Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Trade unions and the closet-Toryism of the "libertarian" right

Unlike their American counterparts, the "Libertarian" movement in Britain still has yet to achieve any significant influence in the real world. However, they are big on "teh internets" and unfortunately have the potential to emulate the Tea Party crowd, so it is worth keeping an eye on them.

Unfortunately, like reading the Daily Mail, the sheer dogmatic insanity of it all isn't for the faint hearted. In fact, it's made worse by the fact that - away from economics - they're occasionally reasonable and agreeable.

This is not the case when we get onto the subject of trade unions. As propertarians, defending the "liberty" of those with capital to hold a monopoly of violence within a private tyranny, they naturally go apeshit faced with the prospect of working class people standing up for themselves.

As the Devil's Kitchen so inelegantly put it, "the unions are such a bunch of fucking cunts and should be destroyed, utterly, at the soonest opportunity."

In a later post, he does take the time to clarify this;
Originating in Europe, Labour unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform the jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid.
... and they were a good balance in these circumstances. This balance of power is, of course, entirely A Good Thing—as a libertarian, your humble Devil is against the use of force or fraud against people and it is usually when one particular group has far more power than another that this can happen.

Further, of course, I do believe in free association, etc. and would therefore not ban trade unions. Not to mention the fact that many trade unions also acted as Friendly Societies, which, as you will know, I am heartily in favour of.

However, the trade unions of today bear very little resemblance to those of the Industrial Revolution. The exploitation that they then sought to redress has largely been resolved, e.g.
  • The development of the British economy has largely switched from a dependence on unskilled jobs to highly skilled ones (compared to screwing on the same nut onto the same mudguard 83,000,000 times a day, even a call-centre job requires more aptitude—if only an ability to read and write.
  • This trend has led to a shift in the balance of power from the eeeeevil exploitative boss to the worker.
  • Workers' rights are now enshrined in law, especially (and I hate to say it) as regards to health and safety, etc.
As such, the formerly minor political ambitions of trade unions shifted into overdrive and, in the Seventies, brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Worse than that, however, in many cases the trade unions essentially ceased to be voluntary organisations. In many companies, the unions ran a "closed shop": in other words, if you refused to become a member of the union, then you lost your job, e.g. Reuters (and many other journalistic organisations) in the Seventies and early Eighties. Indeed, you could lose your job for belonging to the wrong union.

At that point, as far as I am concerned, the unions stopped being a voluntary organisation and also lost their legitimacy from a libertarian point of view.
In some instances, he has a point. For example, I am against closed shops (which are now outlawed anyway) as they effectively make the trade union a partner in the exploitation visited upon the worker. Much as cooperatives within a capitalist system result in workers imposing austerity upon themselves.

However, by the same token, I have previously dismantled the idea that unions "brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy" amongst other myths of Thatcherism.

Further, as John Demetriou points out, the idea that "150 years ago unions had a place" but have accomplished all they need to is absurd. "A bit like a chief medical officer coming out and saying: "well, we have got rates of cervical cancer, AIDS and hepatitis right down to minimum levels this year, so what we're going to do is basically close down all the hospitals and sack all the nurses.""

Demetriou far more honest and consistent in his libertarianism, and makes the following point;
The trouble with DK's brand of 'libertarianism', is that it places maximum trust in the Boss, and minimum trust in the lowly worker. The state and all its instruments and workers are deemed to be untrustworthy, self-serving and corrupt. But a business, that exists for profit, but that performs the same function, can do exactly as it pleases.
Which, from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective, is a point which I have made more than once before.

I certainly can't claim to agree with everything Demetriou says - even on unions, and we are both members of the same one. But he is the certainly rare in a libertarian blogosphere dominated by "anarcho-statists" and closet Tories.

All of which, brings me onto Charlotte Gore and her sub-Mailite ravings. I offer them up as an example of the ludicrous strawmen being thrown at the organised working class;
Governments, you see, just can’t stand it when Unions throw tantrums and won’t stop spitting, biting and crying. It’s bad for opinion polls. It’s not that people feel sorry for the kid that’s crying, because they don’t. People just want the noise to stop and don’t really care how the parent does it… and the easy way to make Unions go away and shut up is simply to give in. Pay them.

That’s what it’s really all about. Unions want X and they need the public to cough up the dosh to pay for it, so they make them suffer until the people “democratically” beg the Government to let the Unions have what they want.
Lacking even the minuscule sense of honesty that DK possessed when he spoke of the unions' role 150 years ago, Gore trots out the tired "bully" line and goes into hyperbole overdrive.

It’s a wonderful wheeze, when you think about it. Do you want a better job with better conditions by training and winning that better job in the face of competition from others (which, lets face it, sounds like bloody hard work) or do you want to pay £10 a month to an organisation which will magically take care of everything for you without you having to lift a finger? Yep, Unions actually sound pretty cool if you think about it.
Which is wilful fucking ignorance on a level I've never encountered before. And I've had an argument with somebody who thought capitalism was "the Jews" and kept offering me "straighteners."
The presumption on offer is that employment, renting a property, and all the other transactions within capitalism that socialists consider exploitative, are voluntary transactions between individuals. Gore, like so many others on the "libertarian" right, repeats it as a mantra and assumes it to be self evident.

Except, for those of us in the real world, it's nothing of the sort. The working class cannot engage in one-to-one negotiations and thrash out our salaries until a mutually acceptable agreement is reached. Unless you're a lawyer, a merchant banker, or a Premiership footballer, it just ain't happening.

The common response to this is that we can always get another job. But this is as much a non-sequitur as the nationalist's response to criticisms of his country "if you don't like it, go somewhere else."

The trouble - aside from the practicalities of getting to "somewhere else" - is that "somewhere else" isn't better than here due to the benevolence of its rulers. The political conditions in countries, as the working conditions in any given employment, improve only through the effort of people fighting for them.

Is this to say that trade unions are perfect and above criticism? No, of course not. Any regular reader will know my position on this, but I go into depth in a post on revolutionary unionism.

But then, I'm criticising the unions from the left, and the right know of no such thing. The idea that supporting worker organisation doesn't equate to supporting highly paid officials who sell their members out, or stifling bureaucracy, is a difficult concept to grasp for those more interesting in parroting a dogma they presume self-evident.

The libertarian-right's arguments are facile. They're on an extreme fringe of the dominant consensus. And UK Libertarian Party leader Chris Mounsey was torn to shreds on TV by a twat in a wig. So why should anybody care?

The problem is that, whilst just a fringe movement in themselves, their arguments and rhetoric are taken up by conservative capitalists, who most certainly are not. And, as a pressure group, they drag the political agenda rightward. Should they manage to follow their American brethren into street activism, they will go from a blogging curiosity to a considerable threat.

We need to dismantle the crentinous arguments of the "libertarian" right now so that we don't have to defend our picket lines against them in the future.