Around 70 years ago a strange new religion sprang up in some Pacific islands known as ‘cargo cults’, Brian Denny looks at how ‘social Europe’ draws from this tradition
Islanders from Fiji to New Guinea marvelled at the seemingly endless supply of goods and other wonders that the white immigrants brought in by aircraft with little or no effort from the newcomers themselves.
So the industrious locals set about building their own airstrips complete with wooden carved headsets, bamboo masts and “control towers.”
Each cargo cult was distinct and separate but operated under the same extraordinary faith system.
The most virulent cargo cult which broke out on an island now called Vanuatu lives on today and is centred around a mystical figure called John Frum.
Before disappearing, Frum prophesied that mountains would be flattened and valleys filled in – presumably for the planes to land – sickness would vanish and old people would regain their youth.
On his return Frum promised to bring a new currency stamped with a coconut and called on islanders to get rid of their money.
In 1941 this sparked a huge spending spree, people stopped working and the economy virtually collapsed.
This brings us neatly to another faith that persists in the labour movement from TUC wonks to the more bizarre Trotskyist sects which believe that the “social Europe” agenda will protect workers in the brave new Europe being built by corporate power.
The illusory social Europe agenda appeared around 25 years ago when Thatcher pushed through the neoliberal single market as part of the Single European Act, which actually marked the launch of anti-social Europe.
EU Commission president Jacques Delors was dispatched to various sceptical TUCs around Europe, including Britain, in 1988 to eulogise this new faith which promised full employment, workers’ rights and job security in return for acceptance of social partnership, monetary union and endless European integration.
Yet the single currency project was a direct extension of anti-social Europe as it prevents countries from using currency devaluation to regain competiveness and all pressure for adaptation is transferred to labour market “flexibility,” job cuts and austerity.
Today, under this European social model, the number of unemployed people in the EU is reaching record highs since the introduction of the euro in 1999.
In eight member states alone, over 30 per cent of young people are jobless and in Spain that figure is over 50 per cent.
And EU law actively encourages social dumping, whereby cheap foreign labour displaces local workers.
Such high levels of unemployment are being compounded by masochistic austerity measures enshrined in the EU’s new fiscal treaty, which turns entire countries into vassals of Europe’s largest banks.
This in turn is leading to social wages in the form of decent public services to disappear under an orgy of one-size-fits-all austerity and mass privatisation.
Defenders of social Europe will dismiss this evidence and suggest that this was caused by the international banking crisis and not EU institutions turning the neoliberal screw.
In reality the social Europe agenda has been a central tool to emasculate industrial and political trade union power.
The first clue is the fact that the mouthpiece of corporate lobby group European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) Keith Richardson once boasted that he was not concerned by the much-vaunted social chapter and any EU commitments to full employment if it helped public opinion.
“It won’t do much damage providing of course that it remains related to aspirations,” he said.
The backbone of the social Europe cult has been the promotion of social partnership and works councils which bypass traditional class-oriented trade union organisations and absorb them into the logic of capitalist production, reducing unions to “adding value” to the company.
A divine belief in the power of EU directives has also been encouraged.
However EU social law is very often “soft law,” hard to implement and full of derogations and exceptions.
The working time directive is a good example as offshore energy workers found out a few months ago when their long-running campaign for paid leave under the regulations was thrown out of court.
Moreover the directive is designed to replace permanent contracts with zero hour contracts, rather than limit working hours to 48 hours a week.
Under the directive working hours are viewed on three-monthly cycles which can allow employees to work 56 hours one week and two hours the next.
Similarly health and safety directives have not proved the antidote to dangerous work practices or bad employers.
According to the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, around 6,000 workers die each year from avoidable work-related accidents, while many more suffer from occupational diseases. In the EU, a worker dies every three-and-a-half minutes.
The temporary and agency workers directive is not primarily designed to protect non-permanent labour but to make such activity the norm.
Companies have ready-made “flatpack” solutions to get around any benefits the directive may give vulnerable workers such as the “Swedish derogation.”
This means that any rights to equal pay of an agency worker no longer exist when agency workers are employed on a permanent basis by their umbrella company or temporary work agency.
Norway’s TUC (LO) recently voted unanimously against government plans to implement the agency workers’ directive as it would spark widespread social dumping, deregulate labour markets and increase exploitation.
The European Court of Justice has also ruled in a number of cases that trade union rights to collective bargaining are subsumed to business rights in a variety of imaginative ways.
Yet all of this is heresy in the social Europe cult and – as with the cargo cults – the boundless faith invested in it should not be underestimated.
A young anthropologist named David Attenborough visited Vanuatu some 20 years after the rise of John Frum.
While interviewing a cult devotee, Attenborough asked if, given that 19 years had passed and John had failed to return, he was downhearted.
He answered that if Westerners could wait 2,000 years for Jesus Christ with no sign of him yet, then he could wait more than 19 years for John.
You would like to think that over two decades of faith in EU empty words and anti-democratic Thatcherite deeds would not induce such optimism within the organised working class.