Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

There's been several articles posted lately critical of identity politics from a class struggle perspective. This blog addresses some of the pitfalls of the class unity v identity politics debate.

I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time, but I've hesitated as class struggle critiques of identity politics are often clumsy and serve to gloss over very real oppressions and violence. This difficulty is probably why such critiques often open with arguments from identity, such as the opening line of 'Who is Oakland?': "This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers." It's testament to the power of identity politics that even critiques of it require an identitarian disclaimer.

Of course, there's lots to be said for arguing from experience. The Oakland pamphlet is excellent, some of my favourite writing lately has been the work accounts on the Recomposition blog, and Liberté Locke's excellent piece went viral not too long ago too. But it often proves tricky to navigate between the politics of class unity on the one hand and the politics of identity on the other. So this blog is going to briefly focus on 4 sets of problems:

  • The problems with identity politcs
  • The problems of class unity
  • The relationship of identity to action
  • Class structure and subjectivity

The problems with identity politcs

This piece argues that "identity politics, as a political force, seeks inclusion into the ruling classes" - that is to say the creation of cross-class identities to demand that our rulers and bosses should reflect the identities of their constituents. This critique is further elaborated in the aforementioned Oakland piece, which argues that such a politics treats identity-based oppression as a matter of indivdual, interpersonal privileges, obscuring its structural elements. And in treating such cross-class identity groups as having shared interests, it proceeds by a politics of representation, with individuals incorporated into social structures speaking for 'the black community', 'the Muslim community' and so on.

In other words, identity-based oppressions are used as the moral claim to representation in and/or recogition by existing power structures, thus strenghtening the very structures that produce them. While there sound like some differences between the US and UK here, there are certainly strong similarities. While in the US activists from the 1960s liberation struggles are now to be found in the corridors of power 'speaking for' those they've left behind, in the UK the development of an insititutionalised multiculturalism has functioned similarly.

Since the struggles of the 1970s, the population has been parcelled up into identity-based, cross-class 'communities' which are then 'represented' by 'community leaders'. The effect of this move is to depoliticise these oppressions and to turn them into constituencies. However the Oakland piece also highlights the problems facing any critique of this liberal, representative politics:

"For too long there has been no alternative to this politics of privilege and cultural recognition, and so rejecting this liberal political framework has become synonymous with a refusal to seriously address racism, sexism, and homophobia in general."

This is a trap class struggle politics often falls into.

The problems of class unity

The basic problem with a politics of class unity is that the class is not united. The proletariat is positively striated in innumerable ways. There are hierarchies of income and social status. Divisions between citizens and shades of migrant through to the undocumented workers. The relatively securely employed through to precarious work and unemployment. There are divisions of language and culture which disrupt the circulation of struggles within workplaces and across borders. There are divisions of social power between roles, with some proles having disciplinary or supervisory functions. Prole-on-prole violence is endemic and structural - just look at the prevailance of intimate violence and rape.

Proles experience racism on a daily basis, from not just the state and police but customers, bosses and workmates... Civil rights are still striated by sexuality; witness the struggles over gay marriage (as much as libertarian communists might not care for the institution of marriage itself). Feminists in the Marxist tradition often draw attention to the division of labour, and particularly the division between production and reproduction, waged and domestic labour. Once reproductive, caring labour is included, women continue to do a significant majority of the world's work, and even when engaged in wage labour still do most of the domestic labour too.

A similar argument was the basis of Errico Malatesta's criticism of the apolitical syndicalism of Pierre Monatte in 1907, when he said that "there are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working 'class', just as there does among the bourgeoisie." I would only partly agree with Malatesta (more on that in a moment), but it should be clear that simple appeals to class unity at best gloss over a whole range of hierarchies and divisions and at worst silence voices of less powerful sections of the class or become complicit in their oppression.

The relationship of identity to action

This is an enormous topic I can't do justice to here, so I'll follow a single thread. Take this quote from an old libcom piece:

"This is why we need a revolution. Firstly: of ideas. We need to stop believing in capitalism. We need to start seeing each other as equals and unite as workers, as a class, which has been successfully divided with racism, sexism and all sorts of stupid prejudices for centuries."

Here, we see an example of the problems raised above: the structural oppressions, hierarchies, power relations and violence just discussed is glossed as mere "stupid prejudices". Bad ideas. False consciousness. Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority. The criticism of privilege is of course answered with more appeals to unity - 'we're all workers!'. However, privilege theory is critiqued effectively in the Who is Oakland? piece, so I'll focus on the idealism.

