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

By Melody Kemp
Created 27/04/2008 - 17:16

Book Review: Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Paul Mason; Vintage Books, 2007)
by Melody Kemp [0]

In 2007 businessman Henry Liu, writing for Asian Times Online [1], 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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