''And then 20 years later gazing at all the things around me just seemed to redouble my anguish and crying. Such great hopes and 20 years later still experiencing everywhere the desolation of what the state did to us. All around the scars of defeat: the near elimination of the mining community and here I was driving through a landscape – my landscape - where no pit winding gear was anywhere to be seen, except as a half wheel, sculpture-like marker, on the cross roads through Kiveton Park or a few buildings left, like the clockhouse or the pit head baths, because English Heritage had deemed them significant architectural monuments and far more important than discarded miners. Alas, our small community pit villages had become opened up, not to friends, but to new Barrett type estates appearing everywhere, unveiled as “executive suites” where strangers, mostly middle income personnel from all the UK, with no feel for our area’s past history moved in. These new dormitory estates and towns redefined the area . The point is: once I knew everybody I passed on the way to the local shop, their family history, their parents, grand parents and relatives, now - almost it seemed overnight - you no longer know a lot of the people you pass in the street and it’s getting to the point you feel a total alien on your own stomping ground. And then to cap it all now the whole of the ...pit site is in the process of redevelopment and the amazing wildlife that flourished on the spoil heaps and which we all delighted in, has been engulfed by an umbrella group under the dubious name of Yorkshire Forward. Grimly turning my head away I cannot look at the small army of dumper trucks smoothing everything out for some Design and Build business park. Sure, Yorkshire Forward proclaim their bogus ecological sensitivity when all they are doing is sending nature backwards!...
As I thought of the human consequences of this brutal defeat for all of us who had the temerity to take on the state and very nearly win, it was obvious the end result of the strike would be a far more total devastation. And what an aftermath: I personally know of many families that fell apart and disintegrated. And then all the agonies, the alcoholism, heroin, anti-depressants, the many suicides, and the increasing illness both psychological and physical – often at one and the same time – this defeat entailed. Reviving memories of post strike hardship as money dried up as jobs became scarcer, I thought of a family I knew who only a week previously in late February 2004 had finally managed to pay off the debts incurred during the year long uprising. I also knew their particular case was no exception. I thought of the countless, untold sufferings that rained down on the vast majority of miners, fine people who fighting for their community also spoke for others, reaching out to those who wanted the same, faced with the horrible world now beginning to take shape, a world of isolation, loss and pathological behaviour then making its debut on the world stage....Here am I daily confronting wrecked lives and an often suicidal unhappiness and yet called a misery guts because I am unable to believe in a media/designer mythology of progress and nicey, nicey, lives I am now supposedly sufficiently programmed to want and proclaim. Here I am full of a dark disposition and forebodings yet also full of a yearning for a real joyous, passionate life!'' - Jenny's Tale
The last two years have seen several TV dramas dealing with the Miners Strike. Twenty years after its existence, the media now feels able to play a more impartial role, giving a fairer, more truthful and sympathetic view of the strike, the real political motives behind it and the dirty tricks used to win it. The media was inevitably a blatantly biased tool of the State throughout the strike, but, as there is so little struggle of a similar nature at present, the ruling class and its media now feel it sufficiently quiet on the social and industrial front to deal with this decisive struggle more truthfully. Such truthfullness doesn't, however, extend to showing the lies and manipulations of the media in helping defeat the miners. As an essential part of this omission, no significant informative lessons or reflections of a useful practical nature are taken from the defeat and applied in the present. Well, what else can be expected of the media?
The presentation is obviously a shallow one – little more than historical nostalgia. The miners’ story is portrayed almost as an anthropology lesson; the sad (but perhaps necessary in the course of evolution) story of the destruction of a tribe or species (or were they more self-destructive, like lemmings?). As dead as the dodo. The event is ripe for scriptwriters’ milking of its human drama; the passion of the mining community’s commitment and solidarity, the tragedy of defeat, but the retaining of dignity and defiance etc. Even when presented in a semi-soap opera form, one can still be moved and angered by the reminder of these qualities twenty miserable years on, when the significance of the defeat is clear in the consequences we suffer today. The wider class struggle never recovered from the miners defeat and declined from then on – the level of strikes has only in recent years revived a little and riots of any significance or quality are rare.
This decline and the lessons to be learned for the present are not even the questions being asked by these productions. But perhaps this recognition is, even in its tepid media form, an attempt, consciously or not, to note the significance of an event that asked the most fundamental questions of how this society would function, how the wealth created would be divided. Even a ‘reformist’ victory for the miners would have been a serious defeat for the whole Thatcherite restructuring project. The rest of Europe, having avoided such a decisive class conflict, is only now catching up in an accelerating way with the UK. Major changes to industrial relations, job security and conditions, big cuts in the benefit system with a more disciplinarian approach to unemployment, cruder stratefication of education factories, etc.
