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Live working or die fighting: How the working class went global

Book Review: Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Paul Mason; Vintage Books, 2007)
by Melody Kemp

In 2007 businessman Henry Liu, writing for Asian Times Online, called for a global working class coalition to counter to global corporatism. That a businessman should do this might surprise some, but Mason’s new and fascinating book challenges many shibboleths related to working class history. In it Mason describes the vibrant counterculture flirting with emergent feminism, democracy and republicanism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and which was integral to shaping factions in the global conflicts of the 20th. This is a history which should inspire all trade union, labour activists and scholars.

That modern day Labour parties throughout the world have abrogated working class sentiments, and have become themselves the new lords of pragmatism, reminds us that while transnational corporations have subsumed the power of nation states, modern working classes have to find new political expressions to succeed.

“Live like a family, play like a team and work like an army” is the motto of a factory in China making around 70% of the world’s mobile phone batteries. The 17,000 workers, like the motto says, march and drill with military precision on the concrete rivers that blend into the windowless production halls. The military drill is one thing they have in common with their eighteenth century predecessors, workers in England who espoused non violence, but used military discipline and tactics to fight for their rights.

Parallels are what this book is about. Mason plays out contemporary lives of industrial workers in China, India, Central and South America and Africa, then lays them against their historical peers, going back to eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe where working class movements began to evolve into trade unions and then into working class republicanism. Ironically, independent handloom weavers and spinners, who were the fathers and mothers of trade unions are, in modern parlance, informal handicraft workers, and excluded from mainstream labour organizing.

The history of the working class evolved, as Mason says, into “worlds within worlds”. They developed parallel institutions such as financial systems (e.g., Manchester Unity insurance founded by the Manchester strikers). La Marmite was not an icky brown spread, but a cafeteria serving nutritious food for French workers created by worker cooperatives. Solidarity and conversation were served with the food. After a 12-14 hour day, workers would sit down to political and social education classes, debating alternative social and political systems, long before the economic ideologues like Marx and Hayek formulated their ideas. Sadly, as Mason says, labour history seems to insinuate that everything workers did before 1848 was merely a fill in until the arrival of Marx.

At the base of the self governing worker communities of Mason’s history was the trilogy of self betterment through education and skills improvement, workplace dignity and autonomy, and democratic rights which would include women. Wages hardly ranked a mention.

In this age of stern gender advisers, it is fascinating to know that the Manchester weaving and spinners union (the majority of whom were men and who defied a ban on trade unions) gave the vote to women in 1819, 100 years before the British Government granted them suffrage. In those opening years of the nineteenth century, women’s trade societies sprung up with the aim “to instill into the hearts and minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of corrupt and tyrannical rulers.”

The anarchists later marginalized women.

This well researched book is meant to help labour activists rediscover history, not, Mason says, “to piously learn lessons” but to see where activism leads, what reactions various patterns of revolt bring. He notes that when work becomes humane, fair and representative, the red fire tends to be quashed. If only more would listen. It took only 20 years to dismember this 200 year old carefully built community of working class skill, intelligence and foresight. In its shadow has been built a management class, international production and the new activism that was blooded in the streets of Seattle in 1999.

Mason is no turgid ideology-driven academic; he covers industrial affairs for the BBC and is clearly in sympathy with the working class. Towards the end he refers to his own working class roots. And can he write! One is immediately hooked into vision of James Larkin planting a time capsule in the basement of a church being built in 1904 and the pace hardly slackens.

I couldn’t put it down. It read like a thriller. The murder happens and I realized what had been lost. Mason, a true journalist, went to the places, smelled the sewage and saw the squalor. Under the global barbarism of modern industrial culture, sweat shop mentality has taken us back to the factory culture of post Industrial Revolution Europe.

While the modern labour movement has real time text messaging, the modern day worker has been largely bought off by the promise of riches; neatly shifting the focus from dignity, control and political representation to the instant gratification of wages.

The West has exported and globalised neo Taylorism; job simplification and atomization; discredited shortly after it was introduced. Collective corporate sclerosis and incompetence have spelled misery and death for many, but also spurred the rebellions spelled out so joyously in his text.

Mason’s fear is that with all the technological gizmos and power point presentations, the Global South could be let down by its lack of intellectual breadth and depth and reliance on educated elites who have never been skilled industrial workers. Workers' rights are dissociated from the broader political context and from the bigger issues facing the world. I recall my own involvement in a Singapore based conference on women in the Asian labour force. The Singaporean convenor concluded “It’s all academic. None of us has worked in a factory” All the participants nodded. I alone raised my hand admitting that I had done considerable time on production lines. They thought they had not invited workers.

