Monday, November 11, 2013

Hurt, Despair, Longing, Rage and Revolt

- Jonathan Neale

This article is an attempt to say something about a debate on the British left about whether neoliberalism has changed the working class in ways which make struggle weaker. the author argue that neoliberalism has changed us in ways that make struggle harder, and easier, and different, and more explosive.

Something has to be fixed

For two years I have been trying an experiment in Britain ans the US. I say to someone :"Lots of people believe that there is something terribly wrong with this country- it has to be fixed - it won't be fixed - and no one is public life speaks for me."

Almost everyone nods and say, "Yes. That's me. I think that."

Every social occasion I go to now, in the pub, people over for a meal, a family do, the conversation turns to: what can we do?

This is a conversation about class, although people often don't put it to themselves that way.

Let's remind ourselves what class means. It's a relationship. A worker is anyone with a manager. The working class is everyone with a manager.

Some people say class has changed, and matters less now. that's wrong. Class has changed, and it matters more now. Our noses have been rubbed in class inequality every day for years. Inequality has grown in almost every country in the world. The power of management has increased at almost everyone's work. There is an epidemic of petty bullying and petty humiliation. Everyone has a story of something management did that invaded their dignity or a basic value.

Inequality increased right across our lives. Every increase in inequality is also an attack on some workers. A library closure, for example, is also an attack on library workers. And the language and values of the market are everywhere.

So people are full of hurt, anger and longing. It's not just that they hate the Tories. (Some do, some don't.) It goes deeper. They despair, and feel trapped.

What happened? What can we do?

How We Got Here

Our union movement in Britain used to be deeply decent and reformist. From 1939 to 1975 our grandparents built various kinds of rank and file networks. At the core were shop stewards, short strikes and a constant struggle over control at work. This was true of miners, car workers, dockers, hospital cleaners and social workers.

Steward, union leaders and workers were all trying to get a bigger piece of a growing economy. People's lives were getting better. Workers were more and more confident. Militants began to believe that confidence was crucial - each little victory could lead on to the next.

Serious Trouble

Then capitalism ran into serious trouble. Profits fell about 1970 and have stayed low. Capitalists in Britain and everywhere launched what we now call neoliberalism. This was an attempt to get profits back up by cutting the share of the national income going to working people. That meant holding down wages, benefits, pensions and services, trying to break our unions and making everyone more unequal. 

Neoliberalism was not a hobby for the powerful. It was critically important for them to make it work, because capitalism is competitive. Companies that don't make profits die. Without enough profits, Corporations fail.

But neoliberalism didn't work. Since 2008 we have all been trapped in a long economic crisis, with low profits and high unemployment. the capitalists' reaction has been austerity. That isn't working either.

But after 1970 our side, the workers, the people with a manager, ran into troubles too. The first problem was the collapse of "communism" in 1989. The soviet Union was socialist like cats are mice, and like torture is love. But even a lot of people in the Labour Party thought that Russia was somehow an alternative to capitalism. When that fell, almost everyone accepted the idea that communism had not worked and was not possible. 

Our second problem was that the moderate social democratic parties, like Labour in Britain, have been eating their own assholes. In the 1940s they focused on making things better by getting a bigger share of a growing pie for workers. This worked for a while. But when the pie began to go bad, they then just ran they system so that capitalism could survive. that made them attack the things that mattered to their voters. Lots of people still vote Labour, on account of family history, and because they're not Tories. But those people have lost faith in a socialist alternative.

The vision of alternative died. With capitalism in serous trouble, that mattered. Back when things were getting better, our side didn't need to have an alternative. We just wanted our share.

The long economic crisis and the death of alternative ideas present an acute problem for the "leadership" of the working class. On one level this means union leaders hold back and close down struggle. But the problem goes deeper than this. 

That approach could not deal with the long economic crisis. When the employers or the government or the Labour Party said we have to cut, most union leaders and most militants protested. But they had no vision of an alternative. 

Defeat led to defeat. that does not mean it's harder to win a strike now. employers may want to check down hard, but they also need the cashflow from our work. Just-in-time and international supply networks means strikes in productive industry cut harder and faster. Austerity means any public sector strike is a power keg for governments. 

It also does not mean people won't strike. When we are balloted for strike action, we vote yes by much larger margins than we did during the militant years of the 1970s.

But the defeats have demoralised our leaders. And we can't go back. The union movement we had 40 years ago was built on expanding capitalism and full employment. When we ask ourselves how to get out of this hole, our best examples are not the British rank and file movements of the 1970s or the Minority Movement of the 1920s. It is more important to look to Greece now, or Marikana in South Africa, teachers in Chicago, or textile workers in Egypt. People who are wrestling with the same problems we are wrestling with. 

