Tuesday, October 17, 2006


British journo and blogger Dave Osler has posted an interesting consideration of the problems facing Britain's labour movement and its far left activists. Dave doesn't believe that British socialists have thought through the consequences of changes in Britain's economy over the last two decades:

Traditional British labourism was largely the product of the culture of organised blue collar workers – miners, dockers, printers, engineers - that is no longer extant, and will never come back. The Marxist left needs to take that on board to a far greater degree that it has managed yet...

This time the pits will never reopen. This time the factory gates are shut for good. The deindustrialisation of the UK is permanent.

Of course the working class still exists. Conditions for many are far more miserable, the exploitation far worse, than in the days of unionised jobs with unionised pay cheques.

But it is a very different working class, with much of the combativity knocked out it, and broken up into much smaller workplaces that do not generate the same degree of class consciousness that factory work tends to imbue. That is why strike activity remains at the lowest since records begun in the 1890s.

A young blogger by the name of Kit has related his own experiences to the changes Dave has described:

I was only won to Trotskyism a few years ago, and the movement I have pretty much grown up with has been around issues of imperialism, anti-racism, etc. Basically, very little 'class' politics per se.

I think it's correct to point to a transition in many First World countries from industrial to service sector dominated economies.

Back in the 1980s the circle publishing Marxism Today were saying that this shift made class politics obsolete; in the 1990s Blairites took up their cry. The claim that the industrial working class is dead has been closely linked to the claim that any alternative to capitalism is impossible to implement today. But such claims ignore the fact that the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the Third World was a response to the end of capitalism's long postwar boom and descent into crisis in the late sixties and early seventies, and the consequent need of capital to cut labour costs savagely in order to protect profitability. (Of course, the same need has driven attacks on the 'social wage' - on health, education, and other aspects of the welfare state - in the West.)

The ideologists of capital also ignore the fact that the industrial working class is, on a world scale, larger than ever. The old Fordist economy hasn't disappeared - it has just shifted to the nations of the Third World. And the service sector economies that are increasingly found in the West are parasitic upon the industrial Third World. Consider, for example, the call centres that have sprung up in what used to be the industrial heartland of South Wales. In many cases, these call centres process inquiries about computers which are manufactured in the Third World.

A couple of conclusions follow from all this. The first is that we can expect the Third World, rather than the West, to be at the cutting edge of the global class struggle in the twenty-first century, and to throw up many of the most important anti-capitalist movements and initiatives.

Even by the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it was obvious to Marx and many other Western socialists that the best prospects for revolution lay not in Britain and the other advanced countries but in developing nations like Russia. In the twentieth century, the vast majority of progressive revolutions occurred in Third World nations.

Even though the West was the industrial heartland of the world economy for much of the twentieth century, the uneven development and myriad forms of injustice capitalism in its imperialist stage brought to the Third World meant that revolutionary situations frequently arose there. (Trotsky coined a useful metaphor when he spoke of imperialism as a chain, and of the semi-colonial nations as the weakest links in that chain.)

Today, the low wage industrialisation of large parts of the Third World means that revolutionary situations are even more likely to arise there, and are more likely to involve the working class, rather than the peasantry or bourgeois nationalist groups, as key actors. If another revolution occurs in China, for instance, it will surely be a revolution of industrial workers and rural wage earners, not peasants led by intellectuals.

Britain and other Western nations may still be experiencing very low levels of class struggle, but we have already seen the first progressive revolution of the twenty first century in Venezuela, and it is in other Third World countries - in Bolivia, in Nepal, and perhaps in Mexico - that we see the best short-term prospects for new revolutions.

Given the centrality of the Third World to the battles over the future of capitalism, it is entirely appropriate that young activists like Kit have been so heavily involved in anti-imperialist activity of one kind or another. Such activity shouldn't be seen as less important or less class-based than more traditional workplace activism. Rather than seeing anti-imperialism and workplace-based activism as two separate affairs, the left should try to bring them together.

One way to do this is to create international union campaigns, and ultimately international unions that can provide an answer to the mobility of capital in a deregulated global economy. A good example of an international union-focused anti-imperialist campaign is the Hands off Venezuela initiative, which has succeeded in persuading Britian's national Trade Union Congress to take a stand against the US's attempts to destabilise Venezuela.

In New Zealand, some parts of the union movement have made a pathetic alliance with moribund local businesses in a doomed effort to recreate the old fortress economy of the Keynesian era, but others have joined in international campaigns for better pay and conditions. One such initiative is the Clean Start campaign, which has been organised by Australian and New Zealand unions and includes some of the features of the famous Justice for Janitors campaign in the United States. Clean Start acknowledges the increasing integration of the Australian and Kiwi economies by coordinating actions on both sides of the Tasman and seeking ultimately to create a single contract for cleaners on both sides of the ditch.


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