May Day as International Workers’ Day was born in the crucible of the heroic and militant struggles against exploitation and domination. With its origins in the struggle for a shorter working day, today May Day is celebrated by workers as a public holiday to pay homage to this heritage of struggle. It is also a day on which workers take stock of their lived conditions of existence, and evaluate their struggle against oppression. May Day 2020 takes place in a context where workers of the world are coming to terms with devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. What determines the prospects of the working class to meaningfully wage a war against the pandemic are its current conditions of existence and its political and organisational resources.
In the South African context, both the lived conditions of the working class and its ability to mount political resistance have been significantly diminished by the restructuring of the capitalist system, especially in the post-apartheid period. Neoliberalism, which took the form of labour flexibility on the shop floor, saw the rising intensity of exploitation as workers work longer hours with declining wages, no benefits, no job security and the prevalence of a variety of non-permanent jobs. Combined with the neoliberal weapon of austerity – sustained cuts in the amounts of money devoted to the provision of basic social services – this has further left the working class and the poor exposed to growing levels of poverty and starvation. Neoliberalism has not only resulted in poor conditions of life, but also changed the internal structure of the working class into one where insecure and precarious sections are becoming its dominant form of existence.
The deterioration of the lived conditions of the working class in South Africa coincide with its declining ability to wage militant struggles against exploitation and domination. The principal reason for this outcome is the loss of faith in the approaches to struggle that are rooted in the self-organisation and self-activity of the working class in favour of those that reduce it to a passive spectator. The very tradition of history from below that forced the apartheid government to recognise May Day as a public holiday has been completely jettisoned. Since 1994, the traditional organisations of the working class in the form of trade unions have increasingly looked to forces from above to resolve the problems facing the working class. These organisations have focused all their energies into institutions of bourgeois rule like bargaining councils and NEDLAC, and the result is not only failure to defend the living and working conditions of the working class but, most importantly, in the erosion of some of the gains made by the working class in the struggle against apartheid.
Another dimension of the lack of faith in the fighting capacity of the working class takes the form of a misplaced belief that the working class can effectively resist effects of exploitation and defend its living standards through electoral politics. What we do know is that the successive ANC electoral victories have not helped the working class to reverse its declining living standards in poor communities or the worsening conditions of work at the workplace. Instead, the ANC government has administered the legislative and economic measures responsible for the acceleration of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
So there is a clear correspondence between the downward pressure on working and living conditions and the weakened mobilisation on the shop floor and in poor communities. Any genuine effort at reversing the sustained decline in the lived conditions of existence of the working class in South Africa must take seriously the heritage of May Day and the traditions of struggles from below associated with it.
As we know, the history of the capitalist system shows that the capitalists always use crises as moments to restructure, regroup and re-impose their domination in society. The current pandemic will be no different. The bosses will use the moment to reorganise and reinforce their power on the shop floor and in society more broadly. In fact, there’s already emerging evidence of companies that shut down, those that issued notices for wide scale retrenchments and others that are restructuring their hours of work and introducing different shift systems. In other words, we can expect to see more retrenchments and unilateral restructuring that result in the proliferation of more forms of precarious work. The danger of all this is that the bosses will unleash their moves in the context of weakened and low levels of capacity for resistance. The bosses will undertake these measures in spite of, or because of the growing calls for unity and the need to save ‘our economy’. All of these real dangers make the rediscovery of traditions of organising from below more urgent and necessary. This urgent re-discovery needs to unfold even under conditions of the lockdown.
All efforts towards the self-organisation and self-activity of the working class!