Analysis

Ideological Lessons on the Struggle Over Wages

May 19, 2011

by Sarah Raymundo

Asst. Professor, UP Diliman
Mayo 19, 2011

for Ka Bel, for all that he was and for all that we can be because of him

The latest P22 increase in workers’ Cost of Living Allowance in the National Capital Region (NCR) is yet another attack on labor. After a two-year pause on wage hikes, allegedly due to the global financial crisis, this increase can only be read as a means of the Aquino regime to block a legislated P125-nationwide wage hike sponsored by Anakpawis Partylist representatives in the lower house. While this is not something new for labor advocates sitting on congressional seats given the anti-labor policies of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, the ideological dimensions of this assault on labor by the Aquino regime must be noted. It creeps into the cultural fabric at a velocity that is stimulated by corporate media and it has by now become a perverse national enjoyment of a wager for change.

The Aquino clique’s perverse enjoyment of its claims to progress, transparency and accountability—processes in which we may start anew as a nation—works in two ways. First, it warrants a passionate attachment to activity, an obsession with commotion and a penchant for high drama. Think of all those tarpaulins and billboards featuring the President and his supposedly brooding yet accessible image. Notice the explosion of discourses on rights and good governance among the well-heeled and their new-found conviction for what they construe as arguments in support of morality, righteousness, citizenship, and nationhood. Sense all that frenzy for “new ideas” to be brought forth by creative, innovative and flexible minds from academe to advertising firms, from government to organized religion, from technocrats to marketing strategists.

Second, it sharpens the “contraction of socialist aspirations,”[i] a worldwide phenomenon brought about by the ideological campaign that announces the end of history within capitalism on account of the “failure” of different socialist experiments. This renewed enjoyment of the promise of a changed nation is less an opening up of new horizons and possibilities than a reinforcement of a foreclosure that aims to contain the system by looking at its coordinates in a “new” way but without seeking to traverse them. It brings to mind the pervert in Lacanian psychonalaysis—the subject who seeks to challenge, question and even transgress certain rules but only to reinstate them at the end of the day. What people experience as pain and pleasure (jouissance) in “renewing” things precisely to foreclose the possibility of changing a system that breeds grim conditions is perverse enjoyment. What makes this form of enjoyment even more perverse in the literal sense is the appetite for repetition that comes with it. People want to do it again and again, in heightened and more frenzied levels each time.

The perverse enjoyment of the idea of a changed nation is hinged on a particular conception of government largely shaped by the economic doctrine of neoliberalism. Under the neoliberal doctrine the following are mainly expected from government.

To make itself scarce in areas where social services are concerned. The mentality that blames the poor for the dire conditions in which they live; and that poverty is mainly due to the poor’s incapacities and flawed life choices are precisely the desired ideological result of the State roll out on social welfare. The mindset that defends government from even the mildest of criticisms from its citizens as this is counter-productive, destructive and simply uncalled for is the apt public disposition when a government finds itself in a bind with multi-lateral institutions such as the GATT-WTO, IMF-WB and other agreements with other nations that heighten geopolitical disparities (VFA, JPEPA, MLSA). Clearly, how people feel about poverty in this country is pretty much aided by a transmission function that blurs state policies yet highlights their adverse consequences to the most vulnerable sectors in society. This situation leads to a very low public opinion of the poor for they can only be seen and understood in the light of their hardships and rarely in the context of political and economic policies that bear material effects on their life choices and everyday dispositions.

To act as a main conduit in facilitating public and private partnerships. This position stems from the idea that government can only function properly in dynamic tandem with business since the former tends to be corrupt and congested by bureaucratic procedures while the latter wields and yields profits. This kind of market-worship submits people’s life chances to the (un)predictability of business. Corporations and their “rational” ways are supposed to rule the day. This happens without having to ask why the most powerful State bailed out Wall Street from utter destruction instead of spending for social welfare at a time when it was most needed by the people. How can people continue to believe in something that does not work is a question that proves the fact that neoliberalism is not just a set of economic policies based on the economic theory of free trade. It doubles up as a social discipline that makes up an ideological formation based on imaginary projections of free trade. We are told that government is in need of corporate tie-ups to ensure the common good.

Yet in the case of deregulation—an indispensable tenet of neoliberalism—we can see clearly how the principle of automatic price adjustments enable oil cartels like the Big Three to hoard massive profits thereby strengthening nothing but the already existent and havoc-wreaking industrial oil cartel. This shows that big corporations actually need governments to recode the logic of profit accumulation as legitimate state policies. Public and private partnerships, popularized as PPP’s by the Aquino regime, are partnerships forged within the arena of the raging class struggle. PPPs are overt displays of government’s preferential option for big business. The PPP of Noynoy Aquino reveals that this president is no fence-sitter. It also exposes a mode of enjoining the people to a social practice that is based on enjoying neoliberalism through the enjoyment of changing the nation at the cost of social solidarity.