The argument is explicit: revolution begins with a change in ideas, with everyone ceasing to believe in capitalism and identifying as proletarians with no country and nothing to lose but their chains. This shift in identity summons into being revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism. Proletarian identity is held to be a prerequisite of proletarian struggle. I would suggest it's the other way around - class identity is a product of shared activity, and in particular the collective power experienced in struggle. Judith Butler writes that:

"The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must first be in place in order for political interest to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed."

While I have differences with Butler's account (which I won't get into here), it does highlight the similarity of argument between a naive class struggle position and identity politics. To resolve this we need to look at what's different about class.

Class structure and subjectivity

Class, I have argued before is best understood as a bipolar social relationship. At one pole, the proletariat, the dispossessed, at the other, capital, whose inhuman, vampire-like logic is exposed so meticulously by Marx. What we don't have here is people, subjects. We are talking simply of social structures and subject positions, i.e. social roles which can be occupied by people. And we also have a spectrum - not everyone is fully proletarianised or fully an agent of capital. It's possible to occupy multiple roles at the same time: a worker who is also a landlord for example.

For this reason and others, this kind of analysis isn't interested in classifying individuals, but in understanding the social field and the antagonisms within it.1 And so there's still no people. It's all stage and no actors. However, it's starting to show us what's different about class. Slavoj Zizek has written of...

"...the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class."

It is precisely this antagonism which is lost from the kind of intersectional analyses which speak of "classism", reducing class to merely 'economic oppresssion'. Class is not an economic category but a social one. Class struggle is the struggle against being reduced to mere human resources and to assert our human needs. This has multpile dimensions. Economic struggles over wages, conditions and poverty are just one element of it. So is the imposition of work, the imposition of motherhood (think struggles over reproductive freedom), struggles against racism, patriarchy etc.

Judith Butler notes that this ubiquitous 'etc' signifies the irreducibility of identity to a pre-existing subject. Rather, she claims that the subject - the "I" (or by extension the "we") who has an identity - is created through the performance of its identity.

It could all get very abstract and academic here, so I'm going to gloss over some pretty huge theoretical issues. But recall Malatesta's claim that classes do not exist "in the proper sense of the term." Here we can employ Marx's distinction between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself. The class-in-itself can be recast as a subject position: proletarian, dispossessed. All these proletarians necessarily share is their condition - and nothing else, no positive attributes (ages, genders, incomes, social status and so on).

But the actual subjects who make up this class do have such attributes, which contribute to multiple hierarchies, oppressions, divisions and identities, and these subjects are always much more than bare proletarians.2 However, while struggle requires some kind of collective identity, it doesn't need to start from the global proletariat! The 'us' could be as small as the workers in a team or department, the housewives in a street or black workers in one factory... to begin with.

The 'class-for-itself', class 'in the proper sense of the term' can be understood as a collective political subject that comes into existence through struggles. Numerous partial, provisional struggles can forge shared interests and transform identities.3 Think for example how 'middle class students' and striking electricians attempted to come together in London last year, or how in 1960 and 70s Italy feminist movements, student movements and factory-based struggles linked up to seriously threaten capital's rule.

This is not a question of seizing power, but of exercising it - collectively. Through class struggles, proletarian unity moves from a negative, abstract common condition to become a concrete political force against capital. Autonomist Marxism has called this process 'political class recomposition'. Insofar as this force fails to vanquish capital, it undergoes a corresponding process of decomposition as capital reimposes itself on the proletariat, and the fractures, hierarchies and striations of the class in itself return to characterise everyday life and struggles.

It would take a short book to do this argument justice, but hopefully I've sketched an outline of a class politics that neither glossses over identity-based oppressions nor lapses into identity politics itself. 'Workers of the world unite!' is a statement of intent, but that unity must reckon with the multiple hierarchies, striations, divisions and identities in the proletariat.

  • 1. This kind of bipolar analysis also allows analysis of processes of proletarianisation/embourgeoisement, commodification/decommodification, enclosure/making common, the division of family/market implied by the dominance of wage labour, the role of the state in creating these conditions and preventing them being torn apart, and many other matters besides. But these aren't our concern here.
  • 2. Where these individual subjects come from is one of the bracketed huge theoretical issues, and raises questions of structuralism vs post-structuralism, materiality and discourse, the meaning of subjectivity and agency... Gulp.
  • 3. There's nothing automatic about this, which is why radical movements have often actively fostered collective, class identities, which points to the importance of culture and discourse in constructing the shared identities which sustain material struggles. See: Music and the IWW: the creation of a working class counterculture

Posted By

Joseph Kay
May 18 2012 18:30


  • Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority.

