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Proletarian issue 29 (April 2009)
Resisting rationalisation on the railways (web only)
Overproduction crisis hits the international freight market.
The ‘rationalisation’ that accompanied the capitalist crisis of the 1930s – described by Harry Pollitt as “the means whereby the capitalist can lower wages, intensify exploitation … [and] force speeding up in disregard of human life and safety” – is back with a vengeance at the top of the capitalist agenda, with the return of open, acute and prolonged economic crisis.

The new ‘rationalisation’

Everywhere, workers are confronted with the task of resisting the new ‘rationalisation’, under which assets are stripped and jobs destroyed in the course of the cut-throat struggle between competing capitalist giants to dominate the market.

This is nowhere more evident than in the international rail industry. Right now, for example, over 500 jobs are under threat at the freight company formerly trading as EWS. Now it has been taken over by the German state-owned Deutsche Bahn (DB) and has been renamed DB-Schenken. It is being assimilated into an international freight operation spanning 130 countries and employing over 88,000 workers.

This network is being constructed by stealth. For example, DB bought up a company called Transfesa in order to crack open the Spanish rail freight market. And by its takeover of EWS – which itself owns subsidiaries in Spain and France – DB at a stroke gets a stake in three different national rail industries.

None of this behaviour is any different from that of the publicly owned SNCF in France (busy making inroads in the German market) or First Group in Britain (likewise dipping into the German market to swallow up bus companies and publicly owned federal railways).

All this wheeling and dealing serves the same imperative: the concentration of monopoly capital into ever fewer hands and the wanton destruction of freight capacity rendered ‘surplus’ by the crisis of overproduction that is overtaking every hole and corner of capitalist commodity production.

Each would-be victor in this cut-throat battle to dominate the international market holds out the progressive-seeming promise of an integrated freight operation. According to DB’s version, this would stretch from Hamburg to Beijing and from Bucharest to Istanbul. In one sense, such moves do contain the germ of progressive development. After all, this profit-hungry drive to international consolidation cannot help but prepare the ground for the rail-freight network of the future, owned by the working class and standing on the healthy foundation of planned socialism.

However, the revolutionary expropriation of the present owners alone will secure this happy outcome. Meanwhile, the only expropriation that is going on is that executed by big capitalist fish upon small capitalist fish, and by all the exploiters in common upon the means of subsistence of the working class – ie, through cuts in jobs, and through cuts in pay or intensification of work or both for those still employed.

Right now, the battle is on between the titans of the rail world, the German DB and the French SNCF. As the problems of narrowing investment opportunities and declining rates of profit are exacerbated by the escalating recession, the survival of a dwindling band of monopolists depends upon the complete annihilation of all lesser rivals. The logic of capitalism in crisis dictates that DB and SNCF must seek to expropriate all other competitors – including each other.

Under such conditions, plans to integrate rail freight across national borders are calculated with scant regard for the actual transport requirements of society. Quite the reverse; these plans are designed solely with a view to extracting the maximum amount of profits from investment. Even on its own home territory, DB has wiped out a lot of rural services and cut off the rail lifeline to many German factories. It would be folly to suppose they intend to be any less anti-social abroad than they have been at home.

The fact that currently the two biggest players in the battle over the rail freight market remain under state capitalist ownership ought to warn us against seeing the fight against privatisation itself as an issue that can be fought in isolation from the fight to bury imperialism. On paper at least, both SNCF and DB remain publicly owned companies. Whilst the clear bourgeois preference is for privatisation in both cases, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

What remains constant in the equation is the imperative to concentrate capital in ever fewer hands and destroy surplus capital (in effect, slashing capacity and jobs). But whether this is effected in the first instance by (a) the conversion of state capitalist assets into milch-cows for the extraction of private capitalist profits; or (b) the promotion of ‘national champions’ that can dominate the international market with the help of backhanders from the state; or (c) a combination of the two, is a matter of small concern to the furies of private interest. Whichever route is taken, the destruction of jobs and productive capacity will certainly be the outcome.

Resisting ‘rationalisation’

As the embattled workers at EWS are discovering, in concert with fellow workers all over the world, it is the working class who are expected to pay for the crisis, by wage cuts, job losses and erosion of pension rights – and, increasingly, by loss of civil rights and the spread of war.

Faced with this international onslaught upon the conditions of existence of the proletariat – somehow ‘excused’ precisely on the plea that it is international, and therefore not the responsibility of any one capitalist nation – it has never been more crucial to insist upon the unity of the working class in fighting back.

And rail workers have been conspicuous in their efforts to mount an international show of solidarity, notably in the form of a huge demonstration in Paris last November targeting the EU rail directives that grease the wheels for all these mergers and acquisitions.

But this crisis has also cruelly exposed the ideological vulnerability of workers for so long left stranded behind the class-collaborating politics of social democracy. An article by Hans-Gerd Öfinger in the January edition of RMT News explains how DB, still nationalised, tries to scare its workers into accepting creeping privatisation by warning that otherwise Germany will find itself overrun by French TGV trains. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, French workers are regaled with similar tales of conquest – in the hope of overcoming the unions’ resistance to privatising SNCF!

It seems that this climate of chauvinist scare-mongering has not been without effect. According to Öfinger, “This idea has even been swallowed by union leaders … Madame Idrac, then SNCF CEO, convened a meeting of French rail union leaders in summer, 2007, and told them: ‘Sirs, the situation is very serious, Deutsche Bahn (through EWS) has begun to conquer French territory and there is only room for two or three big players. Let us stand together to make sure that alongside DB, SNCF will be the other one.’ Following the meeting, French train drivers’ union FGAAC leader Bruno Duchemin stated that he now realised the need for the SNCF to go for an IPO [Initial Public Offering of stocks and shares to the public to raise capital – ie, the need for creeping privatisation].”

The chauvinist defeatism of such pronouncements is stark and shameful. But what answer should workers give to such clear treachery? So long as the abiding perspective is that the welfare of workers is indissolubly tied to the welfare of the capitalist for whom they toil, then the logic of ‘my company, right or wrong’ remains unassailable.

Social democracy, which advises trade unionists not to aim for the abolition of wage slavery itself, but to concentrate only upon securing the best terms of sale for their members’ labour power under the prevailing market conditions, lives and breathes class collaboration. When the prevailing labour market conditions are characterised by rocketing unemployment and a large industrial reserve army of unemployed, then ‘British jobs for British workers’ is the inevitable racist default position on offer, however prettily it is disguised in ‘politically correct’ clothing.

Workers are a thousand times right to resist privatisation, just as they are right to resist attacks upon their conditions of existence from wherever they originate, whether Whitehall or Brussels. But in all these struggles, it is more than ever imperative that it is the crisis of the imperialist system as a whole that is kept to the fore in workers’ minds.

Only then will workers learn to resist the siren songs warbled by social democracy, inviting them to blame anybody and anything for the miseries inflicted upon them other than the true author of those miseries, capitalism itself.

> Industry matters: Royal Mail; General Motors; Waterford - April 2009   

> Railway privatisation - an insiders view - February 2006   
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