Bit busy in these parts at the moment so don’t have a great deal of time to be writing. But I’m very heartened by the embryonic #OccupyDameStreet, and deeply impressed by the bravery, commitment and good humour of so many in what were initially very unpromising conditions. Weather wise, this is probably the worst of times to be digging in to an occupation, but precisely for that reason, it may turn out to be the best of times.A stunning success of the ‘We are the 99 percent’ motto in the United States has been to bring this conflict -class struggle- to light. As Conor McCabe (who gave an excellent talk down on Dame Street today, which I was able to watch online) shows in Sins of The Father, the history of the Republic of Ireland in the twentieth century is in many ways the story of an example of how (he quotes Eipper) ‘under the banner of development’, a small minority ‘were able, in classic fashion, to present their specific interests as general ones’. ‘We are the 99 percent’ is equally relevant in Ireland. As the most daring of the occupiers set up camp on Saturday night, a little further up the road discussions were underway in Dublin Castle, the former seat of colonial rule, involving government ministers and assorted captains of industry, including billionaire media and telecommunications mogul Denis O’Brien, whose payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds to a government minister, uncovered by the Moriarty Tribunal (which sat at Dublin Castle) was no barrier to entry to the Global Irish Forum. The assembled in Dublin Castle trumpeted the importance of the ‘diaspora’ (a racial-biological term that goes unquestioned by the establishment) in maintaining foreign direct investment. The settings of Dublin Castle and Farmleigh illustrate well how ‘diaspora’ is a useful tool for the assembled to present their specific interests as general ones. As Adam Smith said, ‘people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’. The 1%. Meanwhile people of many different nationalities were down on Dame Street in the cold, trying to cobble together structures that would provide shelter and protection for each other. The public. The 99%.
The rich possibilities of this distinction, however, would be jettisoned if, as I witnessed people advocate this afternoon, a stance were adopted of simply not entertaining any form of interaction with unions at all. How can you say ‘we are the 99%’ without recognising the importance of the instruments that the 99% have to use to protect their rights?I understand that it’s essential to maintain autonomy for the occupation and to persist with the direct democratic assemblies – otherwise it has no point. But I don’t see how any such autonomy can mean anything of any great importance to wider society, unless it takes into account that neither the State nor bodies that have been co-opted by the State are going to wither away simply because lots of people camp out in tents and occasionally engage in marches and civil disobedience. Nonetheless I have lots of hope. Provided there is a flow of intense democratic dialogue, which is what the space was created for, after all, as opposed to the petty demagoguery of ‘we won’t be dealing with unions’, which I expect to fade, a resolute course of politicising action can be reached. The movement can expose the 1% and the institutions that serve it, and deprive them of their legitimacy to carry out their savagely cruel austerity plans. In this spirit I am publishing a translation here that I think particularly relevant, since it deals with the possibility of rebuilding unions in countries where they have operated as the tools of the State and the motors of depoliticising consensus and downward convergence. As Michael Albert alluded to in his brief talk at Dame Street today, it is not just public spaces as designated by the State that need to be occupied and politicised. Therefore to exclude the question of how to relate to unions is to exclude many people in the 99% who want to politicise places of work, and to exclude, by extension, those people whose material well-being is inextricable from the protections won through union struggles. They are the 99% too, and deciding to cast them aside could prove fatal. But it is hard to be anything but hopeful
It’s a translation from Juan Carlos Monedero’s El gobierno de las palabras (The Government of Words).
Catechism for rebulding unions
(From the footnotes: These measures were set forth in 2004 in the course “20th Century trade unionism that I directed in Mexico D.F. on the request of different unions that sought a position with regard to the reforms of social insurance promoted by President Fox….The original impulse for the creation of unions in Mexico came from the State, in such a way that for decades they were transmission belts for the Government party (PRI). Only when they began to free themselves from this tutelage were they able to build a trade unionism that attended more to the needs of workers. However, the inertia of seven decades still weigh heavily.This is valid for all those countries where the trade unions integrated themselves in some way or another in the State (this is equally evident in the case of Venezuela, where the Central de Trabajadores de Venezuela even took part in the coup d’etat against Hugo Chávez that placed in power for two days the head of the bosses organisation, Carmona Estanga). Or in the case of the main European unions, who supported a European Constitution that removed the right to work and substituted it with the right to look for work. On the other hand, in those places where trade unionism did not get integrated into cartelisation (for example, Bolivia), it was valid for promoting transformations alongside other social movements’)
The following proposals, presented here not without irony as a catechism for union reconstruction set out some possible lines of action.
- You shall not seek mere economic responses to neoliberal devastation. The reconstruction of the world of labour at the same time requires the reconstruction of a new cultural identity that reinforces the “we” of the collective, new forms of reciprocity that generate trust in the group, new forms of political orientation for the future that allow for the confrontation of the onslaught of other exclusionary approaches. To reinvent the economy, culture, politics and the normative system all form part of the same reconstruction of the right to work as the main collective right of human beings (the basis for the guarantee of the rest). As such, it is essential that worker thought places at the centre of its debate the need to build its own language that restores the identity lost in the inflexible voyage of capitalism, modernity and statism.
- You shall not replace rights with acts of charity. Whilst charity is voluntary and only dignifies the person who provides it, rights form part of a social achievement that makes them obligatory, conferring dignity on whoever enjoys them. In times of religious fundamentalism in the East and West, accompanied by the dismantling of the social contract, charity weakens rights, it justifies the powerful and it disciplines workers.
- You will demand relief from external debt, since its payment, as well as being immoral for having already been conducted numerous times and for being a debt acquired by illegitimate rulers, prevents economic development and it becomes the social debt of the Latin American continent. External debt strongly hinders the creation of a decent world of labour in Latin America.
