Saturday, 30 April 2011

No War but Class War - April 2011

In Britain, a number of things took place in relation to the class war. However, by far the most significant has been what took place in Stokes Croft, Bristol. That eruption of class anger, in the face of an attack by the state on behalf of capital, was perhaps only a taste of what is being felt more broadly. After all, austerity is only an escalation of the class antagonism that defines the status quo.

But whilst "official" movements have been more than happy to play by their opponents' rules - the TUC March for the Alternative and the coming public sector strikes a case in point - the people organising themselves at a grassroots level are not. Stokes Croft was just one example of that and, like the victims of violent repression in Trafalgar Square on March 26th, all attempts by the mainstream media to marginalise them and play up the false binary of "good protester/bad protester" need to be resisted.

The confrontation in Stokes Croft flared up again as the media fawned over the royal wedding, with police attacking a peaceful mass gathering. This occurred whilst wedding "security" became the pretext for rounding up known activists in London.

As I said yesterday: "The mask of liberalism is slipping, and that must be considered a good thing as more people awaken to the true nature of the state and its relation to capital. But this inevitably means that those in power will be more willing to exercise the state's monopoly of violence with little discrimination. We need to watch our backs, but always continue to organise dissent and challenge established power."

Similar repression has been taking place in Italy. There, the "Outlaw Operation" saw 300 officers in 16 different cities carry out anti-anarchist raids. According to sources, "the operation was part of an enquiry started in 2009  linked in part to anarchist publications and in part to recent attacks against detention centres and corporations like IBM and ENI (multinational oil and gas company)."

In the Middle East, despite first the war in Libya and then the royal wedding distracting the media, people continue to rebel and rise up against their governments. As the people demand freedom, democracy, and an acceptable standard of living, western imperial powers rush to consolidate their own position in the region. In other words, the class conflict of the Arab Spring cannot be ignored, even as the needs of dictators struggling to maintain a grip on power take a back seat to the interests of the broader ruling class of capitalism.

Since they ended the three decade reign of Hosni Mubarak in February, Egyptian workers have been discovering that they have no less an enemy in the 'interim' army administration. The army has its own commerical interests to protect, so it has repeatedly attacked protesters in the now highly symbolic Tahrir Square, forced through a repressive new constitution, and effectively banned strike action in the country. In this, it has the full support of the US, which has sent high profile representatives to Cairo, each promising military and financial aid for the junta. In the face of this, an illegal strike movement seems to be growing, as large numbers of workers fight for better pay and conditions.

Having forced the resignation of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January - an event which inspired the oppressed in Egypt and around the Arab world - Tunisian demonstrators have forced many political concessions. Immediately after Ben Ali's departure, a 'caretaker' government was formed, including several key members of Ben Ali's own RDC party. Protests eventually forced their departure, the banning of the RDC, and the start of prosecutions against Ben Ali, his family, and former government ministers. The regime is now headed by eighty-four year old Beji Caid el Sebsi - a veteran of Tunisian bourgeois politics. Having abandoned Ben Ali once they sensed the game was up, the US is now watching developments keenly, and hoping that the political concessions won't encourage widespread industrial struggle.

Obama is trying to recast 'blood for oil' as humanitarian intervention in Libya
The US is leading a regime change military operation in the Libya, aimed at replacing recent ally and now once again 'mad dog' Muammar Gaddafi with a government that can better guarantee the flow of oil to the west, and particularly the US. The UK, France and Italy are pursuing their own imperial interests in the country, and there has been much in-fighting between the supposed 'allies' for the spoils of this war. The Libyan working class seems to be unrepresented in a ragtag 'rebel' army now led by a longterm CIA asset, and advised by US, UK and French military leaders. Frustrated by the lack of progress from the 'rebel' soliders, the US is now trying to assassinate Gaddafi. The pretext of a 'humanitarian mission' to enforce a 'no-fly zone' is now barely mentioned by the politicians or the corporate media.

After three months of brutally repressing protests against his government, US-backed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh has now offered to resign, and hand the reins of power over to his deputy, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, and a coalition comprised of various bourgeois opposition groups. The agreement was brokered by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council and the Obama administration, amid fears that Yemeni unrest might spread into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has the world's biggest oil reserves. Another consideration is that Yemen sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which is the waterway through which most Persian Gulf oil is shipped to the outside world. However, the deal was made conditional on the bourgeois opposition shutting down the protest movement, and this will be a difficult task, since protesters tend to see them as Saleh collaborators, and not leaders. Furthermore, the agreement highlights US hypocrisy, since a very similar one was roundly rejected in the case of Gaddafi in Libya.

In another country bordering Saudi Arabia, the Al Khalifa royal family is terrorising the population, with even hospitals now being "places to be feared", according to the Physicians for Human Rights group. Since the last open displays of working class defiance in February, more than a thousand people have been disappeared. In mi-March, Obama gave the green light for Saudi forces to be deployed in Bahrain, further underscoring the strategic importance of the immediate region for US imperialism. Unfortunately for him, material needs cannot simply by terrorised out of existance, and they will find further expression soon enough. 