    Joseph Kay

Attached files


fingers malone
May 21 2012 07:59

I think other people should put up some other concrete examples.

May 21 2012 08:04

hello i am new user this website but I'm really looking forward to cos this is excellent and really interesting. i am imprised this post

Mike Harman
May 21 2012 09:18
But come on, you must remember some of the guys sitting around chucking their dogends on the floor, they did that consistently for the whole occupation!

Hm not specifically but I'd definitely not dispute it either. I vaguely remember doing the washing up once or twice and there being way more cups than there were people actually there at the moment, suggesting they'd built up over some time. I was probably guilty of that some other days as well, since I tend to forget about the existence of cups of tea if I'm in the middle of something else while drinking them. I think I would have noticed the dog-end stuff if someone had done that in the middle of a clean-up, since that's an extra level of anti-social.

On specific examples, I don't have any to hand with organising, but it's worth pointing out that open source software communities often have very similar discussions as these, as well as similar demographics (90% male etc.), and there's quite a bit written on the subject as well. Will dig up some links later since I think there's quite a lot in common between open source groups and political organisations in terms of structural/behavioural issues etc.

Joseph Kay
May 21 2012 09:34

Ok, so in this case there sounds like several issues...

A. Sexist/racist behaviour by participants in the occupation
B. A political organisation willing to turn a blind eye to this
C. Those not being directly effected not noticing these dynamics (assuming Mike Harmann was there when they happened, for the sake of argument)
D. Lack of autonomous organisation (either pre-existing, e.g. a feminist group, or formed ad hoc)

A Is something that will always come up, as these attitudes and behaviours are common. In terms of how to deal with it, the general approach I'd suggest is (1) talk to them privately as an individual or get someone they respect to do so; (2) talk to them privately as a group; (3) raise the issue in a meeting and (4) if all else fails, try to isolate or bypass them. All of these are much harder on your own than with a formal and/or informal group backing you up, so this isn't meant to tell you what you should have done, more what I'd suggest if this came up in a struggle I was involved in. I also mean it constructively - I'm not trying to have a go at whatever group this was. I've definitely been on the wrong side of these dynamics in groups I've been involved in at times too.

The thinking behind the order is to try and minimise the defensive reactions from 'calling someone out', giving them an opportunity to modify their behaviour before raising it formally. I suspect the last step is the most controversial. I'm not talking about going FULL MACHIAVELLI, just trying to minimise the informal power sexists/racists have and/or find workarounds. So if we're dealing with alpha males in a tyranny of structurelessness, this could just mean strengthening formal democratic structures (having an occupation meeting at a set time and frequency etc).

If the majority of the occupation don't see the problem (i.e. isssues B, C and D) this might not work, but an alternative e.g. a women-only room for sleeping might be a (far from ideal) way to minimise sexual harassment without forcing women out of involvement. If women are doing all the cleaning, maybe go on strike. Something like this was threatened in a Sussex occupation iirc and lead to a rota and a load of guilty men chipping in (although I think the women still did more than their fair share iirc; i'd need to confer with others as I was only on the edges of that occupation). It's possible the men would call your bluff and live in squalor I guess, but if done right a cleaning strike could maybe get the non-alpha male types on board against the dickheads and lead to a more egalitarian division of labour.

B is a question of our own organisational cultures. This is something that can be worked on wherever, prior to particular struggles. It's partly a political argument: do we see 'the working class' as this sexist, racist mass over there we have to woo in, and thus see things like anti-sexism and anti-racism as 'middle class niceties' which get in the way of class unity? Or do we rather recognise sexist and racist attitudes as barriers to class unity that need to be actively overcome in the course of struggles? This comes down to the 'we won't wait until after the revolution' stance of most anarchist feminists afaics.

This definitely doesn't have to mean giving patronising 'middle class' lectures; but imho treating 'the working class' as unchallengeably sexist and racist is just as patronising (scare quotes as we're dealing in tautologies here). Rather political organisations should see struggle as a place of potential but not automatic change, and think of ways to support change in that direction (e.g. having resources and/or training for organising alongslide and against these kind of dynamics and working out ways to support people in such situations rather than silencing them in the name of unity). And we shouldn't assume we don't have baggage of our own while doing this, or have all the answers, of course. The standpoint should be 'we're working class participants in this struggle too' (assuming that's the case) as opposed to 'we're the people with the right(-on) ideas, listen to us!'

