On the ‘social strike’
Our contribution for the Plan C Fast Forward Festival September 2015
Dear fellow travellers,
We send the following thoughts ahead of the Plan C festival hoping that it will allow people who attend the meeting to prepare and people who cannot attend to take part in the debate.
In the following text we first summarise basic thoughts about the general political significance of strikes. We then give three examples of struggles during summer 2015, which force us to concretise the debate about ‘social strike’. In order to do this we think that we have to critically reconsider theoretical concepts such as ‘the multitude’ or ‘universal rights’ which are still prevalent within the ‘social strike debate’, but which have been put into question by the crisis of neoliberalism and the wave of struggles against austerity post-2009. To develop a new understanding of the composition of the working class will not merely be a theoretical effort, but requires empirical work and a critical reflection of the left’s social position. We maintain that when organising “we cannot just start from where we are”, but we have to develop strategies looking at the general tendencies within the whole of the class and its current struggles. A common newspaper could help to organise this effort and help us contribute to future disputes.
We hope that our proposal to set up a UK-wide bi-annual newspaper for analytical reflections of current struggles will find a response amongst comrades of various groups on the basis of common hate for the state and focus on the self-organisation of the working class. We feel that in order to ground the debate about ‘social strike’ we need a publication that looks in detail at strong and weak points of the struggles already taking place and that can therefore make a productive contribution at future occupations, picket-lines and within day-to-day proletarian debate.
- Very basic thoughts about the political significance of the strike for a fundamental social transformation
Before talking more specifically about the possible meaning of a ‘social strike’ let’s ask ourselves what the general political significance of strikes are for a fundamental social change.
Capital does not dominate us so much by the use of direct violence, but it dominates through the fact that in our daily life we depend on the cooperation of people on a global scale: food, care, clothes, electronic gadgets are produced within a global division of labour. The connections between people are not created by people directly, but through capital in various forms: the money and commodity form, but more importantly, through company and state management. Only through capital do we get in touch not only with other people, but also with the necessary means to produce, with our past labour in the form of infrastructure, machines, work material, energy. Capital seems the precondition for production and that is its power. The cooperation under capital is necessarily hierarchical. Our position within the social division of labour also determines our position within the social hierarchy: do we work alone at home, do we work low paid in manual jobs, do we help controlling or managing other peoples’ labour, do we have access to the labour-market?
A strike is therefore not just a mechanical act of ‘stopping the wheels’ in order to enforce our demands. Only once workers stop working does the social cooperation become visible and with it the underlying hierarchies: the engineers realise that they depend on the work of the cleaners, the ‘Polish’ and ‘Indian’ workers have to overcome their barriers in order to make a strike successful. In this sense the significance of strikes is that in the confrontation with capital, people can and have to question their social position within society.
A strike is not just an act of refusing to work, but once workers organise strikes themselves it produces new social relations: on a small scale the experience emerges that if we can organise to stop work together, we can also organise work differently, potentially without the mediation and control of capital. This is the revolutionary core of strikes, which is different from demonstrations, riots or occupations – where the means of producing something new are necessarily limited.
Here we see that not every strike necessarily develops this potential: many strikes remain limited to a specific profession, or company. Other workers or people might feel the impact, but are not included, which often results in the strike not being effective: capital can use other workers to undermine the strike. This forces workers to think and act beyond their immediate surrounding, increasingly on an international level.
Here it also becomes clear that the limitations of ‘trade union strikes’ are not merely based on the fact that a bureaucracy curbs the activity of the rank-and-file. Legal and formal boundaries set by the labour law limit the ability of workers to reach out to other workers who are linked to their work materially, but separated formally through different contracts, sectorial boundaries etc. Workers remain within their workplace and the main power of capital – that it appears as the precondition of social cooperation – is untouched.
