Open Letter to a Trade Unionist

Struggle, Experience, Learning, Realisation, Organisation : An Open Letter to a Trade Unionist

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Only in the living experience of struggle, in opposition, do many thousands, if not millions, come to a realisation of what is now required in the form of organisation, the changes in structure and organisation which are required to move forward. The results of such experience can therefore be generalised and articulated in re-organisation and re-structuring of the movement as a whole. Changes in ‘mass consciousness’ require such learning experiences by millions in struggle.

This is why any suggestion as to re-direction of a movement must be based on our collective living experience. If we state that we need such and such a party or organisation, etc, then if we do it as if a papal decree, then it falls on barren ground. It does indeed then become a ‘prescription’ for the masses which they would be right to reject. But if, for example, after major defeats as a result of the betrayals of the top stratum of the trade union bureaucracy, and this has taken place in the full view and experience of millions of trade unionists, we assert that we need to re-structure and re-organise trade unionism itself on new foundations so such betrayals cannot happen again, then this is the initiation of a struggle for a re-direction of the movement which is not ‘prescriptive’ but historically necessary for the development of the interests of the class, its consciousness, etc but based on the living experience of millions.

At this point in the struggle, the most fundamental question is therefore not simply one of agency and organisation but of the new forms of struggle required to oppose capital and its state power. It is only out of the elaboration of these new tactics and forms of opposition that the need for a corresponding new form of agency will assert itself under the developing conditions. To state, out of the blue so to speak, that we need a radicalised trade unionism or ‘social unions’ etc, is to place the newborn before the process of its birth, to suggest that revolutionary agency can come into existence without struggle and experience generalised by millions. Unlike kind mercy, such agency doth not droppeth from the heavens like gentle rain but is born in and out of the strife of conflict. In other words, from the development of forms of struggle out of the forms of organisation and the corresponding stage of consciousness we stand with at the moment, as a development of them or a qualitative break from them based on this aforesaid experience. This is not to participate ‘prescriptively’ but to work in order to help them develop and move on as part of the overall fight to defeat the  capital order and its state power.

Since dialectical thinking involves the study of the world in its development (and not as a static, fixed formation), this ‘world in its development’ is grasped as the identity and conflict of arising and vanishing moments, giving it its immanently contradictory character, the tendency to return to the old but at a different stage or phase of development, the ‘leap’ forward to a qualitative new set of relations, etc, etc. As one determinate formation or stage of it is passing away this becomes identified with and makes room for a new formation or stage which is emerging out of its passing and which is connected with it yet distinct from the older, dying phase, etc.

We need to grasp this in relation to the present stage of the development of the crisis of the capital order and especially in regard to trade unionism. Here organised labour remains in its movement and consciousness with its traditional ‘economistic’ organisation. When I speak to many trade unionists on a one to one level, they often dispute that there is a stratification of interest within trade unionism itself. They see that reps, convenors and general secretaries are elected to office and that confers a certain legitimacy on their position and inflated salaries/pensions/perks regardless of what they say or do. What they do not see is that the bureaucratised character of trade unionism itself implies a differentiation of interest based on and arising out of the prevailing class relations and that the bureaucracy itself is a stratum whose interests ultimately lie in the continuation of the capital order. This must have explosive implications for the current structures and form of organisation of trade unionism tied, as it is, to the history of the capital order. And, of course, this applies in Britain more than in any other country where the roots of trade unionism have become intertwined with the roots of industrial capital over two centuries.

As the crisis of capital deepens, what will inevitably become sharpened is this difference of interest within trade unionism, placing on the agenda the absolute necessity to overturn trade unionism in its current form and moribund structure, replacing it with a higher, more democratic, offensive form. If this does not happen, the trajectory of trade unionism is undoubtedly into the black hole of the history of class society.

This is why the struggle of trade unionism against the transfer of public provision by the state power into the hands of capital needs to be linked increasingly, gradatively, to the challenge against this bureaucratic stratum and the current organisational form and structure. Some of us used to think that trade unionism was spontaneously generated by the capital order and that by some sort of historical default it would always be part and parcel of that order and even outlive it; the representative bodies of organised labour so to speak. But I now have my doubts about this. I am starting to think that with the gravity of unfolding events, a capital order without any trade unionism whatsoever is entirely possible and even perhaps necessary for this order. If not this then a completely integrated and corporatist trade unionism. The sort of ‘business unionism’ that the capitalist class and its state would dearly love to see. So there is no cast iron guarantee that the trade unions will actually survive within this order nevermind outlive it. I think the notion that capital would always spontaneously generate trade unions and that the latter would outlive the capital order was and remains a dogma of the so-called ‘revolutionary consciousness’ of left-wing sectarians.