C is a tricky one as it's basically a wider cultural issue. For obvious reasons, the people on the receiving end of sexism or racism (or other oppressive behavior) are likely to be more sharply aware of it. However, if people 'just don't see it' they may well become allies once it's drawn to their attention. I guess that would depend how it's raised, how obviously problematic the behaviour is and so on. Maybe a bit of social mapping would help; who's actively sexist, passively sexist, neutral, passively anti-sexist, actively anti-sexist, unknown etc (in terms of behaviour, not stated ideology!)? Then come up with an organising strategy (AEIOU, one-on-ones etc) to win people round...

D is something that might be able to support the above. I can't speak for you, but perhaps if there had been an organisation (whether formal or informal) which had done some of the groundwork, had some resources in place and could offer practical and moral support, I'd guess that would have made it easier to stand up to those dynamics (and the relatively powerful individuals involved). Ideally political organisations would be play this role (or revolutionary union initiatives for that matter), but often they don't and are even part of the problem as it sounds like may have been the case here.

So then it falls to autonomous organisation on a feminist/anti-racist basis to play this role. If there's no pre-existing group, it may be possible to create something like an informal committee following the social mapping to organise against sexist and racist dynamics from within the struggle. Obviously this could be done in a way which supports the struggle (e.g. making sure you're all involved enough that critics look like the divisive ones - autonomous organisation will invariably be accused of splitting, separatism, divisiveness, WHAT ABOUT THE MENS? etc).

Ok, that's another long post. But hopefully more practical and less theoretical.

Joseph Kay
May 21 2012 09:35
Mike Harmann wrote:
Will dig up some links later since I think there's quite a lot in common between open source groups and political organisations in terms of structural/behavioural issues etc.

that sounds interesting, please do!

Mike Harman
May 21 2012 12:50

OK here's a few links.

This presentation is a good general overview, and it's a talk by an actual participant: (see the 'download video' link). Covers some of the same ground (calling things out, blind spots etc.) on this thread.

I haven't got very far through yet, but it's the kind of thing I'm thinking of. 'cos so many businesses/governments/universities use FOSS stuff, there's a reasonable amount of academic study on how it's organised etc. and that includes quite a lot of focus on gender imbalance and possible reasons for it.

For example:

Although it is considered ideal that good code would speak for itself, in reality authors must vociferously defend their work or proposals in order to demonstrate knowledge and develop a reputation as a valuable person. Demonstrating and defending one’s technical proficiency is vital. Sometimes a tiny technical decision results in a discussion consisting of several hundred emails. The discussions tend to become more fierce as they progess.

Sound familiar?

One which isn't related to this thread specifically, but is very interesting in terms of how open source projects are structured and how people enter those structures/end up in leadership positions etc. is has lots more links, including to specific incidents (like people putting nude pics in their presentations to conferences etc.)

fingers malone
May 21 2012 21:30
Joseph Kay wrote:

It's partly a political argument: do we see 'the working class' as this sexist, racist mass over there we have to woo in, and thus see things like anti-sexism and anti-racism as 'middle class niceties' which get in the way of class unity? Or do we rather recognise sexist and racist attitudes as barriers to class unity that need to be actively overcome in the course of struggles?

I think this is excellent.

About the practical ideas: got loads to say, maybe tomorrow I'll have a chance.

What about other people chipping in with some examples then?

fingers malone
May 22 2012 21:53

Sorry it's took me a while to come back to this.

The suggestions JK wrote are all solid. Problem is reacting in that kind of way assumes some kind of backup, which you don't always have.
I think unfortunately often when these things happen your first impulse is just going to be to be less involved. Unless it's something very important to you, you are more likely to respond by withdrawing a bit from the situation. Which means that people who might be your supporters are not around as much.
Another problem is that tackling these things can lead to serious amounts of hostility, which has a negative effect on the struggle and personally grinds you down. Not in the example I gave above, but I've seen it happen other places. Some people will be furious at being challenged and confronted.

There's probably less consensus than you think that these problems exist, that they should be dealt with, or that they should be allowed to interfere with real, important politics.

Another problem is that it is amazingly difficult to talk about these things. We're talking about something that happened years ago, that wasn't even that bad really, and I'm actually pretty uncomfortable talking about it.

fingers malone
May 22 2012 21:55

Hey I don't mean that comment to sound negative, and the suggestions were all good. Some of them would probably have helped a lot.