If we ask about our role regarding strikes and their social dimension then we should start from what is already potentially given: self-organisation of workers is not just an ideal, but day-to-day work is largely only possible because workers improvise and cooperate beyond management work-rules every day and we can build on that experience. Most strikes are potentially ‘social strikes’ because most workplaces and workers are already linked to, and dependent on, many other parts of social production and reproduction. We can support workers in making use of these links in order to expand their struggle. We need debates and inquiries about how we can do this – that could be the potential of the ‘social strike debate’.
- Social strike – We don’t need more campaigns, but a debate about coordinated strategic interventions in addition to day-to-day organising
Of course it is possible at the current stage to have a European-wide coordinated day of action with banners, food kitchens and media presence in front of this or that company or site of social reproduction – this would not do any harm at all, but at the same time it symbolises a certain detachment from day-to-day working class struggle and an absence of a more concrete common strategy. We agree with the comrades of the IWW (New Syndicalist) when they emphasise the need for local organizing as a precondition for thinking about a ‘social strike’. At the same time we would maintain the need to debate what a coordinated strategic intervention could look like – be it on a transnational level, be it only for a short period of time. We will give three examples of concrete situations of class struggle during the last three months in order to demonstrate that our problems lie less in a lack of ‘campaign infrastructure’, but in a lack of a common understanding of what is working class (strategy) today.
- a) The situation during the ferry workers’ strike in Calais
- b) The strike at German Railways, in nurseries and at German Post shortly before the Greek referendum
- c) The so-called ‘Polish strike’ in the UK
The situation during the ferry workers’ strike in Calais
The current practical efforts of solidarity for refugees is a hopeful sign, which is not merely an expression of charity. Nevertheless, in terms of strategic intervention we missed a good chance to address the more complex composition of the working class in Europe today. During the French ferry workers’ strike in July 2015 we were facing following situation: on the UK site the RMT blamed the UK government for selling off their share of the Eurostar ‘to the French’; at the same time the union of the striking French ferry workers blamed ‘the English’ for blocking them access to the port and therefore causing job losses; workers made use of the logistical bottle-neck by blockading both port and tunnel; this caused hundreds of truck-drivers to get caught in a jam (looking at the general composition of truck drivers we can assume that many of them will have been ‘self-employed’ or on other forms of precarious contracts, often from Eastern Europe, who will have lost ‘time and money’ due to the strike); migrants in Calais tried to make use of the general strike-induced logistical break-down and get either into the tunnel or into the trucks.
The situation we face here symbolizes pretty well the divisions and interdependence of different working class segments in Europe today: how unions represent the struggle as different ‘national’ interests, the division between more permanent and more precarious workers, the tension between workers and impoverished proletarians with different ‘status’. The situation would have allowed an intervention, which addresses these divisions without glossing over them and nevertheless tries to point towards a common systemic enemy. We can’t say in what concrete form this might have been possible, but some ideas could have been a solidarity blockade with the strikers, common leaflets or meetings which addresses the conditions of each working class group (ferry workers, truckers, migrants), trying to establish links to Eurostar workers who had their own disputes in the past, finding out about the legal concerns of the truckers regarding being caught with a migrant on board etc. We think that the reason we didn’t intervene to generalise the conditions faced by different segments of the working class, all rubbing along together in Calais, is less due to a lack of transnational coordination, but more due to a lack of theoretical understanding which allows us to grasp the complexity of the working class today. Facing the situation described above we would very likely have been trapped in two reactions: either neglecting the divisions in a ‘we are all poor people’ type of humanism which might ask for different rights for different categories of people, or ‘let’s help those who need the help most’ type of charitable attitude, which disdains the ‘economic interests’ of striking workers.
The strike at German Railways, in nurseries and at German Post shortly before the Greek referendum
Another chance of an international intervention emerged during the recent strikes at German Railways, at nurseries and the postal service which all ended shortly before the Greek referendum.
