Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Jungle

"Jurgis could see all the truth now - could see himself through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face."

This brilliant novel by socialist author and journalist Upton Sinclair (he also wrote Oil!, which got turned into the far inferior film There Will Be Blood), gives a thoughtful, compassionate and compelling insight into the brutal life of 'unskilled' labourers in the United States a century ago. In doing so, it necessarily invites the question: how have things changed?

The Jungle follows the misadventures of Lithuanian migrant worker Jurgis, as he tries to make a new life with his family in early 1900s Chicago. Arriving a firm believer in individualism and the power of hard work in a 'free country', his objective circumstances deal him harsh lesson after harsh lesson, and he quickly becomes 'disillusioned', in the true sense of the word.

Jurgis' travails give him a look at many different aspects of 'the system', from the semi-aristocratic life of the Illinois governor's family, to the gangsterism behind popular politics, and of course the brutality of the meatpacking industry. A colleague tells him they use every part of the pig 'except the squeal', but he doesn't grasp what this mean at first. Soon, however, he begins to understand that his life in the 'killing beds' is symptomatic of the wider society around him; a society that is organised against his interests, that will use him up and throw him away. Having achieved class consciousness, he gets involved in Eugene Debs-style socialism.

In the aftermath of the novel's publication, the U.S. government stepped in to regulate the meat industry, with President Theodore Roosevelt realising that laissez-faire in food standards threatened the profitability of American capitalism as a whole.

Following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War One, Sinclair made two unsuccessful Congressional bids as a Socialist. With the decline of socialism as a political force in the U.S., and the onset of the Great Depression, he became a left reformist Democrat in the New Deal era. Despite the limitations of his later political activism - which were the necessary outcome of being a relatively wealthy man amidst a post-Stalin labour movement - his devastatingly perceptive novels still have great value today.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 18

As the refuse strikes continued in Liverpool, Leeds and Edinburgh over the last fortnight (with the Liverpool action ending on the 18th), supporters in each city took direct action in solidarity with workers in struggle against worsening pay and conditions. As they did so, they showed a way forward for a new, militant working class movement in the UK, which will not limit itself to ritualistic strikes as it confronts the economic crisis.

Liverpool activists organised a physical and virtual picket of Assist Streetcare, who have supplied scab labour on that city, as well as Edinburgh, where the council has faced an all-out strike. On Tuesday, 15th September, activists picketed the Assist Streetcare depot in Aintree, Liverpool, whilst many others sent emails, faxes and phonecalls to the company, expressing their anger at the use of scabs to break the Liverpool strike action. The main telephone number was soon shut down, and the email address started bouncing messages back to their sender.

The very next day, Leeds City Council Richard Brett had his doorstep “trashed” by activists, who dumped several bags of rubbish at his home, 991 Scott Hall Road. Police arrested and bailed six people. According to one participant:

“Refuse collectors are being told to lose £3 an hour off an already low wage. £3 an hour won’t seem much to Councillor Brett who took £48,000 just in expenses last year, but it is to those struggling to live already during these times of crisis. We refuse to accept this, it’s rubbish!”

On the Friday, scab lorries were blockaded up in Scotland, as Industrial Workers of the World members and others detained strike-breakers at the top of Blair Street, Edinburgh for half an hour, before police arrived and broke up the cordon. According to an IWW member:

We explained to the workers who were scabbing that what they were doing was wrong and that in these hard times people have to stick together and not stab each other in the back....fighting for the crumbs from the rich man's table…”

The Vestas blockade – aimed at preventing the company from shifting the last wind turbine blades from its Isle of Wight factory – was brought to an end by typically uncompromising police repression last Tuesday. Cops issued warnings to thirteen people “suspected of having committed, committing, or about to commit, criminal offences of aggravated trespass”, at 6.30am. Two hours later, the site had been cleared, and security staff were erecting their own blockades – to keep protesters out.

Four activists were arrested in Southampton docks, having locked onto cranes in an attempt to pressurise Vestas into reinstating the workers they had sacked. After seventeen hours in police custody, they were charged with aggravated trespass.

The 'Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet' Facebook group and 'Save Vestas' blog both continue to call for the government to step in and protect green jobs.

With many students returning to campuses after their summer break, and many educational facilities facing cuts, a rebellious reaction was inevitable. The economy in the state of California is experiencing a particularly traumatic time during this crisis, and Governor Schwarzenegger has responded by making enormous cuts to jobs and services.

The University of California has a budget gap of $750 million, and aims to balance the books by ordering unpaid ‘furloughs’ (compulsory time off) for non-union staff, course cuts and tuition fee increases of almost one third. In protest, staff and students at ten UC campuses staged walkouts last Thursday. However, students at the Santa Cruz campus took things a stage further.

