The globalisation of miserabilism

Paul Mason's new book tells some scintillating stories of working-class resistance. Yet it ends up endorsing the anti-development prejudices of today's sourpuss greens.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books

Despite the frequent attacks on the British working classes by New Labour politicians and liberal commentators, identifying yourself as ‘working class’ has recently become a badge of honour. In January 2007, for instance, the UK government’s Social Trends survey revealed that more British people were proclaiming themselves ‘working class’ than ever before (1). And in recent years, commentators and reporters have begun to discuss the issue of low pay and poor working-conditions in the UK and beyond. Are class politics and workplace issues back on the political agenda once more?

Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight’s industrial correspondent and veteran left-winger, deliberates on the question of social class in his new book Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. He tentatively suggests that a ‘new working-class movement’ is emerging. His book provides firsthand accounts of both exploitative working practices and victorious strike action in China and India and beyond. Mason’s thesis is that, in some ways, these working classes are ‘reliving stories that were first played out more than a century ago’ (2). And to back up his assertion, he inserts snapshots of key moments in ‘workers’ history’, such as the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 and the Paris Commune of 1871, next to his primary research on the ‘new working class’.

Mason explores this historical juxtaposition because he feels frustrated with the erosion of history as a subject, as well as the marginalisation of ‘workers’ history’ from mass consciousness. As this essay will later explore, it’s questionable whether social history can be analysed in such a particularistic way. Nevertheless, I share Mason’s despair at the current philistinism that the new political elites have fostered. Indeed, throughout his book Mason constantly emphasises the autodidact culture of the old working-class movement; the ‘world within a world’ of workers’ libraries, discussion groups and publishing houses. Mason is clearly downcast that such traditions have gone the same way in the UK as flying pickets and General Strikes have.

Mason sees Live Working or Die Fighting as an attempt to revive this ‘vital force’, of education and self-improvement, for new generations of workers worldwide. He also believes that recounting key struggles can show workers in the developing world ‘where it can lead, and what patterns of revolt, reaction and reform look like when you view them over decades’ (3). Mason is a graceful and evocative writer and he manages to bring to life the exhilaration and turbulence, the triumphs and despair of working-class struggle over a 150-year period. But, while it is particularly enjoyable to read accounts of the once-mighty German workers’ movement in the 1920s, it’s difficult to share Mason’s belief that a new international workers’ movement is being born. As this essay will show, Mason’s book, for all its avowed radicalism, ends up reaching some deeply conservative conclusions.

The working class: a class in itself or for itself?

In 1990, Frank Furedi wrote a highly controversial essay in Living Marxism, titled ‘Midnight in the Century’, on the consequences for Marxist politics of the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. Furedi’s main point was that after 70 years of setbacks and defeats, ‘for the time being at least, the working class has no political existence’ and ‘there is no real sense of a working-class movement with a distinctive political identity anywhere in the world’ (4). Some on the left misinterpreted the essay as arguing that the working class ‘no longer existed’, or they claimed that Furedi was ‘writing off’ the working class. Critics pointed to places like Brazil, then crippled by a wave of strikes, as evidence that the working class was still a serious political force (5). In many ways Live Working or Die Fighting is a continuation of this tendency to go ‘strike-spotting’, whereby any dispute is flagged up in order to prove that the working class is politically alive and kicking.

Mason reports on the effects of strike action at the Honda plant in New Delhi, India. Despite being savagely beaten to the ground by riot police, the striking workers won the dispute: ‘Japanese managers at the plant agreed a settlement: full pay for the time spent on strike, all sacked workers to be reinstated, a year’s freeze on all other demands and the union to be recognised.’ (6) Mason also points out that some 40million Indian workers downed tools in 2003 and concludes that ‘what is happening in Noida and Gurgan is the creation of a brand new Indian working class’ (7). Strike action that leads to higher wages and better working conditions is certainly something to celebrate, and we should loudly cheer those Indian workers who have won improvements in their working lives. But do such incidents add up to the development of a ‘new working-class movement’?

