This week started with the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook, the first sign of a crisis that is already plunging into recession; the trade war took over the universal postal system – a historic jewel of rising capitalism; it showed the inanity and immorality of the new ideologies of “sacred ecological union” with the bourgeoisie; it exacerbated the battle of the bourgeois factions in the United States; and it made clear the immediate limits that unions and the left impose on the only struggles that can offer a perspective of overcoming the morass that is unfolding before our eyes.
The sudden bankruptcy of Thomas Cook this week provided the model for next crisis in Europe: a financial crisis disguised as an industrial crisis. The general European public has been surprised to discover that tour operators are, in reality, financial businesses. Customers pay for their travels in advance, the tour operator pays at 90 days or 180 days and in the middle can play in the big casino of speculative capital. That is why in bubble times the prices of travel agencies can be below even the cost of fuel that it costs to take travelers from one side to the other. In other words, Thomas Cook’s results really depend on three things: the margins – generally very low – the volume of reserves it manages to sell well in advance, and the dividend it knows how to extract from the cash obtained in sales by piling it up and turning it into speculative capital.
What happened? First of all, the profitability of financial capital is very low: rates are negative throughout Europe and the stock markets are in a comatose condition. Secondly, the time periods during which they could exploit this money decreased because many European workers delayed the purchase date of their holidays: they were afraid of a recession with a wave of layoffs if Brexit were to materialise. Finally, the imperialist tensions (Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean) called into question whether some of the tour operator’s star destinations could maintain their appeal. As a result the banks asked for more guarantees to refinance the company. From there, one could only expect a gigantic domino of job losses.
Thomas Cook has also shown the governments’ limited ability to respond in the short term and the EU’s inability to coordinate governmental responses. In Spain, to which the company contributed 3.5 million tourists a year, the government and large hoteliers offered more than 100 million euros from their own budgets to try to save the crisis. But the banks wanted twice as much. Finally, the British government did not accept this offer and in the early hours of Sunday the firm went bankrupt. In Germany, the government kept Thomas Cook’s local airline Condor standing with a direct injection of public money.
As Thomas Cook demonstrated, tour operators are especially fragile. But with low rates and in the absence of buoyant bubbles, all ” financialized ” companies are fragile : from supermarket chains to airlines. And certainly not only in Europe. Even today “Latam”, the flagship airline of Chilean capital has had to agree to lose control in order to give way to a capital injection from the U.S. This warns us what the crisis will look like, especially in South America, accompanied by increasingly aggressive movements of capital.
And, just in case there were any doubts, the transcripts of Trump’s phone conversations with Ukrainian President Zelinsky made it clear that the aggressiveness of capital has an immediate correlate in the policies of the states. Three facts have made it clear this week.
Firstly, the end of the “Universal Postal Union” as a single global system and its conversion into a series of bilateral agreements. The UPU is a museum jewel of the rising phase of capitalism and a true “canary in the mine” of the long-term evolution of capitalism. Created in 1874 under the impulse of German unification, it remained intact until another relevant date: 1969. Since this date, it incorporated the possibility of compensations between states to mitigate the “excessive” asymmetries in postal exchange volumes. This was the first major attack on the original agreement. What had been established as a universal automaton, leading Bebel to exclaim -erroneously- “Socialism is… the postal system”, became one more piece of the international multilateral trade system. The modification of the system in 1969 expressed a deeper phenomenon that surfaced then: capital as a whole was incapable of sustaining the basic structures of its own socialization and universalization. Centrifugal forces became dominant and the great powers captured the international systems as sources of non-market appropriation of a part of the global result of exploitation. In 1971 Nixon canceled the Bretton Woods agreements, abandoned the gold standard and imposed the dollar as an international currency and source of income for U.S. capital.
The US-imposed agreement destroys the universal postal system. Letters can be sent anywhere in the world, including the US or through the US, but it destroys the universality of the system at its base: from January 2021, countries receiving more than 75,000 tons of mail from another country will be able to unilaterally impose taxes on mail received from the sending country. In other words, the system is no longer universal, but the result of bilateral relations. We have returned to the world before 1874. The meaning of something like this can hardly be downplayed even if, in material terms, it is only a minor battle within the gigantic storm of trade warfare.