Destruction of Social Solidarity Through State Roll Out
As an ideological formation, neoliberalism generates social fragmentation resulting from economic and ideological logics. The economic force of neoliberalism has spawned and reinforced the tenet of privatization whose consequences are not limited to state abandonment of social services. It takes in as well those situations in which private entities such as big business can impose wanton violations of civil rights and principles of national sovereignty.

In Third World economic zones fueled by foreign investments, in occupations that provide services and even in government offices, contradictions between permanent and contractual employees or workers arise on account of labor contractualization. This policy serves management’s interest beyond cutting back on workers benefits. In its truest sense, labor contractualization is the suspension of labor power’s capacity to meet human needs. Warning his readers against the tendency to fetishize wages, Michael Denning argues that the same bent “may well be the source of capitalist ideologies of freedom and equality ” that has the effect of granting to the employment contract the status of the “founding moment.”[ii] The strength of Denning’s critique of the wage fetish reaches its height when he argues that “capitalism does not begin with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living.”[iii]

In its truest, sense and in its most useful function for capitalism, labor contractualization is a social discipline that promotes a fragmented, competitive and antagonistic appreciation of worker-to-worker relations because it threatens a significant and indispensable human capacity: to survive the requirements for daily living. The division of labor into contractual and permanent corrupts and distorts human capacity, turning it to docility. The (re)production of docile bodies palls human capacity for cooperation and reduces labor to a mere instrument of capital. Profit-making’s bid for the harmony between labor and capital is hardly a wager for order. It is a mechanism to conceal the foundational contradictions of the subsumption of labor under capital that translates into the hierarchic relation between employer and employee. Kept under the wraps, the contradictions that result in this hierarchical relation breeds a mode of compliance that disempowers workers, which in turn creates relations of rivalry and distrust among them.

Labor contractualization—legitimized by economic policies such as privatization and deregulation—does not only render labor disposable from the perspective of state and market. Worse, it preciselymakes labor disposable from the point of view of workers themselves. This is clearly an ideological assault on labor preconditioned by the economic imperatives of neoliberalism. Neoliberal economic imperatives (not exclusive to labor contractualization) are the same factors that worsen the poverty situation in the country.

The Clamor for Higher Wages
The workers’ call for an immediate relief from skyrocketing price hikes through the P125 across the board wage hike rests on worsening living conditions. While the struggle is being waged in the economic sphere, it is a significant part of the struggle of and for labor. This struggle entails workers’ demand for their wages to satisfy the cost of daily living of their families. Undoubtedly, this makes the whole struggle for higher wages an indispensable struggle for human lives. That workers are tasked to challenge capitalist class domination in their struggle for human lives makes the fight necessarily political.

The role of the State in the struggle for higher wages by no means diffuses the mechanisms of control over labor. It actually aids the transfer of what is otherwise a confined economic struggle between workers and capitalists within a particular point of production to a locus of political struggle in which the Leninist thesis of the state being an instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed is confirmed. State power, civil society and the relative autonomy that exists between them; and the force of the capitalist class do not divide the functions of class interest with the State as a mere arbiter. “[T]he state, which represents the coercive ‘moment’ of capitalist class domination, embodied in the most highly specialized exclusive, and centralized monopoly of social force, is ultimately the decisive point of concentration for all power in society.”[iv] The Aquino government’s latest intervention involving wage increase plainly demonstrates how the state collapses with the interest of big business.

But what needs to be urgently understood is not so much of what constitutes President Noynoy Aquino’s class interest. For sadly, his is too predictable for questioning. What begs understanding is the current regime’s capability to sustain its standing despite its very own conflicting claims to change. When President Aquino announced that the Filipino people are his boss, the majority was his addressee. It indicated a shift from the anti-poor, despotic and shady governance under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The fact that the current regime has not implemented policies that will effect significant change in the lives of the Filipino people goes to show that we still have to linger in expectation. This regime’s deployment of perverse enjoyment of “changed” conditions is contingent on people’s expectations, which in turn is highly dependent on time.

