Workers strike against austerity in the North of Ireland

20150313_130323-1Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the North of Ireland on March 13 in protest against cuts in jobs and services implemented by the devolved administration in Stormont.  The local administration is imposing the austerity agenda dictated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London.  The strike was particularly successful because transport workers, including on the buses and trains, took part as well as those in the civil service, health and education.

Observance of the strike was good and pickets and rallies had respectable turnouts.  Workers have suffered a long period of declining living standards and are clearly willing to declare their opposition.  It would be a mistake however to exaggerate the stage we are at in the development of this struggle.  A glance at the numbers voting for strike action in a couple of the biggest unions involved shows the distance yet to go to build a strong and active movement.

In the trade union NIPSA, covering staff in Government departments and other bodies as well as admin and clerical staff in the health service, 52.9% or 4,201 voted for strike action in the civil service side out of a membership of around 20,600, with the health service side having an even lower turnout.  Not all of the membership was called upon to strike but the vast majority of members were affected.  In UNISON, with a membership mainly in the health service and some in education ,3,181 voted for strike action in a membership of around 40,000, again not all of whom would have been called upon to vote but a majority of whom would have been affected.  The strike had sympathy among the wider population but this finds no expression in organisation.

Many on the left have demanded another strike and have claimed that the recent ostensible U-turn by Sinn Fein on welfare cuts is a result of the strike.  However this would be to take the Sinn Fein position at face value, or rather take them at their word, and exaggerates the effect of the strike.  While it focused opposition to austerity, and can lay the grounds for a deeper campaign against it, the actions of Sinn Fein are not so much a reaction to the strike but the wider feeling of opposition to cuts.

The strategy of the trade union leaders is to lobby and put pressure on local political parties so that if the next Westminster election results in a hung parliament local politicians can demand and negotiate an end to, or at least an amelioration of, austerity imposed in the Northern Ireland.  It therefore takes as given the continued position of these parties and resists any project of setting up a political rival.  This is on the basis that to do so would inevitably require a position to be taken on the constitutional position of the Northern State.

Such a party would inevitably have Keynesian policies of greater state activity in taxing and spending.  In other words salvation would be presented as arriving from the state, so the programme of any such labour or workers’ party would very quickly run up against this challenge.  No autonomous development of the party would be possible.  It is now some years since a labourist project was attempted and the last one that set up the current political arrangements was an embarrassing failure.

The strike was however noteworthy because it was carried out explicitly against the policies of the local Stormont Executive, the centre piece of the peace process and the ‘new’ political settlement.  It also took place against the background of another ‘crisis’ in the process, with the whole financial arrangements of the local administration thrown into doubt by a late Sinn Fein withdrawal of support for the budget because the deal to preserve it did not fully cover the cuts in welfare that were to mirror ‘reforms’ in Britain.

Sinn Fein therefore paraded its anti-austerity credentials, which the media took to be another late intervention by Gerry Adams to shore up the anti-austerity stance of the party in the South of Ireland.  Sinn Fein faces a general election in the South within the year.  The party is riding high in the polls on the basis of this perceived position and it would not look good if it were seen to be implementing austerity in the North while claiming to oppose it in the South.   Sinn Fein therefore ‘supported’ the strike even if the strike was clearly against the budget it had just approved as a major part of the local administration.

This support was invisible in the well-attended rally in Belfast city centre on 13th and is based on the party once again talking out of both sides of its mouth.  A long established practice.

This most recently saw an outing through Sinn Fein’s vocal support for the Catholic teacher training college St Mary’s, which was threatened with cuts by the local administration.  The cuts were proposed by the Alliance Party Minister responsible who was simply implementing the reduced budget given to him by Sinn Fein and its Democratic Unionist Party partners.  The sectarian aspect of this support was lost on no one as similar cuts were to be made to the ‘Protestant’ teacher training college at Stranmillis.  In the end the two biggest sectarian parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – got together to overrule the Alliance Party Minister.

The last minute opposition to the welfare arrangements therefore doesn’t inspire the view that Sinn Fein are a principled opponent of austerity but rather smack of an opportunist change of tack.  At their Ard Fheis in Derry the weekend before they dropped their bombshell the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont, Martin McGuinness , was proclaiming great satisfaction with the deal and congratulating the party on how well it had done in the re-negotiated financial settlement with the British Government.

At the very best their new found concern means that they hadn’t done their sums right or had been rather easily hoodwinked by the DUP; or perhaps that they had re-evaluated the calculus of staying with the welfare cuts programme as it was going to develop – thus facing the flak when it was put into practice – as against provoking another ‘crisis’ and the fall-out that would then ensue.

That this was all a bit last-minute became clear from the Sinn Fein media performances to explain its change of approach.  One prominent spokesperson on local radio refused to say it was a question of money when it could hardly be anything else; then it was claimed that it would cost over £280m to put right before this became translated into a round figure of £200m when the round figure it would appear closest to would be £300m.  Unionist claims that it was clear in the deal that not all the benefit cuts would be covered by mitigation measures in the budget, and would not be permanent for new claimants, seemed more convincing.