And I still think someone else should chip in with some examples.

May 23 2012 11:42

I can't speak to this particularly well, for various reasons, but I'll give one example of somebody being successfully removed from a space because of his behaviour.

So this particular individual (C) was involved in the Liverpool social centre from the very beginning, he was deeply sexist to the point where several women felt unable to be involved. He did a lot of the DIY around the centre and resented skilled women being involved in it, he expected women to pick up after him and there were a number of occaisions when he was physically violent or threatened to be violent.

He was allowed to stay involved for far longer than he should have been, there were a number of factors in this. He had a few mates involved in the centre who consistently defended him and refused to challenge him, his aggression and refusal to accept responsibility for his behaviour made challenging him individually ineffective, quite a few men involved in the centre didn't recognise his behaviour as sexist, rather than him just being a dick (I'm sorry to say I was guilty of this at times) and he was seen as being a proper working class bloke and some people didn't feel able to challenge him because of this.

Eventually women who were involved in the centre formed a group to deal with this (which still exists to this day as AWOL), they caucussed and fed the discussions back into social centre meetings, where they made it clear that C could not possibly continue to be involved in the centre. It was agreed that C would be barred from the centre altogether, with an agreement that if he made a serious effort to change his behaviour, the ban would be reconsidered after a year. This was about four years ago and he hasn't been seen at the centre since.

A conflict resolution procedure was brought into place so that there would be a formal process for dealing with this sort of stuff, which came into play a couple of years later when another bloke (P) behaved in a similar way. This time the guy was removed much quicker, thanks to both the conflict resolution policy and improvements in the culture of the centre, with everything being done through social centre collective meetings.

After P was kicked out, a safer spaces policy was drawn up, which has been used to challenge people on their behaviour and resolve situations before they get to the point where they have to be banned from the centre.

fingers malone
May 23 2012 11:49

That's really interesting madashell.

fingers malone
May 24 2012 13:15

I'm trying to write a post about this idea of the proper working class bloke and how it interacts with anti sexism, but I've deleted it three times and I just can't get the words out.
And that was the whole of my lunch break. sad

May 24 2012 16:54

hey fingers, for what it's worth I hope you'll keep trying to get this out. and I'd like to respectfully suggest that you put up the imperfect versions rather than delete them so the rest of us can think along with you. I think working class masculineness is different in the US from the UK but there's similar issues and it's important stuff.

fingers malone
May 24 2012 23:08

Thanks Nate.

fingers malone
May 25 2012 08:01

It's still not very good but I'm posting it anyway (blame Nate)

There’s a strong connection, culturally, between ideas of working class and ideas of maleness, things like strength, anger, toughness, bravery, connected with certain manual jobs… there isn’t really any equivalent for women and this connection with ideals of maleness means there is an identification of the working class as male.
When there is criticism of sexism, it can be written off as “middle class feminism” and an assumption that the problem is somebody being too easily shocked and having delicate middle class sensibilities, as if working class women have no problems with sexism (maybe real working class women don’t mind?) or as if we are not really part of the working class. There’s an assumption that you are complaining about some behaviour because you are not used to it, rather than that you have grown up with it all your life and are sick of it. It’s seen as maybe true, but minor and not worth alienating working class people over. The working class people who might be alienated by sexism don't feature.
I’ve seen people using these arguments to avoid criticism when they’ve done very serious things.
To be fair, though, maybe there is a genuine problem with politics where too much importance is given to having the right politics in the abstract and using the right words, which people could legitimately get annoyed with. I think at the moment there is an excessive wordiness in politics. However this isn’t particularly worse in feminism than anything else and feminists did some very good critiques of it as well (Sheila Rowbotham for example).

Maybe the problem also is people see it as only two choices, we accept sexist behaviour, or working class people will leave, and they don't want them to leave, so they try to make you accept it. Instead of seeing,as JK said, struggle as a place of potential but not automatic change, and that challenging these things is part of the struggle. Seeing people as unchanging and unchangably sexist for ever is also wrong.

For clarification, I don't think that only working class people are sexist, middle class people are also very very sexist. I'm talking more about people's perceptions of other people than real people in all their complexity.

Joseph Kay
May 25 2012 08:47

thanks for posting that fingers...

We were talking about this in our local a bit, and the discussion came up about how we're always talking about fights, conflict etc. When actually 95% of a typical fight involves talking to people, standing around outside shops, leafleting, meeting. It's pretty rare we actually have to physically defend ourselves or break out of kettles.

