Beans factories and creeping liberal elitism
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.
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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