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#Brexit: It is easier to leave the #EU than to strike

Last year was a bit busy, not least because I was working through two big projects – A Libertarian Reader and a new translation of Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel. Both involved translation, which is time consuming – not least trying to track down the context which the writer takes for granted. Both books are now in the hands of the publisher – although my introduction to Words is nowhere near ready (I’m waiting for confirmation of progress in both works by the publishers). This means that I can now work on other stuff, including this blog.

Originally published by Anarchist Writers. Written by Anarcho.

It has been somewhat neglected last year, with a combination of short informational blogs (often just announcements) and longer discussion ones. The last blog of 2019, Bollocks to Boris, was pretty lengthy, as was the first of this year’s on the trots – and that would have been longer if I had kept to my original plan (which readers of that blog will notice this is not that). So I was thinking, yet again, of being more focused and posting shorter blogs on specific events. This may be better for the reader as well, rather than long blogs which cover many issues. Here we go…

As many will have noticed, Brexit has finally happened. All those Brexiters who voted against May’s deal as a bad deal voted for a worse deal in the shape of Johnson’s slightly modified version of it (he moved commitments to workers’ rights to the optional part and put a border down the Irish Sea as originally suggested by the EU, and something he said no British Prime Minister would agree to). So the UK – with Scotland and Northern Ireland being dragged out (the latter, though, de facto remaining – and if there is no border, as Johnson says, then surely Scotland can be given the same status?) – is able to start the most significant change in modern history.

All it took was a slight majority in a referendum held in 2016. As I noted in Bollocks to Boris, the standard practice for a trade union is having a ballot to start a dispute then, after negotiations, to submit to the members what has provisionally been agreed. Which is right and proper – you do not give carte blanche to officials to decide when to call-off a strike. This was rarely raised after 2016 and instead the notion of a second confirmatory referendum was rejected out of hand by the Brexiters as “undemocratic” – yes, giving people a vote was against democracy…

Now, it was obvious why this was the position – the slight majority in favour of leaving in 2016 did not last long. As people raised they had been lied to, when they saw the difficulties involved for so little (if any) benefit and changed their minds, leave voters died of old age and youngster turned 18, it was pretty certain that a confirmatory referendum would have seen a vote for remain. So it was “undemocratic” to ask whether the May/Johnson deal was what they had voted for or not. Given that many of the Brexiters – including Farage and Johnson – had denounced it as betrayal, it is doubtful that it was.

So no confirmatory ballot – what else about striking officially relates to Brexit?

Well, Brexiters argue that we need to respect a vote made over three years ago to leave the EU. Johnson supports the anti-union laws and backed the changes imposed by Cameron. This introduced the legal requirement that unions have to re-ballot on strike action after six months:

“setting a 6 month time limit (which can be increased to 9 months if the union and employer agree) for industrial action so that mandates are always recent”

While before the new tightening of the anti-union laws, there is no absolute limit on the period for which such action can be taken on a continuous or discontinuous basis, now a union has to go through the above legal process again every six months – assuming it drops the officialdom-related hurdles, which it may not (as it may wish to “sense the mood” of the membership). Presumably this is because union members may change their minds. Unlike in the referendum, when a three year old mandate was fine and it was considered undemocratic to suggest that people may have reconsidered… as an aside, May put her deal to parliament three times in short succession meaning that it was considered fine for M.P.’s to be given the opportunity to change their minds.

Then there is this legal requirement for strike action:

“requiring a clearer description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper, so that all union members are clear what they are voting for”

This was not required for the Leave campaign. The remain campaign was the status quo and so, rightly, had no need to be explicit on what people were voting for. Yet the leave campaigners could spin various possibilities (often mutually contradictory ones) and deny others as they felt the need. So, in short, people really did not know what they were voting for – for example some (like Farage) talked of being like Norway, which was then immediately denounced as being “Brexit in Name Only” after the vote (usually by the very same people).

The current position is that everyone back in 2016 was voting for Johnson’s Deal – which is a worse version of May’s (let us recall that it changed after Johnson capitulated to the EU and accepted their first suggestion of a border down the Irish Sea, which he previously rejected, and so those Brexiters now celebrating Johnson’s deal are, like him, placing their criticisms of May’s deal into the Memory-Hole). The government refused to go impact analyses of the “new” Deal – unsurprisingly, as independent analysis suggests its (negative) economic impact is somewhere between May’s original and no deal.

