Social Inequality & The Politics of Representation: A Global Landscape

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Over the past few years, within the framework of liberal policies and the ongoing economic crisis, phenomena such as family indebtedness, the weight of illegal work and of freelance work, with all the array of situations of abuse of power and the intensifying of productivity pressure, appear to have worsened and currently affect wide sectors of the work force, including the middle class, be it in public services or the tertiary sector in general, enhancing relations of dependence, precariousness and de facto proletarianising.

This does not, of course, make it less important to reflect on the phenomenon. In addition, the very effect of the reference group — especially because it works as a standard for comparison measuring the social condition of individuals by referring to other groups in the same situation or even lower neighbours or relatives, for example — broadens the meaning of relative deprivation and thus renders illusive the degree of proximity, or of progression, on the stratifying scale among different fractions within the middle class or those on its fringes Parkin, The old faultlines are in place, with new ones now being added on.

From the example of the footwear industry in this region we can better understand some of the social contours which characterise the more traditional sectors of the Portuguese economy. The immediately striking feature is that middle-class positions — which, as has been shown, were scarcely representative at national level — virtually disappear in this region.

The more skilled categories of the work force go from 0.

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Market forces and individual competition among workers join with a traditional cultural matrix, marked by economic scarcity and by symbolic references to the rural world. There is a permanent convulsion in the managerial fabric in the footwear sector, mostly made up of micro-businesses, whose owners are almost exclusively former workers. This survey compared two generations: that of the respondents and that of their parents. Thus, as regards this objective component of the analysis, the survey showed that, taking a global view of the class structure of the two generations under comparison, the logic of inequality remained virtually unchanged, that is, despite the significant rates of individual mobility from top to bottom and from bottom to top , the configuration of class positions in both generations displayed virtually no change.

The surveys mentioned previously Estanque, and also made it possible to determine the degree of consistency between objective class positions and respective orientations regarding society and class identification.

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In addition, they supplied important indications with respect to perception of the antagonism and conflict of interests experienced which I will examine in section 3 below. This was the case of all the class segments, including those enjoying fewer resources. It is precisely this attracting principle which makes the notion of the middle class a major reference in the representations of the Portuguese. The surveys I have referred to show that Portuguese society has a sharply-defined sense of the presence of very significant conflicting interests among all the polarisations under consideration, namely between rich and poor, between the middle class and the working class, or between workers and managers Cabral, and ; Estanque, and Not only are the standards of living of each of these categories the working class and the middle class seen as diverging, but in addition a symbolic struggle for demarcation lines between the two can be inferred.

This tells us something about what I have called a middle class effect as a symbolic and social reference in the Portuguese imaginary. This may help interpret the perception of interests between the working class and the middle class as conflict-riven.

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There appears to be on the subjective plane a struggle which plays out in two directions: from the viewpoint of those who already consider themselves to be part of the middle class, and who thus show their difference in status; and from the viewpoint of those who identify as working class, who thus show the difficulties in attaining a position in the middle class.

Over and above all other considerations, this proves the centrality of labour relations as a field in which inequality is structured, both in objective and subjective terms. The rapid restructuring of the production fabric in Portugal, together with the presence of traumatic experiences in the trade union struggle in the recent historical past, means that today, despite the growing fragility of trade unionism, subjective representations denote strong social faultlines structured around work conditions, despite the fact that current precariousness trends inhibit open expression of labour conflicts.

That is to say, the Portuguese tend to have high levels of tolerance when faced with power and status discrepancies. The perception of antagonism across society, however, does not mean an intolerance of power and status discrepancies, but perhaps the idea that there are well marked-off positions as regards symbolic and material opportunity and privilege. Objective inequalities appear to spread out on the subjective plane, mirroring significant levels of relative deprivation among the Portuguese.