- You shall demand a just access to world markets, especially agriculture markets, since it is here that a large part of the economic backwardness of impoverished societies lies. And for this, you shall define critical positions in the World Trade Organisation, aware that global spheres always make themselves concrete in local spaces.
- You shall push for free and urgent access to the necessary pharmaceutical products needed to treat the diseases that destroy impoverished countries and prevent their development. For this, faced with the pressure of pharmaceutical countries, you will demand the creation of generic medicines, based on the fact that health is not a business.
- To the demand to “think global, act local” you shall add “think local act global”. In this way, you will make workers and unions of other countries part of your demands for the universal right to work, social rights and the transfer of technology. The globalisation of resistance must form part of the strategy of unions in any part of the world.
- You shall promote regional integrations that go beyond the creation of wide markets, conferring the new construction with a political content that raises the member countries to the maximum rights of existing citizens.
- You shall incorporate sustainability and respect for the environment as an essential element in labour rights, understanding that ecological deterioration is one of the most terrible and lasting features of the impoverishment of both the workers of today and those of future generations.
- You shall reform multilateral global institutions by democratising them, in such a way that reverses their current status as governing bodies where the common interests of global elites are defended.
- You shall combine your efforts with those of social movements, understanding that the sum of the demands by the movements construct the map of social emancipation in which the union movement is also implicated. You will set in train the work of translation, so that the union struggles are understood by all the social movements. At the same time, you shall provide help, by relying on your greater structural capacity, so that social movements also activate that need for the translation of their patch so that the red thread that crosses all the social movements is understood in each of its parts.
- You shall use your strength as citizen-consumer to democratise the supply of goods and services both public and private and to demand compliance in social rights. In the private sphere, there will be pressure applied by bringing down the sales of firms with antisocial behaviours. In the public sphere, by reinforcing the idea of the citizen in the against that of the customer, which atomises the relation of people to administration.
- You shall reinvent a new form of solidarity-based nationalism that creates social cement and prevents attacks from compact groups that profit from the porosity of borders in globalisation. The new communitarian consciousness, based on the idea of a solidarity-based nation, will reinvent the polis and, as such, the politcs that globalisation has weakened with the attacks on the national State.
- You shall recover from your past the memory of the struggles that constructed democratising paths. Just as the struggles of today are the rights of tomorrow, the struggles of yesterday are the rights of today. In the remembrance of these emancipating struggles new reasons and examples will be found to fuel the emancipations that must be promoted at every moment.
- You shall demand a strong democratic behaviour in society and you will set in train within the union the same demands that you demand in the social sphere. In this way, the union will be an example of the rule of law (the norms will be applied in an identical manner to all the members of the union, from the secretary general to the most recent joiner); of the separation between the private and the public (which avoids individual use of funds that are collective and which put a brake on caudillismo and clientelism); and of horizontal accountability (not vertical, tied to electoral processes, but carried out day to day by all the members of the collective. Democratic access to information and, as such to communications media, is a requirement for this promotion of citizenship). The demand for democracy in society by unions will not be believable if it is not applied within its own structures.
- You shall integrate unionised labour into Federations and Confederations in which it will be possible to develop political activity rendered impossible from within individual structures, even when positions of strength are enjoyed. You shall not confuse the task of political defence of workers carried out from the union with the tasks that belong to a political party, however much the crisis of political formations on the left might invite this leap to be made. The place of the union is different from the place of the party and the cohesion that it possesses as a union can be weakened when it articulates as a formation that takes part in an election in competition with other forces. A similar thing happens with an excessive linkage to any government, which ends up paralysing the union, devoured by a greater apparatus once the doors have been opened to it.
- You shall not confuse technical arguments with political arguments. For this, you shall endow yourself with technical qualifications and ideological clarity, being able to identify the political condition, masked in technicalities, of the privatising, deregulating and flexibilising discourses. You shall unmask the falsity of the three recurring arguments of conserviative and reactionary thought for preventing changes: nothing can be done; things are going to get worse; other achievements are going to be endangered. A review of history shows the lie behind these arguments. In the final instance, when intelligence finds itself paralysed by the hegemony of unitary thought, apply the “She did not know it was impossible, she went and did it” as the motor of transformations. It is a matter of recalling the Gramscian approach: “To the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, or that of the Venezuelan Simón Rodríguez: “We invent or we fail”.
- You shall turn the union into a poet, with the capacity to reinvent the concepts that explain exploitation and the struggle for dignity, furthermore making an extra effort to recreate with new words the old problems thus permitting the incorporation of new generations to a fight that seems to them old and rancid merely by its language. For this, you shall endow the union structures with powerful study groups that counter the renaming efforts of conservative “think tanks” which end up turning the dead into collateral damage, corruption into individual reassignment of budgetary allocations at the same time as they urge unions to sign up to competitiveness, flexibility and adjustment.
- You shall recover the place in civil society that unions abandoned when they became part of the State. For this, you shall set out the mission of re-moralising the State, turning it into the efficient guarantor of collective interests and the promoter of social rights. At the same time, you shall turn the market back into the mere instrument at the service of the community as it should be in a democratic society.
- You shall place at the heart of your union essence the struggle against inequalities of class, race and gender, helping to end the prehistory of the humankind. At the same time, you shall incorporate all those social demands that hold as a principle the defence of a right or a difference that creates equality or prevents the loss of identity, always within a dialogue-based commitment to collective happiness.
- You shall know and you will let people know, through union commitment, that to participate, that giving your all, constitutes one of the finest social obligations; specifically, the obligation to give back part of what society provides us, one of the forms of the mandate to transform (to improve), which is what makes us human and what gives us meaning.