The news, it doesn’t change

I’ll get back to the question of violence soon. In the mean time, here’s a thought about two kinds of radicalism – and two radicals.

One is concerned about threats to her job and its terms and conditions; when her union agitated for strike action on these issues she enthusiastically supported it and urged fellow workers who seemed undecided to vote Yes. On the day of the strike, she’s on the picket line, looking workers who cross it in the eye and asking them to turn back and support the strike. One or two do, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

The other is concerned about nuclear weapons and about the imperialist blocs which claim the right to use them, and about nuclear power. She is selling tickets for an annual concert to raise money for the orphans of Chernobyl; this year it will also be an occasion to express concern about Fukushima and opposition to the British intervention in Libya. Not many people are interested when she tells them about the concert, but one or two people do buy tickets, which makes her feel she’s achieved something.

What do these two people have to do with each other? (Clearly they could be the same person on different days, but that’s not really the point.) Or rather, what do these two activities have to do with each other? Both of these people are committing time and energy to intervening in the social world, in person and by trying to persuade other people to do likewise. They’re both trying to change things, persuading other people to join their cause and raising awareness. What I can’t see, however, is any necessary connection between the two causes – “don’t sack us or cut our pay” on the one hand, “help the victims of this and express opposition to that” on the other.

Long hours and low wages are, always and everywhere, long hours and low wages. (They may sometimes be outweighed by other factors – the menial job in a glamorous industry which was worth taking because it enabled you to get spotted; the art gallery job at pocket-money wages, designed for people with rich parents and rich friends – but the rule holds: in those cases the worker involved either isn’t on a low wage for very long, or isn’t really on a low wage at all (if by ‘wage’ we mean ‘what you live on’).) Moreover, resistance to hours getting longer and wages getting lower is the same everywhere, and (it seems to me) can never be a reactionary cause. (Again, we can envisage exceptions – self-proclaimed British workers refusing to work with lower-paid immigrants; men refusing to see their pay cut to the level of women’s – and again, the rule stands up to the test: the demand in these cases is “do not cut our wages”, which is only a little way from “do not cut the wages for this job”.)

Campaigning of the fund- and consciousness-raising variety is a very different animal. We could make a stab at a general definition by saying that premature death and avoidable suffering are, always and everywhere, premature death and avoidable suffering; this is true as far as it goes, and it’s also true that opposition to these things cannot be a bad thing. In political terms, however, this definition isn’t particularly incisive: once you get away from the obvious cases (starvation, natural disasters, cancer research) it would give you a bewilderingly large variety of evils to combat, and in many cases wouldn’t give you any guidance at all. (The UN Security Council hasn’t endorsed the intervention in Libya so as to prolong suffering, after all.) In practice what people define as avoidable suffering – or rather, as avoidable suffering which is worth campaigning about – is quite varied. What differentiates our anti-nuclear campaigner from somebody holding a social event to raise money for the Countryside Alliance, or to raise awareness of how wind farms spoil the scenery, or to gather support for a campaign against asylum-seekers? I can’t see anything essential to differentiate these from the anti-nuclear example, apart from the fact that I tend to think they’re wrong. Moreover, I can’t see any obvious reason why the anti-nuclear activist would necessarily be on the side of the striker – any more than the Countryside Alliance activist would be. We know that actually existing anti-nuclear activists do tend to support strikes, and real live Countryside Alliance types tend not to, but this seems to me to be a cultural statement more than a political one: being the kind of person who supports strikers is fairly strongly correlated with being the kind of person who opposes nuclear weapons. Opposing nuclear weapons doesn’t entail supporting strikes in any way that I can see.

What this suggests is – one of two things. Either

1. The Left is a broad social and cultural milieu which bears forward, and continues to develop, a complex but internally coherent vision of the injustices of the world and how best to remedy them, which draws on the heritage of Marxism but also on other sources. Trade unionists are employees organised in their own interest.

or

2. The resistance of organised workers is fundamental to the continuing task of challenging the rule of capital, which will eventually be superseded by workers’ control over the means of production and distribution on a global scale. What goes by the name of the Left these days consists largely of single-issue campaigners.

What do I think? Now, I’m not going to point any moral – I’ll leave that for yourself. But I will say that the starting-point of this post was hearing somebody promoting a concert commemorating Chernobyl and raising money for Chernobyl orphans (it’s a good bill, by the way, there’ll be folkies as well as classical and balalaika). Unfortunately the speaker strayed onto the general topic of the evils of nuclear power and was politely but loudly heckled by a member of the audience who works in the industry –

…and we can all do something to reduce our dependency…
– Yes, we can stop using electricity.
…we can stop using electricity… er, we can reduce our use of electricity… and in view of the tragic accident at Fukushima… when we think that it could happen here…
– No it couldn’t!

Awkward, as they say.

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