Wherever you read us, the war is changing your work situation

27 May, 2022

Hungarian teachers' strike
Hungarian teachers' strike

The entry into a historical epoch marked by militarism is transforming labor relations. Ranging from brutal legal changes in Ukraine, but also in South Korea or Hungary, to “spontaneous” forms of imposition of overwork in Great Britain or the USA. At the same time, the campaigns and ideological pressure are targeting a new generation of workers who are massively “burning out” in the workplace, unable to get out of their individualistic and identitarian prison.

Table of Contents

The epicenter: Ukraine

Zelensky, militarism and the most brutal attack on workers' conditions in Greta Thunberg-like moralistic ways
Zelensky, militarism and the most brutal attack on workers’ conditions in a Greta Thunberg-like moralistic style.

As soon as the war began, last March, the Zelensky government passed a series of legislative changes that militarized the labor force. Not only could the state dispose of any worker under the age of 60 and send him to the front, it could also force him to work under military discipline – and punishment – at his job.

The reform included free and unpaid dismissal for employers, the “suspension of employment”, the prohibition of strikes and the possibility for companies to unilaterally decree the “suspension” of any contractual or agreement-approved condition. It did not take long for companies such as ArcelorMittal or NewPost to suspend the application of their agreements in substantial parts… for the good of the nation.

But the patriotic program does not end there. Already under discussion – and with every chance of passing – is a new legal package aimed at permanently freeing the petty bourgeoisie from the costs of enforcing labor laws.

A group of Ukrainian parliamentarians and officials now aim to further “liberalize” and “de-Sovietize” the country’s labor laws. According to a draft law, people working in small and medium-sized enterprises, those with up to 250 employees, would, in effect, be removed from the country’s existing labor laws and covered by individual contracts negotiated with their employer. More than 70% of the Ukrainian workforce would be affected by this change.

Ukraine’s new labor law could “open Pandora’s box” for workers. Open Democracy.

From Hungary to South Korea

Railway strike in Korea
Railwaymen strike in front of Seoul Station.

But the effects of war are not limited to the contending states. The new militarized labor relations are spreading like the ripples created by a pebble dropped into a calm lake. In Hungary Orban merely extended the pandemic restrictions to make it legally impossible for teachers to strike, for instance.

In South Korea just yesterday, the Supreme Court validated the use of laws against sabotage and workplace violence against wildcat strikes, i.e. strikes not legally controlled and articulated by unions. The result is prison sentences of up to five years and fines of around $10,000 for the strikers.

The court considers that a non-union strike amounts to “obstructing the business of others by force” and in an “unpredictable” manner, causing “serious confusion and great harm to employers.”

The generation that will live through the war in the most capitalized countries

Student demonstration in Paris
Student demonstration in ParisStudent demonstration in Paris

These legal changes which preemptively discipline workers to prevent strikes like those on the North Sea platforms this week, are going to be suffered above all by a new generation which has been subjected to a tailor-made ideological bombardment and which is being followed closely by the experts in labor organization of the ruling class.

With examples from Britain and the USA, the BBC that week described a generation suffering from widespread “burnout syndrome”, “brought to its knees” by the intensity of work.

The data is not drastically worse than for other work cohorts for that matter. In a survey cited in the report, 80% of young workers in Great Britain feel “burned out” compared with an average of 73% for all workers.

The difference, they point out, could be due to the fact that 66% of those working full-time work more hours than they are contracted for, compared to 61% of those born between 1981 and 1996 and 48% of those born between 1965 and 1980.

The question the same experts immediately ask themselves is why younger people are more willing to put in the hours until they burn out. The answer they give has nothing to do with the fact that job insecurity affects them more. Nor do they ponder the fear of layoffs among those over forty and how it easily turns into long-term unemployment. They take it for granted that one thing outweighs the other.

They focus on the ideological: according to them, on average, younger workers, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, would be more individualistic – which would cause them to isolate themselves from colleagues and not rely on them to resist pressures to overwork – and, consistently, they would have a relationship with bosses based on emulation. They seem to perceive them as successful peers to be imitated and trusted.

In fact, the main “reason for optimism” given by the BBC is that the new generation in Anglo-Saxon countries “is more comfortable talking about their feelings of burnout with their managers.”

The two blades

Kazimir Malevich. Figure. Few depictions are more revealing of the loneliness and emptiness behind that alienating abstraction called 'individual'.
Kazimir Malevich. Figure. Few representations are more revealing of the loneliness and emptiness behind that alienating abstraction called the “individual.

One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of the two blades with which the system routinely clears the ground defending itself against class struggle.

On the one hand, continuously and preventively, the ideological one. Pure religion of the commodity applied to define and isolate workers one by one. False egalitarianism sustained under an individualism that is taken for granted and which destroys and helps to commodify the whole of human relations.

On the other hand, by the time one manages to escape from the first blade, a second blade of false collective responses organized by the state itself and its institutions, well protected by a whole disciplinary mold, is ready to abort from the first moments any collective outbreak of

Both blades hinge on labor and articulate with each other. As we have witnessed during these years, the reinforcement of the atomizing ideological barrage has doubled, all the new state ideologies reinforce it by legitimizing the commodification of increasingly more aspects of human relations while memory has been remade or directly erased in order to implant a version useful to power. There is nothing more dissimilar to the everyday life of the 70s, 80s or 90s than its Netflix version.

All this “vintage atmosphere” exuded and distilled today by the media, classrooms and public messages – individualistic, identitarian and “environmental” – serves in turn to push through increasingly atomized… and exploitative forms of work where the blade of repression – social and legal – awaits those who rebel.

Where we are headed

Russia. Yandex workers on strike.
Russia. Yandex workers on strike.

As the economic crisis pushes the powers towards the generalization of imperialist war, the grinder speeds up. Propaganda is redoubled, twisting the most inhuman and abhorrent messages into the grotesque on virtually every television and newspaper in the world. And as we have seen, the disciplinary blade is sharpened country by country in case propaganda is not enough.

The more contradictions the system generates, the clearer the growing antagonism between human development and the growth of capital – with all that it entails, wars, natural destruction and pandemics included – the more brutal the work of the two blades will be.

The new labor and public order laws are combined with the whipping up of diffuse social repression and the exaltation of fear and war sacrifice. The more savage the daily reality becomes, the more banal and empty the “legitimate concerns” become -that is, acceptable to the state- and the more apocalyptic the narrative of the future. The ideological blade will charge even more openly against the possible and necessary future, while the repressive blade will be directed against any collective response of the workers.

All in order to distance us from the future so as to be able to exploit and sacrifice us en masse in an increasingly contradictory and violent present.

For the proletariat, its relation to the future is the only material measure of its present situation. The further it distances itself from it, the more atomized and the further it will be from existing politically. And since it cannot accumulate power within capitalist society – how could it accumulate power in the system organized for its exploitation – its relation to the future can know no truces either: either it advances or it retreats. Either it returns to the past and vanishes as a collective subject in society, or it advances and affirms itself antagonistically to the existing order.

The proletariat and the future

The only solution: to organize ourselves in every possible way, to deny in practice the atomization in order to gain strength and to face a decadent world more and more turned to war in all its corners and at all scales.

Read also: The proletariat and the future

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