• Connective Class Politics as an Inspiration for the Left

  • By Bernd Riexinger | 18 Apr 19
  • At 44 million, the number of wage dependents in the Federal Republic of Germany is greater than ever before in its history, and, if only for that reason, it is an important frame of reference for left, progressive politics. The society of work has not run out of work, as has been repeatedly predicted. On the other hand, the ‘jobs miracle’ vaunted by the government has been tied to precarisation and an expansion of the low-wage sector from the very start. With subcontracted work, job contracts by project, the employers’ circumventing of collective agreements, and real and pseudo autonomous labour, the world of work is split, with many lines of division running through it. The concept presented here of a connective class politics is aimed against the divisions and weaknesses among the employed and their trade unions.

    A new definition of solidarity

    What is at stake is a new definition of solidarity and the connecting of diverse groups and interests among the employed and unemployed aimed at constructing a political bloc that stands for progressive politics in the 21st century. The concept of connective class politics proposes a new regulation of labour and a realisable vision of human and democratic relations of work. This does not involve abstract concepts but rather concrete projects built on existing struggles and experiences as well as concrete demands and goals for an overall plan.
       Left class politics does not accept division, fragmentation, and precarisation as a given. Its task is to work out and formulate the common interests of wage dependents and forge solidary alliances. In strikes and labour struggles we have seen that educators, sanitary workers, streetcar drivers, cleaning women, kitchen help, care-givers, even at times doctors, office staff, and both Germans and immigrants, have gone out into the streets for a common cause, have discussed problems together and shown cross-groups solidarity. But we have to go beyond this snapshot of solidarity and develop a politics that contributes to making it normal for core working staff and subcontracted workers to stand up together for the hiring of the latter as permanent staff; that those with permanent jobs engage together with the temporary workers for the abolition of temporary contracts; and that the unemployed, minimally employed, or those forced to work part time struggle for a new norm of working hours together with those under permanent stress and suffering from the blurred boundaries of work time – new working hours in which some work less hours and some more but in which everyone can live from their labour. Those employed by Amazon, in the IT branches, in care services, in educational professions, postal workers and newspaper delivery people, and all other stressed groups must recognise that the same causes are responsible for forcing them into jobs that make them sick – so that they reach the conclusion that they have to combine forces to demand good work. We need a politics that makes it normal in workplaces and society at large to outlaw discrimination based on skin colour, gender, religion, origin, sexual orientation, as well as physical or mental handicaps.
       This definition of solidarity also requires that industrial workers support educational workers or hospital employees when they are struggling for better wages and more adequate staffing – because they and their families want good healthcare and good education for their children. Thus diverse groups in their neighbourhood need to go into the streets together to demonstrate against exorbitant rents, and gentrification and for affordable housing. As an illustration, in a school in Nuremberg people recently prevented the deportation of refugees who perhaps were their work colleagues or co- residents in their neighbourhood.

    Why ‘class’?