Nevertheless, the row over the extent of the funds to cover cuts in welfare matters to those welfare recipients affected who are indeed, as Sinn Fein says, some of the most vulnerable. It doesn’t in the least affect the fraudulent nature of Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity posturing.

To be continued

Two films: ‘Pride’ and ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’

JS45320465When Margaret Thatcher died my daughter asked me if I could recommend any books that would explain who she was and why she raised such strong views on her death.  I struggled to think of one that would convey the political issues and the raw emotion that she generated.  Even the youngest who are semi-interested in politics know that in some way that Thatcher helped shape politics today, not only in Britain but much more widely, and that at the very least she symbolises changes we are still living through.

In the last week I have watched two films that provide some way of appreciating Thatcher while also immersing one in the feelings generated at the time.  The first – ‘Pride’ – tells the story of a lesbian and gay group in London, which raised more money for miners in a South Wales valley than any other group, during the miners’ titanic strike in 1984-85 against Thatcher.  It’s rarely sentimental, the performances are wonderful and if you don’t walk out of it feeling proud that this is the side you are on then there’s no hope for you.

If you’re older then you’ll remember the struggle with pride and not a little bit of sadness.  If you were in any way involved in solidarity in this side of the Irish sea then you’ll now appreciate the importance of the struggle and perhaps realise you didn’t quite understand its importance then.  You’ll also appreciate the need for unity and solidarity of the oppressed and that only when we fight together do we make real the unity that underlies our oppression and our liberation.

Of course what you take out of any artistic creation partly depends on your own experience and you will only learn from a political film what your political understanding will allow.  Some things will stand out more than others – for me the performances of the actors, including Ben Schnetzer who plays Mark Ashton, the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian solidarity group and originally from the North of Ireland – brave and tender;  or Paddy Considine as the miners spokesperson Dai Donovan, who welcomes against opposition within his own ranks the support of the gay and lesbian group with understanding and appreciation for the bravery of the miners’ new supporters and the value of their own struggle.

Uplifting and inspiring as it is the significance of the miners’ struggle was illustrated for me by the miner’s banner that proclaimed their adherence to international workers unity and the struggle for socialism.  Of all the reference points that they had, as Welsh, as miners, workers and brothers they stated on their banner that what would always define them was international unity and socialism.  Through the strike they demonstrated in their solidarity with gay and lesbian activists from London a unity that went beyond nationality and sexual orientation to recognition of their shared and common interest in fighting oppression.


And a miner’s banner also featured in another film – ‘Tony Benn Will and Testament’ – a documentary covering his life and political activity, including the miners’ strike and his inclusion on a new Miners’ banner.

It showed Benn narrate his personal and political life and his acceptance of his death that must have followed shortly after the film.  It shows his journey through politics and his affirmation that he moved to the left through joining government and not, as everyone else does, to the right.

He explained his determination to become an MP and change the world because of an encounter with one of the Americans involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, eventually becoming the minister responsible for the civil nuclear programme in Britain.  In this role he explained how he was completely kept in the dark about the fact that the plutonium waste used in this civil power generation was sent to supply the US nuclear weapons programme.   More widely he explains that he came to realise that while in Government he didn’t have any real control and that the Labour Party became simple managers of the system when it achieved office.

The film covers many of the class struggles in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century, from the campaign against nuclear weapons, to  the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in, the ‘winter of discontent’ provoked by attacks on workers by the labour Government, the miners’ strike and the anti-Iraq war movement in our current century.

His bid for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 1981 against Denis Healy, which he very narrowly lost by barely 1%, does not get the attention it deserves but it does turn the spotlight on Neil Kinnock – the so-called left who abstained in the vote.  He later became leader and was leader during the miners’ strike, which he more or less also betrayed, later being rewarded with a place in the House of Lords.  A fighting leadership of the British labour movement could have made the difference between defeat and victory.  Watching the film I found myself getting angrier with him than with Thatcher, but isn’t that always the way with traitors?

He brings to attention the possibility, since the 1970s, of using North Sea oil to modernise Britain but identifies the failure to do so in the pro-big business policies of Thatcher.  Some on the left today see the possibility of modernising Scotland based on what’s left of North Sea oil. However they base this not on any lesson drawn from recent decades but on nationalist division.  The political leader they in effect followed, Alex Salmond, proclaimed that his SNP “didn’t mind the economic side so much” of Margaret Thatcher, while claiming that “the SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself.”  So that puts the rest of us in our place.

I remember listening to Tony Benn speak and someone asked him about the idea that socialism could be brought about through parliament and whether the capitalist class and its system would allow such a transition without mounting a violent coup to prevent it.  Ah, he said, the Chile question, referring to exactly such an attempt to introduce reform in Chile at the beginning of the 1970s, which led to the least politically interfering military in South America mounting a coup, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and murdering thousands and thousands of workers and socialists.

Unfortunately having identified the question he didn’t give an answer to it and this might seem to be the major point to highlight in a Marxist review of a film of his political testament.  And so it is.  But by his own experience and through his own words he demonstrates these lessons and the film is valuable for showing them.