Calling themselves ‘Occupy California’, and using the pretext of a ‘dance party’ organised on Twitter, the group have barricaded themselves into parts of the Kimmel Center, proclaiming:

“We must face the fact that the time for pointless negotiations is over. Appeals to the UC administration and Sacramento are futile; instead, we appeal to each other, to the people with whom we are struggling, and not to those whom we struggle against. A single day of action at the university is not enough because we cannot afford to return to business as usual. We seek to form a unified movement with the people of California. Time and again, factional demands are turned against us by our leaders and used to divide social workers against teachers, nurses against students, librarians against park rangers, in a competition for resources they tell us are increasingly scarce. This crisis is general, and the revolt must be generalized. Escalation is absolutely necessary. We have no other option.”

The group's website - 'We Want Everything' - can be found here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dorian Gray (15)

Directed by Oliver Parker
Based on a novel by Oscar Wilde
On general release from 11th September 2009

Oliver Parker's version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray is an exceptionally rare thing: a big screen adaptation that does justice to a classic novel. Though of course some changes have been made, they do not detract from the narrative or the essential feel of the story. Wilde enthusiasts can be confident that they won't be disappointed, so long as they keep an open mind, while curious newcomers are in for a treat.

As many people know, Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) is a naive boyish aristocrat who inherits his grandfather's estate. Artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) is impressed by Gray's youthful beauty, and tries to capture it in a portrait, which he insists will never grow old. However, sly man-about-town Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) takes the youngster under his wing, and encourages him to indulge in pleasures of the flesh. From that moment, Dorian's every act of deception has harmful effects on those around him, and he is left utterly alone, even when surrounded by people. The picture becomes a mirror for his decaying 'soul', even as its subject does not outwardly age one single day.

While Barnes is scarily convincing in his transformation from childlike innocence to devilish deceiver, it is Firth who steals the show, proving he has far greater acting range than he's been allowed to demonstrate since his TV role as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The use of special effects is also impressive; for once it isn't about showing off, rather they are used to heighten the appreciation of the lead character's thoughts and emotions. In Parker's hands, this is a true psychological horror film, about a real strain of psychological horror, with implications for views of society.

When Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture Of Dorian Gray in 1890, it was a key moment in the artistic movement known as aestheticism. Aesthetes were wealthy, often aristocratic artists who rejected industrialism - especially its pre-occupation with usefulness and the Victorian morality that came with it. But Wilde's work was a scarred man's wistful search for a happy medium, which recognised that such individualistic pursuit of empty pleasures came at a high cost. Wotton's quip that "The only way to resist temptation is to yield to it" certainly has a ring of truth in it, but it is a hollow one. In modern times, it finds its echo in the obsessive chronicles of 'celebrity lifestyles' that fill countless shelves and waste bins.

Wilde's classic tale raises important questions about how we pursue happiness in societies based on competition, and this film adaptation fully brings that significance to life. In response to critics who wanted art to serve their own agendas, the author famously claimed that 'All art is quite useless.' But art like his parable and this film are as useful to the cause of humanity as they are aesthetically pleasing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 17

As local councils around the country try to make employees pay for their budget crises, refuse workers are in the frontline in the battle against cuts. Over the past fortnight, they have been taking industrial action in three cities, in struggles which union tops have not linked-up. However, the cases are similar enough to indicate that council staff nationwide are confronting essentially the same pressures on their pay and conditions, pressures which point towards unified nationwide resistance.

Rubbish has been piling up in Leeds this week, since refuse workers began an indefinite strike over pay cuts which unions claim will cost their members thousands of pounds per year. Leeds is following in the footsteps of Edinburgh, where their counterparts have also been struggling against decreased wage packets. Strike-breaking scab labour has come from Liverpool, with at least thirty scabs being put up at the £102 per night Hilton Hotel at Edinburgh airport. These scabs are employed by the Assist Streetcare subcontractors, and are being recruited through the Blue Arrow agency.

Indeed, it’s been a busy time for Assist Streetcare, because trucks and scabs are also leaving their depot in the Aintree area of Liverpool, to break the strike in that city. Six hundred refuse collectors, street cleaners, recycling and highways staff are currently in a second period of indefinite strike action, demanding that their employers consolidate bonus payments into their regular wages.

As always, active solidarity is vital, and campaigners have called a physical and virtual picket of Assist Streetcare for this Tuesday, from 9 am.

The Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight has once again been the scene of resistance this week. A blockade has been set up in an attempt to prevent the company moving the wind turbine blades left behind when the factory occupation ended. At dawn on Thursday, a tripod was erected, and a worker from the occupation perched on top, watching the sunrise over the River Medina. The 'Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet' Facebook group and 'Save Vestas' blog both continue to call for the government to step in and protect green jobs.

Finally, subway workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina have found an ingenious way to fight back. Reviving the time-honoured practice of industrial sabotage, employees seeking union recognition from the government freed turnstiles for two hours. Whereas strike action often risks alienating the public, passengers getting free travel may be more inclined to support the workers’ demands.

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