    Why do we need the concept of class for this? Isn’t it enough to speak of wage dependents and solidarity? Doesn’t class struggle rhetoric scare people away? Isn’t it antiquated in the 21st century to still think in class categories? It goes without saying that my position is not: Go out and explain things to people so that they can finally understand that they belong to a class and should struggle as such. Class consciousness arises through experiences and their conscious processing. We can contribute something important to this. The class concept is not just a semantic question but a contemporary political one. The concept only makes sense if we posit that there are various classes, which have different interests within society, which exert influence on the political decision-makers and the various institutions, and which have different degrees of economic and political power. This means that the interests of wage dependents as well as those of the unemployed and pensioners have to be asserted in the face of other classes in society, especially against the class that disposes of economic power and knows how to use it well in order to exercise political power.
       As soon as people formulate their interests, for example in terms of higher wages, good working conditions, affordable housing, or local public transport and organise to realise them, they come up against the decided resistance of other classes and protagonists. Capital attempts through all of its means to prevent higher wages or shortened working time, and the redistribution of work and its more just organisation. To this purpose it uses its political influence, for the most part successfully, just as it also does to pay very little or no taxes. It puts political representatives under pressure with the threat of moving production abroad, investing less, and destroying jobs. Or the capitalist elites get easy access to political decision-making processes by means of donations, lobbying, or by being asked to formulate the laws that actually ought to regulate them. Entire laws are written by the lobbyists of the employers’ associations. This intersection of economy and politics has grown in the last thirty years. Understanding who is impeding the wage dependents from realising their own interests and aspirations, in other words whom they are dealing with when they organise and raise demands, is an essential precondition for successful struggles and initiatives. And this helps them to recognise that the opponent is not the refugees, the unemployed, or the precariously employed. It would be still better to understand that the different class interests are determined by social relations, that is, that they do not so much depend on the will or character of the acting protagonists but rather have systemic causes. But we are still a long way from having achieved this, not to mention the formation of a political will to fundamentally change these relations. Taking steps in this direction of change is the task of a modern and connective class politics.
       ‘Nice-sounding demands’, ‘a naïve conception of politics’, ‘reality is completely different’, many will object. But these objections overlook the fact that it is precisely in reality that we see examples of successful actions or struggles with connective solidarity. The organising of connective struggles and confrontations transmits the experience of common interests. This applies equally to core staff as well as the precariously employed, to those in training, students, and secondary school pupils, and to parents. And, finally, it applies beyond national borders. Provenance and ethnicity play no role in this. The opponent is the firm that pays too low wages to the ground crew and not the work colleague who happens to come from another country.
       Of course, one-off experiences of struggle are seldom sufficiently sustained that they lastingly shape attitude patterns, but they are preconditions for the employed to see themselves as part of a class with common interests even if they rarely formulate it in this way. If people frequently have such experiences in a collegial and solidary interaction with each other it will shape consciousness, political attitude, and attitudes towards society.
       In many strikes, demonstrations, and rallies I have experienced educators standing, struggling, and dancing side by side with sanitation workers, nurses with street cleaners, social workers with cleaning women, Turkish salespeople at H&M with German salespeople at Kaufhof. The reaction was always: ‘We should do this more often, otherwise we hardly ever come together.’ I have seen that co-workers call up these experiences if they do not strike or organise similar actions every twenty years but every two to four years. For the left it is an important task to organise such experiences, in the workplaces and the residential neighbourhoods. How can we tie the single struggles together into a major substantive project? Is there a conception of the future that connects the individual struggles and confrontations in the world of work and can develop an additional dynamic? To this end I propose the project of a new standard employment model.
       For another world of work and a new standard employment model The struggle for a fundamental change in the world of work is the heart of a new connective class politics. We have seen that there are new and interesting struggles and efforts, mostly around single issues or in individual spheres of collective bargaining, to achieve improvements or impede changes for the worse. These workplace and collective bargaining confrontations have always led to successes but could not and cannot as a whole halt the process of precarisation, exclusion, and division. For this it is necessary to change the underlying political conditions – not only to stop the deregulation that has long since been implemented but to implement a new form of regulation.
       What would a political project look like that overcomes the division into precarious, unemployed, and core staff and at the same time is able to tie the individual struggles together? How can a mutual alliance of trade unions, social associations, unemployed initiatives, the left in its broadest sense, and other groups be created? In addition, what would a political project look like that develops a class perspective that is up to date and also advances the renewal of the trade unions?
       I believe that putting forward the concept of a new standard employment model is an effective way of advancing such a project. What does this admittedly cumbersome expression mean? It builds on the idea that there once was an (older) standard employment framework. This was not merely an act of (social) state regulation of labour. It was above all the result of the solidarity of the dependently employed, of their organisation into strong trade unions, and of trade-union struggles. Features of the old standard employment model included the continued payment of wages in the event of illness, a pension that ensured a decent standard of living, collective- bargaining contracts that stipulated rising wages, a right to vacation, work times, and working conditions, as well as co-determination in the plant and at the enterprise level. These achievements were the result of trade-union struggles. Sick pay and the forty-hour week were won through strong strike movements of the employed and then taken up by parties and enshrined in law so that they had validity for all of the employed and all enterprises. On this basis there was a state regulation of labour, which together with a strong welfare state protected a large sector of workers against the risks of unemployment, occupational illnesses, or old-age poverty. This was possible based on a principally nation-state-organised capitalism with high growth rates after the Second World War. The old standard employment model was part of a ‘compromise’ between capital and labour gradually established through conflictual confrontations. It was based on a kind of contract: hard full-time labour with rather rigid and minimally self-determined working conditions (the famed ‘back-breaking jobs’ and Taylorism) in exchange for social security, increasing prosperity and the prospect that life would improve for the workers’ children.
       A new class politics needs to build on these – today often lost – achievements under changed conditions and fill them with new life. At the same time it has to go beyond them. It is clear that a new regulation of labour cannot be a return to the old standard employment model, for in many respects it was worthy of criticism; it was overwhelmingly oriented to men and thus supported a family model, which fixed the woman’s role as that of housewife, mother, and supplementary earner and the man’s as full-time worker. Moreover, lifelong affiliation with a single firm is no longer what many of the employed wish. The life plans and needs of people have changed just as fundamentally as the world of work. A new normal employment model thus does not mean that all workers should work for the same number of hours or earn the same. It is instead about allowing that to become normal which should be taken for granted in a rich country – work for all that is secure, plannable, and permanent, as well as paid according to collective bargaining agreements, socially protected, self-determined, and democratically co-designed.