After recounting how he wanted to become an MP the film a few minutes later shows him speaking in the House of Commons – to row upon row of empty green benches.   Having had the experience of Governmental office noted above he later announced, in a line provided by his wife, that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics.  We then see him on the campaign trail at meetings and demonstrations until his death this year.

So whatever his reformist words his practice in this way became the opposite of the fetishism and ‘cretinism’ of parliamentary activity for which Marxists would criticise reformist politics.

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Unfortunately today , it is the so-called Marxist left who argue that the big question is the ‘crisis of working class representation’ and pursue one electoralist intervention after another, like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fed on the most piss-poor politics that they otherwise condemn in other times or in other places.

So it is not just the young that could learn from these two films.  Very straightforward as they are in political terms, there are basic lessons to be learnt from them – the need for unity of the oppressed, workers internationalism, the futility of seeking fundamental change through capitalist parliaments or the capitalist state, and the need for class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike and the experience of social-democratic politics cast a long shadow over the working class and socialist movement today.  We can learn vital lessons from them and their failure.  That we do not do so is partly because we cannot see the shadow, since it is overcast by an even darker one – that of Thatcherism and the rampage of what is now called neoliberalism.  To come out of the shadows we need to come out of both.  These two films can help us.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3


“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.

Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 2

mondragon-humanity-at-workIn Part one of this post I looked at the argument that the most famous example of workers’ cooperative ownership involves the division of the working class within the cooperative so that technicians and especially mangers have different views and interests from manual workers.  This is reflected in their relative enthusiasm for the cooperative form.

In fact there is no evidence or argument presented in the book under review that there is a fundamental difference of interest between managers and workers arising from class position within the relations of production, although some evidence that there is differing levels of enthusiasm.

I argued in response that the evidence for the view that there is weaker engagement of workers in the cooperative involves writing off the views of the higher paid workers, some of whom might be called managers, but that there is nevertheless some weak evidence of an unhealthy lack of participation by manual workers in decision making.  In Marx’s support for cooperative production he noted that:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”

The evidence of the book is that some of the most political workers have organised to struggle against some of these shortcomings and have succeeded.  This response of the workers is one that should be supported rather than dismiss workers ownership outright.  To anticipate the whole argument – if workers should not take up experiments in running their own workplace how are they ever to be expected to – in one momentous event called revolution – ever to take over running the whole of society and creation of their own state to protect it?

The actions of these politicised workers show the role that a workers’ party could play in advancing the socialist project within cooperative production.

The argument of the book (The Myth of Mondragon) however is not only that the real workers cooperative, as opposed to the mythical one, divides workers within the cooperative but more especially has resulted in, and was meant to result in, the division of the working class in the local area and within the Basque country more generally.

The argument has already been referred to but it is made up of several components.  The first is that the cooperative has imposed middle-class values on workers by making them, in effect, small property owners.  In this they faithfully reflect the motives and views of the original sponsor of the cooperative in Mondragon, Catholic priest José Mariá Arizmendiarrieta, who was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and who sought to ameliorate class struggle through education and co-operativism.  Hence the significance noted in the first post of relatively more co-operators viewing themselves as middle class than workers in a private sector firm.

This fed into the views of Basque nationalism, particularly the bourgeois PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco) but also the radical nationalism of ETA, which, like the Irish versions of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism, liked to look on the Basque people as inherently egalitarian and predisposed to small property ownership which united the nation against the outside enemy, harking back to an original society free of class contradictions that preceded foreign rule.  For the radical nationalists the cooperative could simultaneously be supported by emphasising Basque unity and workers participation, so demonstrating the compatibility of nationalism and socialism while opposing any role for foreign multinationals.

The cooperative was thus a conscious political instrument to divide the working class, which was traditionally militant and socialist.  This division is also exhibited in resentment by some workers in Mondragon expressed in remarks that ‘los cooperativistas’ “have it easy”.

A third element of the argument is that it is no coincidence that the cooperative was set up under the fascist regime of General Franco since both co-operativism and fascism share a desire to negate class struggle.  Cooperatives were also supported by Mussolini and the Mondragon cooperative came into existence only because more militant forms of working class action were illegal and repressed.

The author of the book refers to the first criticisms of Mondragon by ETA which accused the Mondragon cooperative of dividing the local working class between co-operators and the rest because the cooperative workers did not want to engage in strikes with their fellow workers.

What is to be made of these arguments?

The argument that the cooperative workers have bought into the illusion that they are middle class is not strongly supported by the evidence in the book but if they did they would not be alone because such identification is not uncommon amongst many better off sections of the working class.  That through the cooperative, through their ownership of the firm, there is some basis for such a view is reflected in the quote from Marx above, that the workers make themselves their own capitalist.  However, this has not prevented workers expressing solidarity with their fellow workers or being sensitive to inequality within the workplace. Objectively their position is a transitional transcendence of capitalism but a very partial one, the more partial the more isolated it is, and cannot provide on its own guaranteed grounds for the development of socialist class consciousness.