The people’s precipitous identification–a kind of relating to or fully identifying in great haste with a cause —with President Aquino’s discourse of change is subject to a work of time. This means that as subjects of this particular ideological mobilization, we are being held-up by an idea that has aroused our deepest, most important expectation of ourselves and for our nation: Pagbabago, and it operates within the limits of time. Aren’t all expectations subject to a deadline? The Aquino regime has managed to repackage our aspirations for change into a political propaganda that fuels its political machine. While it is too early to identify the ideological dimensions of this political propaganda, taking the risk of doing so is offered as an exercise in conjunctural grasping.

Grasping Perverse Enjoyment
At this point, what looks like a full blown propaganda by the current regime’s political machine is its new gospel of hope founded on the neoliberal tenet of privatization. President Aquino’s fervour for PPPs preaches that we must begin to be faithful to the idea that only the rich can save this country. The partnership is not about holding the hand of one’s equal. It is rather about profit-seeking private entities “sharing with” or “providing for” government the much needed funding for various projects. The idea that change is contingent on the decisiveness and unity of the basic masses is old and trite for this government. Thus, the insult that is the P22 increase in COLA of NCR workers instead of the P125 across the board wage hike is but a logical act for the Aquino regime whose idea of change is limited to an agitation for change that prohibits the working class of our country to push for substantial changes in their conditions because for this government, this class is by no means the bearer of change. This social discrimination is most reproachable especially since that its implementation is accomplished in ways that are almost invisible.

An adequate wage hike is a possibility that is always foreclosed by this regime’s perverse enjoyment of a promise of a changed nation. For what is being renewed every day amidst all that frenzy for change is the rule that there shouldn’t be any substantial change in the quality of life of the working class. Such is the conduct of a government that has consciously chosen to be under the grip of neoliberalism. What is further foreclosed is not only the idea of an alternative to the system but, even more strongly, our capacity to understand how the current system does not and cannot serve human needs. This ideological assault is reinforced by a culture that renders labor invisible within fields of vision, making it ever so difficult for the working class to partake in the struggle over the “legitimate principle of legitimation.”[v]

For example, it is standard procedure for mass media to feature the lives of the rich and famous as it is customary practice to push aside stories for and about the struggles of the working class. And whenever they do, the rare story almost always highlights helplessness, incapacity and the ways by which poor people are saved by their rich benefactors. The point is not a naive demand for corporate media to turn its back to its interest and suddenly start to feature sharpened class antagonisms in the country by showing various situations of empowerment and disenfranchisement among the working class. The point is to draw attention to the ideological role of corporate media in the promotion of a mode of enjoyment marked by bourgeois aspirations, a practice that plays a part in the contraction of socialist aspirations. This role is patently consistent with the strategy of reproduction of the U.S. -Aquino regime that consists in an ideological campaign that commands a perverse enjoyment of “changing the nation” but with the unmistakable goal of prohibiting qualitatively changed conditions.

My generation and the one that came directly before it are fortunate to have come across a man who had lived through poverty, war, exploitation and tyranny. He lived through these frightful and appalling conditions by going against them, not on his own but with his very own people—the working class of the world. Today, on the third anniversary of his death, I recall a time when I first wrote an essay with a clear yet a weird intention of opening a possibility for Ka Bel to read it. He was, at the time, in jail for struggling against the U.S-Arroyo dictatorship. And so I wrote in Filipino an essay on Post-politics and Human Rights. Two of my cherished mentors gently chided me for some of my vague, inaccurate and difficult concept translations and constructions. I did not take offense as I was secretly pleased with my secret wish. To this day, I have no idea whether Ka Bel ever read that essay. And it only matters now as a funny memory of how I had wanted to relate to a great person like him at some point. A week ago, I had the fortune of finding a book I read for a book report in high school–War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I immediately looked for my favorite lines delivered by the character of Pierre. It was not difficult to find as I somehow remember writing it down from the book’s last few pages to my notebook many years ago. I found the quotation on page 1,409:

“I only wanted to say that all ideas that have great consequences are always simple. My whole idea is that if vicious men are united and constitute a power, then honest men must do the same. You see, it’s so simple.”

Ka Bel in all his simplicity and the lucidity of his ever so sharp ideas on the class struggle and the revolution, and how he lived these could have said the same lines in relation to the struggle for a proletarian state. I am humbled by the thought that those who were with him, those who have not given up the fight miss him every single day in the struggle for genuine change.#

[i] see Ellen Meiksins Wood. 1995. Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.

[ii] Michael Denning. Wageless Life. New Left Review 66 November-December 2010.http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2871

[iii] ibid

[iv] Ellen Meiksins Wood. 1995. Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press. p.47.

[v] Pierre Bourdieu. 1996. The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. California: Stanford University Press. p.265.