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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)
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
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
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
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
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
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.