One of the frustrating paradoxes of today is that while more people are now in work than ever before, workers’ influence on politics and society is minuscule. The working class has no presence on the political stage, it has no voice in public debate, and its concerns make no impact upon the national agenda. The fact that Mason has to roam the globe in search of strikes and disputes is actually proof that the working class is not the same as it was in 1974, let alone 1904. Others quote the number of those in work to prove the existence of the working class. The physical existence of the working class is not in doubt. Through the workings of the market system, millions of workers are fused into a single class by undergoing a common experience – they can only survive by selling their ability to work to an employer for a wage. As a consequence, this wage-labour/capital relationship continually creates and recreates the working class anew.

Thus objectively, the working class exists and objectively the working class has increased in numbers over the past 10 years. What hasn’t developed yet amongst the working class is a subjective awareness of themselves as a collective with the power to transform society. Mason understands that the subjective factor, of ‘class awareness’, is a ‘little complicated today’, but still insists there are parallels between the struggles of the old working class and new workers in India and China. Aside from lacking any historical specificity, this is merely projecting wishful fantasies on to the isolated incidents he reports on. There are also times when objective factors, such as numbers and unions, become blurred with the all-important subjective dimension.

EP Thompson, in his pioneering book The Making of the English Working Class, argued: ‘Class happens when some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.’ (8) In other words, class becomes important when the working class stops being merely a class ‘in itself’ (objectively) and becomes a class ‘for itself’ (subjectively).

Mason doesn’t ignore Thompson’s classic book in Live Working or Die Fighting, but he appears not to have fully learned from such insights. He does, however, recognise certain changes over the past 20 years, such as the atomised and individuated experience of Western workers today. He also correctly recognises that the ‘victory’ over fascism in 1945 represented the death of working-class independence and has stunted its political development ever since. Nevertheless, he still tends to see the class struggle in a boom-bust cycle, and thus cannot fully comprehend how the present climate is completely unprecedented. So he insists that the conditions for a new international movement to develop are stronger now than at any time since ‘the run-up to the First World War’ (9). For Mason, it’s all down to the G-word….

Globalisation – is it the same the whole world over?

The subtitle of Mason’s book, How the Working Class Went Global, might seem odd given that communists had organised international movements previously. And prior to its Stalinist turn, communism was defined by its commitment to internationalism. What Mason is referring to is how the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the marketisation of China mean that capitalism has unprecedented room to manoeuvre. For the first time since before the Russian Revolution, the working class globally now lives and works under ‘the same market system’. Thus: ‘with a globalised economy, a globalised labour movement begins to take shape.’ (10)

According to Mason, the ‘transnational corporation is the primary form of economic life’ and is seen to be more powerful than nation states. It’s certainly the case that multinational companies generate more wealth than some small nation states do. But does this mean Western nation states are relics of the past? Well, no. As the majority of capital is still tied up in the domestic country of origin, the nation state will still be needed to look after big corporations’ interests. And if there really is a ‘truly global working class’ – that is, a class free to move around the world for work – then how come most Western European states operate strict immigration controls from the developing world? It seems the nation state is still imposing divisions after all.

The concept of globalisation is popular today because it allows the political class to deny having much responsibility in running society. Outgoing UK prime minister Tony Blair once insisted that ‘due to globalisation’, it was ‘impossible’ for the government to improve or shape the economy. Mason’s endorsement of globalisation seems like a way of evading responsibility, too. If nation states are now irrelevant, and the working classes are a ‘transnational force in-waiting’, it follows that challenging difficult domestic issues can be ignored. This is something the radical left already has some experience of.

During the 1980s, the British left had a habit of setting up solidarity campaigns on Nicaragua, South Africa and Palestine. But they also steadfastly ignored expressing solidarity with Irish republicans closer to home. As the Irish War was a deeply unpopular and extremely controversial issue, many British left-wingers felt uneasy challenging the anti-republican consensus in public debate. It was far preferable to wear Sandinista badges or Palestinian-style scarves as some kind of nod to ‘internationalism’.

