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Reclaiming our past

Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason's Live Working or Die Fighting sets the experience of modern factory workers in the global South alongside some of the classic narratives of labour history. He spoke to Hilary Wainwright about the insights he gained in examining a neglected part of our heritage

August 1, 2007
11 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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What did you learn from writing the book? Did it teach you anything new about labour history?

First, the workers’ movement has been a poor steward of its own heritage: the lives of the activists I’ve documented deserve to be in the mainstream of history.

Second, if you want a generalisation, the successful workers’ movements in history have been those that enabled large numbers of downtrodden people to feel a tangible liberation in their everyday lives: at work, in the community or through cultural networks.

Third, the political space between reform and revolution – so pesky to the ideologists of social democracy and communism – is where most workers’ movements ended up. They seemed consistently prepared to settle for some element of control – either in the workplace or the community or even in their own personal lives: less than revolution, more than top-down reform. If the new workforce of the global South gets beyond sporadic resistance I won’t be surprised to see it focus on the issues of individual freedom and control, as well as wages and political democracy.

There is a sense in the book that you don’t expect the new workforce to go through the same cycle of selforganisation as in the 19th century.

It is not inevitable.The information technology revolution is creating a new type of human being and therefore a new type of worker.What struck the cavalry officers at Peterloo was how close the crowd stood:’so close their hats were touching’.They’d never seen peasants do that, and they’d never seen a manufacturing population before.

Today we’re struck by different human characteristics.There are three billion workers in the world.There are 2.7 billion mobile phone users: last year alone 600 million new subscribers were added. I have seen what the mobile can do for shanty-town activists in Nairobi. It allows you, as the Kenyan academic June Arunga puts it, ‘to walk away from paternalism; to own yourself ‘.

If you’re a migrant agricultural worker it makes your world incredibly fluid too: you can be in Belgium one week, Grantham the next. And every member of the salariat knows how the mobile blurs the distinction between work time and leisure time. In other words, the new working class of the global South does not think and behave only like cotton spinners before Peterloo, but also like teenagers on Facebook.

So I expect the forms of resistance to be more individualistic, the organisations to be more sporadic and more like networks – less permanent, less hierarchical. And certainly any forms of organisation that rely on permanence and predictability are going to have a hard time. As one migrant workers organiser in East Anglia said to me:’Every time we print a leaflet it’s in the wrong language because a different set of people have moved in.’

These limitations won’t go away in the global South. ‘Old-style’ trade unionism is having just as hard a time in Noida and Gurgaon, the SEZs [special economic zones] outside New Delhi, as it does organising Amazon or Easyjet here.

In the book you place great emphasis on historical narrative: on the importance of rescuing stories. Why?

Look at France today.When Sarkozy ordered a famous letter by communist resistance hero Guy Mocquet to be put on the school curriculum it became a struggle over who ‘owns’ the story – whose emotional narrative does it fit into?

The modern left is very wary of heroes and heroines – rightly because so many turned out to be fabrications. But without individuals, their messy lives, their flawed but beautiful characters, the history of organised labour becomes simply a history of ‘the masses’.

I’ve dug deeper into the lives of the working class rebels: Bill Haywood, caught literally with his pants down by Pinkerton Agency detectives who dragged him out of a seedy rooming house; Louise Michel recklessly gathering cherry blossoms under shellfire in Pere-Lachaise cemetery to lay on the graves of martyrs from a previous revolt; Jim Larkin, in the 1930s, breaking off street agitation to phone key members of the De Valera government about the plight of sparrows trapped in telephone wires.

These are people who were always an annoyance to the leaders of the movements they were a part of. Yet I think we will come to see them as central to the real narrative of the 150- year upward sweep of organised labour before 1945 – and more than that, to the history of the human race.

The book has been accused of lacking a central narrative: a collection of stories rather than a meta-narrative about the destiny of the organised workforce.

I do have a meta-narrative: it’s just that it doesn’t seem to fit with anybody else’s. First the skilled workers get organised; then the unskilled workers get organised; then in the early 20th century the state becomes so militarised and intolerant that the workers have to choose between a violent clash with it or total incorporation. In the end, they have to ally themselves with Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt to defeat fascism, so they’re incorporated anyway.

That’s the end of Act One. Act Two is the period from 1945 to 1989, where organised labour becomes part of the system both sides of the iron curtain. Now that deal has been broken and we are at the opening of Act Three, and the lives of people on the factory floor of New Delhi and Shenzhen, or on the streets of El Alto, seem to have a lot more in common with people in Act One. The tension occurs because I don’t claim to know what is coming in Acts Four and Five!