Since Syriza came into government the struggle against austerity increasingly took the form of a dispute between national governments. The ruling class tried to frame the general problem of crisis and worsening of living conditions as a ‘Germany vs. Greece’ problem. Without going into detail we can say that the German state tried to avoid these strike disputes (involving a significant number of workers in Germany) overlapping with the referendum in Greece in order to maintain the carefully constructed ‘lazy Greeks’ – ‘colonial Germans’ type of division within the working class. We can also say that the unions helped to settle these disputes quickly, in particular the postal strike – after having previously made sure that the nursery and postal strike would not overlap either.
Furthermore, the outcome was disappointing for the workers, e.g. the outsourced DHL workers in the postal sector were stuck with their precarious conditions. An international intervention at this point might have been very symbolic, but we would have been able to relate it to a concrete situation of mass struggle with the potential to undermine one of the main divisions within the EU.
Here we face the problem that in order for us to organize a political intervention we cannot rely on the trade union apparatus. It would have been problematic to back up a strike ‘for the sake of internationalism’, while the actual way the strike is led (in this case by the ver.di union) ended in defeat and disillusionment. We can see this also with the ongoing attempts to build a rank-and-file organisation of Amazon workers in France, Germany and Poland – an important example for the possibility of a ‘transnational strike’. The ver.di apparatus, which only represents the permanent Amazon workers in Germany (which has been a reason for the limited impact of the strikes there) is more eager to build ties with the bureaucracy of Solidarnosc, rather than workers rank-and-file union organising at the Amazon warehouse in Poland through the IP (Workers’ Initiative). And the unions don’t want to get their hands dirty by seeming to encourage ‘illegal’ activity like blockading trucks.
Going via the short-cut of the trade union apparatus as a reaction to us feeling largely detached from many sites of working class struggle can be fatal, and building direct links with active workers takes time. The social strike needs patience. Here in the UK we have a great chance to establish links with Amazon workers given the direct international contacts and insightful reports we have from workers in Germany, Poland, France and India. We should take this opportunity seriously.
‘Polish strike’ in the UK
The so-called ‘Polish strike’ in the UK in August raises at least three points relevant for our debate. On social media and in newspapers ‘self-proclaimed representatives of Polish migrants in the UK’ called for a one-day strike in reaction to the ‘anti-Polish’ propaganda. Firstly, the strike call was an expression of the general tension within the working class in the UK, especially after the media campaigns against EU-migrants paved the way for significant benefit cuts, resulting in a clear two-tier workforce in terms of social wage, and fortifying the consolidation of the low wage sector. Not surprisingly, what has been enforced against the migrants is now supposed to be extended to young workers (under 25) in the UK. The groups who called for the strike have their finger on the pulse.
Secondly, the UK left is largely out of touch with these (migrant) workers of the low wage sector, which has the tragic result that the Polish far-right and conservative middle-class forces mobilise these workers on patriotic grounds. They changed the discourse from ‘strike’ to ‘blood-donation for the UK’ in order to prove that Polish are the better migrants.
Thirdly, the ‘social media’ type of mobilization for the strike confined the strike-call to the ‘Polish community’. What can we learn from this apart from the fact that the strike call was largely an unsuccessful gimmick? We can deduce that the use of ‘social media’ and ‘community channels’ was the only way to keep it a ‘Polish affair’. Even if leaflets distributed at workplaces would have only been only in Polish, it would have generated interest by other workers of the largely multi-national low-wage sector, who are in the same situation. We should bear that in mind when thinking about how to mobilise.
To sum up, we think that these three examples demonstrate that the question of how to intervene depends less on the development of a sophisticated infrastructure and network, but on political clarity regarding a complex composition of class and actual practical experiences within the proletariat. We think there is no harm in supporting strikes with a food kitchen or with external support, e.g. through blockades. But we would stress that most strikes are not weak because workers did not eat or because their strike was not ‘publicly visible’ enough. The main isolation of strikes relates not mainly to an abstract ‘social’ or ‘public’, but they remain separated from those workers more directly linked to them, e.g. ad-hoc teachers from permanents, warehouse workers from truckers, disputes at the workplace from disputes in the living sphere. We think that in order to think more strategically about the meaning of the social strike we have to make both a theoretical and empirical effort.
