Home > Local Democracy, Socialism, Trade Unions > Beans factories and creeping liberal elitism

Beans factories and creeping liberal elitism

The kids are freezing, but the solidarity is just amazing.

They could be at home, snug from the sub-zero temperatures, but here they are, stamping their feet for warmth, keeping the fires lit with whatever they can lay their hands on, together against injustice. 

They’re here to win, and they’ll do what it takes.  

This is not the end. This is just the beginning.

And where is all this dramatic solidarity taking place? 

Not, on this occasion, against the backdrop of famous London scenery. 

This time, it’s outside a beans factory on the drab outskirts of Wigan.

Of course, I can’t do Laurie Penny as well as Laurie Penny can do Laurie Penny, and nor do I want to, but my point is obvious enough; the same kind of solidarity in action can be written up as a radical game-changing movement in one media luvvie-friendly environment, but hardly register as an event in another, less metropolitan, less journo-heavy one.

Or to be more blunt, the liberal intelligentsia is not as interested in traditional working class struggle as they are in middle class student protest.

The facts behind the Heinz factory strike are straightforward enough. 

Despite record profits this year, and 9% dividends to shareholders, Heinz managers are using the broad context of ‘austerity Britain’ to hold down wages below inflation, having imposed a pay freeze in 2009 because of ‘uncertainty’ about the international economy.  This includes explicit comparison to the low wage settlements across the UK, including the public sector, in a convenient reversal of the government-pushed line that the public sector has it cushy compared to the private.

All this comes from a company which makes great play of its Corporate Social Responsibility, but which has ‘downsized’ its international workforce from 36,000 to 29,600 since 2006. 

It’s a struggle between a big company intent on the exploitation of its workforce, and a workforce now prepared to hit back, who have gone through the whole strike ballot process, got 90% approval for strikes, and are now acting in solidarity.   

That is, it’s a fightback against the kind of injustice that Laurie Penny, in her more conciliatory latest piece (in response to Alex Callenicos’ critique), claims that is at the root of this new movement:

Alex Callenicos is right: students can’t do it alone. Of course they can’t. Nor can schoolkids, or workers, or people who are unemployed. That’s what class solidarity is all about, and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests…….The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities.

But it’s also a struggle between capital and labour, in a part of the country well away from both the mainstream and radical new media, which has had scant attention.

Any proper reporting attention that it has had has come primarily from the ‘hard left’ organizations Socialist Worker and The Socialist Party.

These are the very organizations of course, whose publications Laurie reviles. Or rather she reviles the people who choose to try and sell them; she does not seem too interested in what the newspapers themselves actually contain:

Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique…

Now I’m not saying these newspapers couldn’t be better (to be fair, I’ve not seen them much in the last few years), and  certainly think they would benefit from being regionalized or even hyper-localised, perhaps along the lines of the Hackney Citizen, for example, and I also think the Socialist Worker could benefit from a conscious strategy to ‘drive’ readership from hard copy to the website over a specific time period.

Nor am I a supporter of either the SWP or the Socialist Party, because I do not have revolutionary aims; I am a really very moderate democratic socialist, committed to effecting changes in institutional power structures which redress inequalities between capital and labour, through a combination of participative and representative democratic means.

Nonetheless, I think the genuine efforts of committed organizations and individuals to bringing to wider public attention the kind of news, and the kind of news angle, so absent from the mainstream, deserve a bit more than a casual dismissal of the type Laurie provides.  These organizations do not, of course, claim or think that a newspaper in itself will create change; they see it as part of an overall strategy, and Laurie’s sarcastic simplification of what the SWP is about is hardly conducive to the broader conciliatory tone of the rest of her article

This sarcastic tone is, though, I fear, reflective of a more general tendency to dismiss ‘traditional’ leftwing organization and militancy, of the type which has actually often been quite effective over the years at defending working class interests (if not bringing a desired revolution).

Indeed, I am struck by the similarity in tone between what this confident new movement has to say about the ‘traditional’ left and what Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a hero of the 1968 Paris uprisings (the self-professed benchmark for the current movement) had to say in a book published just weeks after the main events:

Factory work, trade union ‘militancy’, verbose party programmes, and the sad, colourless life of their elders are subjects only for sarcasm and contempt. The same sort of disdain is the reason why so many students have taken a radical stand…(p.42, see also Dave’s fine article).