Yet proper internationalism does not mean simply reporting on struggles in faraway lands. It means taking sides with those who are in conflict with your domestic government. In Britain, this might have meant taking sides with Irish republicans, or Argentina during the Falklands War, or Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991. The idea that the ‘enemy is at home’ is a key component of internationalism, and encouraging workers in the imperialist homeland to ‘take sides’ against the British state was crucial in reconstituting working-class independence. Mason’s brand of ‘internationalism’ in Live Working or Die Fighting might seem radical and outward-looking, but it actually means he doesn’t have to bother challenging controversial issues in the UK – whether it is health panics, free speech bans, restrictions on liberties or even Celebrity Big Brother. Reporting on strikes in Bolivia might sound ‘international’ and impressive, but it also suggests that ordinary people in Britain are not worth bothering with anymore (11).

An even bigger problem is that Mason sees the anti-globalisation and environmentalist protesters who emerged in the 1990s as the vanguard in the new ‘global working-class movement’. ‘Here was a coherent opposition to economic globalisation not simply based on anarchist radicalism or Marxist nostalgia’, he says (12). Yet these New Social Movements, as sociologists often call them, are a force for reaction, not progress. Compared to the old trade union movements, the rioters in Seattle called for less consumption and wealth, not more. Such protests are simply a morally outraged complaint against development, a tantrum against the trappings of modern-day society. Smashing up McDonald’s and Starbucks is supposed to be a symbolic gesture against big business, but it’s also a snub against the people who eat and work in such places.

The social composition of these protesters and, more importantly, their political outlook, is actually alien to working-class politics. Back in 1994, for instance, I worked with the Campaign Against Militarism in Manchester alongside eco-activists who were also challenging the Conservative government’s Criminal Justice Bill (CJB). Very early on it was clear that their openly anti-working-class, anti-human and pro-nature sentiments meant there was little common ground between these misanthropes and Marxists. We might have opposed the CJB, but on progress, development and nature, we found ourselves totally at loggerheads.

This is hardly that surprising, though. A closer inspection of working-class politics and environmentalism shows that the two are massively contradictory. Whereas the aim of working-class politics is to break free of the market’s limitations and create a more productive, freer society where everyone can maximise their potential, environmentalism has the opposite agenda. Above all, green politics stresses the idea of ‘natural limits’, on resources and the production of resources; it also seeks to impose these limits on what we consume, what we earn, what our family size should be, or where we should go on holiday. Environmentalism and Marxism are pretty much polar opposites.

Incredibly, Mason sees anti-globalisation protesters as having a unique and admirable influence on the political process: ‘Basically, those in power have had to listen, and the proliferation of “corporate social responsibility” executives and “carbon neutrality” monitors within large companies testifies to that.’ (13) In reality, the endorsement of environmentalism by the powers-that-be is both a useful mechanism for restructuring capitalism and a way of imposing new moral codes on individuals in the West and in developing countries. Indeed, Mason seems to have little problem with forces in the West advising what should happen in the developing world. As he approvingly points out: ‘A major NGO [non-governmental organisation] is often a far more powerful weapon than striking.’ (14) These are the same NGOs that use environmentalism to prevent development in poorer countries and which undermine the national sovereignty of Third World countries in the process. Similar to social reformers in the early twentieth century, Mason believes such state institutions are the oppressed’s ‘friend’. And alarmingly, he strongly advocates that NGOs should ‘do something’ about China.

Whispers against the Chinese

China’s economic development provokes ever-louder condemnation. It has taken on a variety of forms: one week it will be complaints against ‘toxic China’ and its apparently ‘appalling record’ on the environment (15). At other times, liberals and Western governments will point to China’s poor record on human rights as a way of demonising the country. In truth, Western commentators feel uncomfortable with the Chinese ‘can do’ work ethic and resent the Chinese commitment to growth. While Britain is so paralysed by eco-constraints that even house-building lags far behind demand, China gets on with constructing hi-tech dams and power stations.