This needs to be fought for by a working class party.  The class struggle is not abolished by cooperatives but is a means to pursue it and a battle ground on which to wage it.  The question is whether this battle involves growth and development of the cooperative form or not?  The answer for Marx was clear:

“. . . however excellent in principle and however useful in practice, co-operative labour, if kept within the narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workmen, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries. . . To save the industrious masses, co-operative labour ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means.”

That the Mondragon cooperative was sponsored by a Catholic priest should no more be a reason for condemning it than should the Bolsheviks have condemned the demonstration led by the Russian Orthodox priest Father Gapon, which sparked the revolution in Russia in 1905.

That cooperatives have existed under fascist regimes does not demonstrate that they are essentially instruments of fascism any more than it demonstrates that fascism is the essential expression of cooperatives.  In Italy Mussolini’s fascist thugs terrorised and burnt cooperatives before making them subordinate to the fascist regime.  In Spain the dictatorship of Franco could allow isolated cooperatives to the extent that they did not follow the path, recommended by Max to the First International above, that they expand and combine to develop nationally and indeed internationally.

The example of fascist sponsorship or acquiescence is but the most extreme warning to workers that the potential for their independent initiative should not be compromised by seeking the sponsorship of the capitalist state, no matter how democratic its form.  The revolutionary content of workers cooperatives, whatever its workers might believe at any particular point in time, is that they represent the independent actions of a class that is taking measures that undermines one pillar of existing society, which is the monopoly of the means of production in the hands of a separate class of capitalists.

The need to expand is not limited to national growth but is practical demonstration that workers ownership can only succeed internationally.  So far from supporting any form of nationalism it is practical vindication of the need for workers to reject national solutions, and not just at some future point in time but now.  Workers’ ownership should be extended internationally not tied to some view that workers are part of a purely national development of a specific country and its particular state, especially when this state is inevitably a capitalist one.  Workers of different nationalities united by ownership of the one enterprise with different workplaces in different countries would be powerful demonstration of unity of interest and practical international solidarity.

The first criticisms of ETA reflect a common view on the Left, which appears to be endorsed by the author of the book, which is that the struggle of trade unions against employers is a better model of class struggle than the development of workers’ cooperatives.  Hence the criticism that the cooperative workers often did not go on strike, even though the author quotes a local militant expressing the view that this is perfectly understandable.

Who would they be striking against?  If the purpose is not to influence or pressurise their employer, which is themselves, then it would be part of a movement to demonstrate support for particular demands and the strength of feeling and organisation behind those demands.  In that case this is what demonstrations and meetings are for.

In themselves trade unions do not exist to undermine capitalism but to enforce its operation by acting on one side of the supply and demand of labour power which sets its price.  It enforces the laws by which capitalism regulates workers alienation from ownership of the means of production, it does not in itself threaten it.  Strikes can be seen as a simple refusal to sell labour power for a period rather than an existential threat to the wages system itself.

Would Left critics criticise strikes that demanded workers ownership of their firms?  Or would this be seen as a demand not actually to be realised but one only useful in so far as it leads more or less quickly to revolution?  In which case what would they say if some workers, but not all, actually succeeded – fuggedaboutthat and let’s start all over again?

None of these points negate the argument that trade unions might not be helpful for cooperative workers in order to assist them in both elaborating alternative plans for their coop or to protect them against the actions of management. Particular interests of workers are not guaranteed by workers ownership but we should not believe that trade unions are somehow superior forms of workers’ organisation and representation than the organs of the cooperative.

The latter will be composed of all the workers while the trade union will usually not.  Trade unions are not inherently more democratic as the current bureaucratised organisations show.  Nevertheless for particular workers or in particular circumstances they may be useful in representing the interests of some workers even against the majority.  These workers need not be more backward but could be more advanced and we should not necessarily believe such organisation is required because the unions are needed to represent workers in the same way Lenin claimed they were required as protection against their own bureaucratised state.

The book recalls a significant strike in the Mondragon cooperative in 1974 sparked by job regradings and the system for their evaluation.  The strike only lasted one day, following a walk-out by some of the workforce, but twenty-four leaders were fired pending a vote of a general assembly of the workers.  When this assembly convened the workers voted to uphold the sackings.  A campaign was launched to let them return which eventually, in 1978, led to their being readmitted.

The strike and its aftermath exposed the political assumptions behind the participants on both sides with cooperative managers claiming the strikers were anti-Basque while some of the strikers went on to join a Maoist-oriented organisation.  Some Left organisations then went on to develop left-wing critiques of cooperativism.

The messiness of such events gives a headache to those who like their politics simple, with workers on one side and bosses on the other.  Simple trade unionism seems to provide for that although simple trade unionism does not go beyond capitalism, much of it is purely sectional and some of it is even reactionary.