For some it is seen as a sign of the weakness of the class struggle in the UK that there was little visible practical commemoration of the anniversary of the Strike apart from, maybe, the blowing up of a police van with a huge firework in Goldthorpe, near Barnsley, the former Yorkshire pit village on May 25th 2004. Certainly, the defeat it ushered in is still being lived and, certainly, only a social movement of a similar scale could begin to avenge that defeat. But anniversaries are fairly artificial events. The 10th anniversary of the strike, so close to the brutal shut-down of the pits in 1992/3 received virtually no media attention for fear that it might cause trouble – but the 20th has been an occasion to churn out loads of programmes and articles because it is safely past. However, we shouldn't be too simplistic about anniversaries: we must distinguish between the dominant spectacularisation of anniversaries of uprisings and genuine self–organised events of real movements. For example, annual anniversaries of the Paris Commune etc. were, in the 1980s and before, real popular celebrations in Iran and Kurdish areas. Despite their leftist associations, they are probably symptoms of a living culture of struggle in many places – even if not in the, in many ways exceptional, UK. In the 19th century there were many meetings, lectures and demos to commemorate anniversaries of past struggles – this was part of the culture of the international workers movement.
Historically the most significant 'anniversary' of a mass social movement was the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune which was 'celebrated' by an even more significant uprising in Kronstadt against the Bolsheviks – but this uprising had nothing to do with evoking the memory of the Paris Commune – it was just a coincidence. But then, is your birthday a moment where you decide to renew your struggle against alienation? This society evokes anniversaries in a seemingly arbitrary fashion: the 20th and 25th anniversary of the end of World War II weren't celebrated at all by the media or by the military – but the 40th – just after the miners strike - became such a useful method of evoking an ideology of progress from the savage ravages of fascism, and of repressing class antagonism, that the 50th and 60th have also been celebrated. But real communities of real struggle rarely have much to do with anniversaries, though occasionally anniversaries have been an excuse for them.
The fascism of everyday life
One thing that stops people even thinking of beginning again is the extent to which daily life is overwhelmed by crazy behaviour on an unprecedented scale, a result of the implosion following the repression of the explosions against this society. The most obvious symptom of this is what might be called the "fascism of everyday life", which is very far from classical fascism.
For example, nowadays there are an increasingly significant number of 15 year olds (mainly male) whose idea of rebellion is to scare the shit out of their elders by playing around with handguns or other ways of being psychotic. There have always been psychos in the working class, but in situations of some margin of independent community psychosis was more tamed, and often evaporated pretty quick in times of mass struggle. Known paedophiles (though not those in the family circle) would get a thumping and that would be the end of it: none of these crazy murders of kids to cover up their sick 'sexuality' or these crazy vigilante groups attacking some crazy guy who just touched a kid (when often worse abuses of kids are quite legal). Highly tense blokes, over-jumpy explosive minefields of stress, would direct their aggression towards the right enemy – the cops etc.- in situations of class conflict, their generous human side also bursting through to those on their side. But nowadays madness manifests itself in switches from power-mad notions of individualist dignity to a vicious identification with a gang, a nation, a family, an ethnic grouping or whatever.
There have always been gangs, scenes, cliques, milieus, Organisations, but in the past, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, these scenes had a far greater openness and fluidity between them. After all, there was a margin of freedom that had been won by 150 years or more of class struggle. In that margin separate from the immediate exigencies of work and money you could at least breathe a bit. You could find some ways to experiment independent of external authority. And you could recognise others because you and they were fighting for yourselves against the forces of external authority. The miners strike, for example, embraced people from all over – it was a crossroad of connections from squatting scenes, blacks, politicos, suspicions having been broken down in the practice of solidarity. But in the last ten years there’s been an atmosphere of being mopped up after a rout. The full implications of this rout have only sunk in, like a rock to the bottom of your soul, in the past 5 years or so: the mad world of the commodity is driving everyone mad.
Traditionally the gang leader is whoever impresses their peers with an ability to strike terror indiscriminately, indiscriminate apart from giving “rewards” to the loyal gang members. But nowadays, this hierarchical loyalty, which didn’t only assume a crude economic form, but had a harking back to a more moral, feudal, economy, and provided some, admittedly submissive, desire for community, nowadays even this is increasingly temporary. For example, along with an increase in scabbing there has been an increase in people grassing. This is not just due to an increasingly narrow petty malicious vindictiveness. But also to other factors: crack and money-madness destroying everything.
