Saturday, October 1, 2011

Or does it explode?

It was most evident in Egypt but was also seen a few months earlier in the UK student demos that led to the delightful images of an occupied, vandalized, terrorized Conservative Party HQ in downtown London. And now interviews with protesters at Occupy Wall Street are showing once again that students are at the forefront of a new anti-austerity, pro-liberation sentiment that is emerging as a new anti-capitalist movement as equally inchoate, diverse and confusing as the one we loved and hated between Seattle and 9/11. And let's not forget that the Capitol Building occupation in Madison was spearheaded by the University of Wisconsin's teaching assistants' union.

The age of neoliberalism has seen a marked rationalization of the industrial sectors which once employed vast numbers of "traditional"/manual/blue collar workers - auto, steel, forestry, mining, manufactured consumer goods (furniture, clothing, shoes, etc). At the same time, the welfare state, which ballooned as an employer in the post-war social compromise, has been under sustained assault in terms of working conditions and employment. The elements of the welfare state - education, health, social services, etc - which emerged only as conciliatory measures to appease the uppity and well-organized masses, have been shaved, constrained and in some cases eliminated. What remains is under constant downward pressure of real wages, the elimination of full-time jobs through mass casualization.

Meanwhile, the service sector has ballooned as employer in relative terms. Unlike the manufacturing and resource sectors which were heavily unionized through the 1930s and 1940s, and the militant public sector unionizations of the 1960s, the retail sector was never fully unionized for a variety of reasons, such as the general neglect of largely female workforces by male-dominated unions during the 1940s and 1950s as well as the anti-communist union purges of the late 1940s and 1950s which eliminated swathes of union activists who refused to elevate consolidation above organizing.

The result in the 2010s is a decimated private sector unionism concurrent and related to deindustrialization. In addition is a highly-unionized public sector now suffering from, at least in Canada, nearly two decades of sustained provincial and federal austerity measures (producing sizable working-class opposition movements in Ontario during the mid-90s and in BC, Newfoundland and Quebec in the early 2000s). And with the new federal government we've already seen the attacks on postal workers, airline workers and likely the St.Lawrence Seaway workers who might walk on Monday.

Meanwhile, the service sector balloons but does so through part-time, minimum-wage work with minimal if any benefits. The centralization and concentration of service sector jobs is best represented by Wal-Mart but taking place at Shoppers Drug Mart and Zellers (who have moved into selling food), Loblaws (now selling clothes), and so on. The ugly big-box avenues are the new main streets of  neoliberal suburbia. These big box stores employ several hundred people at a time - often more than most factories these days.

Amidst all this, the massification of post-secondary education continues apace. It's explosion in the late 1950s and especially the mid-1960s has not really abated. Enrollment continues to rise every year while universities struggle to expand their physical infrastructure (on the backs of students through ever-increasing tuition fees which make up a higher percentage of university operating budgets than ever before - about 50%). In fact, the neoliberal era, with its return to capitalism's classic boom-bust cycle, has made post-secondary education a means of sapping up the unemployed and underemployed in conjunction with the annual waves of 17-year olds beginning their university degrees given the largely unacknowledged reality that the BA of today is really yesterday's high school diploma.

A highly-educated - or more accurately, highly-credentialized - army of twenty-somethings increasingly have nowhere to look for full-time, well-paying jobs. Private sector jobs of this sort have largely dried up while the public sector is increasingly uncertain in offering such a future with the never-ending dual threats of cyclical layoffs and mass layoffs. Yet, the service sector continues to provide work, some work, easy work, mindless work that offers little future, little hope in achieving something remotely similar to the life promised by a university degree or simply what one would expect from the world of work. The only real good jobs remain in increasingly distrusted, polarizing and ethically-dubious sectors like the tar sands, business, commerce, and law.

The long-term options for graduates as well as those continuing through graduate school are increasingly bleak. This is combined with the interrelated disintegration of credibility of government, media, police and business. Throw in the looming prospects of another economic crash and ongoing climate change, and it should be no wonder that a generation of students might begin rebelling against big business, big finance, the police and the state - and already doing so in a much wider, comprehensive manner than the students of the 1960s. The fusion of student actions with the remnants of organized labour - as witnessed by the Transit Workers Union backing Occupy Wall Street - is a far cry from the "Hard Hat Riot" of 1970 when construction workers violently attacked an anti-war student protest at Wall Street and Broad Street. And we should note that the rebellions are not just about desperation, they're also about hope - and not the branded bullshit on Obama's brain - but the rejection of Johnny Rotten's lament about "No Future" and embrace of Joe Strummer's "The Future is Unwritten."

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