Now I know that for many readers, pointing this kind of thing out may seem both old-man-bitter and overly defensive of what can indeed by the stymying bureaucracies of the left.

This is a shame, because I’m supportive of the student cause, and I’m impressed both by the tactical innovation shown, and by the way in which some links are being forged with a nascent wider resistance to the government.  When I visited the UCL Occupation a few weeks ago, my overriding impression was of a group of people who actually had a pretty good grasp of the wider context, and it seemed to me that they listened to Alex Callenicos (I just happened to be there when he spoke), as he lectured them on the links between the assault on tuition fees and the wider neoliberal projects, with polite ‘heard it all before’ disdain.

But it would also be remiss of me not to speak about the very real dangers I think lie ahead for the movement – a movement which, as I’ve noted, takes May 1968 as its benchmark, but seems happy at this stage to overlook the fact that the May 1968 movement did not in fact bring any lasting benefit.

Indeed, as David Harvey argues convincingly, the almost Hayekian aspiration to individual freedoms, did much to open the door to 1980s neoliberalism. And as I’ve argued, it was the spirit of ’68, when imported to the UK in the 1970s and early ’80s, which created the conditions for the short-term gains, but long-term losses of the New Urban Left.

In his magnanimous call for the trade union movement to unite with the ‘magnificent student movement’, Len McCluskey opens the door to a real engagement between the working class (at least the unionized segment of it) and student militancy.  This is a good thing, but it must be a two way engagement, based on respect; if the union movement is to be expected to get behind the students, then surely the union movement can expect support from the students.

In subsequent posts I’ll be getting into quite some detail about how student movement might identify legitimate and tactically appropriate targets for the kinds of protest at which they have shown themselves to be so adept in recent weeks.  This won’t of course be the whole range of possible actions, as I’ll be limiting myself to areas where I have a proper understanding of the issues and opportunities (e.g. local government and the NHS).

In the meantime, though, it would be good to see the same kind of expression of relative humility as Len McCluskey has expressed on behalf of the traditional trade union movement, also expressed by some of the de facto spokespeople of the student movement (whether or not they are actually students).

It may be a salutary reminder to those spokespeople that no-one I’ve spoken to in the last three weeks in my non-university, working class area, is particularly aware of the radical new student movement, and the idea that it is likely to change people’s lives for the better would be greeted with, at the best, a wry smile or comment. 

It is easy to get into a cycle of self-reinforcing hype about how important the student uprisings have been but, impressive though the actions have been, they have involved only a tiny percentage of the overall school/student population, and have gone largely unnoticed as a ‘social force’, as opposed to a bit of bother on the streets of London.  Indeed, as reflected  in this autobiographical piece at Latte Labour, many student activists may have been surprised at the lack of genuine interest in their activities shown my family members this Christmas.

If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.

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  1. duncanseconomicblog
    December 28, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Superb.

  2. December 28, 2010 at 1:48 am

    well said

  3. December 28, 2010 at 2:23 am

    A very quick and badly articulated comment (sorry, it’s 1am):

    1) Had we known about the Heinz actions, we would have done far more to provide support, the simple truth is we did not know. An excuse? Not really. But this highlights the need for better communication between students and workers

    2) We are very keen to build strong links without the Unions. Upon establishing the Occupation, we immediately began to build these links, seeing dozens of Trade unionists come to visit, talk and make connections. One example of how this was reciprocated was the delegations we sent to the Tube picket lines.

    3) These links with the TU’s are no where near strong enough, but please, give us a chance. Remember, it has only been a just over a month since Millbank, the spark that lit the bonfire. The battle is still being fought to convince students alone of the need for resistance, and whilst our position is infinitely stronger now, our own limited resources meant that we had to prioritise. Whilst it is unfortunate that stronger links do not exist between the Students and the TU’s, equally it was considered tactically imperative to focus on building the student base.

    4) We hope to massively build with the Trade Unions in the New Year, with the ambition of holding a conference between us before the end of January.

    5) The Laurie Penny article has generated much discussion. No doubt this is healthy, but equally it is my personal feeling that a lot of what it says has been mis-interpreted. The title didn’t help – It was not an article aiming to jettison the politics of the Old left, but merely evolve it’s tactics.

