In the continuous war between Capital and Labour the working classes have relatively few weapons, whilst the capitalist classes have many. Those possessed by the working classes are mostly weak whilst those of the capitalist class are immensely strong. Collectively the capitalist classes control (or disproportionately influence) the media, the state, the finance system, the legal system, the police force and the armed forces. All of these are decisive and have been constantly modernised. And any of these instruments of class control they can (and do) use individually or in flexible combinations to resist, deflect and punish any working class action against the economic and social system the capitalists benefit from.
In contrast, the modern working classes have only four or five very old and relatively weak weapons with which to defend their wages and standards of living. It is worth considering these weapons in some detail and it is even more valuable to be honest about how effective they have been or continue to be. The first is the demonstration, the second, the petition, the third is the boycott, the fourth is the strike and the fifth is the vote. The first thing that is ‘striking’ about them all is that whilst the capitalist classes have updated and modernised their weapons of class warfare, the workers have not. The latter remain in essentially the same form as when first invented. Considered dispassionately, these five tools in the working class activist toolbox are ancient, blunted or in many cases ineffective.
Petitions, demonstrations, boycotts and voting.
Petitions are effectively begging letters addressed to the powerful in the unlikely hope they might be persuaded to act against their own class interests. Consequently the essence and content of petitions are routinely ignored or sidelined – no matter how many signatures they attract! Even the 19th century Chartist petition for voting rights did not achieve its desired end. Since that time there have been thousands of petitions, millions of signatures and very little to show for them. Modern electronic petitions are similarly ineffective in most cases.
Demonstrations – even mass demonstrations, are likewise routinely ignored and have been so since their invention in the 18th century. Some peaceful demonstrations in the 19th century ended in the massacre of those who attended. In modernity demonstrations are kettled or led into traps, dispersed using water cannon, pepper spray and arrests. Global demonstrations such as those against war in the late 20th century were largely ignored by the global elites. Indeed peaceful demonstrations are in many ways just an extension of the begging letters addressed to a ruling elite in the form of petitions. Violent demonstrations are no better and indeed in many ways are worse. Violence at demonstrations frightens off many workers and gives the establishment and its armed forces the excuse to be even more brutal.
The boycott can still be given a sharp edge and be effective in certain specific and limited circumstances. However, it is rarely, if ever possible to transform it into a tool for a general struggle involving the essentials of life. Boycotting a specific product or service may or may not work if the action is popular, but all products or services cannot be boycotted without a serious case of working class self-destruction or a distinct lack of popularity. All three of these weapons of struggle have consumed much time and energy but apart from indicating the numbers interested in a particular issue have produced very little else. This brings us to the vote.
A great deal of working class hope and energy went into achieving the right to vote in national elections. This weapon was supposed to be the means by which the cruelty, indifference and domination by the capitalist class was to be ended. It soon proved to be an illusion and continues be so in the 21st century. Very few working people have any illusions that voting will radically alter their circumstances. The direct hold of the wealthy over the political system is complete and it is backed up indirectly by control of production, distribution, the state and monetary policy. The power of the latter being demonstrated recently with regard to Greece.
It is an undoubted fact that historically strike action has been the most successful weapon in the working class activist toolbox. The withdrawal of labour from its productive connection with capital impedes the production of surplus-product, surplus-labour, and surplus-value. Consequently this withdrawal of labour not only destroys profit but also potentially degrades the capital tied up in machinery, buildings and raw materials. This is the great strength of the strike weapon and in normal and boom times this weapon can produce good results. However, in times of crisis and overproduction it’s use becomes limited precisely because during a crisis capital in some sectors cannot be employed profitably. But there are two other glaringly obvious problems with strike action as it has been historically practised.
The first problem is that strikes are most achievable with regard to individual industries or enterprises. For this reason they are – in a social sense – a selfish form of action in which little or no regard for the effects the strike may have upon any other workers is considered. It also assumes the permanence of the capitalist mode of production and that each group of workers needs to wield its own version of the strike weapon irrespective of their actual ability to do so. Undoubtedly, this ability is severely restricted under conditions of economic downturn or slump.