In a climate of chauvinist attacks on China that could ultimately threaten the country’s long-term prosperity, the last thing progressives should do is join in with this carnival of reaction. Mason, though, has no qualms. In the chapter ‘Rise Like Lions’, he provides a grim catalogue of work-related injuries and exploitation as a consequence of China’s rapid growth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain’s road to development was also nasty, brutish and painful. Yet the solution is always for more development, not less, as Mason implies. For all the punitive working conditions, the Chinese workers he interviews still prefer working in factories than living off the land: ‘However tough it is for Dang Zhenzhen, she’s the first woman in her family with money enough to worry about high-heeled shoes and, like the maimed men from the sweatshops, she sees this as a one-way journey.’ (16) It begs the question: why does Mason wish the Chinese would apply the brakes?

He notes, rather disapprovingly, that ‘the new Chinese workforce has so far done everything its [Western] predecessors did except organise trade unions and fight for its political rights’ (17). It’s difficult to imagine how a new form of socialist politics could emerge so soon in a country where socialism was seen to fail. There’s more than a whiff here of social chauvinism. Mason’s solution to the Chinese working class’s apparent backwardness is to rely on stronger NGO interference in the region. He writes: ‘It is also clear that China is the big unknown in the equation. In China, human rights are severely curtailed, NGOs have little sway, the huge urban workforce is the only part of the global working class not involved in the debate about globalisation.’ How disappointing!

Mason seems unable to comprehend that China’s road to development could not have emerged without political independence. To suggest that NGOs should have a greater role in China’s internal affairs is to call for that nation to be chained to Western control once more. In this context, then, we should be wary of outraged reports about the exploitation of the Chinese working class. This is not to accept such working practices or to be dismissive of working-class protest against them – signs of Chinese workers demanding better conditions and pay should be supported. But we should recognise that such reports about exploited Chinese workers are now used as a weapon against development in China, and thus against the people of China themselves. Since Mason is so keen on historical parallels, he should remember that during the Second World War both the British and German governments propagandised about the levels of exploitation in the opposing countries – in order to defeat them. Mason’s reading of ‘history’ is, as he admits, rather selective. It’s also the weakest aspect of his book.

‘Our’ Story or history?

In the introduction to Live Working or Die Fighting, Mason almost apologises for his bite-sized inclusions of important historical events. ‘There is no attempt to be comprehensive; I have just picked out some of the major events that happened during the great advance of the first hundred years, followed by the crisis and catastrophe of the interwar period.’ (18) The result, however, is to reduce such events to a kind of Top Ten Working-Class Fightbacks. It’s a sign of the times that even a book that ostensibly attempts to popularise social history can only do so in the disjointed, ‘modular’ approach that now passes for studying history.

Although I would guess that this isn’t entirely Mason’s fault (he hints that his publisher came up with the idea for this format), his one-sided ‘our story’ approach is definitely informed by his own theoretical weaknesses. ‘I have not given any more than a rough sketch of the situation in mainstream politics; if you want to know more about Louis Napoleon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Giovanni Giolitti, just type them into Google and press “Enter”.’ (19) Mason’s contempt for such famous bourgeois figures is partly based on the belief that they’ve hogged the historical limelight for long enough. Isn’t it about time we heard the stories and lives of ordinary workers instead?

And yet, Roosevelt and David Lloyd George are as tightly woven into history as the working classes are. Understanding the tensions and conflicts, the push and pull between political classes and the working masses, is vital in capturing and understanding the historical process. When recounting the 1831 silk weavers’ revolt in Lyon, France, Mason recounts how young workers would shout ‘Liberty!’ and ‘Republic!’ in order to stir up public antagonism. Elsewhere, when analysing the origins of the Paris Commune, he points out that demands for greater ‘freedom’, as well as novelist Louise Michel’s Campaign for Women’s Rights, proved to be catalysts in galvanising support for establishing the Commune.

The problem with concentrating solely on ‘history from below’ is that it ignores how such ideas were spread amongst the masses. Where did these ideas originate from? Why were they able to act as lightning rods for social change? To establish convincing answers, it is necessary to examine not just social actors from ‘below’ but also from ‘above’; it is necessary to dissect national and international trends as well as local factors. In short, we have to examine the movement of society in its totality, not simply prioritise local narratives over universal themes and developments. That only leads to a one-sided and banal view of history.

