In attempts to advance their political causes, organizers are usually faced with a common dilemma: what are the social structures through which we can unite a sufficient number of people to create a meaningful political coalition? In other words: what are the institutions on which solidarity can be built? If we wish to take the concept seriously, we should avoid defining solidarity simply as action-driven by moral sentiment, but rather as an act of sustained coalition building based on people’s actual material interests – mass organizations making calculated decisions to work together for a common goal.
For the capitalist class, this task is easy, as countless domestic and international trade organizations, financial groups and political parties fight tirelessly for the common interests of capitalists such as lower taxes or deregulation. Of course, they deal with conflicting interests, but few would argue that the capitalist class hasn’t been efficient in building the international solidarity necessary to maintain their global dominance. The educated middle classes also find their interests represented by a number of political parties, local NGOs, cultural institutions, professional guilds and of course the media. These institutions too are fractured and wield significantly less power, yet still provide a firm foothold for coalition-building when needed. We must only look to the disciplined coalescing of suburban middle-class organizations around American Democratic party candidates to get the picture.
The working class however is faced with an absence of institutions through which it can advance it’s agendas and forge alliances. Unions, of course, play a key role but have seen their membership plummet as service sector work has replaced industrial production and precarious gig jobs have replaced full employment. This has been followed by the decline of independent working-class cultural institutions and press. And last but not least, traditional labour parties have been unable to address working-class demands in the wake of neoliberalism, making steady steps rightwards and eventually shifting their electoral pitches more towards downwardly mobile urban professionals.
What then remains of social institutions, which would allow the forging of working-class coalitions? In most European countries, it comes down to the welfare state and public services, public education, health care and housing – in short: the sphere of social reproduction. There is no need to romanticize these institutions and frame them as some kind of humanist oasis outside the brutal realm of capitalist production. The welfare state is every bit integral to the capitalist system, as it provides housing, care, education and other services necessary for the reproduction of the labour force. It is also in no way owned or controlled by working-class people but is a top-down bureaucratic system, a form of human resource management for the capitalist class.
Nevertheless, it has been the institutions of the welfare state, namely public health and educational services, which have been the terrain of the widest and most diverse working-class coalitions in recent years. As capital has sought to recover from a crisis by reforming the sphere of social reproduction, turning public services into privatized profit-driven enterprises (or pushing them into the realm of unpaid feminized housework), a wide range of social actors has repeatedly struck back.
Public sector employees such as teachers and postal workers have not only been able to maintain a strong union presence all throughout both Europe and the USA, but have also repeatedly inspired wide public support, as people are well aware of how valuable their services are. Even in the heydays of neoliberal privatization, the British NHS has proven to be untouchable and is widely supported despite its flaws – a sentiment shared towards public health institutions in most countries. And let us not forget, the single largest and most diverse coalition of the American working class in decades was built around the demand for Medicare for All. So even as the influence of labour organizations in society dwindles, we continue to see mass organizing across social lines to defend public services from the implementation of market logic.
This is hardly a coincidence. While most state-run programs can hardly be categorized as public, let alone worker-run institutions with any meaningful independence from capitalist production, they have none the less become the space in which working-class interests can coalesce – perhaps filling the gap left by organized industrial labour. And while much is left to be discussed around how institutions of social reproduction should be organized and funded, they appear to offer strategic inroads not only for the working class to gain much-needed power, but also a vision of how production could be arranged more generally.
Could we, through a sustained effort, pull more and more services and goods out of the domain of the market and guarantee them as a right? Could we extend the health and educational services provided in most European countries to housing, transport, daycare and food? How could more people be employed in providing these services and what new forms of cooperation and decision-making could this generate? And of course, how can these programs be tailored to fight climate disaster? While propositions for a universal basic income do little to address these questions and maintain an individualized working class with no bargaining power, decommodification of social reproduction presents us with a unique opportunity for both social transformation and pragmatic coalition-building.
The Covid-19 crisis has not only thrown capitalist production into disarray, essentially destroying entire sectors of the economy, but it has also put on full display the importance and popularity of public services, with health workers and civil servants being portrayed as heroes (though still remaining underpaid). As large-scale interventions into the economy have proven to be not only possible, but necessary, the idea of a public job guarantee set up to maintain the essential work of social reproduction no longer seems like a utopian dream, but as a pragmatic and politically viable solution. Arguments for such programs can not only be presented as a credible alternative to the dead-end of austerity but can also be organized around.