Where’s the action?
The Tory-Lib Dem government has not produced a spike in industrial action, notes Paul Demarty. So what should be made of the lefts strike fetishism?
Two and a bit years in, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has panned out more or less as expected. One or two diplomatic wobbles between the partners have not ever spilled out into open discord; the business of the state has carried on more or less unobstructed.
The ruling class left us in little doubt as to what that business was back in 2010. The nation was overdue on its credit card payments - the incoming administration had to rein in spending radically. The state, considered absurdly as a narrow quantitative measure, had to be shrunk. We would all suffer, yes - but sometimes, the pinch of a tightened belt is preferable to the alternative.
We are all the victims of this programme - anyone who relies on any basic public services, or conceivably could in the future, will suffer from the mangling of such services in due course. More immediately in the frame, however, are the millions of workers in the public sector - not to mention all those in the private sector who face further attacks on their own basic conditions and living standards, under the watch of a government pathetically desperate to prove to the City and the Confederation of British Industry its intent to destroy what remains of the ‘red tape’ supposedly dooming Britain to mediocrity.
So, one is entitled to ask, where is the industrial action? Strikes over public sector pensions, peaking with the reasonably impressive November 30 day of action last year, have attracted a good deal of attention, and taken very significant contingents of workers into action. Yet November 30 was, precisely, a peak - we saw the government looking very worried in the run-up, and then the trade union bureaucracy falling over itself to sell the struggle short for a few miserable concessions.
The Financial Times reports that 2010 saw the least days lost to strikes since records began - the Office for National Statistics keeps them back to 1931.1 The ONS itself records that 1,388,000 strike days were lost in 2011 - no fewer than 1,269,000 of them resulting from the two public sector 24-hour protests in June and November. Compare that to 30 or 40 years ago, however. In 1985, for example, there were over six million strike days lost, while in 1972 the figure was just short of 24 million. So far 2012 has been a pretty quiet year - 112,000-odd days lost in May, and not much else to speak of, is hardly indicative of a great upturn in industrial struggle. Over the last couple of years, there has been a close correlation between days lost and numbers of workers out - suggesting that most stoppages are either brief or isolated.2
Meanwhile, the far left seems ever more wedded to a single strategic idea, which is - broadly speaking - escalating the scale and scope of industrial action. That there are many competing versions of this idea obscures, but does not deny, its underlying unity.
The Socialist Party in England and Wales seeks to build its forces in the broad lefts and official positions of the union bureaucracy, to prod the union machines into calling actions and hoping ultimately to win their support for a new ‘workers’ party’ (read: Labour Party mark two). Smaller, nominally more leftwing groups, call instead for a new rank-and-file movement to build a network of union militants actually prepared to take action. The Socialist Workers Party, which seems over the last year to have reached a new pitch of disorientation and confusion, lurches from one pole to the other - horse-trading in the broad lefts one day, and calling de facto for an indefinite general strike the next.
The point of unity between the two perspectives is simple: both take it as read that the fundamental obstacle to effective working class politics is that the masses are not in motion. It is necessary to get people into action - whether through collecting union posts or leading from below - to break the deadlock. Once the masses move, the ground opens up beneath bourgeois rule, and the unthinkable becomes thinkable.
All this remains purely notional at the present time. The trade unions have not been stirred into a long-term industrial battle against the government; they continue to tip-toe around the anti-union laws like mice on a floor littered with traps; and, despite all the calls in the world for rank-and-file coordination (and, in the case of the SWP’s Unite The Resistance and SPEW’s National Shop Stewards Network, attempts to wish one into existence), the initiative remains with the union tops ... who have never been known for their speed and decisiveness in calling out their members.
The problem with this dilemma is simply that it is a false one: the fundamental divide is not between ‘realistic’, broad left horse-trading and ‘principled’ rank-and-filism, but rather between apolitical trade unionism and working class political action.
The strategy of slowly but steadily taking over the unions, on the basis of being the ‘best fighters’ - ie, the militants most committed to successful industrial action - hits a serious historical limit: part of the job of the capitalist state is to intervene in the workers’ movement, rendering its practice less threatening to capital. There thus arise political and juridical obstacles to trade union militancy, around which the union bureaucracies have to work.
The obvious example is the steady extension of anti-union laws. To any union official, leftwing or rightwing, on the whole it seems like a good idea to avoid having the union’s funds sequestered. Yet there are more insidious threats too: the increasing juridification of industrial disputes, which are now far less frequently settled through worker militancy than various sorts of tribunals and inquiries, is in fact one of the most effective attacks on the working class in recent memory - partly because it does not appear as an attack.
The bottom line is the same: the union bureaucracy becomes ever more bureaucratic; which is to say, becomes more empowered through its monopoly on ‘technical’ savoir faire. It requires people who are prepared to play by an ever more labyrinthine set of rules, and thus breeds legalists. What starts out simply as an obstruction ends up positively shaping the labour movement.
As for left rank-and-filism, the same problem presents itself in a different way. From this perspective, it appears that the bureaucratisation of the trade unions and official workers’ organisations manifests itself in routinism and timidity; and so the obvious answer is to unleash the spontaneous energy of the rank and file. Yet the institutional power of the bureaucrats rests in the last instance not on a dynamic endogenous to the workers’ movement, but on its relationship with the state - about which our lefts have nothing much to say.
This process of incorporation into official politics is not as new as has been suggested above: indeed, prototypical forms (mostly concerning the avoidance of union organisation at all) are as old as the capital-labour contradiction itself. It thus forms an absolute limit to ‘pure’ (ie, apolitical) trade unionism - both in its rightwing and leftwing forms. In order to break through that limit, political action is needed, and a serious political strategy.
Sustained militant action in contravention of some anti-union law may render that law a dead letter - but only if the workers coming out have been convinced that this is a law worth breaking (and breaking for good). That, in the face of an actual dispute, is a relatively easy argument to make. Indeed, it is not too hard to imagine anti-union laws becoming so restrictive that they simply become unenforceable.
What is more difficult is to link the proscriptions to their complement - the positive legalisation of industrial disputes. On this apparently technical matter, all manner of questions turn: it issues ultimately from the innumerable ties of the state machine, which invariably presents itself as a neutral arbiter over all of society, to the ruling class and its objective interests. Forget this strike, that strike or the other strike - the fight for effective trade unionism, a fortiori with the movement in its present condition of decrepitude, already includes a political fight to delegitimise the bourgeois state order.
No communist, if they wished to be taken seriously, would sniff at an exemplary industrial action which brought out serious numbers - no matter how politically bankrupt its leadership, or limited its goals - still less an industrial confrontation of major strategic significance. Rank-and-file organisation, equally, is a crucial means for rebuilding at the base the essential defensive organisations of the working class - not just trade unions, but cooperatives, credit unions, educational societies and so on - that have degenerated into bureaucratic inertia.
The problem with the standard left approaches to trade unions is rather that industrial action is not (as it should be) enriched by the broad strategic vision of Marxist politics, but rather comes to replace the latter as the alpha and omega of political work.
1. Financial Times August 3.