Friday, September 07, 2012

Why Isn't There A Working Class Movement In The UK?

You feel it too, don't you comrade? Every time you go to the supermarket. Every time you pay a bill. Every time you do whatever you do to bring the money in. We desperately need a new working class movement in this country, if we are to fight back against the ongoing ruling class onslaught. But we haven't got one, and that hurts. So why the hell haven't we?

No-one reading this article needs me to tell them how bad things are getting for working class people in this country, and perhaps the worst thing is that we pretty much all know this is just the beginning. Plus this isn't even a case of 'things have to get worse before they get better'. Who amongst us believes that the government ten years down the line is going to start rebuilding what the current coalition is only a quarter through destroying? Who believes that the current recession will end any time soon? Who is under the impression that real terms wages, pensions and working conditions will ever recover to 2007 levels?

No, this great depression is the 'new normal', and many people are sullenly resigned to it. But others - perhaps those of us politically nurtured on the cataclysmic class struggles of the past - are wishing, waiting, yearning. Somehow, we believe, we've got to get together and tear the world of the rich apart.

The reasons why we haven't yet are complex of course. It isn't simply a case of 'the worse, the better' for working class fightback. After all, this is a truly global crisis, and there isn't a powerful working class movement in any country yet. For example, things are far, far worse for many in Greece than they are in the UK, and there have been umpteen general strikes there since the crisis began. But all of these have been limited to one or two days, and have been safely ignored by policy-makers. There is a significant non-payment direct action movement, but this too has failed to seriously challenge the austerity agenda of the international finance elites.

So while there's no doubt that people with less to lose are more likely to come out and fight for change, that clearly isn't enough in of itself, and so our analysis of the UK - and also societies like Greece - must go deeper.

For me, the trade unions - and different groups' relationships with them - are central to the entire question. The union bureaucracies have separate and distinct material interests to their rank and file, and whenever a dispute occurs, they act in accordance with those interests. Understanding that their privileges depend on effectively policing their membership, they set about this task with vigour, systematically managing the grassroots anger in such a way as it causes the least possible inconvenience to the bosses, while still 'talking a good game' right up to the point of the final sellout.

The last three and a half decades have seen the destruction of heavy industry in the UK as global companies have sought ever cheaper labour platforms. And by their actions if not their public words, the union fat cats have been complicit in this every step of the way. So only a tiny proportion of the UK's workforce are now union members, and these are heavily concentrated in the public sector. Generally in society, and particularly in traditionally blue collar areas, social solidarity has largely broken down.

Union organisation and social solidarity remain stronger in Greece, partly because neoliberal economics is a relatively recent development there, and it comes up against traditions of struggle born in the fire of fights against dictatorships. The general strikes I mentioned earlier have been massive, but even there, they have been called by the same trade union bureaucracies who offer only mild criticisms of austerity, and use strikes as a safety valve whenever a new round of cuts is going through parliament. The next day - with very few exceptions - all strikers return to work, and the government implements its slashing attacks on the working class.

In the UK, the public sector "general strikes" haven't even got that far. Union bureaucrats have responded to anger over job losses and corresponding speed-ups, wage freezes, and pensions raids with a couple of extremely limited one day strikes months apart, focused on the pensions issue in isolation. Not all affected workers were balloted for strikes on the same day, with the result that a potential 'movement' was fragmented and weak. Once wages had been lost, morale had plunged and despair had set in, the tops sold their memberships essentially the same deal.

This is where the fake left parties - in Greece, the UK, and everywhere - step in to play their poisonous role. Despite all pretending to be the one true Marxist party offering the proletariat crystal clear analysis from a revolutionary working class perspective, their real role is to confuse, bemuse and even abuse the well-intentioned class fighter. With illusions in the union bureaucracies being stretched by the evidence of history unravelling, they all praise their favourite tops for even the most timid or hypocritical of statements, whilst often playing down the strength of militancy on the ground.

This can easily be explained by the fact that members of all fake left parties seek well-paid positions in the union hierarchies, and are tied to it by a million other opportunist threads. It's small wonder that so many class fighters quickly get spat out by such reactionary organisations. Nothing would threaten the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and Alliance for Workers' Liberty so much as a genuine grassroots movement armed with a Marxist perspective. In Greece, the same can be said of Syriza, Antarsya and the Communist Party.

So much for the fake left. What of the non-hierarchical left? Well last year saw the brief flowering of the Occupy movement, which challenged the right of the state/corporate nexus to allocate space on behalf of "the 1%". But it failed to draw in more people by tapping the material needs of the wider working class, so its decline was a sad inevitability.

This year, explicitly anarchist groups led by the Solidarity Federation have scored some wins by targeting companies exploiting the unemployed and undercutting wage labour in the workfare schemes. Typically, these campaigners have caused great embarrassment to businesses like Holland & Barrett by turning up and picketing their shops on Saturday afternoons, and this has been combined with a social media campaign. Of course, as an injury to one is an injury to all, any prevention of injury to however small amount of our people is a gain for the working class. But SolFed and others have not been able to put down roots through these pickets, partly because they are - almost by definition - outside someone else's workplace.

In the near future, it seems unlikely we'll see a situation where anarchists are able to gain enough influence in any particular workplace to provide a shining example to the rest of the working class. Fortunately, last autumn/winter's struggle by the Sparks group of electricians demonstrated that something approaching full class consciousness can rise almost spontaneously if the conditions are right. The Sparks - having seen the Unite bureaucracy sell out their membership time after time - decided to form a parallel rank and file organisation when their construction industry employers threatened to slash wages by up to 35%. The Unite hierarchy's intrinsic hostility to grassroots self-organisation was soon made clear when chief negotiator Bernard McAulay branded Sparks "cancerous" in a leaked email. A long campaign of direct action culminated in angry electricians literally chasing suited and booted construction executives around a plush Park Lane hotel. Days later, the companies withdrew the threatened cuts.

The question of why this level of consciousness evolved organically amongst the Sparks, and has not in other industrial sectors, is extremely difficult to answer, and to even attempt to do so would take a lengthy article in itself. Construction has a long history of worker militancy, and 35% worth of 'the worse, the better' was surely a big incentive to fight. Yet even if they had lost, the Sparks would have been in a much more favourable position than some - the London cleaners who recently left the Industrial Workers of the World for example.

Employed at a rate far below the London living wage, and treated abysmally by their arrogant employers, the cleaners - many of whom don't speak English as a first language - organised themselves non-hierarchically and made a series of gains. Their departure from the IWW puts their direction in doubt, but like the Sparks, their example points to something better coming in the near future.

Amidst the bankers' crisis, things will continue to get worse for our class in the UK, in Greece, Egypt, South Africa and around the planet. Working class people will increasingly feel they have little to lose from fighting, and everything to gain. Despite the machinations of the union hierarchies and fake left parties, a new working class movement must come, and sooner rather than later. What should it look like? Well that's a subject for another time...
Post a Comment

Disqus for Infantile Disorder