Now that's not to say we shouldn't talk about class conflict, nor reduce politics to a language game about which words we use. Neither is it to say women don't like conflict or men do. Rather that we instinctively use words like 'fight' and 'conflict' where 'supporting one another' or 'care' are at least as accurate, and thus frame 'politics' in a socially masculine way (and of course there's also anarchists who take this to the extreme of saying anything that doesn't involve gratuitous aggro, smashing, fire, explosions or violence isn't real politics).

Which leads onto another thing; the practical content of 'politics' and organising are almost opposites. 'Politics' involves grasping the bigger picture, having the right positions and using the correct terminology in quite an abstract way (which is necessary to talk about the big picture to an extent). This is exacerbated by the medium of forum discussion I think. It's a caricature, but one could in principle have excellent politics whilst being a complete introvert who never leaves bed/laptop.

Organising on the other hand is 90% about building and maintaining relationships with real people. It's about getting people to open up about their hopes and fears and listening to them, which can be quite emotional. It's about breaking big problems down into small concrete steps people can take together, and putting names and faces to the abstract impersonal forces which rule our lives.

I think both are needed; politics without organising leads to detached, impotent pontificating; organising without politics makes footsoldiers for reformism. And not everyone has to be some kind of communist übermensch doing everything all the time. But it strikes me that this division is pretty gendered, e.g. women are very under-represented in SF (between 0% and 33% depending on the local afaik), and yet definitely over-represented amongst our most active and effective organisers.

May 25 2012 09:50
Joseph Kay wrote:
It's a caricature, but one could in principle have excellent politics whilst being a complete introvert who never leaves bed/laptop.

You have just described me.

May 25 2012 10:05

Great posts by both Fingers and JK. smile

Joseph Kay
May 27 2012 12:47

Related: The importance of dealing with Occupy's misogyny problem:

I remember meeting after meeting where the people who talked the loudest and most proceeded to complain about being unheard, when all that had really transpired was people not agreeing with them (freedom of thought and the right to have people agree with you are irreconcilable, so the right to be heard necessarily has to stop there, at the right to speak one's mind).

With hindsight to put the pieces together, a bigger picture emerges. I remember who in particular these people were - male, predominantly white, alienated and resultantly defensive, and at their absolute worst anytime they were confronted by women.

(...) The challenges these men face will not be resolved through conflict with the women around them, but through challenging the social structures that do contribute to their lived experiences of alienation.

May 30 2012 03:14

You say that people don't first identify as the global proletariat and then take action. However, don't people need some level of idealism or identification with the "working class". Otherwise, you end up with one group of workers seeking to benefit the group they identify with at the expense of another group or workers.

In theory, this class identity arises through struggle But why should a 'privleged' worker not simply identify with their fellow white/male etc workers and strike a deal with capital to maintain their relative advantage.

I suppose what i'me getting at is that there are material benefits to the privelged prole (eg the fact they have to do less shit work for greater rewards)

fingers malone
May 30 2012 07:33

Good point.

This is a problem with the idea of struggle in your own material interests. In the bigger picture, it is in all our interests to overcome divisions within the working class, an injury to one is an injury to all... but in the here and now, some people can definitely meet their material interests better by benefiting at the expense of another group of workers.

Where my mate works, a militant workplace, a few years ago they had a choice between more casualised workers getting proper permanent jobs, or a pay rise for the people at the top of the pay scale, and the permanent workers voted for the second one, and that's what won.

People can also identify in this way when it isn't even in their immediate material interests, due to the strength of ideology. I'm thinking of racism but also anti scrounger workers who want to cut benefits, which will bring down their own wages.

Has anyone else read "Organised labour and the black worker"? I think it's got some of the best examples of exactly this question.

Joseph Kay
May 30 2012 07:57

you're right to point out that sectional interests are just as rational as class interests. indeed, so are individual interests, even scabbing. this is why i don't like the idea of 'false consciousness'. there's nothing false about it - if you see yourself as an individual, scabbing is rational; if you see yourself as part of a relatively privileged section of workers, sectional struggles are rational; if you see yourself as part of a global proletariat, full communism is rational.

So i guess identity mediates interests, and identity has the potential (but only the potential) to broaden out in the course of struggles. But generally that will require either active agitation or a really stupid opponent (i.e. indiscriminate victimisation uniting everyone against the boss). So generally it requires active organisation to overcome divisions and challenge hierarchies (whether sectional interests, identity-based, whatever), rather than relying on capitalism to create a unified working class gravedigger.