In this epoch individualism manifests itself as a pointless and self-destructive battle of egos. But most young individuals don’t see this search for some dream of immediate dignity in putting down others, as self-destructive. Having been so pushed into an “everyone for themselves alone” mentality which cannot see that being for yourself also means being for others, a mentality utterly determined by the economy which divides as it rules, the young proletarian has no margin of experiment outside of hierarchical power relations: pushed into being trapped in the family unit (nowadays, the economy has virtually forbidden leaving home at 21, let alone 16, for increasing amounts of proletarians, unlike in the 70s), a cage without a movement that would begin to make sense of the whole thing and which would seem like an exit from these separate cages, it’s hardly surprising that young people walk around either in an utterly depressed, jumpy, touchy, semi-suicidal state wracked with murderous fantasies. The psychotic gang mentality provides them with a false exit from the suicidal feelings and a realisation of the murderous ones. “Where are the parents?”, cry the State and the neighbours. Highly stressed by over-work (unprecedented at least since the 1920s), arguments, stuck in soothing seductive consumption suitable for all tastes, stuck in the all-pervasive fog of indifference, no time for the kids and no community to share the burden of looking after them. Not the same as it was in the 30s – because then there was some street life. Even with the domination of the streets by cars which developed in the 60s, 70s and 80s, there was working class street life, especially with the mass unemployment of the 80s. But now everyone is indoors, with virtual space provided by computers and TV. The invasion of our lives by a very sinister spectacle of contempt for everything and everyone nurtures the fascistic individualist authoritarian mentality so so far from classical fascism. It's a fascism without unity – everyone their own Hitler. This is the real victory of Thatcherism: a daily life in which the false choices of ignorant liberalism not understanding why people resort to Asbos and reactionary slap-an-Asbo-on-anything-that-moves mentality dominate the argument in such a way as to make things constantly worse, to reinforce the very madness that stops people organising against crackheads as well as the State.
Not surprisingly, there's mass depression, a semi-suicidal gripping onto the edge of life that is driving millions, probably billions, to bad restless nights and tired tiring days. Everywhere people feel defeated - often at the simplest level (in their friendships, for example). Admitting defeat is not necessarily the same as resignation. Admitting defeat is not necessarily the same as accepting defeat as an inevitability. Accepting defeat doesn’t help: in fact, it can only help intensify suicidal and/or psychotically murderous feelings. Admitting defeat, however, should mean a recognition of what has happened, a recognition of reality which is a necessary basis for any consideration of a future attack on this brutal money terrorist reality.
We waver between the semi-suicidal exhaustion that defeat brings and the dream of some future total revolt. Hasn’t it always been the case for the survivors (the vast majority)? – after Spartacus, after the Paris Commune, after Kronstadt.? Probably not, for the most part, in the case of the Commune and Spartacus: the will to self-destruction is borne not just out of the impotence but out of a profound sense of isolation following defeat, a sense arising not merely from the feeling that destroying hierarchical power is an impossibility but above all from the lack of a communal consciousness that alienation is social (the rise of Stalin, however, was accompanied by a big increase in suicides, particularly amongst those who had placed their faith in the Bolsheviks).
Why be so morbid? Surely one cannot hope to inspire revolt if one talks about these desperate feelings. And yet not acknowledging them, and trying to uncover their material bases in the all-pervasive alienation of the Economy and its images makes people even more isolated in these feelings. These feelings are everywhere not admitted in the rulers’ overwhelming show of the possibility of happiness exclusively within the production and consumption of this society; these feelings are everywhere considered to be solely your fault, an aberration.
In the mid-1960s a revolutionary of that time said, “The will to live is a political decision”. We can see now that the project of destroying political social relations, the only political decision ever worth making, was effectively defeated – at least in the immediate epoch - in the mid-to-late 80s. Which is why the victory of political decisions over the will to live has never been so great - just look at the whole post-9/11 world. The intensification of political-economic power and of hierarchy at every level of life (in your relationships also, dear reader), in every part of the world has reduced the will to live to the will to survival. And mere survival makes death seem like a release, the ‘freedom’ of nothingness, the end to pain. In the end, the will to mere survival makes suicide seem a possibility.