Despite the authors apparent approval of this model of class struggle she notes that, contrary to her overall argument, that the “most important factor influencing the local labour movement” was the Moncloa Pact between the Left parties, including the Spanish Communist Party, the trade unions syndicates and the Spanish Government.  This accepted changes to the law which reduced workers’ rights below what had been provided under the Franco dictatorship.

So trade unions are not an anti-dote to workers’ failure to make islands of socialism out of workers’ cooperatives, which can hardly be expected because they haven’t been able to do that for themselves.  The answer is not to see workers cooperatives as alternatives to class struggle but as part of it.  Once again the question is whether the answer lies in expansion of cooperatives or their rejection.

The answer for Marx was that they should be developed.  This is elaborated on in the two posts recommended by Boffy in his comment on the first of these posts on Mondragon.

On their own a cooperative can easily be a capitalist enterprise owned by its workers in which, as Marx says, the workers become their own capitalist.  What makes them a powerful weapon of transformation is their development and growth into a social and economic alternative to capitalism through cooperation between them and their living example of workers’ power.

As isolated coops they are indeed subject to the economic and political subordination of the capitalist economy and its state.  If content to be providers of jobs and income only to their members there is clearly no wider ambition.  However as a cooperative movement determined to grow and develop in other areas of production, both to secure its own future and share its benefits with others, and to provide other cooperative services such as education, health and other socials services, it inevitably poses itself as an alternative to capitalist production and the capitalist state’s provision of services.  It becomes a political alternative because its growth, as an economic sector driven by the needs of its workers and their customers and not by profit, is a real, practical and living example of an alternative economic and social system.

The development of the cooperative sector to become such a political rival and alternative is at least partly dependent on Marxists fighting for such a perspective within cooperatives and for cooperatives to propagandise their alternative.  In Marx’s remarks to the First International he praises workers’ cooperatives and calls for the workers to pursue just such a task:

(a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

(c) We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

Let’s see how such a perspective might address another frequent criticism of Mondragon and other cooperative enterprises.  This is that the cooperative further divides the working class through its large use of temporary contract labour, as much as one third of a particular workforce in Mondragon.  These workers are not members of the cooperative with all the rights of membership and obviously have much less job security.  In these circumstances the workers are not their own capitalist, since they do not have membership of the cooperative, and are exploited not by themselves but by others – the Mondragon cooperative.

If it was the case that these workers were indeed needlessly kept on purely temporary contracts it would be open to the most class conscious workers within the cooperative to campaign and seek a vote on their award of cooperative membership.

On the other hand let us assume that the cooperative workforce does not accept this because it views these workers as an unfortunate but necessary buffer against periodic reductions in demand for their products, such fluctuations being an inevitable feature of capitalism.  Then it would not be possible to give these workers cooperative membership because the cooperative could not guarantee their continued employment should demand for the products they make fall.  This might be despite the fact that the Mondragon and other cooperatives seek to move workers around the wider cooperative group in order to protect the employment of their members.

The second class status of the workers could lead to resentment within the wider working class and support for the view that the cooperative workers are indeed a privileged layer that is separate from the rest of the workers.

What is the answer to this problem?

The answer is not obviously to give these workers the same rights as the rest of the cooperative workers for this solves no problem.  If demand does suffer a drop or there is some other crisis in the cooperative, for example if some customer does not pay up because it has gone out of business, the cooperative can choose to keep all its workers on the payroll and then either weather the storm or as a result go out of business altogether.

If the latter is the foreseeable result of the event then keeping all the workers on is a mistake, not only for those workers who could otherwise save their job but for the cause of worker owned production in general.  The whole cooperative would cease to exist when part of it at least could be saved.  If all the workers, including temporary workers, have equal rights how is it to be decided who will lose their job?

If this problem is to be minimised the cooperative should seek to be part of a wider federation of cooperatives so that downturns in economic activity in one area can be made up by possible growth in employment in another.  The larger the cooperative movement the more scope there is to diversify risk and build up reserves to protect its members during crises.  Were this to happen then cooperative production would be seen by workers in the capitalist sector as a real progressive alternative to the insecurity of the capitalist sector in which workers jobs are more or less quickly sacrificed for the profits of the big wigs.

The answer then is not to reject cooperative production but to seek its growth.

In the meantime there are steps that could be taken to defend the rights and position of temporary workers.  The first might be to ensure adequate union organisation and representation for them within the cooperative.  The second might be for these temporary workers to form or be part of a ‘temporary workers’ cooperative themselves, which has a membership across a number of firms that might not all have to be cooperative enterprises. (Just such an idea is proposed by Boffy in the posts referred to above).

In this way the temporary workers would not have to simply rely on the actions of others but would, through their own cooperative employment agency, take some control of their employment situation including building up reserves for bad periods, providing social insurance or job seeking support, including retraining facilities.  Such a cooperative could be the sponsor of a political campaign in defence of the rights of temporary contract workers.

To return to the main argument: the promotion of cooperative production is not an alternative to class struggle but a part of it.  It is the solution to a problem that many of those who believe in socialist revolution believe does not exist.  This problem is that the majority of the working class do not see any need for their own ownership and control of production.  They not only do not see the need for it but even if they did they have no experience of it, nor any particular, in fact any, view of how it would seek to achieve its aims.