Fwiw (back into comfy theory territory), something like this was the basis of Malatesta's critique of Monatte's syndicalism, which assumed that simply uniting all the workers was anti-capitalist in itself.

Edit: This is also a very real issue at the moment. where I work 10% of the workforce are being outsourced, and these are amongst the lower-grade staff in a very hierarchic workforce. There's been a lot of talk of united action, but it will take a lot of agitation to turn words into deeds imho. A lot of people can see how if we let them shaft one group of workers then they'll be next, but will that translate into collective action? Certainly not automatically.

fingers malone
May 30 2012 19:52
Joseph Kay wrote:

Edit: This is also a very real issue at the moment. where I work 10% of the workforce are being outsourced, and these are amongst the lower-grade staff in a very hierarchic workforce. There's been a lot of talk of united action, but it will take a lot of agitation to turn words into deeds imho. A lot of people can see how if we let them shaft one group of workers then they'll be next, but will that translate into collective action? Certainly not automatically.

People who are in a slightly better position than someone else often strongly defend that ideologically, they want to see it as right and fair. When I was doing a course years ago, those of us on the dole got our dole plus a tenner (making 46 quid at the time) those under 18 on YTS got 29 quid. In an argument about it I noticed that the ones on full dole all defended it, although we had no reason to. We could have just said, yeah, it's shit, you should have the extra tenner too. But we didn't.

Last round of layoffs at work we did manage to get it on the table that the non-permanent staff should be defended as well, but there was a lot of tension and loads of people didn't like it. I had some conversations with people that were pretty hostile, which was uncomfortable as they were my friends, but they resented being asked to make a stand for us. It was a major change for the better, don't get me wrong, and we got two unanimous votes for action over it, but people weren't unreservedly happy about it.

fingers malone
Jun 5 2012 10:26

I looked for some concrete struggles, this one, the Burnsall dispute, is very interesting. It was a strike In Smethwick, 1992-93 in a metal finishing factory. It was partly an equal pay dispute but mainly about health and safety issues. A woman miscarried after asking not to lift metal pieces and to be moved to lighter tasks and being refused. The strikers were members of the GMB and were mostly Punjabi speaking women. The strike went on for 54 weeks and received a lot of community support, but it was defeated. The company recruited scabs, helped by the jobcentre, which forced unemployed people to take jobs there. Workers at most companies which Burnsall supplied wouldn’t boycott Burnsall goods.
The end of the dispute:
“In May 1993 a scab who had been hired at Burnsall only that day attacked with a knife a young male striker on the picket, who later underwent emergency surgery for partially severed fingers. The union featured this vicious assault in a four-page leaflet calling for solidarity, distributed at all the unionised factories that do business with Burnsall. After 26 days without a single response to the leaflet, the union officials
came to the conclusion that the strike was over. They argued that if other trade unionists were not going to take solidarity action for a fellow trade unionist mutilated on an official picket line, then they were unlikely to take action whatever further appeals were made. Other trade unions argued that they were unable to provide more substantial and effective support unless they were officially asked by the GMB;
however, such action on the GMB's part would be seen to be unlawful. The GMB union officials had no further initiatives to propose, saw no prospect of victory, and
recommended calling off the picketing. After a three hour meeting with the strikers the strike was called off. It had lasted for just over one year.”
John Wrench and Satnam Virdee, Organising the Unorganised

Jun 5 2012 12:21

On finger's report above:

There's no denying the militancy of the workers involved in Burnsalls - and other strikes of the time - but the context is also important. 1992/3 saw massive attacks against the working class in Britain with large scale redundancies in the state and private sector. The working class were getting hammered.

There were a lot of similar strikes to Burnsalls, ie, long drawn out affairs that remained isolated despite some solidarity which were gradually strangled into ignominious and demoralising defeat.
Arrowsmiths print works at Bristol was another such long drawn out strike. Deliberately provoked by the management, when it refused to implement a national pay deal, it was turned, like the others, into a strike for "workers' rights" or "union rights" and set piece confrontations with the police. Even the new TUC boss came to the picket line to give it his blessing and all this upheld by the SWP and other varieties of leftism cajoling the workers to "keep fighting". In essence these strikes were beaten by their length and isolation which were very similar to many strikes in the 80s where the bourgeoisie would spend more on isolating, dragging out and repressing than it would cost to settle.