    Good work, good wages, a good life, and democracy

    Wages have to be adequate for a good life for all those who are working as well as for a pension that guarantees a decent standard of living and protects people from poverty. Wages should not only prevent poverty but also enable participation in the social wealth created by people’s work. The gender pay gap and discrimination against immigrants must be overcome. Care work done with people in education, healthcare provision, care, social work, and work in other areas of social service has value and must be more highly valued. It will constitute a large portion of work in the future.
       It must be possible for everybody to plan their future instead of working precariously – social security for all. All people must be protected from the risks of unemployment, illness, occupational disability, and old-age poverty. Various phases of life, such as parenting, continuing education and career change, care periods, and old age must be socially regulated so that greater self-determination is possible within the span of a work life.
       Work has to revolve around life and not life around work. A new normal employment model does not mean that everyone would work full time in one workplace throughout their life. Instead of constant stress and the forced pressure of flexibility, work and working time have to be organised such that life and jobs, responsibility for children and time for friendships, social engagement, and leisure can be harmonised. Work has to be so constituted that people do not become ill from it and can stay healthy throughout their entire work life. All of the employed must have a right to the ongoing development of their work and free continuing education without being exposed to the permanent pressure of competition and permanent flexibility. Today’s high rate of labour productivity makes it possible to have well- being and more free time for all instead of constant stress and unemployment for the many and high profits for a minority of owners of capital. We therefore propose a short fulltime as the new normal work time. Working time should be about thirty hours a week – with self-determined customised working times between 28 and 35 hours. Our proposal is calculated to foster a just distribution of the total labour – also between genders. Only by taking steps towards the shortening of long working hours will it be possible to justly distribute wage labour in society as well as care and homework between the genders. The system of structural under-employment, with mini- and midi- jobs, and involuntary part-time would belong to the past just as would be regular overtime and the blurring of work time.
       ‘Dare to achieve more democracy’. This slogan of Willy Brandt needs to be taken seriously again today. Democracy cannot stop at the factory gate or the office door. Democratic co-determination by the employed has been emptied out and attacked. Increasingly more enterprises are trying to fend off the establishment of factory councils and trade-union organising, in part using criminal methods. A new normal employment model also means that co-determination in the plant and in the enterprise must include all of the employed. The rights of co-determination of each and every individual and of the factory councils and trade unions must be reinforced and expanded.
       For a long time now the diverse individual struggles, whether in worksites or in collective-bargaining conflicts, have still not given rise to a political confrontation around a better regulation of the relations of work. The proposed new norm can only succeed on the political level. It is therefore imperative to construct societal pressure to shift the political relations of forces and ‘force’ the government to act. In an incipient way this succeeded with the statutory minimum wage. Even a conservative chancellor had to back it because a social majority no longer was willing to accept poverty wages. At the same time, the minimum wage shows that improving the situation requires more than just adjusting a screw. Political pressure arises when different struggles are not conducted in isolation but are connected to each other.

    Keep the whole in view

    The dynamic in the struggle for a new normal employment model emerges when the whole is kept in view. What is needed is to tie the struggle for individual improvements to a societal project for the future, which can be worked on and mobilised and struggled for from various positions in the next ten years. The concept draws on the very concrete interests of the employed and connects them to a new class politics that takes care confront subordination to the economy of capitalism with the economy of the working class. In the process various interests are connected and the horizon of a new relation between work and life is constructed. The determining substantive elements comprise a new regulation model for higher wages and collective agreement coverage as the normal situation. The various forms of precarious work would be abolished and transformed into ‘normal’ work relations. A model of short fulltime, connected to elective work time, would produce a new balance between life and jobs and thus a new model of well- being. This would also be a central contribution to gender justice. The valorisation of social and one-on-one service work is an important building block for the equal payment of men and women. What is decisive is not only to demand an equal wage for the same work but an equal wage for work of equal value. These questions are connected to regulatory proposals that declare war on constant stress and provide for working conditions that are health-compatible.
       In the last analysis there can be no new normal employment model without further rights for the employed and the representation of their interests. Through a democratisation offensive we want to counter creeping de-democratisation in workplaces and pervasive union-busting. The rights of individual workers should be expanded and tied to an expansion of collective co-determination. This also means improving the laws governing strikes to the point of legalising political strikes. Thinking further along these lines, the concept includes concrete proposals for economic democracy, in other words, concrete steps of a transformation going beyond capitalism.