So it is doubtful that it can be said that 43% voters were “clear what they are voting for” even in the December 2019 – and then Johnson immediately changed the bill compared to the one passed by Parliament and which he had then withdrawn before proclaiming Parliament was “blocking” Breixt… mendacious does not really do it just.

Let this sink in – in Britain it is easier to leave the EU than to go on strike… Undoing nearly 50 years of increasing economic, social and political integration is considered less of a problem for British capital than workers striking.

Now, I have described the most recent anti-union laws. I can tell you from my experiences as a union rep it is even harder than this to strike. The hurdles are two-fold. The first is the union officialdom and this has existed for some time. Tom Brown describes the process well from the 1940s, so long before Thatcher’s anti-union laws made it worse:

‘Centralization takes control too far away from the place of struggle to be effective on the workers’ side in that fight. Most disputes arise in the factory, bus garage or mine. According to trade union procedure the dispute must be reported to the district office of the union, (and in some cases to an area office) then to head office, then back again, then the complicated “machinery for avoiding disputes” devised by trade union ‘leaders’ and the employers’ lawyers is set in its ball passing motion, until everyone forgets the original cause of all this passing up and down. The worker is not allowed any direct approach to, or control of the problem. We are reminded of the memoirs of a certain court photographer who was making a picture of the old Emperor of Austria to turn his head a little to the left. Of course he could not speak to an emperor, so he put his request to a captain of the court guard, who spoke to his colonel, who spoke to a count, the count passed the request to a duke and he had a word with an archduke who begged his Imperial Majesty to turn his head a little to the left. The old chap turned his head and said “Is that sufficient?” and the message trickled back to the photographer via archduke, duke, count, colonel and captain. The humble thanks traveled back by the same road. The steps of trade union communication are just so fixed.’ (Principles of Syndicalism)

So to address a situation in the workplace caused by the actions of a boss or manager, workers need to organise a formal meeting of the whole branch, make sure it is (more than) quorate, pass a resolution, send it to the central union, meet with officials from the central union so they can judge there is sufficient support for a strike, then these officials meet with management to seek to resolve the matter. If they deem that this will not suffice, then they need to start the process by which a legal strike can be called.

This now means that the legal hurdles now kick in. The central union needs to organise a paper ballot (so addresses need to be up-to-date), ensure the turnout is over the legal threshold and if this is meet and the majority vote (there is another hurdle for certain public sector workers, too) then the union can inform the employers of any action agreed two weeks in advance – giving the bosses plenty of time to prepare for any disruption or go to the courts to get the vote nullified (which happens often as these are the courts of the capitalist State… the most recent laws bolster this by “giving more powers to the Certification Officer to ensure new and existing rules are always followed by unions”). Then a strike can happen – but only on narrowly defined issues (defined by the State, not the members).

The fact any union manages to strike in the UK is quite amazing – and now the Tories are going to impose “minimum standards of service” requirements on the railways (at least initially, am I sure the list of “essential” services will increase as required). To legally go on strike is extremely difficult – to take effective, immediate, direct action is illegal and would leave the workers do did so subject to the threat of instant dismissal and no recourse to legal redress. Which means you need a pretty solid union branch to even consider this – and even then, many people would be hesitant.

All in the name of “democracy,” of course… but there are different kinds of democracy: workers and bourgeois. As can be seen, the atomised and centralised nature of bourgeois democracy empower the few at the expense of the many – and this includes in the unions, as the anti-union laws not only empower the bosses but also the officials. In terms of encouraging workers’ democracy, Bakunin’s comments are still well worth reading as a guide for action (On the Program of the Alliance).

So more freedom for the master-class, more regulations for the workers. Little has changed in this regard since Kropotkin wrote these lines in 1890 (included at the end of this article as also in Direct Struggle Against Capital):

‘Here, in England, there are many amongst the exploiting classes – who see dimly the danger ahead, and the capitalist press (and more especially that portion which circulates exclusively amongst the capitalist class, such as the trade journals) contains many articles just now urging the most drastic measures against their slaves who dare to rebel against their will and feebly ask for a higher wage or a shorter working week. The interference of the State is loudly demanded to put down these troublesome strikes and labour unions. The strong arm of the law is to be invoked not for but against the worker. “We have too much liberty,” one trade journal of the highest class shrieks in terrified tones; and indeed we shall not be surprised if the workers speedily have to guard against attempts upon such feeble rights of combination and free action as they possess.