Of course the end of the postal system as a universal system has hardly been addressed by the international press. The “Impeachment” against Trump has been the great media protagonist. US power fights are too important for the bourgeoisie of all countries. Today the main bet of most of the European bourgeoisies is to hope that Trump will not be able to stand, or that he will lose the elections for a second term. If they manage to reach 2020 and Trump does not renew his term… the damage would be “reversible”. That is why the deformed and crude conceptual moulds of US policy will end up conditioning those of the rest of the world. The “impeachment”, which has few if any possibilities of ending in Trump’s dismissal, carries all the possibilities of becoming the spark that precipitates the formation of ideologies… if not “block ideologies”, at least proto-block ones.
It is not the case that Europeans, especially France and Germany, are not also playing role by creating an ideology tailored to their interests in the trade war. The UN “Climate Summit” was presented as a masterstroke of European eco-imperialism. The US would announce its exit from the Paris agreement, Bolsonaro would have to explain himself about the Amazon incentives. Meanwhile, Germans, French and even big businessmen like Jeff Bezos (Amazon), all well supported by the projection of a global strike -a strike that never took place but that the media narrated- would present an agreement of more than sixty states to reach zero emissions in 2050. However, it was not a great success. The “children’s crusade” personified in Greta Thunberg took all the spotlights. What it showed was not pretty, not even understandable outside of countries with puritan cultural traditions. We saw hundreds of children with a clinical pattern of millenarian anxiety. The discourse of “ecological urgency” that Macron and Merkel had pushed to sell us a new ” holy ecological union ” had gotten out of hand and turned into a fear of the extinction of the human species. Macron had to distance himself and even the prime minister of Australia dedicated his speech at the UN to literally attempt to calm the children.
The only positive thing about all this nonsense is that it made clear that Greta’s prophetic outbursts are worthless in the face of bureaucrats and politicians, and that the processions of flagellants postulating “degrowth” contribute nothing. The class solution goes in a different direction: the struggle to affirm human needs in the face of a capital that is increasingly violently confronted against them. But in order to do that, it is necessary to break with the unions once and for all. In the General Motors strike in the United States, the unions have already put aside the original demands of the strike (“for equal work, equal pay”) and negotiated the reinstatement of the corral “in exchange” for new investments and 5700 precarious jobs at lower wages than those of the “old staff”, forgetting even basic solidarity with the people who were punished for supporting the strike from the factories in Mexico.
In Chubut (Argentina), the trade union and left forces are very busy trying to abort the tendencies towards the extension of the strikes and, above all, towards the self-organization of the workers. Today there are many strike foci, but only by moving to the control by the assemblies and centralizing will the movement be able to form a political body. The “political” slogans of the left, demanding the resignation of the governor, however sentimental they may be, cannot lead to anything if there is no organized class with its own representative body. It is the typical disarming tactic of the left: with one hand destroy or avoid horizontal extension, self-organization and centralization; with the other raise “radical” political slogans that without an organized class as such, cannot escape, if they triumph, from the institutional framework of the local bourgeoisie. That is to say, they cannot but end up in a mere facelift.
But strikes are not the only form of class struggle nor are wage and working conditions their only front. Neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly important. In Spain, rejecting the proliferation of betting houses concentrates and precipitates a growing movement that once again can lead either to self-organization and political affirmation as a class… or to nothingness.
In GM-USA, Chubut or Madrid, it is not enough to stand up. It is necessary to overcome the paralyzing union framing as well as their deceitful slogans and focus on the centralization of the assembly struggles. That is not going to come from the left or from limiting itself to organizational slogans. We communists are not “consultants” of struggles, we are workers who, like the others, are part of these same struggles. And like any other workers we need centralization and organization in order to be useful for their evolution to translate into the development of class consciousness and therefore of the struggles themselves.