Unions and New Power
note: this has been languishing in my drafts pile for some time and though events in Egypt today cast struggles in the UK in a different perspective I still feel it pertinent to finally post it in advance of the first student demonstration of 2011 tomorrow
A few months back I watched Pete Postlewaithe’s (RIP) performance in Brassed Off courtesy of the Guardian’s CiF. Thankfully I remembered to stop myself before I descended too deeply in the troll pit that is the comment thread.
Anyway that particular performance of Pete reminded me of what I learned about the miner’s strike and that particular part of British History thanks to assisting Graham Harwood and Jean De Mars on their Coal Fired Computer collaboration. Pete’s character notes how the government destroyed “communities and ways of lives… all in the name of progress and a few lousy bob”. I learned some important things courtesy of Dave Douglass and I got the other side of the story. It was a pretty important step to me learning that the way I’ve learned to see the world during my time in Ireland was very one sided. Jean De Mars framed the Thatcherite dismantling of Unions and the coal mining communities as a crucial step to the kind of deregulation that is crucial to neo liberal capitalism as we know it today.
Coal Fired Computers: Discovery Museum Newcastle March 2010
This is the sort of capitalism that Ireland took a deep bath in during the 1990’s and noughties. My generation grew up in this Neo Liberal Ireland. So perhaps it’s understandable that I used to see things a certain way. I believe that it’s possibly the same reason why a close acquaintance of mine could state that “there is no need for unions in this day and age”.
I was aghast, though I respect my friend enough not to disown her over that remark. I also know only too well that the face of unions that my generation has known in Ireland is one reprehensible enough to feed that sort of sentiment. The reason I was aghast is that arguably there is more need for union protection of workers than ever before. Workers rights are being dismantled under neo liberal capitalism and globalised work flows where staying fluid and being prepared to shift career is an expectation (if not an aspiration) for our generation. What Deleuze said in his postscripts on Societies of Control echoes through my mind every time I talk to one of my Irish friends.
“many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines”
Deleuze: Postscripts On The Societies Of Control
I’ve taken Deleuze as intimating that our generation should ask ourselves in whose interest it is to be constantly upskilling, constantly keeping an eye on a new horizon. So many of us think its great not to be shackled into a job for life anymore. On the one hand not having a job for life suits a lot of people, and the abundance of temporary, impermanent, service driven labour that has accompanied this phase of capitalism has been an ideal way to drift through the world. The flip side is that as this form of labour becomes the norm it makes sedentary life more difficult (because if we follow Massumi’s point of view, the new form of control hates inertia, as capitalism finds most value in flux). I could go off on one begging questions of are we really happier in some in flux times than in previous years?
But my main point is that the purpose of Unions is more paramount than ever. However I am not certain the way unions work is suitable to serving that purpose anymore, given the way that power can now work. That’s why the coming months, in which unions have promised to stand alongside the students, and in which Len Mc Cluskey speaks of an alliance of resistance, will be incredibly interesting. The TUC’s decision to call for a March Mass Strike adds more momentum behind this growing movement.
My personal feeling is not optimistic, I think that the eventual victory of Thatcher (and the subsequent Labour government which continued her work) over the unions was the ultimate proof that the ‘power over’ of disciplinary societies, the sort of power wielded by both government and unions, the socieites in which unions had managed to negotiate strategies of resistance had been supplanted by a different, more diffuse, form of power. It makes me sceptical that the old strategies of unions may be blunt tools for ‘this day and age’. Total paralysis of the country might work in toppling the government. But it’s uncertain whether Labour would offer other alternatives. It is in that light that the Observers report on 10 strategies for a Better Britain makes for very interesting reading. A lot of these strategies would at first glance, at least to my politically inexperienced eyes, not appear overtly sympathetic to the far left or people power movements. But perhaps they represent the most effective tools to be used in the political and economic landscape in which we dwell.