In this era of stagnation, recession and economic entropy, it is wise to remember that by the mid 1900’s, a metalworker was predicting the internet and Valrin was making acute economic observations about consumption. That the bosses didn’t listen, that greed has replaced dignity and pride, is a loss to us all.

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Selamat

Jenny, selamat...

Saya baru pulang dari Laos selatan ... and I saw in that one trip (to the Lao Cambodian border to do a story on the annual fish migration) an exemplar of modernisation and what happens when consumerism and the market intervenes.

This is a bit of flight of ideas, but I have seen so much and experienced more than most...so it floods into my mind.

I am no Luddite but I am old ... and have been in the Pacific and Asia for many years. Since 1980 in fact.. So have seen the changes brought about by development. Poverty continues to be monetised as a concept and yet things like dignity, self sufficiency, cultural integrity, spiritual richness, self determination seem to be forgotten as we too have passed them over to be wage slaves. I have also seen the pain of migrant workers and did several studies for Inside Indonesia years ago.

Separated from family, unable to attend in the case of sickness or family rituals, ripped off by bastard bosses, raped or beaten, shaken down by border police as they come home. It's not a favour we are doing. After changing a way of life that had endured for thousands of years, we hurl crumbs by giving them jobs away from their cultural context, language and families. It's like a gentle but destructive war in which there are no reparations. We think we have brought enlightenment and wealth. In some cases that is true, but most usually for the elite and those already wealthy who can cash in on the opportunities. And we get cheap T Shirts and shoes.

When I lived in Fiji in 1980 and then during my postgrad studies in the Solomons in 1988 ( the effects of deforestation on malaria distrubution), the people at that stage lived a self-sufficient subsistence life largely outside the cash economy. Cash for fuel or food between harvests was gained by seasonal work, such as the logging that was bringing malaria and floods. It was a hard life: I am no Rousseau. But not having money and cars or TV's did not constitute hardship.

At the Falls down south, my Lao guide told me that his 10 year old son fishes enough to sell and buy Pepsi and that he expected that another ten years would see the demise of this way of life and all the extraordinary skillls and knowledge held by the people. I cut my thumb badly on the boat and a colleague immediately picked a leaf chewed on it and then applied it to the gushing wound which immediately stopped bleeding. That is all about to die ... they don't want to migrate, they want to be able to stay and be proud of the culture and way of life, to be familar with the medicinal plants that are being destroyed by logging.  Markets are leading to overfishing and overpopulation of fishers as they compete for a smaller catch, taking more risks ... and in the background is Thai TV pushng Pepsi and other consumer goods.

I am trying to see through the ideological crap, tinged with paternalism about Asia and Pacific, to work out alternatives before I peg out...

Wish me luck.

Six-hour day

Interesting article on some reasons why the working day didn't shorten:

The new managers saw only costs and no benefits to the six-hour day, and almost immediately after the end of the war they began a campaign to undermine shorter hours. Management offered workers a tempting set of financial incentives if they would accept an eight-hour day. Yet in a vote taken in 1946, 77 percent of the men and 87 percent of the women wanted to return to a thirty-hour week rather than a forty-hour one. In making that choice, they also chose a fairly dramatic drop in earnings from artificially high wartime levels.

The company responded with a strategy of attrition, offering special deals on a department-by-department basis where eight hours had pockets of support, typically among highly skilled male workers.

So, er, why doesn't it surprise you Eliot?

Eliot: "Those who graduated from Australian universities and were assessed as competent by local accrediting authorities were the least likely to find employment relevant to their qualifications, according to the report, "How are skilled migrants doing?", published in today's People And Place. Why doesn't this surprise me?"

So, I give up, why doesn't it surprise you? Share your secret knowledge with us mere mortals.

Yes, please do, Eliot

Yes please do Eliot.

Now I wonder why I took up nursing after spending five years in two universities studying a variety of languages and Asian history and civilization., not to mention the ten years in the Department of Primary Industry, which, while requiring a degree, hardly required one in Islamic Studies. Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic.  I won't count the short stint I did with the Joint Intelligence Bureau processing intelligence coming out of Vietnam during that war, for which work I admit my degree was marginally relevant.

So why bother going to university in the first place? Might have something to do with developing one's intellectual skills as opposed to just acquiring knowledge, might it not? So, let us not draw too many conclusions if people enter fields of work that are not directly relevant to their chosen field of study. 

