Saturday, May 01, 2010

Workers unite! You have nothing to lose but your day off

(more undergraduate politics for you)

I was in my local shop this morning and the Turkish shopkeeper was watching coverage of the Workers' Day celebrations in Istanbul. It was probably equivalent to the sort of coverage we get on the Queen's Jubilee, huge crowds cheering, flags waving, updates rolling across the bottom of the screen. One million people, he reckoned, were out on the Turkish capital's streets celebrating. The caption at the bottom of the screen said (in Turkish, he translated) that it was 32 years since they'd celebrated workers' day in the Taksim Square; In 1977, he told me, soldiers attacked the crowd trying to mark the occasion, killing 30 people.

So in Istanbul one million (probably less) celebrate; in Athens there are protests about the Greek fiscal crisis; in Germany nazis and leftists clash; and so on around the world; in London ... not so much. Obviously in this country the idea of international workers solidarity is forever cursed with the shadow of Fred Kite and Wolfie Smith, and the lost days of the 1970s; now we're in a new, brave, fresh, completely fucked Great Britain, in which we don't have workers - quite literally sometimes - we have service providers, we certainly don't have unions, those evil bugbears who you have to strain to remember used to represent most of us.

I still don't understand quite why the working classes, especially in the south east, have been so keen to cast off their gowns of workers pride and hug the rather meagre embrace of the middle-class; why they should feel themselves better/separate from the other workers - well, a cod-psychologist like myself would immediately ascribe a deep self-loathing, but why should that be so, when, especially after the 1960s, the sense of working-class pride was very strong. And in any case, the middle-classes are workers too. But it's nevertheless true that many working-class people deride the rest of the working-classes. In his brilliant book Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, Bernard Hare tells of his disgust when he went round London pubs collecting for the miners' strike and men spat in his face. "I could never come to terms with being spat at by my fellow countrymen," he says, and he promptly moved back to Leeds. Even I, who grew up with working-class kids whose dads probably would have done exactly that, even I, however many years later, felt shocked on his behalf.

It makes you wonder if all that talk about broken Britain, feral kids and the like (and they don't get any more feral that the Chapeltown ragamuffins of Hare's book), well perhaps if this underclass saw a sense of pride in being a worker, instead of it being outdated to aspire to just having a decent job and a decent life - and if there still was any work for them anyway - well maybe they wouldn't be running around burning houses down and bricking windows and acting the Daily Heil bogeykids.

John Grey, always interesting, says that the destruction that Thatcher's unleashed market forces wrought was in many ways the opposite effect to what she intended. He writes:
The conservative country of which she dreamed had more in common with Britain in the 1950s, an artefact of Labour collectivism, than it did with the one that emerged from her free-market policies. A highly mobile labour market enforces a regime of continuous change. The type of personality that thrives in these conditions is the opposite of the stolid, dutiful bourgeois Thatcher envisioned ... Thatcher’s economic revolution was meant to go along with something like a social restoration. Instead, it led to Britain as it is today.
But to blame Thatcher, just as the right-wing like to instead blame the permissive Sixties, is in someways to mark the symptom as the cause - the move away from collectivism and towards individualism was far more deep-rooted than a few long-haired pop stars, or sharp-voiced matriachagogues.

(look at me, pretending i know what i'm talking about)


Another reason that workers' day is so denigrated in England is I suppose its association with the communists, who, despite Marx living half his life here, have never been much loved by the nation of shopkeepers. Labour managed to get May Day onto the book of bank holidays - and who complains about an extra day's holiday, ah yes the bosses do - although it says something that workers celebrate being a worker by having a day off. I have a sneaking concern that if Cameron does clamber aboard Number 10 next week he may well spot a neat political manouevre in moving the May Day bank holiday to St George's Day. In one fell swoop he can both reward the 'patriots', ie. The Sun, and antagonise what's left of the left. Perhaps, however, that would be a move too far for the old Etonion. Who knows what nascent workers' solidarity such a move might unearth. They say the devil's greatest trick was to convince the world he didn't exist - well similarly the ruling class's greatest trick was to convince the workers that they didn't exist, that we're all in it together, to coin a topical phrase. Cameron may find his bloodline to the aristocracy - not to mention his £30m fortune - might come to fore then, even as the media tells us that his upbringing, background and friends aren't important, no not at all, what's important is the colour of his tie.

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