The view that running society is something that can be done more or less easily on the morrow of the revolution does not ask why workers would carry out this revolution in the first place or why they would be fit to run things after it.  What is it they would seek to do differently and how could it be done?

Instead the process of revolution, as normally argued, envisages workers rebelling against attacks on their living standards and democratic rights through some sort of politicised general strike which develops into workers councils.  These will then take over from the capitalist state.  What is missing from this is any understanding of socialist revolution as a change in the mode of production.  From one based on profit to one based on use.  From one based on capitalist ownership of the means of production to one based on workers ownership.

We are asked in this scenario to believe that the whole working class will in one fit of more or less violent rebellion against repression etc, seek and know how to implement its own ownership of production but that such strivings should not be encouraged or expressed before the revolution in the growth of workers cooperatives.

There is no need for workers to learn about how to organise production within their own factories and offices.  No need to learn how to manage trade and production between other workplaces and customers.  No need to master how the economy works the better to make changes that benefit fellow workers and fellow consumers.  No need to learn how to compile economic plans within the firm, within the wider cooperative movement and the wider economy.

No need to learn by practical experience the role of the capitalist state in protecting capitalist property against rival workers’ owned property; to learn the need to build their own structures that will defend their plans to develop production as they see fit, and no need to seek to defend their own cooperative property through the overthrow of the capitalist state.

The argument is not whether cooperative production plays a role in the move to socialism but what role that is, over what period of time such production can realistically be expected to develop and what the role is of Marxists in politically fighting for and defending the growth of workers property.

Back to part 1

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part IV

gustave_dore_fourth_circle_dante_infernoIn much of Europe the workers movement developed in the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th through industrialisation, the growth of trade unions and socialist parties and the radicalisation caused by two world wars, in particular by the first.  The socialist movement often led the struggle for democratic rights and freedoms and gained support as a result.

The Irish experience has been different, leading to a working class with a lower level of class consciousness.  While Ireland started to industrialise early it was thrown back by the development of superior industrial development in Britain.  What industrialisation did occur was small and mainly concentrated in the north east of the country.  Defeat and brutal repression of Ireland’s bourgeois revolution in 1798 led to a bitterly divided working class with the most extreme reactionary ideology dominating the most advanced industrial area.

The land question was denuded of its radical potential by this counter revolution and by the effects of the catastrophic famine in the middle of the19th century when, in a population of over 8 million, around a million died and a million emigrated and the population began a decline that did not reverse until the 1970s.  The number of agricultural labourers fell by 700,000 from 1845 to the early twentieth century, the number of small farmers was halved and the cottier class almost wiped out.  All this could only but weaken the potential base for a radicalised land movement.

The result of all this was that when the national movement erupted in the first decades of the twentieth century in a battle for an independent state it was dominated by middle class revolutionaries who subordinated workers’ interests with the demand that ‘labour must wait’, which has been pretty much the policy of Irish republicanism since.

The new truncated statelet these most conservative of revolutionaries created was dominated by the same economic subordination as that which preceded nominal independence, resulting in economic growth after foundation of the new state at very much the same rate as before its creation; and a polity not much different than before except for the role of the new Irish bourgeoisie that often proclaimed its Catholicism more than its nationality.

The working class in its majority never broke from this political class and the socialist movement has been small and peripheral.  The Second World War passed the Irish State by and during the 1950s emigration was higher relatively than it had been almost 100 years earlier, sapping all social classes of vitality and energy.

The Irish State caught the tail end of the world-wide post war economic boom and the workforce in industry increased from 259,000 in 1961 to 363,000 in 1981.  Overall however there was little increase as the numbers employed as agriculture continued to decline.  This growth in the working class led to some limited revival in socialism reflected in the Labour Party claiming ‘the 70s will be socialist’ before that decade came and went  and republicanism being genuinely influenced by socialist ideas, although of a Stalinist-type that did not offer any real alternative.

This period saw a large growth in the number of strikes so that at one point the Irish State had the highest number in Europe (see below).


It also witnessed huge demonstrations against the high taxes imposed by the State on the working class, which amounted to 87 per cent of all income taxes in 1978. In 1979 over 150,000 workers demonstrated in Dublin with many thousands in thirty other towns including 40,000 in Cork.

At this point the Irish State’s model of economic development began to collapse. World-wide economic crisis, a weakening of foreign investment and bankruptcy of indigenous industry led to massive unemployment, renewed emigration and a ballooning State debt.  That the Irish working class and small socialist movement were unable to offer an alternative to the resulting capitalist restructuring and political offensive should not surprise.  There was no successful resistance and alternative created anywhere else.

The defeat of the tax struggles in the late seventies and early eighties and the inability to take advantage of ruling class political disarray, evidenced by repeated general elections in the first few years of the decade, plus the mass unemployment and emigration during the decade, weakened the working class both materially and politically.  The graph of strike activity above clearly shows a steep decline from the 1970s from which there has been no recovery.  It was in these circumstances that social partnership was imposed in the late 1980s.

