A miner problem
There are some very negative legacies of the damage the left and the labour movement took in the 1990s. As Chris Trotter noted in a recent article, a generation has grown up with little understanding of left-wing history, and little grasp of the importance of the concept of class. Sometimes ignorance about these things can be found on the inside of the twenty-first century left.
A discussion thread under a post placed on indymedia to show solidarity with the victims of the Pike River mining disaster has shown off the ignorance of some of the site's most frequent and enthusiastic commenters. Instead of showing solidarity with the families and union of the miners, too many commenters have used the indymedia thread to call for the closure of New Zealand's coal mines, and thus for the sacking of hundreds or even thousands of workers.
Whilst I can understand that there are thoughtful arguments which can be made against a number of mining operations - my late friend the Reverend Leicester Kyle was a West Coaster and a prominent campaigner, in words and in deeds, against the Happy Valley Mine - it is surely a pretty basic left-wing principle that workers, and not outsiders, whether they be corporate suits or government bureaucrats or internet commenters, should be the ones making important decisions the futures of about worksites and communities.
To demand the closure of a mine - and some people at indymedia are demanding the closure of all mines! - is to demand the sacking of large numbers of workers and the devastation of a community. To make this demand from the outside, and in a thread under a post which is supposed to show solidarity with miners and their families, is grossly insensitive at best.
In New Zealand, miners have gone from being a minority which was revered by the left and feared by the right to being a group sentimentalised and pitied by the right and demonised by people on the left who have lost touch with concepts of class. During the revolutionary Great Strike of 1913 and in the Depression era the miners were the backbone of the labour movement, and the bourgeoisie was terrified by them. Novelist and historian David Ballantyne observed that after the Queen Street riot of 1932 rumours that the Huntly miners had formed a Red Army and were about to attack Auckland spread quickly through the city, panicking bosses and exciting militant workers. In 1942 wildcat strikes by coal miners in the Waikato brought down the wartime coalition government and forced the nationalisation of many of the country's coal mines. It's hard to imagine the halcyon days of the first half of the twentieth century now, when coal miners are a tiny, economically peripheral minority of the workforce.
For some years, Greenpeace has been campaigning for the closure of the country's coal mines, despite the views of the Engineers Union and of the wider trade union movement. According to Greenpeace, mining is a dirty business, and the miners who have built communities and cultures in isolated parts of the country like the West Coast need to find something more useful to do with themselves. The Green Party has frequently supported Greenpeace's campaign, though it confines itself officially to opposing the establishment of any new coal mines.
The sort of vituperation which is nowadays visited upon miners by organisations like Greenpeace has an unpleasant precedent. As the late ecologist Geoff Park noted, in the first half of the twentieth century Maori were often protrayed, by land-hungry Pakeha and by sections of the environmental movement, as a dirty, irresponsible people living in isolated, unsustainable communities - a people who needed to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the enlightened modern world. Like the bourgeois environmentalists of today, the right used ecological arguments to justify breaking up Maori communities. Both the Urewera National Park and the famous park on Little Barrier Island were created by the forcible removal of Maori communities from 'pristine' landscapes they were supposedly despoiling.
Sara Watson, the most vociferous of the anti-mining commenters at indymedia, has called for 'legislative action' by the National-Act government to shut down every single mine in New Zealand. Watson claims that mining never existed before the advent of capitalism, and that the end of mining will hasten the end of capitalism. Apparently Watson thinks that the people who built Stonehenge were capitalists, as well as the Tongans who mined the massive stones that became the langi of their ancient capital Mu'a, not to mention the Maori who mined the coal reefs of the Waikato well before the arrival of Europeans in this country. Watson thinks that West Coasters should abandon the culture they have built around mining, and instead 'go rasta'.
Watson describes herself as a 'grassroots activist' and condemns those who query her strange understanding of capitalism as 'middle class wankers'. For Watson and her supporters (are they pseudonyms?) in the indymedia thread, anyone who tries to understand capitalism using theoretical categories is an enemy of the working class. Workers, apparently, need only 'passion' when they are making decisions about what stance to take on an issue. The miners' union and the trade union movement as a whole may oppose closing down New Zealand's mines, but Sara Watson knows better.
Sara Watson may well be an eccentric individual, or a right-wing wind-up merchant, or both, but I think her combination of legitimate anger at the Pike River Disaster and confident ignorance of the history and most basic principles of the left and the labour movement are a sign of what may be coming in nations like New Zealand in the next few years. With capitalism in serious trouble, unemployment and the cost of living rising, and the environment suffering, there are more and more issues for passionate young New Zealanders to get angry about. Without any idea about how to think about and organise against capitalism, though, people like Sara are easily reduced to counterproductive foaming at the mouth on the internet.
Here's a message I left on the discussion thread at indymedia:
Sara and several other people in this thread have argued that left-wing theory, and Marxist theory in particular, are alien and irrelevant to workers. Marxist analyses of capitalism are supposedly 'upper middle-class', and come from the university, not the real world. Workers don't need theory, we are told - they just need 'passion'.
We often hear this kind of ridicule of Marxism and other types of left-wing theory, but usually it comes from the right. Talkback radio hosts and right-wing bloggers often present workers as untheoretical folks with no interest in the sayings of out-of-touch left-wing intellectuals.