The second problem is that strikes were devised and developed in a period when the level of capitalist technology dictated large numbers of workers assembled in one place and engaged in commodity production. Under the capitalist mode of production surplus-value is required to be embodied in some commodity or service which can be sold profitably. In the 21st century the economic situation has changed. In the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America, advances in technology and efficiency mean fewer productive workers are needed by industry and commerce. Stikes are more successful the larger the numbers of workers and the capital involved in the enterprise. Additionally, from the capitalist perspective, workers who do not create surplus-value (profits) are considered unproductive and so strikes are less effective.
Strikes for uproductive workers.
So another problem which now afflicts the use of the strike weapon in the advanced capitalist countries arises due to the relative increase in non-productive forms of labour. The large scale employment of workers in Education, Social Services, Health Services, Fire, Police and Military services mean that strikes by such workers does not hinder the production of capital and surplus-value. Strikes in these sectors do not directly effect profitability or even the incomes of those who manage these services. However, they can, and often do, directly and detrimentally effect other workers. This is renders the strike weapon in these sectors a double-edged one.
A strike in the public sector can directly or indirectly inconvenience or harm other workers and therefore has the potential to divide working class communities. In most cases this undermines the strikes intended purpose and does little or nothing to promote present or future working class solidarity. Since the capitalist mode of production has almost reached the end of its possibilities for global expansion/saturation and in doing so has ruined communities, polluted land and seas and exhausted entire eco-systems this form of economic production is well overdue for change.
The only groups which have the ability (and potentially the motivation) to create an alternative to capitalism are to be found among the working classes. Working class solidarity is therefore crucial to achieving any future post-capitalist mode of production. The contradiction facing the working classes, both white-collar and blue-collar along with anti-capitalists and revolutionary-humanists, is clear; the most effective weapon they have – the strike – is both less effective in times of crisis and frequently counter-productive in terms of class solidarity.
Thus when white-collar workers such as nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, or public transport workers go on strike profits are not lost, but patients, pupils, claimants and commuters suffer – often seriously. Similarly when gas, water and electricity workers strike, whether privatised or not, the main sufferers of any consequent cold and deprivation are ordinary working people. A most vivid example of this contradiction in action was in the UK’ s winter of discontent (1978 – 79) when for a time working people lived in the dark, surrounded by refuse and could not even bury their loved ones as power workers, grave diggers and refuge collectors went on strike.
One of the results of this 1970’s sectionalism and dislocation of working class solidarity in the UK, was the election of a right-wing government headed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. This in turn led directly to a full-scale attack by capital and its representatives upon the organisations of the working class – also on a section by section basis. Not only the organisations but the general living standards of working people were reduced in the period which followed. In fact the working classes in the UK are still suffering from the effects of this misuse of the strike tactic and its attendant sectional strategy.
New forms of struggle?
Whilst the methods of struggle noted above should not be abandoned, their blanket use needs to be critically examined and adjusted where possible and moderated where necessary. However, what is striking about the class struggle in the 21st century is that very few new weapons of struggle – if any – have been forged by the white-collar workers. Despite the higher education needed to gain employment in these sectors they have simply slavishly copied the centuries old strike tactic wielded by the blue-collar workers who were previously crammed by the thousands into factories, mines and docks in order to produce surplus-value.
Yet there are alternatives in existence as well as those which have as yet to be imagined. The ‘Rules for Radicals’ book by Saul D. Alinsky, was an early attempt to suggest new tactics, along with the more recent Occupy Movement, Anonymous and Hackers groups etc. However, such new thinking and new purposes have for the most part failed to take hold among most workers in struggle. Yet more than ever such new weapons of struggle which don’t penalise or detrimentally effect other workers are urgently needed. They need to be forms of struggle which point toward and also lead (however tentatively) to a future beyond capital. There is no other way forward for humanity.
R. Ratcliffe (January 2016)