Friday, September 24, 2010

Live Working or Die Fighting: Review

review by Peter Waterman (reposted)

Paul Mason, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. London: Harvill Secker. 304 pp. ISBN

With Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Paul Mason has invented a new genre - one which reaches places not commonly touched in either
recent academic labour history or accounts of contemporary labour struggles. It
should communicate that history and those struggles, and the relationship
between such, to new generations of workers as well as to those in the global
justice and solidarity movement unaware of such.

As someone who literally grew up, and just as literally went to school, with British and European labour history, who has long studied and written about historical and contemporary labour struggles,
national and international, I felt enlightened and inspired by this book. Much
of this has to do with the genre, a quasi-cinematic one, consisting of
flash-backs (or forwards) or montage, that create above all an image of the
working class as a continuing, if irregular, presence, existing on a worldwide
stage. What Paul Mason is both recording and urging upon us, it seems to me, is
recognition of the moments and places in which there have existed working-class
cultures of protest that had or have messages for humanity more generally:

‘[This] history needs to be rediscovered because two sets of people stand in dire need of knowing more about it: first, the activists who have flooded the streets in Seattle,
Genoa and beyond to protest against globalisation; second, the workers in the
new factories, mines and waterfronts created by globalisation in the developing
world, whose attempts to build a labour movement are at an early stage. They
need to know…that what they are doing has been done before…Above
all they need to know that the movement was once a vital force: a
counterculture in which people lived their lives and the the main source of
eduction for men and women condemned to live short, bleak lives and dream of
impossible futures.’ (x)

Quite how Mason manages the leaps in his narrative between mutilated workers in Shenzhen, China, today and the Battle of Peterloo, Manchester,
in 1819 is something of an artistic mystery. I can only say that it works,
without parallels being forced or fingers being wagged. Other chapters compare:
silkworkers in Varanasi (Benares), India now and in the Lyons, France, revolt
of 1831; the casual labourers of a Lagos slum in 2005 and the Paris Commune of
1871; oilworkers in Basra, Iraq in 2006 and the invention of Mayday in
Philadelphiain 1886; and immigrant
office cleaners in London’s East End in 2004, and the Great Dock Strike of
unskilled workers in London’s East End in 1889. If we eventually reach the
globalisation of unskilled workers’ unionism in 1889-1912, we are later
confronted by ‘wars between brothers’ amongst miners in Huanuni, Bolivia, today
and German workers’ failures to condemn the war of 1914-18 and to bring about a
revolution at its end. Most exotic of is are Mason’s 25-page account of the
Bund, the socialist union of Jewish workers
in interwar Poland.
This is preceded by a sketch of the struggle in El Alto, a giant squatter city
(on a plateau 500m above the city and the high-rises of a literally downtown La Paz). There are
several more such stories in this panoramic work, often expressed in the words
of the men and women activists involved. Coincidentally, I have been, as an
international labour researcher, in several of the countries or towns visited
by Paul Mason as a journalist. Yet my feeling in reading his accounts is less
that of recognition than of admiration for his capacity to evoke them, and to
do so with sympathy but without sentimentality or paternalism.

But what on earth is it that holds this patchwork narrative together? I think it is Mason’s insistence on a counter-culture of resistance, of rebellion and of creativity
from the class’s own resources, and of aspirations that go beyond the social
and human relations of capitalism. He himself argues that

‘If there is a recurrent theme amid all this, it is control. Politically, the labour movement has debated strategy in terms of reform
versus revolution. Practically, to the frustration of advocates of both
approaches, workers have been prepared to go beyond reform
but settle for less than revolution.’ (xiii)

In his concluding chapter, Mason does go into interpretation, offering an explanation for the Post-World War Two loss of working-class independence, and
incorporation into two ruling-class projects, one in the West, the other in the
East. However:

‘It is very different now. Today the transnational corporation is the primary form of economic life. In addition, global consumer culture is breaking down all that
was local, insular and closed in working-class communities. There is, for the
first time, a truly global working class. But it has not yet had its 1889
moment,’ (280)

Mason sees the leadership once offered by philanthropists, social democrats, anarchists or communists now resting with the ‘new social reformism’
of the anti-globalisation movement. For myself, as someone equally concerned
with labour internationalism and the global justice movement, this is a dying
fall. Perhaps the author, at the end of his marathon, ran out of puff. It is
not simply that we get a gesture where we need at least a picture. It is
because the gesture is to the ameliorative tendency within a movement that also
has a powerful emancipatory wing and because Mason appears unaware of the
extent to which the labour movement is (an admittedly contradictory) part of
this movement.

Paul Mason's comparative lack of attention to the labour, socialist and anarchist parties and ideologies that have played such a dominant role in the history of labour, and labour history (for better
or worse) is due to his stress on the socio-cultural rather than the
party-political. I find this focus (on a rank-and-file of flesh and blood, not
one seen through ideological spectacles) refreshing.
If the old labour and the new social movements are to be fruitfully
articulated, Paul Mason's pathbreaking book will have made a not insignificant
contribution. It should be read, taught, discussed. And translated, as a start,
into Spanish, Hindi and Chinese.

Mason’s is a romance of labour but one without sentimentality. Although neither a theoretical nor a policy-oriented work, it is certainly informed by both sympathy and understanding of the uneven
(if rarely combined) struggles of labouring people. Many of the major movements
he presents have actually fused, in varied measure, labour and nationalism,
labour and ethnicity, labour and democracy. These movements, and their leaders
and activists both known and forgotten, are, it is shown, never archetypal
proletarians, nor paragons of left
or socialist virtue. They were and are, however, our forebears and our compañer@s[1] - people
with whom we can in our turn empathise, learn from and with.

In concluding, I have to return to where I began, with this book as a new genre. The book has its own website, which is both elegant and transparent.[2] Here it
is possible to find photographs, a 60-second video clip of the author promoting
his book in a Nairobi slum, with the Internationale being played in the
background, resource lists, and reviews. The photographs and other graphics
could be taken as illustrations for a book that regrettably has none. The site
as a whole reinforces my feeling that this work is cinematic.

[1] This is a Spanish figure which has the advantages of surpassing the much-abused ‘comrade’ and of combining the male and female form.


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