Death to work!



All the hatred and resentment of neoliberalism turned against the world of work, its achievements and traditions

when the newspaper Valor Econômico came to light, in the nineties of the last century, during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, uniting the two main communication companies in the country, Globo and the group Folha de S. Paul, he was born with a cry of death to work. contrary to Mercantile Gazette, which devoted two daily pages to national coverage of conflicts and negotiations between labor and capital, the new newspaper did not even have a fixed column for work, but opened an entire section just for the coverage of finance. There shone the program of a neoliberal era.

This editorial criterion amounted, in fact, to an attempt to make the regulation of labor relations invisible, to underreport, to erase the regulation of labor relations from the plane of economic consciousness. If stock indices on stock exchanges, commodity prices, etc. start to have an incessant presence in the media, everything related to the work goes to the footnote. It should only appear as a problem: when a workers' strike affects public services, for example.

This invisibilization of work was generally translated in neoliberal governments by a non-negotiation posture. The Ronald Reagan, Margareth Thatcher and even FHC governments in Brazil began with major confrontations with unions: it was not exactly a question of imposing a new defensive balance of forces on them, but of breaking them. It was a whole culture of decades of negotiation and collective work contracts that should be destroyed. There should no longer be a negotiating table, as a watchman in times when union organization itself and the right to strike were prohibited.

A new institutionality aimed at destroying the corporate traditions of labor law, present from the identification of the hypo-sufficiency of labor in the face of capital, that is, the protection of the weakest part in the structural conflict of the economy, should be created. The legislated labor law, the Labor Court itself, should be destroyed or neutralized.

In Brazil, the target has always been the CLT. It was as if Rui Barbosa's famous speech to the conservative classes, in 1919, in which the old Manchester liberal opened his conscience to the emerging rights of work in the XNUMXth century, in reverse. Oliveira Vianna, the conservative of labor modernization, the main intellectual of the corporate tradition in Brazil, became a subversive!

This new employer institutionality of maximizing the exploitation of work, in all its forms, established a fatal symbiosis with the new dynamics of technological change, financialization, globalization. A new mutation of the productive forces of capitalism – artificial intelligence, the information society – which saves labor and which should be socially appropriated for goods of civilization in a culture of work, amalgamated with dynamics of barbarism. No more societies of full employment, but of massive structural and permanent unemployment. No longer even societies with 2/3 of formalized workers, as was said at the beginning of the neoliberal decades, but a growing universal precariousness of rights. As a matter of law, a formal contract became a disputed privilege in the difficulties of competition between peers.

Just as the traditions of the right to work had formed, since the XNUMXth century, a whole dictionary, a whole language of meaning – partner, solidarity, union, strike, picket, mutualism, social security, regulated working hours, co-management, self-management , cooperative, occupational health, paid rest –, the new neoliberal era was building a new liberal dialect. Through this language, permanent structural unemployment is naturalized in capitalism: the concept of employability individualizes the responsibility of finding a place in the labor market on the worker; massive underemployment is resignified as an open field for free entrepreneurship.

The image of capital as a vampire appears many times in the writings of Karl Marx. The neoliberal dream is to dedialectize capital: to eliminate its negation! In fact, it is a nightmare: you have to get out of it!


Genealogy of denial of work

The issue of how to confront trade unions has always been central to the origin and formation of neoliberalism. Between 1947 and 1959, it was the third most debated topic in the seminars of the Mont-Pèlerin Society. There was a division of opinion among the participants: the German ordoliberals more inclined to form liberal-oriented unions, functionally integrating them into the capitalist order: others, who ended up prevailing, in favor of an elaborate strategy of containing and neutralizing the unions. Friedrich Hayek was firmly in favor of the latter. For him, unions would be a “perversion of the spontaneous order of the market and an exception to the legal order” that should organize the so-called “free market”.

It was, however, in the seminar of the Mont-Pèlerin Society, held in 1958 in the USA, largely devoted to the union question, that this opinion of clear war against unions would have prevailed. The main speaker was Sylvester Petro, author of The labor policy in free society (Labor policy in a free society, 1957). Since the Great Depression in the United States, workers had managed to advance in protective legislation in the world of work: the so-called Norris-La Guardia Act (1932) had allowed full freedom of unionization, prohibiting the so-called contracts yellow dog, through which workers pledged not to join unions; a National Bureau of Labor Relations was formed in 1935, whose role was to intervene and compose negotiations between capital and labor. The main goal of the neoliberals was exactly to overthrow this law and empty this national labor regulation agency. But the logic was to universalize a new liberal strategy of confrontation.

The line of attacks against the unions was extensive, as shown in chapter XVIII of the book The Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich Hayek. Unions caused rigidity and uniformity of wages to the detriment of different capacities and productivity; they generated privileged branches of work, unrelated to productivity; raising wages beyond the “free market” level produced constant and rising inflation; the use of pickets, involuntary affiliations due to generalizable contracts, the existence of unions beyond the factories, the maintenance of links with unions by non-employees, all seen as unacceptable in a “free market” society. The idea of ​​an “industrial democracy” in which unions would have a say in company policies should be banned.

The strategy of undermining the world of work thus involved destroying laws and institutions that were protective of work and disempowering unions (reducing their membership base, for example, by factory, as was done in Chile, their attributions, their repertoire of shares, their trading channels). Friedrich Hayek dedicates an entire chapter in the aforementioned book to attacking the very notion of social security and the intergenerational pact, going so far as to state that increasing the value of pensions would be unacceptable blackmail by older people over younger people, which would in the future lead to a rematch, with the new ones creating concentration camps for the elderly!


Socialism XXI and work

It is not just labor rights that originate from workers' struggles. The fundamental rights contained in modern democracies are centrally due to the traditions that have been organized around labor rights since the XNUMXth century: the history of the formation of the universal right to vote, the rights of feminism, the very universalist understanding of human rights, social medicine and Welfare State structures reveals how much liberal orders attacked and reacted to these rights. Black people's own struggle against slavery and racism must be interpreted in the light of this century-old narrative of workers' struggle.

But, in this era of neoliberal rule, this story is no longer told. There were even Marxist or leftist currents that came to embrace the thesis of the end of work or the end of the working classes, due to their alleged reduction in manufacturing (if the new Chinese working classes are taken into account, this statistic is not valid). Despite a lot of sociological bias, the post-Fordist society is composed of an immense majority of workers oppressed and exploited by capital, in precarious ways.

In this neoliberal period, the most frequent democratic theories in academia stopped thinking about the centrality of work. The Social Welfare State itself is no longer part of the research horizon, as if it were possible to think about education, health, social assistance, culture itself without the worlds of work.

A XNUMXst century socialism can only take shape if it is capable of putting down the scandalous neoliberal interdiction on the worlds of work, if it vindicates traditions, if it is capable of programming and updating the hopes of emancipation of those who work to live and live alone today. to work.

*Juarez Guimaraes is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Democracy and Marxism: Criticism of Liberal Reason (Shaman).

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