Perhaps the most brutal repression in the Middle East at the moment is happening in Syria, where the regime is opposed by the US and Israel, as well as the broad masses within the country, although for altogether different reasons. President Bashar al-Assad is systematically ordering his troops to slaughter protesters, and then slaughter people who attend their funerals. The US has announced that it is considering sanctions against the Syrian government, and is clearly hoping to engineer the downfall of a regime with links to Iran, and which frequently makes use of anti-imperialist rhetoric. However, more strident opposition to Israel is a key demand of the Syrian protest movement, alongside the need for better living conditions and democratic reform.
In the United States, postal workers are critical of a deal reached between the American Postal Workers Union and the US Postal Service. According to Labor Notes, whilst the agreement "bring[s] back thousands of contracted-out jobs and protect[s] existing employees against layoff," it also "creates a lower wage scale for new career employees and an additional second-class workforce."

Such deals are the norm in a lot of workplaces, allowing the union to present a victory to existing staff whilst leaving the company plenty of room to exploit future employees and whittle sdown working conditions on the basis of a divided workforce.

Whilst this is nothing new in itself, the lesson it presents to American workers is important. The dispute in Wisconsin - which last month saw schools in New York walk out in solidarity - propelled unions to the fore in the American class consciousness. However, in a time of broad austerity measures and attacks on the working class (as everywhere else), US workers need to be aware of the collaborationist role played by union leaders. An excellent analysis of the situation and the antagonisms between workers and their so-called leaders can be found at The Trial by Fire.

Elsewhere in the US, a series of solidarity strikes have shut down ports and other workplaces in Oakland, opposing the attacks on workers' rights in Wisconsin and Ohio. At the same time, the IWW is arguing that May Day celebrations must combine the struggles of immigrant and native workers. Class consciousness and solidarity in America is crystalising, and it will be interesting to follow as resistance to their government's class war agenda unfolds there.

In Greece, pressure is mounting on the government to default on its debts because of a strategy of "organised lawlessness." I previously expounded on this in more depth here, and I maintain my assertion that this is the most effective way for the working class to assert its interests. Only by making austerity the more expensive - and troublesome - option can we hope to force the ruling class to back down.

Just one realisation of this point comes from France. There, faced with job cuts and the threat of class and school closures, teachers and parents have begun a wave of occupations across the country. Given the success British parents had at Lewisham Bridge, this may prove an extremely effective tactic.

Finally, a tragic report from on events following a crushed strike in South Korea;
It has been two years since the management of Ssangyong Motor Company in Pyongtaek, South Korea, announced the layoffs of 1000 workers. Shortly thereafter, those workers occupied their plant and held it for 77 days, from May to August 2009, when they finally succumbed to a massive police and army assault.

In the immediate aftermath, many militants were arrested and some were sentenced to years in prison. Most, however, were laid off, on different terms (some with the hope of a recall after one year which to date has never materialized).

Two years after the announcement, fourteen people, both strikers and immediate family, are dead. (This is in turn part of a larger pattern in South Korea, including a spate of deaths from cancer by workers for Samsung and four recent suicides of students at KAIST, Korea's "MIT", resulting from grade pressures. Korea has the highest suicide rate of any advanced industrial country, and rivals the U.S. for deaths and injuries on the job per capita.)

Five Ssangyong workers have committed suicide and five have died from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack or brain hemorrhage.

Doctors believe these were caused by severe stress in the aftermath of the strike and layoffs. Some of the suicides resulted from economic problems following the lay-offs.

In Feb 2011, one worker on unpaid time-off died of a heart attack. Under the pressure of the layoffs, his wife had killed herself in April 2010. They had two children. The worker's bank balance was close to zero.
The following is gleaned from an article in the South Korean daily newspaper Hangyereh:

A Korean hospital also found that more than half the Ssangyong strikers it has seen are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and 80% are suffering from severe depression. Almost all the workers involved have reported a deterioration in their marriages. Their average post-restructuring monthly income, of 822,800 Won ($757), represented a 74 percent reduction from their previous salary.

After the defeat of the strike, 462 workers were put on unpaid leave. The promised one-year period has elapsed, yet the company maintains it is unable to begin reinstatement. Workers who retired or were fired are having difficulty finding new employment because of the Ssangyong “scarlet letter,” and have been making do with temporary jobs and day-to-day work. Also absent has been any social safety network to address their deteriorating health and financial anxieties.

Hangyereh calls the 14 deaths "social homicides". 
Our solidarity ought to go out to all of the workers suffering in Pyongtaek. Their suffering should also serve as an example of exactly where a downward trend in workers' rights and class struggle can lead.