In reality, it was the workers' movement which was incubus and home of Marxism and other radical theoretical explanations of capitalism for nearly a century. Radical theory only really made it into the university in this country in the '70s, but it was alive and well in worksites, including coal mines, much earlier than that.
In Coal, Class, and Community, his classic history of miners' unionism in New Zealand, Len Richardson describes the study groups which proliferated on New Zealand's coalfields after World War One:
By 1917 the study groups were found on most coalfields and were especially strong at Blackball, Millerton, and Rewanui... [their members] pored over Mary E Marcy's Shop Talks on Economics and Karl Marx's Value, Price and Profit. The more dedicated wrestled with [Marx's book] Capital...[pgs 178-179]
Obviously the coalminers didn't think Marxist theory was 'upper-middle-class' and irrelevant. Why did these workers, who had to toil such long hours just to earn a living, use some of their precious spare time to study concepts like modes of production and surplus value? Len Richardson argues that they felt they needed theory to get a handle on the complicated world in which they were living. They needed to grasp their place in the scheme of international capitalism, and to interpret the strategies of employers and governments.
Richardson goes on to show how the miners in the Grey Valley used their theoretical training to win their 'less theoretically-inclined workmates' over to their plans for strike action against the bosses. Many workers in the Valley thought that their lot was improving, because their wages had risen after World War One. In reality, inflation meant that the miners were getting poorer. Richardson notes that the members of the study groups were able to use their training to explain this phenomenon:
With increasing skill, and by applying what they called the 'Marxian method', the members of the study groups put their case in terms that won increasing approval. They explained the difference between nominal and real wages...they explained that whereas real living costs had risen by more than forty percent since the war, earnings had risen, on average, by roughly half this amount...To end this drift in the cost of living, the Marxists called for 'a speedy increase in wages'; to bring this about they pressed for an immediate coal strike. The clamour for action in the Grey Valley could not be long ignored by the national executive... [pg 179]
This is only one example of hundreds which could be given to show that Kiwi workers who had never been to university, let alone been 'upper-middle-class', have studied Marxist theory seriously and applied it inside their unions. Besides the mines, the railways were a centre of Marxist theory - the old Otahuhu Railway Worskhops were so filled with study groups that in the 1960s and '70s they were were nicknamed 'the working class university of New Zealand'.
I'm not suggesting that we should all be reading what the Grey Valley miners were reading in 1918. Times change, and so do ideas. Some Marxist ideas are very valuable today - others are not so valuable, or at least need to be developed so that they become more valuable. Other intellectual traditions within the left besides Marxism deserve study.
The point I'm making is that it's a falsification of history to say that Marxism, and left-wing political theory in general, are something alien to workers, in this country or elsewhere. The notion that workers are uninterested in absorbing and discussing demanding political theory, and are just content to act on the basis of their immediate experiences and their passions, is a patronising myth created by the right. Some of the most well-read and intellectually acute people I have ever met are blue collar workers who never went near a university but have been through the same process of study as the Grey Valley miners. We need theory because our instincts and our immediate experiences don't always give us a complete view of the world. The world is a complex place, and if we don't balance our instincts and immediate impressions by stepping back from day-to-day reality and doing some theoretical analysis, then we can come to wrong conclusions. Sara's comments in this thread are an example of how such wrong conclusions can be drawn. She correctly sees that mining can be dangerous and environmentally damaging, but then jumps to the conclusion that the solution to the problems created by mining in a capitalist society is the passing of a law to close down coal mines. Such a law would throw large numbers of workers on the scrapheap and weaken our union movement, and it wouldn't do anything to stop capitalism.
If Sara's method of appealing to capitalist governments to pass laws to ban industries that have destructive side-effects were taken to its logical conclusion, would any of us end up with jobs? Roads in Auckland are very dangerous, because of capitalism's failure to invest in public transport: should we react to the road toll by banning businesses that use the road, like courier and trucking companies? Gambling creates serious problems in our society, because of the way people use it to deal with unhappiness and poverty - should we ban casinos, and thus shut down the biggest worksite in central Auckland? Alcohol leads to huge problems in New Zealand, as people seek to escape from negative experiences and situations - should we ban pubs and liquor shops? Where do we stop?
If we use theory to step back and look at the bigger picture, then we can see that mines, booze, roads, and so on are not evil in and of themselves, but have negative side-effects because of the way they function under capitalism. The way to deal with their side-effects is to change the way we organise our society.
One way we can ameliorate some of the worst side-effects of capitalism, like industrial fatalities, is to give workers more power over their worksites. Len Richardson's book shows very clearly that mining accidents spiked when unions were weak, and miners had less control over their conditions. As soon as they could get away with it, bosses shirked on safety. Only strong unions, the oversight of conditions by pit committees run by workers, and the threat of strike action on health and safety grounds kept employers in line.
In the last week a number of former miners' leaders have pointed out that the mines were safer when they were in government hands, and unions had a larger role in safety inspections. Media commentators have begun to attack the lack of involvement of union representatives in the investigation into the Pike River tragedy. A backlash may be building against the marginalisation of miners in New Zealand. To call for the closure of coal mines in these circumstances is both quixotic and offensive. The answer to industrial fatalities at Pike River and in other parts of the economy is to give greater power to workers, not to demand that the government sacks workers.