On the one hand, those who fill prominent posts and leadership positions demand endless devotion from their subordinates. Hence, when these ties of affinity and dependence shatter and the weaker party begins to invoke rights, violent reactions very often erupt, be they personal or institutional, more blatant or more subtle, giving rise to psychological violence and moral harassment in the workplace, and even to physical violence as can be gleaned from the number of lawsuits brought to court. However, there is a need to stress the growing importance of precariousness.

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It is at the same time an objective reality and a subjective feeling. But precariousness, being also a subjective feeling, translates into impotence and fear. And incorporating fear in turn gives way to acceptance or resignation, that is, to self-denial in the struggle for rights. Indeed, although contained within a subjective logic of high levels of tolerance, labour relations in these environments can turn into deregulated conflictuality, with unpredictable outcomes, especially if the standard of living dips suddenly beyond the margins of tolerable relative deprivation.

And it is as well to remember that the margins of tolerance are lower where State intervention is greater and the salary relation more stable. These findings clearly show the presence of feelings of impotence and resentment associated with the heightening of precariousness. The factory systems in place in most Portuguese industrial companies are but the tip of the iceberg, for authoritarianism and forms of violence in the workplace are to be found virtually in every employment sector.

And neoliberal globalisation has contributed to heighten the situations of oppression, exploitation, precariousness and dependence which today characterise the world of work. But it is important to recall the historical role of the working class movement, since it was this movement which, at least until the s — and in the case of Portugal, until more recent times — fed the social bases of trade unionism, and it is that reference and that memory which continues to underlie the discourse and proposals for action of a significant current of Portuguese trade unionism.

It can be said that this conception still rests upon a vision of the world of work anchored to the old class contradictions, handed down from the Marxist structuralism which was hegemonic in public discourse in the period after the revolution in Portugal. In other words, even though the social classes structured from within the production sphere continue to be the main underpinning of inequality, it is a fact that, as almost every study confirms Estanque and Mendes, ; Pakulsky and Waters, ; Wright, and , class has long since ceased to be the main determining factor of political conflict.

Against a backdrop of increasing globalisation and individualisation of social relations, class faultlines simultaneously produce conflicts of interests and consent relations within the sphere of production, be they grounded on hegemonic or despotic regimes Burawoy, If, up to the s, the class struggle led by the working class movement in the industrialised countries was deeply imbued with social and political meaning, this was because there were conditions within which to build strong working class cultures, in the shape of communities of resistance or emancipation, which in the meantime have faded away or become quite simply extinct.

The traditional Taylorist production system and the Fordist regulation model began to split and to fragment, causing new forms of work to emerge which were more deregulated and included in a social framework more intensely characterised by the tertiarisation of employment and by the expansion of mass consumption. Most strikingly, late and incipient industrialisation and a Welfare State which was only able to expand in the period after the revolution. The full affirmation of the Portuguese trade union movement occurred in a revolutionary context in which class language hegemonised public debate and mass movements became the main source of political legitimacy.

On the one hand, a Marxist discourse focused on a model of socialism which seemed to be just around the corner, guided working class struggles in the second half of the s, and under the strong influence of the far left and the Communist Party the power of CGTP-Intersindical [General Confederation of Portuguese Workers] was consolidated. On the other hand, reformist trade unionism emerged with UGT [General Union of Workers], which took a stance opposed to that of CGTP an initiative taken by the two major parties in power, the Socialist Party and the Social-Democrat Party following the victorious struggle against the system of single unions, and began to gather support in the service sector and later in other sectors, presenting itself as the partner of choice in social dialogue.

In a context of deep political-ideological faultlines entrenched from onward, divisions on the trade union plane developed, in large measure, as a reflection of party political activity and subsequent vying for hegemony within the structures of each of the union confederations. This process, incidentally, is still ongoing and has gained new contours as trade union difficulties grow in face of the need for new responses and for consolidation of greater autonomy as regards political party influence Castanheira, ; Cerdeira, ; Costa, ; Lima, ; Lima et al. But in the sectors of administrative services and civil service, as also in banking and insurance, this fall was less significant than in industry Cerdeira, At the same time, growing prominence on the institutional plane gave the trade union movement a new role in designing the major social reforms, a process which unfolded in conjunction with its loss of capacity to mobilise workers.