For my part, I think the high tide of trade unionism – in its present structural and organisational bureaucratised form – was the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Over a quarter of a century has passed and it is as if trade unionism has been tamed. Scargill was, and the late Bob Crow of the RMT was also, the personification of the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. The attempt of Scargill and the cohort around him to establish a new party (SLP) represented an aborted articulation of the interests of the left wing of that bureaucracy. Any future attempts by this stratum in the labour movement to create ‘parties’ or ‘alliances’ etc, will merely articulate a same or similar interest. It will, in all probability, be in similar vein to the debacle of the SLP. Therefore, as I see it, the miners’ strike circumscribed the political limits of trade unionism in its current abovesaid form. This is why this strike was of a fundamental historic significance. Indeed, there is no reason why the state power cannot connive and prepare for a rail strike in the same way it prepared to break the miners in the 1980s. Of course, it is not simply a question of a shallow rationalism, but, nonetheless, Crow – as personification of the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy –  like Scargill, took for granted that official trade unionism could operate within the capital order in the same way it operated in the 1960s and 70s. The crisis of that order dictates otherwise. Ironically and perhaps unconsciously, the realpolitik of the TUC is a more truthful acknowledgement in practice of its own interests than the posturing of its left wing is in ostensibly representing the interests of trade unionised labour. The motto of the TUC might be ‘surrender and survive’ but that of its left wing perhaps should be ‘The good old days will never die’

The TUC has evolved into a protest movement with all the accompanying PR of a well-regimented accountancy firm. Trade unionism has therefore become, for the TUC, a movement to be controlled, channelled and contained within manageable parameters which define not only the interests of this bureaucratic layer but also, simultaneously, provide a supporting prop for the capital order itself. This bureaucracy will strive to contain all future struggles of rank and file trade unionists within these parameters which means, necessarily, with the deepening of capital’s crisis, rank and file trade unionism is on a collision course with this bureaucracy and, by implication, with the whole structure and form of organisation of trade unionism as it has existed over the past century and more.

Surely the immediate question at the moment is that of how to oppose the wholesale transfer of social provision by the state power into the hands of capital. Would strikes be effective in developing this struggle? I have to say I have my doubts. This is not to discount them but I think the old tactics of struggle now need to be re-evaluated and re-articulated according to the new conditions now emerging. We need to consider the question of how strikes in the public sector can detrimentally affect people who use these services, especially when these effects on people using the services are distorted, whipped up and bent for their own purposes by the capitalist media.

As I see it, these changing conditions demand increasingly the direct challenge to the rule of capital itself in these public services and therefore raise the more directly political question of occupation and appropriation and the mobilisation of people for maintaining this appropriation as communal property, as part of a ‘commonwealth’. Again, I think this is where the development of the concept of social unionism comes into play. Incidentally, just observing the political form of the mass street demonstration (between quarter and half a million strong), I was struck by the richness of its social and political composition and what came to mind was a sort of mobile ‘social union’, something embryonic which was fluid and had not yet congealed or structured out into a determinate organisational form for appropriating and re-organising the socio-economic metabolism on new foundations. The spatio-temporal interchangeability (‘intermorphing’) of the political form of the mass street demonstration with the social union and vice versa also came to mind as part of an overall strategy for the conquest of power and the uprooting of the capital relation, i.e. for political and social revolution.

Such occupation and appropriation is effectively a means of taking over the powers of the capitalist state itself in the provision of social service and welfare. It is stating unequivocally that we appropriate these services as communal property, we will not accept their closure, mothballing or destruction or their transfer into the grasp of finance capital. We hold them out of the way of the grasp of self-valorising value and its state power. A form of defence of these appropriations would have to be established and developed; a sort of social and economic palisading of them, so that attempts to re-establish control by the state power could be adequately opposed and defeated. Such appropriations would constitute themselves collectively as a sort of state of internal secession from the capital order itself. Of course, not geographical secession in the manner of a national/ethnic region breaking away from a larger entity but rather an internal social and political secession, palisaded and defended by all means necessary which, again, is where the conception of social unions reappears. With social unions and mass street protests as the mobilising and intermorphing defensive (and, of course, offensive) forces, such occupations and appropriations would become a growing declaration of independence from the economic orbit and polity of the capital order.

