle, the events we are currently experiencing bear witness to the social instability that is taking hold in France and which will only worsen, given the social and economic prospects for the future.
This social and political instability is increasing not only across Europe, but around the world, creating a situation in which “populism” and nationalism are advancing at an enormous rate. We often read that the term “populism” means nothing. But it does mean something. It signifies the emergence of political currents which can capture and reflect a major change in the social consciousness of populations, or a significant part of them. In the last period this has been characterized by deep distrust of and hostility towards all “elites”, particularly politicians, so-called democratic institutions, the media and various “experts”.
Some opportunist politicians who ride this wave are only exploiting the social consequences of capitalism to advance their own interests. They poison popular consciousness with nationalism and xenophobia the better to serve, ultimately, the interests of the ruling class that they pretend to challenge.
We are raising the problem of populist and nationalist dangers here because the stakes of the struggles go far beyond their immediate causes. In defending the interests of the working class through struggle, we also need to raise these issues among all trade unionists and activists. Concretely, in the context of the progressive demolition of all past social conquests, of impoverishment, of increased precariousness, of fear and anxiety about what the future holds for us, the search for solutions can only ultimately take one of the two possible directions.
It must either lead to a resolute and serious class struggle that challenges and destroys the power of the ruling class and opens the prospect of a social order free from exploitation and oppression. Or, it will be channeled into a path that is based on “national” and “racial” myths, scape-goating other nations and races. Between these two fundamental forms of political consciousness, there is competition and a struggle, the outcome of which will decide the fate of humanity and, given the ravages of capitalism in the field of the environment and the ecological balance of planet, of its very existence.
This vision also has to be put in the context of the global economic outlook as it appears for 2020 or 2021. Since the world recession of 2007-2009, a major offensive has been carried on against living conditions and the rights of workers. The apologists for capitalism explain the crisis of 2007-2009 by the exponential growth of credit – that is to say, debt – in the previous period. In fact, it was a market saturation crisis (or “overproduction”) whose economic and social repercussions were amplified by the colossal mass of debts contracted in the previous period and whose economic function was to postpone as long as possible to saturate the markets by creating artificial demand.
The same apologists assured us, in the midst of the debacle, that the lessons learned from this experience would prevent us from reliving it in the future. In reality, debt worldwide has increased by 50% since 2009, with a sharp acceleration in the past 24 months. In 2017, global debt was $ 184 trillion. Two years later, it is $247 trillion, or 240% of world GDP. All international institutions like the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF, the ECB, the Federal Reserve, etc. envision another global recession in the next two or three years, compounded by the rise of protectionism and trade wars and also by the fact that many economically important countries are already in recession before the expected crash.
And if many bankers think that the repercussions of this new crisis will be less serious in the write-off of assets and loss of profits, they are all of the opinion that, to get out of it, it will be necessary to proceed quickly to the destruction of what remains of “bottlenecks” in the area of social legislation, public services and social spending. Thus, we see that the capitalists are of the same opinion as us with regard to the future under capitalism. Social counter-reforms will be endless as long as capitalism exists. When we talk about a class war, politicians and other “experts” display a mocking smile … What is this antiquated language of another age? Still, this is what awaits us – and at a level never seen in almost a century. The ruling class is preparing for it. It is as well that we prepare for it too.
In “democratic” Europe, the erosion or complete destruction of the social conquests of the past tends to undermine the social bases of parliamentary regimes which had rested on a “social compromise” and on the possibility of a peaceful coexistence of classes with competing interests. This possibility is getting weaker from year to year. Intense, bitter and hard struggles await us, struggles in which all the ideas, programs and methods of our organizations will be shaken and put to the test.
The currently dominant and majority tendencies in the workers’ movement and in society, which are essentially defensive and limited to various expedients to mitigate the social consequences of capitalism – staying within the framework of the system, without any serious prospect of leaving it – will show themselves inadequate in the face of the reality of a system that is demanding counter-reforms. Our daily defensive struggles are necessary and indispensable but they need a political objective and an alternative to capitalism.
Removing the economic and the political state power from the capitalist class is the sine qua non of a transformation of society that would allow real social advance and fulfilment of workers’ aspirations and those of all those who suffer the consequences of capitalism. On the other hand, if this program of socialist change – worked, explained and properly argued – does not emerge in and around the workers’ movement in the coming period, then, inevitably, the despair which has already strongly stimulated “populism” will sink even more abundantly into the channels of nationalism, racism and ultimately, fascism and war.
We do not sketch these perspectives and alternatives for academic or journalistic purposes. It is above all a warning and a call to struggle, not only for a program that is defensive, but for one that advances the revolutionary transformation of society.
Courtesy Left Horizons