    As a member of the *feted* SWP I believe (and have done for years) the resources put in to the Socialist Worker in terms of Money and More importantly, TIME spent by dedicated activists on the streets peddling a Newspaper with a hideously outdated aesthetic for poor results could be far better spent. The quality of the journalism can at times be poor, the results in terms of sales far worse – Weekly circulation is around 10,000, a ‘excellent’ sale is 90 copies in two hours (rare). 10,000 people can be easily reached across twitter. The UCL occupation blog received 180,000 hits in 2 weeks. For an organisation with limited resources, surely the internet provides a far more effective means of reaching a wider audience. As you rightly highlight, the SW is often one of few media sources to highlight important working class struggles.

    6) Equally, no one is suggesting the Internet alone is a solution. But those dedicated activists on the streets would be far better placed leafletting for local meetings, where people can come together and discuss the cuts.

    7) The rejection of the ‘Old-Left’ is also about organisation. A Central Committee stifles dissent. Laurie’s reference to a favouring of practical discussion over theoretical nit-picking isn’t a rejection of political theory, but an addressing of an issue that plagues the organised left. I have lost count of the amount of meetings organised by Left groups that have reached no practical conclusions but instead descended into hours of overblown narrative in the form of 5 minute diatribes from each member of each particular faction eager to say the same thing in their own way. Left groups, the SWP included, continuously employ sectarian strategies, adding new organisations in addition to existing ones in an attempt to retain some element of control, resulting in multiple organisations with different names fighting the same cause on different days. It’s incredibly detrimental. This is what as Students, we are keen to avoid.

    8) Good article, I look forward to reading your suggestions.

  4. Mark
    December 28, 2010 at 3:30 am

    I’m ex CWU, now at university. In the weeks before the first demo I had to explain to some very sceptical and disdainful middle-class teens why people need to go on strike and how it gets results. Weeks later they were there on the demo with me. Yet they still moaned about the tube strikes.

    Fact is these kids have grown up with no concept of political opposition to liberal capitalism and can’t really bring themselves to believe in it. Trade unions are something from history for most of them. It goes without saying most have not experienced exploitation in the work place even second-hand from their parents. There’s a massive ideological barrier to overcome if we are to get them on side with organised labour.

  5. Joe Unsoaped
    December 28, 2010 at 3:39 am

    who will lob a brick for the non-unionised, outside the workforce and the system disabled?

  6. December 28, 2010 at 3:40 am

    superb article

  7. Matt
    December 28, 2010 at 4:44 am

    As a student who took part in the occupations (and one from a union family from the North) i am acutely aware of your concerns, however think some are are misplaced.

    Much of the movement (which has only been ‘a movement’ for 6 weeks) consists of raw anger and energy of thousands of newly politicised students. Having said that, the ability and desire to reach beyond the issue of fees and cuts in education came almost immediately in occupation. We had trade unionists in virtually every night, we worked consistently and successfully with UCU and send delegations to community anti-cuts groups and RMT pickets.

    I agree however, that where the movement will succeed or fail is how it expands from this point. The occupations only lasted 2 weeks in most places and i can guarantee that any strike we were aware of during that time, we would have sent people in solidarity. Perhaps we were too focussed on the fees debate, however that was the issue that we were specifically fighting, with a date set for the vote. We must and will, i agree, link purposefully and properly with the unionised working class and community groups fighting cuts if the movement is not to stagnate, and believe me a hell of a lot of work has already gone into that in this very short time.

    On 68. I know of no-one that wants or thinks that we mimic this movement. i agree entirely that the individualist nature of the 60s movements, in part, ushered in an individualism that led to Thatcher and neo-liberalsim. If i was to look to our elders, i would much prefer looking to the Chartists or the founders of the Trade Union movement. Without being too dramatic they are our ancestors in form and substance to a far greater extent than the 68ers.

    I was occupying UCL and am happy you detected a knowledge of the wider context of our fight. It IS there, we DO know, however this movement is still embryonic, and if anything, our repeated phone calls to Trade Unions and appeals to them left us so frustrated with their lack of response that we began to discuss ways to link specifically with Trade Unionists. We need the Trade unions, however they have done nothing as yet, and have called a demonstration for the end of March, which is still 3 months away. We don’t have the time to wait. This is why we welcome Len Mcluskey’s statement of intent and solidarity. We must work together in mutual respect and solidarity, however i would call on all Trade Unionists to join us in whatever way they can. Be bold and innovative and don’t wait for your Union to act, force them to act, or act without them as a member of your community.