Therefore what is at stake here is the appropriation of the powers of capital to defend this provision in the face of the mobilisation and resistance by the state power that defends the rule of capital. Strikes and marches will continue to have their strategic and political uses but these forms of struggle taken in and by themselves are going to be inadequate to deal with the crisis now unfolding.  If the deepening structural crisis of capital is equated to the recent tsunami that struck the east coast of Japan then the present form of trade unionism – its traditionally-established, conservative forms, structures and organisation of trade union struggle with all their outmoded procedures and bureaucratism linked to the history of the capital order –  is a crumbling, delapidated, chest-height, seaside wall.

‘Privatisation’ is effectively the withdrawal and destruction of public provision. But anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the necessary historical trajectory of capital could see that this was bound to unfold sooner or later. It is an intrinsic part of its structural-crisis process: provision on condition of profit. It is going to mean the withdrawal of many services which are currently provided and their subsequent ‘asset stripping’ or, at best, consignment to capital’s lumber room, giving ‘downsizing’ and ‘streamlining’ a whole new field of operation and meaning. The number of treatments available and the quality of healthcare will sink to the level where profit is maximised. And that must mean a massive onslaught against health provision as we currently know it. Of course, the politicians of the capital order are peddling a outright lie when they say that capital running the public services will not affect the nature of that provision. On the contrary, it will profoundly alter it beyond recognition and is already starting to do so as many are already experiencing.

I think the strike weapon has now, taken by itself, become insufficient to defend public provision against the assault by the state power of capital. Over the past 30 years or so, capital has increased significantly the number and different types of weapons in its armoury to tackle the strike weapon from shipping in desparado strikebreakers from overseas to simply dismantling or closing and selling off plant and moving where labour power is significantly cheaper. Within weeks, a factory can be taken apart, shipped abroad in containers and re-assembled ready for production. It is not only furniture which is now flatpack. This prefabricated character of the production of the means of production (its ‘ikeaisation’) enables capital to assemble, disassemble and re-assemble its production units and simply ship them around the globe where conditions are more favourable for exploitation. Sometimes it’s cheaper just to build a completely new production system abroad and sell off the original for scrap, etc.

As examples of the contrasts and problems now facing trade unionised labour in the major capitalist homelands, call centre workers in India and South Africa receive approximately 10% of the salary of the same worker in Europe or the US, etc, etc. Chinese workers are slaving for the equivalent of 50 pence an hour. It costs about £75 (materials + labour power) to make a fully boxed, ready for shipment laptop computer in a Chinese factory. All this tells us is that capital’s options in its struggle against wage labour have actually increased and diversified in some respects. Why make laptops in the UK when the mass of profit per unit is so much higher in India or China? Why even bother with all the hassle of dealing with strikes, etc, when you can just move abroad where the rate of exploitation is so much higher? The problems facing us are even now of monumental proportions and their magnitude will increase. The ‘good old days’ are, without a shadow of a doubt, most definitely over. And for good.

Under the deepening crisis of the capital order, a strike would, in certain circumstances, actually play into their hands and even offer the state the opportunity and excuse to close services or tender them out to private capital. There is now a real need to employ the strike weapon intelligently, strategically, selectively and politically to advance the interests of the proletariat in its struggle against the state power of capital. This is not to deny the importance of the strike weapon but to re-appraise its role and employment under changing conditions.

Under certain conditions, therefore, strikes to oppose privatisation would not always be the appropriate response by workers and their communities. Under other conditions, the strike would be the best weapon.

But, as a fellow socialist writes (in a private communication)….

“That is not at all to say that strikes, sit-ins and occupations are no longer important. But they will be taking place in a new context of popular opposition to the government. Strikes and sit-downs by the ‘information proletariat’ and techno-scientific workers can, in this context, be extremely effective and dangerous to the capital system.” 

Of course, but we also have to recognise that there are aspects of any strike which are going to have indirect or knock-on effects on the lives of the proletariat because of the integrated and implicate character of social production in its totality as a unity of diverse interconnected processes. The example given, for example, a strike in the computerised processing of salaries and benefits, etc, in the interface between the state and banking sector, would directly affect people’s lives and their families, etc. And of course, it would be precisely this aspect amongst others which the state power and its media would exploit to try to break such a strike.