‘There is perhaps no safer rule of thumb for the worker than to do that which his enemy most denounces and to avoid that which his enemy least objects to. To be a State Socialist, to advocate legislative restriction and to pass resolutions at mass or other meetings is sneered at generally and sometimes faintly praised by the capitalist press, but hold an unemployed meeting or two in Trafalgar Square, organise a strike, or initiate a no-rent campaign, and the enemy unmasks himself and charges the workers, who do these dreadful but practical things, with being Anarchists, enemies of society, disturbers of the public order. Long screeds are written, showing the terrible loss entailed on the community by this action, the selfishness of the strikers, the awful suffering of their families (which is never thought of under other circumstances) and so on. This unmeasured abuse on the part of the capitalists should convince even Social Democrats that the strike is a useful weapon, which will help the workers much in inaugurating the Revolution…’ (“The Use of the Strike,” Freedom, April 1890)

Why is disentangling UK capital from nearly 50 years of economic integration considered worthy of less regulation than striking? Well, obviously, it is in the interests of capital – inequality has soared as our ability to retain more of the surplus our labour creates has been weakened. So the distribution of income from this situation helps explain the continuing tightening of the regulations:

“While the UK’s largest listed companies have doubled in a decade the amount paid out to shareholders (a record £110bn last year), the average wage in November 2019, measured as weekly real pay, was lower than in February 2008. If the £110bn was divided up between the 5 million people employed by the FTSE 100 companies, each worker would receive £22,000 each.” (Guardian)

Then there is the “pay” at the top:

“Senior executives in the UK’s top 100 companies took just 33 hours to be paid more than the typical worker’s annual salary… Figures released by the High Pay Centre thinktank showed that the typical FTSE 100 chief executive is paid 117 times more than the median worker, at £901.30 an hour or £3.46m a year.

“It means that by 5pm on 6 January 2020, the chief executives of Britain’s largest listed businesses will have pocketed more than the £29,559 annual salary earned by the median full-time employee, who is taking home about £14.37 an hour.” (Guardian)

In the past, inequality was simply the will of god; today, it is will of the market. The priesthood has been replaced by (mainstream) economists – although none of this can really be explained by bourgeois economics, although it is rationalised by “returns to capital,” “productivity of capital” or some such jargon (usually, like marginal productivity theory, created specifically to justify and normalise what it ostensibly sought to explain). At best, it is described as “market failure” although there is no market within the firm and the labour market is unlike any other, which means that cannot be a “failure” as this is how the system was meant to work – hence the need to organise and act effectively at the point of production (and elsewhere).

As I’ve noted before, Adam Smith would not have been surprised – he was well aware of the imbalance of power between workers and bosses favours the latter. “Whenever the law has attempted to regulate the wages of workmen,” Smith stated, “it has always been rather to lower them than to raise them” – if the State regulates unions and strikes, then it regulates the labour market and so the workers’ wages (as for those propertarians who may suggest that this says nothing about their “unknown ideal” of pure capitalism, well, almost all of them seem to be fanatically anti-union and Murray Rothbard did not think unions could exist in his “free society” – so the neo-liberal regime has brought us closer to this ideal, with corresponding rises in inequality and falls in social mobility).

There is more than just securing an increasing share of the wealth labour creates, though. As Luigi Fabbri noted as regards the rise of fascism in Italy:

“And, in view of the crisis, the workers’ other gains were becoming a burden beyond the ability of the employer class to bear, a hindrance, an eating away of its property rights that could be likened to a slow strangulation. The eight hour day, the shop steward commissions in the factories, the partial or general strikes, the placement bureaux, compulsory shift work, limits set on piece-work, the ban on war production, the fines imposed for breaches of agreements, etc., etc., and, along with them all, the government’s levies, the ceiling set on food prices and rents, finally gave the employers the impression that they were bosses no longer.” (Preventative Counter-Revolution)

This psychological aspect of power is something I think Marxism downplays (if not ignores). Capitalists are subject to competitive pressures, but there is more to capital than simply profit maximising. As the various experiments in workers control in corporations show, given a choice between maximising surplus (via workers’ participation) and maximising power they always choose the latter. Why? Because while the surplus increases, so does workers’ aspirations and power – and we will soon context the distribution of that larger surplus and (worse!) eventually conclude that we don’t need bosses. And from my own experiences of a union rep, I repeatedly saw managers take the hardest path, the one which would cause them the most work, rather than be sensible and engage in positive manner – which made little sense until you factor in the psychological factor, they liked being in charge and their decisions were final (unless forced to rethink by collective action).