    The old bureacratic left organisations are of course part of the movement for change. They work while no-one else is doing so and they bring people to the streets. I think the frustration comes from their undemocratic nature, slow innovation and their priorities, as well as a perceived desire to lead us, when we will not be led. That said, they do and are doing fantastic work.

    I believe the movement – particularly the ‘occupation movement’ – must specifically reach out in the New Year when occupations recommence with regular ‘open assemblies’ of community groups, students, school kids, Trade unions, and the public at large, held in occupied and liberated spaces to co-ordinate action to fight this pernicious neo-liberal agenda that is being imposed, and i believe it will do so.

    2010 was just the start, i think your concerns are astute and valid, however i also believe that they are the concerns of the student movement as well.

    Solidarity.

  8. December 28, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I am inspired by the student comments & reactions. As an old Leftie I am also aware that the old notions of Left & Right are increasingly irrelevant. We ALL need to unite. Cameron says we are all in this together. We are. The human species is doomed unless we all pull together to force total system change. Harking back to 68 or even the 19th C is a waste of our energy.

  9. December 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    they listened to … as he lectured them on the links between the assault on tuition fees and the wider neoliberal projects, with polite ‘heard it all before’ disdain

    This surely demonstrates another bit of the topdown ‘old politics’ that really does need to go: the boring speech (often to be heard at rallies before and after boring marches). Rabble-rousing can perhaps be done differently in the ‘new politics’?

  10. December 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    My thought’s on Penny’s article here http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2010/12/laurie-penny-tommy-sheridan-and.html

    I still think the left are very blocked in Britain electorally and social movements while necessary are not enough.

  11. paulinlancs
    December 28, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Duncan @1: Thanks. Liked your two pager in Red Pepper, by the way. Great how you can right in so many registers.

    Froggy @2: Thanks

    Ben @3: Thanks for this engagement, Ben. I’ll take the points in your order:

    1) Raising the Heinz dispute was certainly not meant to be accusatory, more as a rhetorical device to bring out the need to broaden and deepen leftist media (I’ve written a lot about that before and will be again). There are plenty of traditional and not-so-traditional capital/labour disputes around (e.g. use of courts to stop 90% supported action by rail union) where support can be leant, and UCL activists can’t be everywhere. I just happen to be keyed into the Wigan dispute because I’m near there and know people, and I think in terms of best use of resources it might be best for Manchester/Liverpool activists to get into NW support, while London students identify legitimate targets for broader-than-fees/EMAs action around where they are.

    As an aside, though, in all my years of activist drudgery – and it can be dull at times – one of my pleasantest experiences was organising a trip from the South London hospital, where we’d just organised pretty successful industrial action and were on an organising high, to support striking P&O workers in Dover in light of management’s imposition of new staffing rules (pretty extreme ones in the light of the then recent Herald of Free Enterprise disaster). As a bunch of student and young staff/enrolled nurses we didn’t exactly bring the intellectual input that UCL will be able to bring to working class struggle, but I do remember very clearly both the enthusiasm with which we were received and the surge in enthusiasm for the broader (then) anti-Thatcherite cause. So even in self-interest/for learning purposes, your organising for support of working class/public service (see below) causes can be a real energiser, especially if you are able to bring to such support the sense of theatre (this is not said ironically/sarcastically) that you have been able to bring so far.

    2) V good, in keeping with my comments above.

    3) Yes, I agree totally it’s early days. In general, I’m aware that my post looks a bit negative and impatient, but it’s because I’m so enthusiastic about what you’ve achieved to date that I don’t want it to lose the energies and direction you’ve had so far. Of course it’s important that you establish a strong student base first, or risk overreach. What my piece is really about, though, is that the informal spokespeople now starting (however well-intentioned) to dominate the coverage of the movement via their media credentials may start to ‘lead’, however much they don’t call themselves leaders, the movement away from what is actually the more radical union-student engagement you are clearly on board with because it is not as photogenic/media-worthy as the more Carnivalesque elements of the movement.

    4) V good. Maybe a representative from the Heinz picket line to that, (notiwthstanding what i’ve said above about regionalisation of resources).