As for the skills shortage and placement of skilled migrants in this country. Clearly not having command of the language can be a real barrier to performance, and I would think safety in some occupations. How useless would a degree in Accounting be if one was expected to work in Japan with little command of Japanese. I am sure the Japanese speaker would get preference every time, as do the English speakers amongst skilled migrants here. I don't find any of that surprising at all. Clearly language training is important if a country is going to want to import certain skills. 

But when it comes to unskilled labour, which is what I was writing about, not speaking English very well would not be such a problem. You don't need English to learn how to pick a peach. 

Skilled workers' visas migrants adding to the skills crisis

Jenny Hume: "Apart from the skills shortage Australia is facing a similar crisis of shortage of labour across the whole rural sector."

Less than a third of people from non-English speaking countries who migrate to Australia on skilled workers' visas are gaining work in their fields and many of them are adding to the skills crisis they were brought in to solve, a study has found.

Those who graduated from Australian universities and were assessed as competent by local accrediting authorities were the least likely to find employment relevant to their qualifications, according to the report, "How are skilled migrants doing?", published in today's People And Place.

 Why doesn't this surprise me?

No lack of intellectual rigor - it is all very deliberate

Hi Melody, I remember reading that article and noting what common sense there was there. I also had the feeling that maybe we had here passed the point which was ideal as far as balance between cheap products of labour and loss of jobs here.

There is no lack of intellectual rigor in the seeking of profits and the challenge to local national sovereignty in maximising them. Perkins’ book has well described this. History as well if we watch the West and East India companies and the move of money with William of Orange, and then the various wars fought over such events. Consider, as I am sure that China does, the opium / tea issues and wars and loss of sovereignty there.

This has always been the case, where the industrialists seek to maximise profit (as one expects them to, naturally) and thus seeks the cheapest workforce. Thus the looms moved around Europe and to the Free World and more recently to the duty free / FTA island states-Philippines and the Pacific, and China and India. But then the local peoples may gain some improvements by fallout and gain education and start to expect to participate in decision-making and national aspirations and then – time to move on. Truly democratic and educated informed populations do not make the best fodder for factories.

It was incredible to hear Robert Cooper, "Labour" Blair’s advisor, actually describe modern day colonialism!!!! Back in 2002:

"...............an Essay was published by his (Blair)foreign affairs advisor, Robert Cooper, calling for a new imperialism. "The challenge of the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards," wrote Cooper. "Among ourselves," by which he meant the West, "we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era -- force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle." Rather than charting a new course, Cooper's bluntly stated paper merely provided the ideological underpinning for Western policy as it is actually practiced. The citizens of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Zimbabwe and others who attempted to defend their sovereignty against the imperial onslaught would no doubt feel that it is Cooper who is living in the nineteenth century. "[T]he opportunities, perhaps even the need for colonization is as great as it ever was in the nineteenth century," suggests Cooper. "What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values." Only the haughtiest imperial mind could claim "human rights and cosmopolitan values" only for the West and "force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary" for subject peoples in the Third World and Eastern Europe.

We are having a bit of a discussion about such in the Zimbabwe thread where there is an imperial battle going on now in the style of Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit man.

The think tanks are well aware of worker happiness but it gets in the way of mass profits. There is no mistake in this: it is deliberate and carefully orchestrated. It is up to the propaganda arm to enable a naive population to support it, even with their own blood.

Cheers

The gratification for wages

Living without a wage or income would not have much going for it. I have been following with interest the success in NZ of employing islander seasonal workers in the labour-dependent horticultural industries. Apart from the skills shortage Australia is facing a similar crisis of shortage of labour across the whole rural sector.

The poverty faced by many islanders makes this work very attractive, allowing them to take home money to build a better life for their families, and also, through the training programs being started for them while in the country, giving them a whole range of new skills to take back to their communities.

A properly run program of imported seasonal labour would be mutually beneficial for all concerned provided the workers were given the same wage and protections that we expect for ourselves.

However in supporting the importation of island seasonal labour does cause one to reflect upon the silent pool of labour that could be available from the large and unemployed indigenous communities in our  rural  towns. 

Labouring may not be an attractive form of work, but it can provide the means to an end for those wishing to lift themselves and their families out of the poverty cycle. Something seems wrong to me if we have unemployed people in our community and yet have to look to importing workers from overseas.

But that is exactly what is being proposed along the lines of the NZ program.

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