- The notion of ‘multitude’ and ‘democracy’ will render the social strike-debate toothless – We have to shed the ideological baggage of neoliberalism, which should have been wiped out by the crash 2008 and the experiences and limitations of the ‘anti-austerity’-protests from Occupy Wall Street to Syriza
The era of neoliberalism and ‘information society’ (IT bubble) was the era of post-modern thought, which also dominated the theoretical understandings within the radical left and still reverberates in the debate about the ‘social strike’. We can’t go into detail here, but want to point out the general problem. To summarise briefly: replacing a sometimes rigid and often monolithic concept of ‘working class’, the post-modern concept of ‘multitude’ (Negri and other post-autonomists) accepted the general fetish of neoliberal capitalism that either we are all indifferently/immaterially connected in a big network of value production. In this network we produce value by merely breathing in and out, or, on the other side of the coin, that we are all just atomized, precarious and supervised subjects, who have to compete by marketing our inner-selves. Once we see the working class as a mass of atomized individuals within a network of value production, the focus will inevitably be on their different status ‘as citizens’ and the step from theoretical concepts of ‘multitude’ to political strategies such as ‘real democracy’ or ‘universal rights’ or ‘hailing the UN’ (Negri) is only logical, but fatal for strategies of fundamental rupture.
We think that even under the conditions of neoliberalism, e.g. the social experience during the IT or real estate bubble, when many workers became ‘shareholders’, the concept of ‘multitude’ tended to disguise the material hierarchies within the working class, first of all between intellectual and manual labour. The ‘feeling of precarity’ became a thin blanket, which could be wrapped around both precarious lecturers and low-paid cleaners, but which left the general hierarchy outside the picture. The movement itself had to discover this. During the course of the Occupy movement the fissures within the ‘99%’ emerged: what explains the power of the 1% if not the material divisions within the 99%? Although largely unhelpful, the emergence of the ‘privilege’ discourse was an expression of the fact that the movement realized its own separation from, and divisions within, the large parts of the proletariat in the US.
These deficits in theoretical understanding of ‘what is the working class today and what makes their struggles revolutionary’ has got material reasons, they are not just false consciousness: the relation between strikes and ‘popular movements’ (Arab Spring, square occupations etc.) during the post-2009 mobilisations against austerity and dictatorships was complex. Given that the social strike debate is largely an outcome of the limitations of the post-2009 struggles we should re-examine them. We limit ourselves to the following rough points:
- We witnessed a paradox when in 2010 the biggest global strike wave in history roamed the globe, which can only be compared in magnitude to periods like 1918 or 1968. At the same time strikes were declared to be socially marginal. Why is that? These strikes were not without economic or political impact, e.g. the strike of Suez port workers gave a final blow to the Mubarak regime, but unlike in previous periods the strikes did not give birth to an image of a ‘social alternative’ or to a wider political expression that would enter the rest of society. In 1918 there was a direct link between the organisation of a strike and a proposal of alternative social/political organisation in the form of councils. The lack of it today is less due to a lack of political imagination, but the fact that global production chains pose a challenge to ideas of ‘self-management’ on a factory, town or national level.
- In this situation the ‘political expression’ was left to the popular movements in the streets and squares, which largely addressed and attacked the state. Proletarians took part in demonstrations and clashes, people made important experiences of horizontal forms of organisation, but due to the detachment from the productive sphere the movements ran into walls. Only at the point of their dead-end they revealed their inner-contradictions and different interests of their participants: the informal alliances of poor proletarians and precarious ‘professional or middle-income classes’ turned out to be fragile. The public discontent and its focus on the state in the form of the ‘new populism’ (Real Democracy etc.) reached its dead-end either through repression (Egypt), integration (Syriza) or farce (Corbyn Labour resuscitation). The ‘hope in democracy’ has largely become an expression of the underlying aspirations of a precarious professional class and the structural limits of governance in times of capitalist crisis became apparent.