    5) Yes, I’ve got a lot of time for Laurie (and told her so when I saw her in the Jeremy Bentham room) and it’s the fact that she sticks her head above the parapet, willing to get shot at by old fuddie-duddies like me, which creates this engagement. Of course I think she is plain wrong about some stuff, and her seemingly in-built liberalism really grates when she tries to claim she is of the Left, but she’s a journalist, not an intellectual. The danger is that she becomes seen as a leading intellectual in the movement. What I do give Laurie credit for is the way she modulated her position in the face of Alex Callenicos’ critique; clearly she’s not just going to say she was wrong about stuff, even though she was in her first article in CiF, but at least she’s got the nouse to adapt her posiiton quite cleverly (albeit with the anti-SWP sarcasm unfortunately retained. Overall of course, it’s good that these discusions are out there in the reflective holday period; there won’t be mucgh time for it in January.

    I agree totally re; the SWP newspaper. I may write more (and more specifically with proposals about that, though I’ve already written a good deal on this blog about how local leftwing media might be started up/sustained, and I’ll be putting a lot of energy into that in my local area in the spring when I’ve got rid of other commitments.

    Of course for the SWP to dump the national newspaper in favour or a more varigated use of resources will be portrayed by its enemies as a sign of its terminal decline, however justified the shift, so I can understand why it would be so difficult to do, even if it’s even thought about in the SWP at the moment. Of course, you ARE the SWP, so if you’re open to these ideas….

    6) Agreed. Of course, in the end, the internet and its main tools are in private hands open to governmental pressure, and people really interested in revolution need to remember that it could be taken away at any moment if things got really serious.

    7) I agree. I’m a member of Labour, and so I know about bureaucratic obstruction and shadow management control techniques. The way to overcome sectarianism is via both organisational culture change and with specific grassroots action to wrest power (incl control of the money)from the centre. But perhaps that’s drifting too far off topic.

    More replies to comments @4-@9 later on. Sorry it’s so slow today.

  12. December 28, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Very good post Paul.
    I think what we (everyone opposed to austerity) need to do is to develop the kind of organisational forms that can bring peoples’ struggles together. Bet a large amount of money that this will not involve democratic centralism. Does need to be at least a network of organisations such as Coalition of Resistance and UK Uncut.

  13. December 28, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Good stuff.

    I’d echo the comment above about mimicking ’68 though. The fact is, I think we’ve gone beyond what ’68 was in Britain in many ways. ’68 in France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Mexico, etc was a huge deal. In Britain it wasn’t really.

    The involvement of school students in the movement, the number of simultaneous occupations, and the conscious efforts to get unionised workers drawn in have, I think, eclipsed ’68 in Britain. Maybe we are our own benchmark at last, and won’t have to put up with dire articles in the bourgeois press by ex-lefties saying things like “of course we protested as students, but then all grew up and got professional jobs and realised we were just being silly.”

  14. Stewart Cowley
    December 28, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    This is a very unoriginal piece of work; we’ve been here before. The porridge is either too hot or too cold. So, the real point of the article is to draw attention to the author which is has done but sadly, it doesn’t supply any solutions about how to resolve the balance between capital and labour. You can almost smell the self-rightcious smoke of roll-ups curling up from the keyboard. Gosh it must be great to have so many questions but no answers. Before you dismiss it darling, creeping elitist liberlism is what allows you to write this tosh…

  15. December 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    “Despite record profits this year, and 9% dividends to shareholders, Heinz managers are using the broad context of ‘austerity Britain’ to hold down wages below inflation, having imposed a pay freeze in 2009 because of ‘uncertainty’ about the international economy.”

    And what do you expect?

    Wages are determined not by what the worker is doing, but by the pay in the alternatives. So if alternative jobs are paying less than they used to it’s entirely normal that specific wages will fall/stay static.

    If you can’t get this you’ll never understand why haridressers make £10 an hour in England despite doing exactly the same job as haridressers in China who get 5 pence or whatever.

  16. January 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Very well said. I’m already bored of Laurie’s not-so New Left.

  1. December 29, 2010 at 5:49 am
  2. December 29, 2010 at 5:19 pm
  3. December 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm
  4. January 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm
  5. December 1, 2011 at 11:59 am

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