This helps explain wider societal developments. David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs (a good book and worth reading) has a discussion on how the rise in clearly useless employment is, in part, a product of the essentially feudal nature of modern corporate capitalism. Under feudalism, the lords had numerous flunkies to show to their peers their wealth and power – now, with the class war apparently won and surpluses flooding upwards, the plutocratic elite can how indulge their autocratic whims and so create an environment where Bullshit Jobs can grow.

Graeber is definitely onto something here and this had chimed with my own experiences and thoughts. I should note my readings of dead anarchists meant I knew that Proudhon used the term “industrial feudalism” to describe the capitalism of his time (which “industrial democracy” would replace) and given the current situation it seems increasingly relevant. Just as the term “wage slavery” points to a key aspect of capitalism, so does “industrial feudalism” – particularly given the precarious nature of the job market makes changing jobs harder.

Of course, the weakening of labour has become counter-productive and the shift of income from labour to capital has made capitalism itself more fragile – yes, profits have increased but people still need to buy your products and this is becomes harder and harder when wages are stagnating:

“What a system is that which leads a business man to think with delight that society will soon be able to dispense with men! Machinery has delivered capital from the oppression of labour! That is exactly as if the cabinet should undertake to deliver the treasury from the oppression of the taxpayers. Fool! though the workers cost you something, they are your customers: what will you do with your products, when, driven away by you, they shall consume them no longer? Thus machinery, after crushing the workers, is not slow in dealing employers a counter-blow; for, if production excludes consumption, it is soon obliged to stop itself.” (Proudhon, System of Economic Contradictions)

So crisis can occur when labour is too strong (e.g., the 1970s) and too weak (e.g., 2008 to now!). Inequality has got so bad that even elements of the elite is concerned – after all, it makes it hard to justify the system if it becomes too blatant and increasing state power to keep us in our place only goes so far – but short-termism has always been a problem with capitalism (as can be seen from the current climate crisis). Then there is the contradictory nature of the system, which means solutions in one direction could cause problems in another (for example, Crisis and Capitalism’s Contradictions) – ironically, a bolstering of trade union power by weakening the anti-union laws would probably do British capitalism a world of good…

This, however, is unlikely because of what can be termed the educational benefits of striking. As Kropotkin argued in 1881:

“To be able to make the revolution, the mass of workers must be organised, and resistance and the strike are excellent means for organising workers. They have an immense advantage over those advocated at present (worker candidates, forming a workers’ political party, etc.), namely not diverting the movement, but keeping it in constant struggle with the principal enemy, the capitalist…. far from developing selfish instincts, the strike develops the sense of solidarity within an organisation as soon as it occurs.… The use of the strike did not prevent the Sections of the International from grasping the social question in all its complexity. On the contrary, it helped them as it was used to spread the idea amongst the masses at the same time…. Moreover, they say that the strike does not awaken the revolutionary spirit. It is the case today that quite the contrary should be said. Almost no serious strike occurs these days without the appearance of troops, without the exchange of blows, without a few acts of revolt. Here they fight with the troops; there they march to storm the factories; in 1873, in Spain, the strikers of Alcoy declared the Commune and fired on the bourgeoisie; in Pittsburgh, in the United States, the strikers found themselves masters of a territory as large as France, and the strike became the signal for a general uprising; in Ireland, the striking peasants found themselves in open revolt against the State. Thanks to government intervention, the factory rebel becomes a rebel against the State… Finally, the strike itself, the days without work and without bread, spent in the midst of these opulent streets, this unbridled luxury and these vices of the bourgeoisie, do more for the propagation of socialist ideas than all the public meetings in times of calm…” (“L’Organisation ouvrière,” Le Révolté, 24 December 1881)

Now, clearly the Tories are aware of this process – and so deny, by their legislative meddling, Lenin’s vanguardist assumptions. Everyday struggles produces socialist consciousness or, perhaps better, fertilises the soil from which the flower of socialism can grow – with the help of organised anarchists, as Kropotkin suggests. This is why my recent article On Anarchist Organisation has a section entitled “Resistance is Fertile: From Here to There” and quotes Emma Goldman on how “[d]irect action against the authority in the [work]shop, direct action against the authority of the law, of direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism.” She added:

‘“The political superstition is still holding sway over the hearts and minds of the masses, but the true lovers of liberty will have no more to do with it. Instead, they believe with Stirner that man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social, and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for “men who are men, and who have a bone in their backs which you cannot pass your hand through.”’