- The movement is grappling with this challenge both theoretically and practically. There have been experiences where ‘new forms of horizontal organising’ came together with the question of day-to-day material struggle and power of the class, e.g. in Barcelona the square occupations became a support base for the nurses strike or organised networks against evictions. These experiences are minoritarian, but point in the right direction.
The discussion about the ‘social strike’ would entail a reflection on the outcomes of crisis and movements since 2008 and to develop a theoretical framework for research, a new concept of class composition. What is the basis for a revolutionary rupture? The mass experience of injustice of poverty creates anger, might lead to mass re-appropriation, but does not necessarily develop power vis-a-vis the state unless it comes together with the collective experience and knowledge of social productivity (mass workers in agriculture, care work, manufacturing, energy production, transport, communication). This is indispensable to be able to imagine not only how to topple the state, but how to produce a new society.
We can say that these experiences of injustice of poverty, of atomization vs. collectivity and of social productivity are unevenly distributed within the global working class, according to uneven development between regions, sectors, ‘private/public’ spheres. The unevenness explains most of the hierarchies within the class. The experiences are unevenly distributed, overlapping only partly, but they are not disconnected. Sometimes connections are slim, e.g. in the case of the private agency which supplied both security guards during the Ferguson riots and scabs during the national oil workers strike in the US shortly after. Whilst a tenuous connection, it became a basis upon which young black proletarians and picketing oil workers came together, helped through an intervention by IWW comrades. We see that our theoretical efforts will not be a mere ‘mapping of workplace connections’, it will have to contain a lot of elements of class experiences beyond the immediate production process, e.g. the current material and emotional make-up of proletarian households or the material and ideological basis of ‘minority communities’ within the class. Politics of class composition would take up the challenge to retrace the connections and to help fortify them, wherever they are too weak – which is not only a theoretical effort, but mainly an empirical and practical challenge – leaving our immediate surroundings (be it a comfort zone or not).
- We cannot just ‘start where we are’! – Working class strategy will not mainly emerge from the conditions and organizing of students, teachers and baristas!
The prevalence of theoretical concepts like ‘multitude’ (as much as romantizised notions of an unhistorical ‘working class’ of most of the Marxist-Leninist variants) is explainable also because of the composition of the radical left. Being dominated by students, people in ‘student-jobs’ (editors, freelance IT workers) and ‘precarious teaching positions’ there is a danger of extrapolating general working class conditions and political strategies from one’s own experiences of, e.g. atomization or feelings of individual competition. The same is true for the trade union left, who largely views the working class through their experience of permanent employment in more stable sectors. Empirical research about the general conditions and composition of workers in the UK is necessary, it hasn’t been done thoroughly for a while – and it cannot be done as a research of outsiders.
We won’t be able to develop a working class strategy as long as we take our own immediate situation as the starting point of politics. First of all, it assumes that our position in society, be it in the intellectual department or behind the counter of a fast-food chain is somehow a ‘neutral outcome’, and not due to social tendencies and (unquestioned) personal decisions. We also have to politicise this part of our lives – how do we reproduce ourselves, where do we work and why there? Secondly, while it is always right to fight wherever you are, if most of the revolutionary syndicalist organisations and their not insignificant number of members mainly focus on ‘wage theft’ campaigns in marginal jobs, the scope for the development of wider working class strategy is limited. Comrades, don’t get pissed off by our arrogant comments, let’s all continue to fight the bosses wherever we are, but let’s start talking about the bigger picture, too.
