After two years of lockdowns and travel restrictions the summer of 2022 was supposed to mark a comeback for airlines. Instead, the industry is struggling with mass cancellations, and many more are expected. In the US more flights have been cancelled this year than in all of 2021. Travellers are facing chaotic delays due to unprecedented staff shortages in airports and flight companies. From pilots to baggage handlers to cleaners, the industry is experiencing the consequences of pandemic lay-offs. Swissport, a major provider of passenger and cargo handling services, after having fired a third of its workforce during the pandemic, is now trying to recruit 15,000 employees, without much success. The problem is that workers are unwilling to return to an industry characterised by low wages, long shifts and a demanding environment.
This situation is not specific to the airline industry. Since last year the “Great Resignation” has been disrupting significant parts of the labour market. In 2021 a record 47 million Americans left their job and, globally, one in five workers say they plan to switch jobs in the coming months. The pandemic led many people, especially those between the ages of 30 and 45, to look for a better life-work balance, increased pay and less stress. This exile, not limited to what the anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”, has particularly affected front-line workers. Work-intensive sectors such as healthcare, transportation, retail or the food industry are now struggling to recruit to meet high demand. In restaurants, for example, abuse from managers, low wages and mistreatment by stressed clients have pushed millions out of the industry. More than a revolt against bullshit jobs, the Big Quit has been about enhancing quality of life. It is about individuals rather than defining collectively socially useful jobs. Strikes have not increased over the same period, although there has been a few exceptions such as Amazon, Starbucks and British railway and legal workers, and union membership and collective bargaining continued to decline. Instead of protesting to transform work itself, workers are simply leaving jobs en masse.
And if our current situation is often portrayed as reminiscent of the 1970s – with historical low unemployment and high inflation – the contrast couldn’t be more striking. While 50 years ago strong labour unions fought collectively for reduced work time, today workers are looking for flexibility on their own terms. Demands for participation, self-management and worker control that characterised worker unrest in the Seventies are almost absent today. Workers have gained leverage and, in many sectors, wages are going up, but this is not the outcome of increased labour unrest or the demands of unions. Inflation is now determined by the actions of central banks rather than through collective bargaining.
If the industrial revolution created the conditions for the democratisation of the workplace, today the production sphere remains largely beyond serious contest. People seem to want more time for themselves rather than more power in the workplace. To put it in the economist Albert Hirschman’s terms, we are seeing a generalised “exit” rather than the traditional “voice” of strikes and organised labour. People are revolting, but as individuals rather than as a class. While as citizens they can protest against rising taxes or prices, as producers they have been unable to articulate any ambition to collectively act on what and how we produce. As if in a world devoid of collective bodies to politicise the division of labour, the only remaining option is the one of the consumer: go elsewhere, the market does the rest.
This was part of the broader displacement of social conflicts outside the workplace that has characterised the populist era. With the dissolution of bodies that shaped post-war societies and anchored social conflicts into industrial relations, such as parties, unions and mass organisations, discontent was more directly expressed against the political class itself. During the post-war period parties weren’t just machines to conquer power but mediators between institutions and citizens. They didn’t just reflect social discontent but gave it a specific form, shaping conflicts and social relations. The atomisation of society and politics that characterised the end of the Cold War not only widened the gap between citizens and the institutions but also depoliticised work. As Wolfgang Streeck has noted, the “civic skills and organisational structures needed to develop effective public demand may have atrophied beyond redemption”. In this new atomised civil society, “exit” became the general mode through which people related to politics. No more “loyalty” to bureaucratic mass parties or unions nor “voice” through collective action. The end of history was in that sense a generalised exit from the public sphere.
It is not a surprise that organised labour was relatively absent from the increasing social turmoil that characterised the last decade. The workplace, which had symbolised the class conflicts of the 20th century, was insulated from politics. While governments have been the object of sustained defiance, those who govern the workplaces, shaping the everyday lives of millions of workers, remain relatively spared by protests. As with the Gilets Jaunes in France, the conflicts for a better distribution of wealth don’t happen in the workplace any more and contain few claims about the democratisation of work itself. The revolt against political elites replaced the struggle against the exploitation of the bosses. A coherent economic alternative is also missing. Demanding respect, a better wage, better representation or less corruption is far from the struggle launched a century ago by the worker’s movement over the fundamental principles of social organisation. Class conflict is back, but without the working class.
This move from the politics of capital and labour represents one of the greatest challenges for the left over the past decades. Left populists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders became attractive options for channelling anger after the 2008 financial crash, when organised labour was in decline. But despite the development of new forms of digital engagement, the engagement of this new base was reactive and unable to sustain enduring political participation outside the evanescent crowds formed by platforms. It was, as Alex Hochuli, George Hoare and Philip Cunliffe’s astutely noted in The End of the End of History: Politics in the Twenty-First Century (2021), a failed attempt to do “socialism without the masses”. And despite all the debates about planning and the green transition, the lack of mass organisations able to deliberate collectively about needs and investment has curtailed any real politicisation of the productive sphere. The rising dissatisfaction within civil society about work under capitalism has opened interesting opportunities, however. To be effective, they require nothing less than the extension of democracy to the division of labour. Only then could the collective transformation of work become, once more, the starting point of an alternative to the politics of exit.