Similar strike to Burnsall at the time were Timex and Middlebrook Mushrooms whose length didn't stop the unions putting the boot in at the end of them.

fingers malone
Jun 5 2012 12:59

The source quoted above has a lot of interesting things to say about the Indian Workers Association, a group which was heavily involved in supporting the dispute and had major bust ups with the GMB, who didn't want them involved.

The IWA were calling for mass pickets and for disregarding the anti union laws, saying that the dispute couldn't be won otherwise. There was massive mutual acrimony between the union and the IWA at the end of the strike.

Interestingly the article suggests that, although the IWA were a lot more radical than the GMB, they were also patronising and paternalistic to the mainly women strikers.

Some sources quoted say that this wasn't a dispute like Imperial Typewriters or Red Scar Mill, where the union was actively collaborating and racist towards the workers. According to them the GMB in this case was very active and gave the strikers a lot of support within the boundaries of the anti union laws.

Burnsall seems to me similar to a lot of disputes going on at the time: the dockers, Magnet, Timex...they were all disputes that went on for many months, sometimes over a year and were militant, with a lot of support, but didn't win. My gut feeling about why the dispute was defeated is that it was more than anything part of this early nineties series of defeats in the class struggle. The new laws meant that methods that worked before (mass picketing, solidarity strike action, boycotting goods) were unlawful now and no-one knew any strategy to get round this. The attitude of other workers to a dispute was also changing, with a weakening of class solidarity.

To clarify, I don't remember this dispute from the time, although I was involved with some of the others, so everything above is from reading, not from personal knowledge.

fingers malone
Jun 5 2012 13:09

cross posted with baboon

fingers malone
Jun 5 2012 14:05

I'm going to write something in a minute about Imperial Typewriters, as that definitely was about racism within the trade union movement.

fingers malone
Jun 7 2012 10:26

Long post. Some strikes by Asian workers in the 70s, examples of workplace struggles that were fighting racism.

Red Scar Mill in Preston 1965. The strike was started by Asian workers because they were being forced to work more machines for less pay than white workers, with the collusion of white workers and the union.
Coneygre Foundry in Tipton 1967. The strike was over racism against workers in being selected for redundancy. The TGWU would not make the strike official and the AUFW supported the white workers who crossed the picket line. Eventually the strike was successful and workers were reinstated.
Mansfield Hosiery in Loughborough 1972. All the workers on the lowest pay, the bar loaders, were Asian. They struck for a pay rise, which the white workers joined, but went back to work after a week. They also demanded to be trained as knitters, a better paid job. All the knitters were white at the time. The white workers struck against Asians being trained as knitters. The bar loaders struck against a new deal put forward by the management. After occupying the union offices (the NUHKW) they got their strike made official and got a victory of thirty knitters’ jobs reserved for Asian workers.
Imperial Typewriters in Leicester 1974. There were 400 workers on strike. The strike started over workers being ripped off over bonuses, which were being calculated fraudulently. There were also issues of white workers being given preference for promotion and women paid eighteen pounds per week while men were paid twenty five. One of the biggest demands was for the election, not appointment, of shop stewards. The workers were met with racism from their white co workers and from T&G union officials and the National Front organised counter demos.
Two years later the Leicester and Hull Imperial Typewriter factories were closed down.
“When Littons [the US multinational that owned the factory] decided to close its two UK factories in 1974, the Leicester plant put up no resistance, while the Hull workers occupied their factory in an attempt to save their jobs. The Leicester workforce, weakened and demoralised by racist divisions, was in no position to fight back over the closure, and black and white workers alike lost their jobs.” (CIS Report 1976)

Jun 7 2012 11:13

Perhaps it has to be accepted that, as we are starting to witness now, it is only the depth and geographical extent of the capitalist economic crisis which can provide the necessary background conditions for initially separate and localised struggles to extend over time into a generalised and more unified class based response. This still requires of course the active political agitation of organised class conscious militants to argue against the counteracting forces of isolation and dispersion of struggle. That doesn't however mean making abstract calls for class unity but recognising the practical need for self-organisation and the assertion of power in confrontation between different groups of workers in the course of struggle. (Workers addressing each other collectively and directly from a position of strength rather than weakness if you get my drift).

For the record the group I was involved with back in the 70's wrote about most of the small disputes referred to here including that at Hull Imperial Typwriters where I was living at the time. That dispute failed partly for the reasons mentioned of racist divisions but also as a result of other sectional, localism and political divisions (many with their roots in specific material conditions). It's worth mentioning in this context the different economic situations in Hull and Leicester with Hull, as now, being a particular 'unemployment blackspot'.