So, in this, our enemies have a better grasp of the dynamics of class struggle than What is to be Done? — as can be seen by the slow decline of support in the Labour Party across many of its “traditional” areas, without struggle people adjust to the realities of capitalism to such a degree they vote for the very people who make their lives worse (for almost all Britain’s problems are home-grown).

So the task is obvious – we need to encourage “the spirit of revolt”. Easier said than done, I know, but without direct action then things will get worse. The school strikes over climate change are encouraging – we can only hope the pupils will take this attitude into the workplace with them and that workers start to join them. This is not, I stress, an appeal to spontaneity (although an element of spontaneity is always required) for we need to work together to encourage our work colleagues and neighbours to take direct action – so the role of organised anarchists (whether in anarchist groups or in the IWW and such-like) is critical. We also need to consider how anarchists in reformist unions can work within them to likewise empower members, cut across union divides and spread the message to non-union members (i.e., the majority of workers!).

This is a big task – not least given the “hostile environment” in the labour market the Tories have been building for the last forty years. As shown above, the hurdles are quite ridiculous – particularly given the damage leaving the EU seems set to inflict on British capital far exceeds an increase in the number of strikes (there won’t be a general strike just because the anti-union laws get repealed, sad to say). Since the actual strategies, activities and tactics to be used will vary depending on the concrete situation, it is hard to generalise – so I will leave that for a future blog beyond noting that, while obviously dated, Tom Brown’s writings sketch the basics of an alternative.

So this blog has grown from its initial aim – I’m sure no one familiar with my writings will be remotely surprised!

A few comments before ending. First, the quote from Kropotkin’s “L’Organisation ouvrière” is from a new translation which is in my new edition of Words of a Rebel rather than the one in Direct Struggle Against Capital (which is on-line: part I and part II). I thought it wise to retranslate it and other articles from this period to make them have the same feel as the new translation of the main body of the edition. I’ve also managed to track down a few of the more obscure references in this and the other articles, which is nice.

Finally, below is a new translation of a Kropotkin article on the trade unions and the need for direct action tactics. Caroline Cahm in her essential Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886 (pdf) considered this as being likely to have been written by Kropotkin. It is definitely reflective of other articles on the labour movement written at this time which have now been identified as being written by him. Personally, I think it was almost certainly written by Kropotkin and have included it in the “Supplementary Material” of my edition of Words of a Rebel. The book edition has a lengthy footnote on the history of the British labour movement, which I exclude here, as well as this one: “It should be noted that Trades unions appears in English in the title and throughout the text, presumably so readers would not confuse the reformist British unions to the militant unions Kropotkin was advocating in other articles.” As I’ve discussed Kropotkin’s syndicalism elsewhere, I will leave it there beyond noting that, looking at the Tories anti-union laws, our enemies clearly agree with Kropotkin’s arguments on the importance of means and their consequences.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

The League and the Trade Unions

Le Révolté, 1 October 1881

Our readers will certainly draw a comparison by reading what we have just said about these two [in the article “Irlande: La Convention Nationale” (Le Révolté, 1 October 1881)].

As long as the trades unions stood on the illegal terrain, as a banned association, and proceeded by strike and by force, they were a terrible power, which the bosses eventually respected. But this period has passed, and what we have to compare today is the Irish [Land] League and the trades unions of our days.

The trades unions, after they became legal associations and after they renounced revolutionary methods, go into a slump. They are visibly weakening (a third of the membership, that is 200,000 men, have left them in five years); they no longer represent the working class but the upper stratum of this class, the fourth estate that seeks to make a sweet life at the expense of the fifth and sixth strata of the proletariat. Their programme dwindles and they are becoming, they have already become a simple branch of the bourgeois liberals. After formerly talking of the right to work, they are now confined to asking for absolutely microscopic political reforms which have always been part of the Liberal’s programmes.

By contrast, the League, which proceeds by revolutionary means – boycotts, resistance by force to evictions, etc. – although it began with an excessively moderate demand – “no excessive rent” – has not ceased to deepen its programme; last winter it demanded rent according to Griffith’s Valuation (a very low estimate) and today its watchword – the one, at least, that is put into practice – has already become: “No more rents! The land to the farmer!”

The lesson is very simple: however moderate the battle-cry may be – provided that it is in the domain of the relations between capital and labour – as soon as it is put into practice by revolutionary means, it will eventually deepen and inevitably lead to demanding the overthrow of the regime of property. Whereas a party which confines itself within parliamentary politics ends up abandoning its programme, however advanced it was in the beginning: it ends up merged with the parties of bourgeois opportunism.


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