Also, we need to keep one lesson from the old rank and file tradition. The union leaders negotiate between employers and workers. They live and work in the middle. So sometimes they call strikes and sometimes they sell out. What decides that is pressure from above and pressure from below. The strongest pressure we can organise from below is anything that makes the leaders believe the strike will get out of their control. But at the same time, when a struggle threatens the system, they will be deeply conservative.

Longing and Revolt

All this sounds bleak. It is. But there is another side. 

All that hurt, rage, despair and longing is not the property of the left. It's everywhere. Because it's everywhere, there is a collective longing for solutions, and for revolt. Almost everyone is waiting for someone else to really fight.

If someone really fights - not a one-day strike or a march of 10,000, but what everyone will know is the real thing, by real people - then everyone will see them.

Small all-out strikes and small occupations can become enormous challenges to the system, precisely because so many people are desperate and the economic system is in such trouble.

Union leaders know this, and not just the national leaders. It goes deep in a generation of people who came with reform unionism and then lived through decades of defeat. They now don't believe in, can't imagine, a real alternative. But they can easily see what another defeat will feel like. So they race to compromise.

Ordinary people are deeply scared of revolt too. That's what all the cameras are for - to scare us. That's how Syria is now being used - to terrify us of the consequences of revolt. People long for and fear revolt.

those contradictory feelings at war inside so many millions of people means struggle can release enormous energy. It's why we see are too scared to fight at work. So they occupy Gezi Park and squares in every city in Turkey.

But not their workplace. And work is where the daily grind of bullying and control and exploitation is really felt. Work is where the relationships of class are made.

There were one-day and two-day strike in Turkey. But if workers had occupied ten workplaces in Istanbul, there would have been a thousand occupations across Turkey.

What We Can Do

So what can we do? What can a revolutionary party do? What can a network of activists do? Or let's put it like this: what you and I and people like us do?

One question everyone asks is: where will the fight start? No one knows. Maybe it will be civil servants. Maybe fast food workers, shopping mall occupations, or call centers. Maybe it will lecturers. No one can know.

After the decisive confrontation begins, it will be obvious later to every historian why it began right there, that moment, what those people. But let's be very clear: until it happens no one knows.

Does this mean we ignore union branch meetings, union conference, and "organised workers"? No. If you have a union workplace, that is your first network of resistance. If  you don't have a union, believe me, you need one. And every workers struggle, as soon as it starts, is organised. In tow sensed - people are organised because they join unions, but also because struggle never starts without some organisation.

Another question people asks is how can a small revolutionary party make it happen?

We can't. Great social movements come out of billions of conversations among millions of people.

But a party, or even a network of activists, can be like a midwife at a birth. The midwife does not make the baby or carry it. She does not push. But she has studied birth, and watched it, and in an emergency her knowledge and quick sure actions can make all the difference. 

Our task now is not to reassure people about how easy or how likely struggles will be. There are seasons to think struggles will explode. But maybe it won't.

Our first task is to join other people in their despair and their longing. This is not hard -  it is what we feel, but try not to say. 

Our second task is to look for every little possible explosion. Every time bin workers occupy a canteen, or people riot over fare rises. Time is of the essence here. Our rulers move fast. Union leaders arrive quickly to calm things down. Most important, action explodes because people are volatile now. They are volatile because despair, rage and longing are clashing inside them. In the moment they act, the anger, the joy and the fear are all intense. If they don't go forward, they do quiet.

So in the moment, at the flashpoint, we have to move fast to suggest an occupation, now. Then we get three people to start streaming video from the occupation to the world within the first hour. We phone and message a network of activists and urge them to have a meeting in every workplace to talk to our occupation. We beg everyone to come stand outside our occupation and defend us. And everyone we talk to, we say, do it too, like us, please, now.

That's one way. You can also spread a strike. Or convene a meeting at work to discuss how to spread the spirit of the occupied square to this building we're sitting in here.

For all that, you need a network of activists. And you absolutely need the idea that a total alternative is possible. Because the union leaders will come and say you're going too far, the management can't do that, or the government can't heads will say those things too. Then maybe one voice in the room says if your system doesn't work, we can take it over. That voice supplies the lost vision of an alternative.Or silence falls, and defeat follows.

We're not happy-clappy, not cheerleaders. We know what everyone knows - we could lose, or worse, go down without a fight. But everyone also knows the global system is in trouble. And everyone knows something has to change.

So we have to be inclusive, and open, because only majorities can fight at work. At the same time we have to be the most radical people in the room -  the people everyone knows want to change everything. Because the other people in the room feel despair, and know this is no time for small measures.  

Three things follow. We are part of the occupation of every square. We take the squares into the workplaces. We never shut up about socialism and revolution. And sometimes a midwife makes a baby of her own.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are of the author and doesn't necessarily represent the position of NSI.


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