- The ‘social strike’ debate cannot just add a ‘social element’ to the old concept of ‘general strike’ – it has to break with it
Based on the theoretical, empirical and practical effort lined out above we can actually think about working class strategy in terms of social strike:
a) which current struggles and sectors bring together workers’ collective power with a potential of generalization, e.g. because their issues don’t only relate to their particular professional group (zero-hour contracts, minimum wage, strict control over performance)?
b) which struggles have the potential to extend self-organisation within the immediate sphere, e.g. the workplace, university, housing estate, to a larger section of the class organically (migrant composition of the workforce, experience of private renting)
c) which struggles manage to undermine certain hierarchies within the class from below, e.g. the migrant logistics workers in Italy due to the offensive character of their struggles or struggles which break the isolation of the household.
d) what is the potential of struggles to develop coordinations independently from the existing trade union institutions?
In our initial paper we gave examples from the US, where over recent years various struggles developed, each of them carrying a significant element for the potential to develop a new working class movement: Mexican/hispanic strike in 2006 (material power of migrants, undermining the national border regime), Occupy (horizontal and international organising), series of prison revolts and hunger strikes (taking on the state regime and Afro-American/Hispanic divisions), Chicago teachers and Wisconsin strikes (experiences in dealing with the labour bureaucracy), riots in Ferguson and Baltimore against police repression (urban poverty and proletarian violence), warehouse and fast-food workers mobilisations (organising wage pressure from below in new industries) and oil workers strikes 2015 (economic power in a central sector). We have to think about strategy in this context: what is the basis for these elements to come together, what are their material divisions?
We think that by looking at the actual composition of class we have to rid ourselves of the idealistic notions of the ‘general strike’, which basically says that by a united call and beavering efforts of organizing an otherwise divided class can ‘stand up like a man’ – which was basically the image of the general strike disseminated by the various proclaimed leading and ‘unifying’ organisations. We reckon that the unification and generalization within class struggle only arises out of a process of many struggles at different positions within society which materially challenge and overcome divisions and synchronise themselves only over a period of time. Only the struggle itself changes those who struggle and overcomes barriers. We can contribute to this process once we understand the ins and outs of struggles and their wider material and social context.
- What could be a concrete strategic step? – In the current situation we propose a bi-annual newspaper for the reflections of the strong and weak points of the struggles in the UK, as a tool both for analysis and concrete practical intervention and support
The theoretical and practical necessities mentioned above seem like a mountain, but we don’t think we have to choose between either a lot of theoretical churning or empirical research on one hand or hyperactive campaigning on the other. What can allow us to work together beyond our specific local or sectorial activities? Our proposal is fairly simple:
- The publication of a bi-annual UK class struggle paper, focusing on analysis about conditions within the class and struggles; without a compulsion to proclaim victories or to defend particular organisations; based on workers’ interest to learn from experiences to be able to struggle independently from trade union apparatuses or the political class; apart from providing analysis of experiences and wider contexts of struggles the paper should point out concrete resources and experiences of proletarian mutual aid.
- The production of the paper should allow comrades from various regions within the UK to develop a regular debate about struggles around us, but at the same time also produce something which can be useful when visiting occupations, pickets or meeting interested workers; this is why we think a hard-copy form is crucial.
- There have been papers which had a similar function, e.g. The Catalyst, but they have become defunct; other coordinations, e.g. the Shop Steward Network have been limited to certain sectors and been taken over by the middlemen of the political parties; as far as we are aware of there is no paper which fulfils such a function of independent working class reflection of what is going down, in the here and now.
- It would require certain commitments: a common basic political framework: starting from anti-statist and anti-institution proletarian self-organisation; looking at how struggles can overcome hierarchical divisions and challenge the powers; going out of your way a bit to places where things are happening, in order to have face-to-face conversations; being open for debating the reports; a commitment to circulate the paper not only at the usual demonstrations or conferences, but at concrete sites of struggle.
Hopefully the paper could help to create an independent network of comrades of various organisations within the non-statist left and interested working class militants who have become disillusioned with party politics. If you interested in participating, drop us a mail: firstname.lastname@example.org