Partnership signalled the move away from bargaining with the employers and State through militant action and acceptance that when the solvency of the State was in question this took priority.  Beginning in 1987 a series of deals were negotiated that meant accepting major cuts in pay and state services in order to reduce the massive State debt.  The parallels with today are obvious.

There was resistance to social partnership but it came in its most militant form from outside the trade unions and the trade union leaders were decisive in its relatively smooth introduction.  This defeat of militant workers action and acceptance of the prerogatives of capitalism was, as we have said, not at all unique to Ireland.

Across the world the ability and willingness of the working class to fight back in defence of its interests was set back.  Strike statistics are only the most graphic measure of this development.  Taking 42 countries and looking at the period between 1981-85 and 1996-2000 the number of countries in which strikes increased was 8 while there were 34 countries in which they declined.  In the group of countries in which strikes had risen the increase was only 5,183 while the reduction in strike numbers was 63,657 in the group of countries in which there was a decline.

In the Irish State the annual number of days lost in strikes fell from over 580,000 in the 1970s to 26,650 in 2005.  In the latter year there were only 15 strikes and only 10 in 2006, in which only 7,352 working days were lost, the lowest since records began in 1923.  In 2007, the last year of the boom, there were only 6.

As a percentage of the employed workforce trade union membership fell from 56.2% in 1987 to 42% in 1998.  Separate figures record a reduction from 46% in 1994 to 35% in 2004 while the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has admitted that density continued to fall, being lowest among young workers.  Where unions did exist member participation dropped and some of the features of bureaucratisation long normal at higher levels of trade unions infected union representatives further down the ranks.

All this occurred during an unprecedented boom in the economy, the period of the Celtic Tiger, when GDP growth ranged between 7.8% and 11.5% from 1995 to 2000 and between 4.4% and 6.5% from 2001 to 2007.  From 1990 to 2007 total employment grew from 1.160m to 2.112m, an increase of over 80%.  While incomes fell during the 1980s they grew rapidly during the Celtic Tiger.  The historical working class was recreated in many ways as a result of rapid economic growth both quantitatively as a result of falling unemployment, immigration and increased labour force participation rates and qualitatively as a result of the increased employment of women (whose number grew by over 125% from 1990 to 2007) and an influx of foreign workers.

The Irish working class was recreated as a result of a boom fuelled primarily by foreign investment, which excluded unions from its workplaces, increasing corporatism and bureaucratisation of the unions that did exist.  This within a world in which the historic goals of the working class movement – from progressive reform of the capitalist system to the view that it could be replaced – was increasingly discredited through the fall of Stalinism and defeat and retreat of workers struggles and the claims of social democracy.

The boom saw no political strengthening of the workers’ movement even as unemployment fell and the class objectively, at least in numbers, grew enormously.  As we said at the end of Part 3 capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production that recreates the working class.  In the Irish State it did so in a way and in circumstances that did nothing to overcome the historic political weaknesses of the class.  Indeed the trade unions became weaker as they bought into social partnership and the view that the interests of workers, State and bosses were best aligned.  Even the historic nationalist politics that has been hegemonic became encapsulated in the need to have a low corporation tax for US multinationals.

Lack of a strategic alternative, among other things, brought about defeat of the large struggles of the 1970s.  Unemployment, emigration and prolonged economic crisis brought an assault by the State on working class living standards and did so in such a way that it survived, even prospered, when the economy recovered and entered into a boom.  Social partnership sold the working class into sacrifices to bail out the State from bankruptcy and made the workers subordinate even when the boom gave them the conditions in which they could have recovered their strength and learnt to advance their own interests.  Instead, in so far as social partnership was later abandoned it was abandoned by the State.

The nationalist politics of the working class, the partnership with the state and the agreement of workers to sacrifice themselves on its alter came together in the reluctant acceptance of workers that they must bail out the banks and accept austerity when the economic crisis finally broke.  This dependence on the State can be seen in two other ways.

In Part 2 we noted that the left wing economist Michael Taft has claimed that the ‘squeezed middle’, the 4th to 8th deciles of income earners, suffered declines in direct income in the five years leading up to the crash, gaining only as a result of social transfers.  Social partnership involved a deal between the trade union leaders and the State/bosses in which workers refrained from industrial action and accepted lower than potential pay rises in favour of tax cuts.  This was not just the case in the final years of the boom but was the line pushed almost from the start – a policy that became more and more explicit as the partnership deals were negotiated.

Thus not only did the workers movement become denuded of any militant initiative but it became more and more dependent on the state, and this was true not only of public sector workers but of workers in the private sector as well.  Gross average industrial earnings grew by 25% in real terms in the 15 years between 1987 and 2000 but take home pay rose by 60% for a single person and 58% for married because taxation was cut.

Mainstream economists, in 2000, also reckoned that these tax cuts were regressive because they were largely achieved through reductions in tax rates, which favoured those on higher incomes.   It is well known that the State became excessively reliant on revenues from a credit boom but what this shows is that social partnership, and the whole strategy of the trade union leaders, was just as reliant.  But really, how could it be otherwise?