It can be stated that, over the past decades, the acquired rights of workers and the trade union movement gave way, in practice, to the pressures of cooptation, becoming part and parcel of the very dynamics of the system.


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In other words, they were absorbed into the logic of regulation, now being part of State activity itself Santos, , In effect, the institutionalising of collective bargaining and trade union participation in the processes of social negotiation and dialogue, mainly from the s onward, favoured the development of a logic of neo-corporatist 15 action on the part of many unions. This means that, in practice, the strength of the apparatuses has become all the greater as the room for manoeuvre of union members has declined. Such situations have contributed greatly to inhibit participation and to hinder the spreading of trade union discourse and activity throughout society and the weaker segments of the work force.

The diversity of rationales and forms of action in the trade union field is thus ever more clear.

It is the result of the drastic segmentation of socio-occupational categories, types of contract, qualifications, precarious links, in a word, of the overall instability which has characterised the world of work in these past years. Many trade union leadership structures, most especially in the middle class sectors where State expansion was greatest, tend to devote more time and resources to defending the more stable segments, to providing services, to making available legal support and other technical activities, than they do to pondering and reflecting on the structural problems of employment or to triggering action strategies directed at defending the more precarious sectors of the work force.

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While the latter discontinue membership or never take out membership, those groups which can still rely on job security, albeit ever lessening, retain significant influence and bargaining power. These phenomena have, incidentally, been identified within several international contexts and converge with issues related to employment policies and the restructuring of the labour market in the current context of the global economy, presenting trade unions with new challenges and difficulties Ashwin, ; Bezuidenhout, ; Castells, ; Costa, ; Estanque, ; Frege and Kelly, ; Hyman, ; Herod, ; Moody, ; Murillo, ; Waterman, How will the leadership structures of the Portuguese trade union confederations react?

Do the signs of the ongoing opening up and attempt to transnationalise mean that the forces of renewal will find it possible to carry through the re-invention that the trade union movement needs?


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  • What outcome can be expected from the internal contradictions that exist in each of the two major Portuguese confederations? Faced with the growing might of global capitalism, the need to renew action-taking methods and strategies and to rethink the unity of trade union action on new premises is an urgent task and a priority.

    However, the more orthodox currents cling to a crystallised dogmatism and seize every means to resist any critical thought, even though the labour reality of our times demands new strategies, alliances and methods of intervention.

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    Faced with a social world of growing complexity, at a time when the pathways of the future are so uncertain, there is a need to dare to challenge the dogmas and certainties which are still entrenched. Raising doubts and formulating new questions, grounded on the new reality, is a first step. This will have to be drawn up by the relevant actors. However, the standpoint of researchers and their distance from the issues which engage trade unionists on a daily basis afford greater objectivity and may help promote debate and raise polemical issues. The following questions aim to do no more than this.

    Should they continue to centre mobilisation on the sector and national planes, or increasingly promote action-taking based on transnational solidarity networks?

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    Should they go on believing in a future model of society wrenched from the spoils of the current system, or work within that same system to create alternative areas for social organisation and emancipation? Should they work jointly with worker committees and promote their democratic election, or simply work with them when they become an instrument of the union? How can union leadership strata be renewed, promoting the defense of internal democracy and younger union members, making use of their critical capacity and their militant activism?

    How can women be represented and how can they be afforded access to leadership positions, since we live in one of the most feminised European countries where labour is concerned? Should resistance among worker collectives be privileged or should intervention and discourse be opened up in a propositive and proactive sense? Should Union action concentrate on the more stable sectors, which have greater bargaining power, or should action be spread to and intensified among the most precarious labour segments, who are also the most difficult to mobilise?