    Renewing trade unions

    The concept of a new normal employment model is consciously not a vision of long-term change. It involves conceiving of re-regulated labour as a new normality, against which the current conditions are seen as abnormal. Working out the tension between possibility and reality imparts great energy to the project. It is at the same time a proposal for renewing the trade unions. Trade unions must work in a conflict-oriented way and be prepared to fight the rich and the politically powerful, that is, they have to understand themselves as class organisations. This means organising solidarity with all of the employed and unemployed, with the ‘indigenous’ and ‘immigrants’, with all genders, and democratically shaping collective-bargaining policy, in collective-bargaining confrontations, and strikes.
       With the proposal for a new normal employment model we counterpose a perspective of solidarity to the growing division in the world of work. All groups can rally around the concept: the unemployed, the precariously employed, and precarious autonomous workers, industrial workers, as well as those employed in the public and private service sector. This reinforces the position of the trade unions and their assertiveness. If precarious labour is pushed back or abolished, the low-wage sector dried out, mass unemployment minimised and social security won for all, then a limit will be set on the constant blackmail and the pressure on wages and working conditions, collective agreements, and democratic rights. This presupposes the resuscitation and renewal of parliamentary political representation. Trade unions must not limit themselves to workplace and wage confrontations but must enter political space offensively. Former IG Metall Chair Bethold Huber once said: ‘The power of IG Metall is located in the factories, not in the streets’. This needs to be corrected to: ‘The power of trade unions lies in the factories and in the streets.’ It is precisely young people who will not be enthused by trade unions if they just climb hand over hand from one collective-bargaining round to the next. By contrast, what would be more convincing is an overarching idea of a better society, at least a better world of work, worth fighting for.

    Inspiration and challenge for the left

    Regrettably, in Germany at this point there are no societal majorities for a left reform project. There is no left camp capable of acting. Social democracy is in a permanent crisis, once more caught in a Grand Coalition and undergoing a continuous erosion, while the Greens have for some time now been regarding themselves as a reserve force that is there to provide the CDU with the numbers to form a government. At the same time, under the pressure of the AfD, the bourgeois camp is drifting to the right, while the CSU and FDP are looking at Kurz’s policies in Austria as an arena for experiment and learning. The big challenge for the social left and Die LINKE is to oppose clear alternatives to this right-wing development and to recruit and mobilise for these alternatives.
       Precisely because of social democracy’s deep crisis and the rise of reactionary forces we should not let our position slide into becoming a subordinate component of a ‘red-red-green’* camp. It is strategically decisive to foreground the question of hegemony. How do we fight offensively for another direction of trade-union development? The social relations of force arise and change not just in parliament but within the relations of production and property and in the social struggles of ‘civil society’. In Antonio Gramsci’s sense, civil society is not the opposite of the state but its upstream level, its ‘front organisations’ so to speak. In this sense it is the locus of struggles for hegemony. The separation between party politics, parliament, movement, and citizens’ initiatives misses this connection of state and civil society. The use value of a socialist-connective party consists in promoting the emergence of the common interests and goals of the diverse parts of the wage-dependent class. It can and must be a connecting link between social actors and the parliamentary construction of will, of which it is a part. The representation of progressive civil-society as well as trade-union interests in parliament can continuously be connected to driving forward the struggles for better conditions of work and life and above all to enabling people’s self- organisation.
       The concept of connective class politics serves as an inspiration and challenge on the path to a renewed left culture, as an organisation of the ‘whole class’ with its many faces anchored in everyday life. This is what I understand by the term connective class politics in the 21st century.

    * Ed. note: ‘red-red-‘green’ refers to an alliance or coalition of the Social Democrats, Die LINKE, and the Greens.