The second way this dependence increased can be seen in the simple growth of the state itself, true in all countries and not just of Ireland.  ‘The Economist’ reported that the average size of the state had grown from 12.7% of GDP in 1913 to 47.7% in 2009.  Even in the UK after decades of Thatcher and New Labour the size of the state remained around 44% from 1980 to 2005.  This translates into widespread and increasing dependence of the population on the state, which has become the supposed solution to every and all sorts of problems.

Such massive growth could not fail to have deep impacts on society at the ideological level and the ruling ideas that infect the working class.  Neoliberalism hasn’t done away with the State and neither has it weakened illusions in it.  The Irish State now presides over the world’s biggest property company (NAMA) after private capital made a mess of it.  The State is now the means by which the debts created by this private capital are made good by the working and middle class.

One business journalist has quantified some of the ways in which this dependency is transmitted:

“Irish Budget 2014: Half of Ireland’s population is on welfare and when recipients of child benefit, farmers dependent on public subsidies which are effectively welfare, accounting for 81% of average farm income in 2012; legal services costing the state about a half billion euros annually; public payments to doctors; a raft of corporate welfare schemes and the public service itself, at least while Karl Marx is likely to be disappointed that a few remnants of the failed communism experiment only remain, in Ireland there is a shining example of the halfway house known as socialism or to put it in non-ideological terms, dependency on the State.”

As we can see, he paints the growth of the capitalist state as somehow a practical example the ideas of Marx, and who can blame him?  It’s the view of most of the Left as well, who constantly call not on the working class to solve its own oppression but for the state to do it for them.

The journalist gives a host of facts that demonstrate the growth of dependency on the state -from the growth of social welfare expenditure from €9.5m in 2002 to €15.5m in 2007 when the crash came and to €20.7m in 2012.  The number of social welfare beneficiaries rose from 1.5m in 2002 to 1.6m in 2007 and 2.3m in 2012.  Of these 486,000 were on the Live Register.

He notes the increased number holding medical cards; the direct subsidies to private industry and agriculture – mostly to the biggest operators; the tax breaks for business and the direct procurement of goods and services from private capital.

However the bottom line with the austerity offensive is that the Irish State became bankrupt and could not afford to continue this, so introducing harsh cuts and tax increases.  The question we have sought to address is why Irish workers have not resisted, or resisted so little and to so little effect.

We have seen numerous reasons for this – from the historic weakness of the class; the recreation of such weakness in the defeats of the last few decades; international developments that have demonstrated the hardly unique character of the experience of Irish workers in this respect, and the particular role of trade union and political leaders, which again is far from unique to Ireland.  Only a few weeks ago I listened on the radio while a professor of economics in Madrid noted that commentators in Spain were wondering why Spanish workers were not reacting more angrily to austerity compared to their Portuguese neighbours.

The experience of Irish workers reflects the weakness of indigenous capitalism which the growth of foreign direct investment has not significantly altered.  The latter has only reinforced the weakness of Irish workers – they have hardly even attempted to unionise in the multinational sector and appear to have bought into the view that they must live through nine circles of hell before the proud Irish race will ever succumb to a headline corporation tax rate higher than 12.5 per cent.

Finally we have seen the very direct dependency of so many on the State that has just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.  Unable to stop them doing so, in fact not even being asked if they agreed, and fed crap about the ‘cheapest bailout in history’, the working class was left with a choice – bail out the state it depended on for jobs and welfare or default when the only people in place who could carry out this policy was the same State that was demanding they pay up.  Without a mechanism to enforce default, even if that is what they wanted, and without an economic and political power base outside of dependency on the State, the choice was pretty clear, even if there could have been struggles that could have made it messy.

Put simply – how could workers tell the State to get stuffed when it relied on it so much?  The Left has peddled nonsense that the State can be made a means to redistribute wealth such that only the rich pay for capitalist crises but the workers haven’t bought this and some of the Left that calls itself Marxist is not actually supposed to believe it either.

The defeat inflicted on workers in the last five years should cause a rethink.  Renewed declarations of faith will not do.

Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

What way forward for the Dublin Bus workers?

482013-dublin-bus-strike-members-of-siptu-and-3-630x484In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m.  Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.

From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative.  ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management.  It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.

This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves –  the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”.  But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.”  In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.

And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”

To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.

ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.

ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise?  Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?

ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society.  Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.

ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.

ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.

ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.

When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking.  But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves.  So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.

Do socialists have an alternative?

The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands.  The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.

In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party.  This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years.  And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed.  In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.

These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant.  If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian.  Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.

On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.

In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement.  Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do?  We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.

So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?

First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.

Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough.  As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans.  Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces.  In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.

Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?

The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done.  This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.

The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.

The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service.  Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions.  Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position.  Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented.  That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.

The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public.  Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days.  Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.

It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract.  Only a really existing movement could make them anything else.  Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine.  They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them.  Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at.  Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.

The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.

One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU.  The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.