(There’s still more to come from International Women’s Day celebrations, but as this is topical, I thought I would get it out now).
Yesterday morning I walked around the local workplaces represented by PCS and joined the picket at one, to show support for the 200,000 workers who have been on strike these past two days.
Where we stayed for longer than five minutes, the atmosphere was light, even when discussion turned to the terrible and increasing workloads and deliberate scaling down of staff numbers. Key issues on the strike included the structure of jobs, and obviously the pensions currently under attack.
I even witnessed a beautiful moment of solidarity action, where a CWU member, having been informed of the strike, refused to deliver the mail and took it back to the local distribution centre.
What I was surprised at was that of the four staff on the picket, one was the organiser and at least two of the other three had been brought on to the picket that morning, with no prior planning. Indeed, from what I understand, one member had only been signed up to the union that morning and one three weeks previously in anticipation.
This is an encouraging development. PCS is regularly to the forefront of fights against the job-shedding, pension-slashing agenda of the government. Previously un-unionised workers being won over is a big step, and proves the truisms first established by the RMT: a union willing to go to the wire will pick up support and members.
It is inaction that atrophies the muscles of the labour movement. Not to say, as I have heard said, that this always and forever means employing the nuclear option of strikes. Without concrete gains this will simply exhaust the sentiment of workers, and it would be simplistic to assert that unions have no alternative means of achieving things for their members.
The next step is spreading this to other PCS-aligned workplaces, and increasing union density in the ones which did establish active pickets. Crossing pickets made a number of workers distinctly uncomfortable yesterday, as it will today, and they can be won over. The strike ends today and it is the next step which is important.
Organizers and branch secretaries will go back to work, and the onus will be on them to convince more people to join the union.If they looked to their left, they’d find socialists who would be happy to help, under the direction of elected union officers.
Between London and Brighton, the two militant centres in the south east, there were pickets but there were no marches or rallies (that were advertised on the PCS site at least) and in an area targeted for the removal of jobs, because the London-weighting of payment is considered too expensive, that’s significant.
Linking workers together is a basic feature of unions, and the sort of planning that goes in to a march or rally is an excellent way to engage with uncommitted PCS workers.
Several teams of roving union stewards should be tasked with hitting every workplace in their area, jacking up union numbers, convincing people to put in the effort to get a rally together and give a strike a better atmosphere than half a dozen people standing around in the freezing cold, carrying the odd placard or too.
Even if the strike doesn’t succeed, or threatens to drag on, at least the basis will have been led for future organisation. This organisation wasn’t absent on the pickets, but it can be better – and next time there can be active pickets at all the PCS workplaces in the city.
There’s also a clear need for a Canterbury District Trades Council, which could have aided in solidifying the strike and maximising the disruption necessary to force the government to retreat. It is in these directions which socialists should direct their efforts, picking up contacts and supporters along the way.
Further reports from pickets across the country can be read here.
I’ve only just had a chance to watch the video above, of Žižek’s performance at Marxism 2009. Probably the most powerful thought to come out of Žižek’s speech is the notion of victims with their own voices.
Žižek talks about how, at a Hitchcock conference in California, he was denounced by a man there for talking about such trifling things while the war in Yugoslavia raged. The implication was that those not involved could talk about whatever they wanted, but as a Yugoslavian, Žižek had a duty to dwell on his victimhood, on the trauma of his home country. Something in this struck home with me.
Sympathy with those whose countries have suffered civil war and the brutality which Žižek describes is the wrong emotion. Solidarity is the right one. The difference, I think, is that, through our sympathy we develop a tendency to impute noble qualities to the victims of trauma, when they are just people. For the Left, this is repeated in the myth of the ‘noble’ proletariat, the good but stupid pawn of the ruling class.
The answer, which Žižek doesn’t make explicit, is to focus on the material context in which the ideological must exist.
To give an example, Silvio Berlusconi, of late a favourite of Žižek, appears in the speech, this time as the masque worn by capitalism-with-asian-values, the authoritarian capitalism that Žižek contends is being developed. Italian political discourse faces being sidelined in favour of a grotesque pantomime that neuters political opposition by displacing real grievances.
Instead of talking about and understanding the actual material things which cause them hardship in their lives, instead of knowing who their real opponents are, citizens of the Italian democracy become invested in the spectacle at work on stage. Likewise the media, already aligned to act as a conduit from Westminster or the Palazzo Montecitorio, recycling consensus as if was news and adding to the distortion, remains glued to the spectacle.
There is a similar a phenomenon regularly talked about by Marxists. Racism, we often contend, is a displaced class struggle. Without effective means of expressing solidarity with one another, or challenging the ruling class, the ‘real’ mechanisms of power become concealed from the working class. They appear as the ‘normal’ background to life; “it’s how the world works”.
Without appreciating that this normal background is not permanent but changeable, blame for the ill-effects of the system are transferred to elements which appear as if from ‘outside’. Immigrants are the standard example, being literally as well as metaphorically from outside, and therefore the most common victim of this transference.
Real grievances in the Italian case can be blamed on the excesses of Berlusconi’s stupidity, much in the way people in America blamed their problems, come the recession, on the stupidity of George W. Bush. Many Americans couldn’t believe that the country had elected such an obvious bumbling moron as President. It was only when he was ousted, and Obama took his place without a real change in direction that the depth of the problem was revealed.
The result, absent a political alternative, has been apathy on the part of those who swung things for Obama. Arguably, at second glance, the process may still be at work, with the continuing deadlock being ascribed to Republican wingnuts, who, as poll after poll tells us, are wildly out of touch with reality. This forestalls deeper analysis.
Generalised stupidity or ignorance of the ‘real’ issues are thus not the cause of relative quiescence of our class, despite some furious outbreaks of resistance. Quite the opposite. The collapse and continuing weakness of once-powerful social solidarities are the failure of the politically conscious elements of the working class to articulate an effective strategy whereby resistance doesn’t merely explode on to the streets and then fade away.
That’s an extraordinarily broad group – including seven million trades unionists of all trades and disciplines, community workers, politicians and many other groups, not just the band of easily dismissed supposedly ‘middle class’ revolutionaries, professional or otherwise.
Instead of culminating in a march that is defeated when the government pursue their agenda regardless, resistance must be the method for forming links of more general purpose than solving the specific grievances raised. To give an example, the Public and Commercial Services Union has announced that it will ballot its members in response to the government’s decision to slash pension and redundancy entitlements, making laying off workers cheaper.
Many workers in jobcentres will be affected, the very place where some of them might end up as claimants. There is the opportunity here for workers and the unemployed to link up and show their solidarity with one another. The workers will appreciate, more keenly than ever, the threat of unemployment – and it’s suddenly in their broader interest to demand greater security nets for the unemployed.
Regrettably Žižek doesn’t deal in concrete activism, and so his discussion of what it means to be a revolutionary doesn’t provide much solid advice when it comes to day-to-day work, and his claim that the Left should ruthlessly use state power against the ruling class is rather undermined by the gap left as regards how we conquer state power.