‘We’ need to discern the best times and conditions in which to use or not use the strike weapon. Consider the following scenario. An NHS trust wishes to close a hospital and transfer facilities to another hospital as part of privatisation which will mean a direct attack on health provision for local people. Would a strike at the threatened hospital be the best response? It is threatened with actual closure because the trust is on a privatisation trajectory and wants to ‘economise’ services. Surely here a better response by workers and the local community would be the widespread organisation of an occupation followed by actual community appropriation : ‘This hospital has been saved from closure and is now communal property’. Appropriation would mean taking hold of all infrastructural and medical assets, including land and financial assets. The repudiation of the financial liabilities and debts of the hospital would be open to debate and action. Small businesses and the self-employed would be exempt from the repudiation of debt but the banks, insurance houses and corporations certainly would not. This would raise the question of re-organising and re-structuring how the hospital is run, turfing out the bureaucrats and establishing democratic bodies and committees to administer the affairs of the hospital.

An example where a strike or even a ‘work to rule’ would be productive is, for example, where civil servants are refusing to impose draconian measures on unemployed workers like slashing benefits or subjecting the jobless to a even harsher regime of punitive measures than already exists at the moment. The imposition of such a regime is not simply an attack on the unemployed but also on the conditions of work of civil servants. It raises the stress and problems of front line staff working with unemployed people under such a harsh regime. Here we can discern an actual merging of interests of civil servants with the jobless people they are working with. A strike or refusal to implement such measures would stop the state power in its tracks. Here a strike would be more appropriate than an occupation. The refusal by civil servants to implement such measures against the jobless would serve a strategic and political purpose in facilitating the disruption of the operation of the state power of capital against unemployed workers and also mean that civil servants were not having to manage with the additional stresses and problems of such a repressive system.

Likewise the threatened closures of schools, care homes and libraries might be opposed by the ‘occupation and appropriation’ tactic. We would need, therefore, to develop the tactic of the selective or strategic strike to oppose the plans of the state power of capital to destroy our public provision. Even a general strike – which is now illegal in Britain on the basis of the anti-trade union legislation – does not fundamentally pose the question of what sort of society do we want now and for the future generations. It does not really address the question of who rules and on what basis. Again, a socialist correspondent writes (private communication) that ……

“A general strike and lesser strikes on economic issues will occur in the development of the mass strike, but the old slogan ‘general strike’ addresses only part of the problems now coming up.”

And with the TUC, where are we going anyway? Does not an indefinite general strike presuppose a revolution in trade unionism itself or, at least, a mass struggle against the TUC bureaucracy?

It is not simply a question of fighting for better conditions and wages which has been the traditional role of trade unions. Inevitably, we are still seeing this response from employed workers and, to a certain degree, it still carries a certain legitimacy according to where and under what conditions the strike is taking place. At the moment what else have workers got for defence but their trade unions? They turn to them like turning to a comfort blanket. For example, at the moment at a construction site near the Saltend chemical plant outside Hull, workers have been locked out and they are trying to rally support from other workers around the country. Listening to them, they are saying things like “we just want our jobs back. We just want to go in to work” They even organised a march through Hull which was a lot smaller than expected. But they are still approaching the employers in the manner of the militancy of the 70’s and 80’s. But those days are gone forever. Even a radicalised trade unionism which overturns all the old bureaucratism, etc, would still be inadequate by itself to form a spearhead against capital and its state power. The change in conditions with capital’s deepening structural crisis means that we now need to address the question of who owns and runs the whole social metabolism and for what purpose and not just striking for a bigger paypacket or better working conditions or even just to keep your job. This, of course, remains and rightly so but by exclusively doing this, focussing on it and thinking that this type of action alone can solve workers’ problems and demands, mmeans that they effectively remain within the economic parameters of the capital system. Of course, not all strikes can be characterised as such; there are strikes and there are strikes so to speak but the continuation of ‘wages and conditions’ strikes reminiscent of the past are increasingly akin to the unpointed crumbling vulnerable seaside wall. Not tsunami-proof.

This is not to say that such strikes are unimportant but what is now really required is a leap in organisational and structural-political form and a corresponding development in consciousness which will begin to place the struggle on a qualitatively new footing.

Strategic strikes would further the interests of the proletariat as a whole by undermining the capacity of the state power to function and impose its will and rule on the community and the ‘commonwealth’. But to occupy and appropriate as communal property is to begin to make inroads into the basis of the rule of this state power by starting to re-organise and re-structure the whole social metabolism in favour of human need against capitalist private profit. It is to begin to undermine the rule of the capital relation itself. It is a question of control : who owns, runs and organises for the future, the social and economic infrastructure and metabolism? How can it be re-organised and re-structured to meet human need? How can the exploitative and dehumanising capital relation be eliminated from the social metabolism?

Shaun May

April 2011

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