There are forces way beyond the left now that are starting to think about class and class identity as emergent political questions.The success of London Citizens in organising the Canary Wharf cleaners (see Jane Wills), changing the economics of the contract cleaning industry, and now, in alliance with the Catholic Church, putting 8,000 undocumented migrants onto the streets for a demonstration inspired by St Joseph the Worker – all that shows that labour organisation is not necessarily going to be a monopoly for the left in the future.

Given the decline in engagement with political institutions, the gulf between people and institutions and the hollowing out of democracy in general – how far is some kind of rediscovery of labour as a subject a basis for rekindling politics?

The decline of social capital in the form of traditional forms of civic and political organising, the rise of modern individualism, the refusal to commit to any organisation, left or right, has to have some material roots. I think these have been best demonstrated by LSE academic Richard Sennett in The Culture of the New Capitalism.

He shows how so much of this individualism is actually a form of behaviour conditioned by the way we work. The modern corporation promises us nothing. So we promise nothing back. The fear of ‘joining’ is an aversion to dependence and it’s so widespread among people below the age of 35 that I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to be logical. That is, it is a rational response to circumstances, not some form of immaturity contingent on the defeat of the unions or the dumbingdown of university degrees.

As for ‘labour’ I would say the dividing line between the skilled and unskilled worker is now over the issue of control and dignity and respect at work. Both parts of the modern workforce are actually well aware of their own labour as a thing of value. In an investment bank it’s really clear – because whatever stress, long hours or target-driven culture people subject themselves and their teams to, they are ultimately respected.The cleaners – before they got organised – were not.

If you go back and re-read the accounts of the 1889 London dock strike, you can see they were grappling with the same issues – and on the very same waterfront! The dockers were fighting for an element of control and respect in their lives, the kind of respect skilled workers had but they did not.

As strike leader John Burns said: ‘Labour of the humbler kind… in conquering himself has learned he can conquer the world.’ The strike’s positive impact on social capital in the East End of London, I would argue, dwarfed the efforts of philanthropists: William Booth, Cardinal Manning and Beatrice Webb put together.

Do you think this holds lessons for today?

I’m not really in the business of lessons. But parallels, yes.

Recently, we’ve seen both the left and right become interested in community self-organisation as a means of rebuilding social capital. If you take the view that globalisation is going to lift large numbers of people into the lower middle class, then the decline of social capital among the poor does not seem like a pressing problem. If you believe it’s having the opposite effect – creating a stratum of low-skilled, low paid workers who have very little culturally in common with the middle class – then you might ask whether it was such a great idea to destroy everything that held their communities together.

I have heard politicians from all ends of the spectrum talk about this in the last 12 months. Both the centre left and centre right have set up institutes to promote ‘social cohesion’.You have David Cameron telling the Conservatives to create a ‘social footprint’ among deprived communities and Labour turning to grassroots organisation in order to fight off the BNP. I think rebuilding social capital among low-income communities will be a defining obsession for politicians in the next period, just as the erosion of social capital defined the previous period.

Your book has been criticised for being starry eyed about syndicalism. Why are you so positive about a movement that fell apart and failed in most countries?

I am not saying ’emulate syndicalism’. But I do think it’s worth studying afresh.

Syndicalism operated in a third dimension beyond economics and politics, a dimension of personal, human and individual freedom. Implicitly it understood the power of social capital – and note here I am not just talking about the anarcho-syndicalism of, say, the Spanish CNT, but the organisations created by Tom Mann, James Connolly, Bill Haywood.

But it’s not just syndicalism. All the successful workers’ movements – from the Patriotic Union societies at Peterloo through to the Jewish Bund in the 1930s – were ones that provided a holistic answer to the felt needs of the working poor.That is, they did not just treat them as the subjects of a wage bargain, or as unconscious collective ‘bearers’ of the new economic order.They created schools, adult education classes, social centres, libraries, worker-run labour exchanges, as well as unions. And they set out to attract migrants and women as well as the ‘core’ workforce.

A union organiser said to me recently:’You might be right in that we have to go through something like syndicalism again, with all its chaotic transience, to get to a much more solid kind of organisation, such as that achieved by the CIO unions in America under the New Deal.’ I said just imagine if you never get to that Fordist/New Deal phase ever again – you might then be happy to achieve just half of what the Wobblies did. And you might have to put up with even more chaos, febrility, diversity.

But essentially the book is not about any kind of future strategy for unions, or slum networks or social justice movements – it is about shining a spotlight on the past from an unfamiliar angle. By re-telling from a humanist perspective stories that had been ‘owned’ by the left – or rather hidden away in its attic – I wanted to make them relevant to a much wider audience.

I make no apologies for doing that. The people I’ve written about lived lives that were, as one reader put it to me ‘clean and poetic’.They deserve a place higher in the mix of human history than they’ve had so far.

Paul Mason’s book Live Working or Die Fighting: How the working class went global is published by Harvill Secker, price £12.99

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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