The ‘history from below’ approach cannot renew ‘historical thinking’ and stimulate any sense of historical agency. This is because Mason’s emphasis on ‘people… condemned to live short, bleak lives’ is inspired by the conservative assumption that people are moved by the traditions of the past rather than a vision of the future (20). Mason’s title, Live Working or Die Fighting, confirms the idea that political struggle is ‘nourished more by the image of enslaved ancestors than liberated grandchildren’ (21). No doubt Mason believes that recounting key working-class struggles will show what the outcomes of revolt ‘look like’, but he seems to be burdening the next generation with a century’s worth of defeat and disappointment. This is only to be expected. In truth, Mason seems close to giving up on mass and meaningful social progress. This is why he prefers the ‘micro-history’ to examining the bigger picture, where arguments for true shifts in progress can be made.

Far from ‘building on the gains’ of the past, Mason is actually reading history backwards, and projecting today’s anti-modernist prejudices on to the path of development. The ‘parallel’ he is keen to highlight isn’t so much victorious struggles then and potential revolts now, but how development rips asunder traditional ways of life – both yesterday and today. In the chapter ‘Everything connected with beauty’, for instance, he shows how hand-loom weavers in India today are under threat from industrial methods of production, as the artisans and hand weavers were in 1830s France. Mason acknowledges that ‘revolutionaries of the mid-nineteenth century’ saw artisans ‘as living dinosaurs, doomed to extinction, their craft mentality an obstacle to “class consciousness”’ (22). But he likens them to today’s ‘autonomous’ creative types and nods approvingly that they weren’t interested in vulgar materialism but in a ‘struggle for decency’. At moments like these, it seems this veteran left-winger has been hanging out with the petit-bourgeoisie for too long.

How miserablism went global?

Mason doesn’t seem to grasp what is actually inspirational about past struggles. It is clear from his examples that when freedom, liberty and prosperity became the watchwords of modern society, the working masses also fought to realise these goals for themselves. How much does contemporary society cherish such ideals of freedom and liberty? Not very much at all. Freedom tends to be viewed with fear and suspicion, while liberty is seen as the terrorist’s and paedophile’s ‘friend’. In many ways, Mason is sceptical about freedom and independence, too – perhaps that is why he wants NGOs to have even greater clout to restrict China and the Third World.

It is ahistorical and fantastical to believe that people in one era will mechanistically ‘relive’ the struggles of yesteryear. Yet reconnecting society to Enlightenment ideals – of liberty, equality and prosperity – is crucial if a progressive current is to be established in Britain and elsewhere. The demise of the old left (particularly the dead hand of Stalinism) and the old right should be viewed as an opportunity, not a burden, which we can use to establish a proper humanist politics for the twenty-first century.

Unfortunately, Mason’s bitter but understandable disappointment with the past means he can’t envisage a positive vision for the future. As with identifying yourself today as ‘working-class’, or liberal commentators making low wages and poor working conditions a big issue, these rehearsed totems of the left are part of the culture of complaint against modernity and modern life. Far from reviving a new breed of oppositional politics, this interest in class has become the latest way to align with suffering and victimhood – not so much Ten Days That Shook the World as Angela’s Ashes. Unfortunately, Live Working or Die Fighting isn’t so much a clarion call for liberation politics, as a case study in how the defeated left’s miserablism went global.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global by Paul Mason is published by Harvill Secker. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

(1) See Wannabe a Worker?, by Neil Davenport

(2) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker

(3) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker px

(4) ‘Midnight in the Century’ by Frank Furedi, Living Marxism, December 1990

(5) ‘Midnight in the Century – twilight of the RCP?’, Worker’s Power, January 1991

(6) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p182

(7) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p187

(8) Making of the English Working Class, by EP Thompson, Penguin (1963)

(9) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p280

(10) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p280

(11) For another example of this tendency in the radical left, see George Galloway: an accidental hero, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p282

(13) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p282

(14) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p283

(15) See Toxic China, by Kirk Leech

(16) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p5

(17) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p5

(18) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker px

(19) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker pxi

(20) See Mythical Past and Elusive Future by Frank Furedi, Pluto (1992), p225

(21) Furedi, (1992), ibid, p225

(22) Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason (2007), Harvill Secker p44

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