Nowadays the etiquette is not to admit defeat and to sneer at those who readily admit to being defeated (for the moment). Isn’t this a bit like the way Christianity, after Spartacus, turned the crucifix, and the reality of defeat, into a symbol of defiance, but not the reality. The American comedian Lenny Bruce said that if Christ had existed today, everyone would be walking around with little electric chairs round their neck. Nowadays almost everyone hides their defeat beneath an ideology of defiance every bit as perverse as wearing an electric chair round your neck. This basic self-pride undoubtedly expresses a real desire to subvert daily life in some way but unless people recognise how far defeated they are, and the history of this defeat, this real desire can only be symbolic, as symbolic as an electric chair round your neck. Or an @narchist T-shirt.
What are we getting at here? It’s no use pretending we’re taking charge of even a little bit of our lives, or at least of the struggle to transform our lives, if all we’re doing is hiding from ourselves how much we have been forced to repress and how much insanity we are having to put up with. This goes as much for those who consider themselves revolutionary as for anyone else. The inability to attack the present, the only time revolt and revolutions are ever made, makes some people, whose significance is mainly in their heads, adopt a timeless theory borrowed from the specialists of the past which they hope one day the working class will realise the eternal truth of. But all the clichés about creating a global human community beyond the economy etc. can’t hide an essential retreat into an almost transcendental abstraction as cosily safe, and as dogmatic, as hope in its religious forms. To really re-discover the revolutionary energy of the past one must first despair of this world. One must face the enormity of the results of defeat and the history of why past struggles were
A Tale Of Two Countries
So what now? The UK seems like a hopeless case and many are looking for some social salvation from movements in other parts of the world – frighteningly though, it's other parts of the world which look like they're in the process of becoming as much a hopeless case as the UK. In France, for instance, the rush to Thatcherite/Blairite social policies is assumed to be something which will be contested satisfactorally, that the French spirit of revolt, having lasted over 200 years, can never be extinguished. But what this displays is not only a kind of French nationalism in a radical guise, but also an ignorance of the history of the UK, a country many French radicals assume was always pretty acquiescent, when in fact 200 years of history have been wiped out, or are in the process of being wiped out, on an unprecedented scale and to such an extent that nobody knows how to begin again.
France has one advantage over the UK in terms of comparing consciousness between the two countries when being confronted with a brutal enemy. Trade Unionism as an ideology amongst the working class is far weaker there than it is in the UK . Sadly, though, there are an increasing amount of young people who seem to have illusions in the younger Trade Unions with a more 'radical ' history, such as Sud, which was involved in the co-ordinations, and even in the more modernised versions of the old unions, the CGT and the CFDT, which have also been involved in co-ordinations.
This was less so in 1986-7. In (1987) me and some other people wrote – in relation to a strike wave on the railways initiated by a train driver distributing a petition committing workers to a strike if their demands weren't met:
"On a more general level, there are, of course, many differences between the movement in the U.K. and that in France. One of the main reasons French railway workers could write and talk so well about what they were doing was because they were making a breakthrough the likes of which hasn't been seen in the U.K. Put simply - they no longer gave a fuck about the union and weren't worried about being frank about it. The ideology of trade unionism is much stronger in the U.K. than in France. Now only about 1 in 6 French workers are unionised, but in the U.K., it's still the overwhelming majority (although it's declining numerically) and, indeed, it tends to be the more rebellious proletarians who see Trade Unions as some support for their struggles - though this too is changing. But although there is an elemental movement in the U.K. - one that is almost without a name, and hardly even considers itself as a movement at all, but which appears in brilliant flashes like some Northern Aurora - it also, in off periods, falls uneasily back into the semblance of a tradition. Thus, in response to the stark facts that non-unionists in the French railway workers strike played a big part, the response of an independantly-minded U.K. worker, glad to see it happening across the Channel, was glibly, "How can they strike if they're not in the union?" . An opened mouth, jaw-dropping reply quickly changed the initial reflex comment into a ready acceptance that non-unionists were able to initiate strike action as much as those in a union. Nevertheless, this incident does point to a major obstacle in the U.K. now: how to clearly break from the trade union form of struggle and not just endlessly criticise it in fascinating detail, ringing the changes on changing the union! From changing the personnel at the top ( election of leftist bureaucrats, etc.) to changing the rule book or the union structure to trying to make the officials be paid no more than the average wage of those they represent to more control by delegate conferences or particular mandated committees and so on and so on. In fact it's been the unions - and trade unionist ideology in the practice of the working class - that have kept Thatcher in power. For example, NUPE playing off COHSE and vice versa in the health workers' strike. Or ASLEF telling its' members to cross NUR picket lines, and vice versa, in the '82 post-Falklands rail strikes. The miners strike is more complicated - but, without going deeper into details, it's clear that trade unionism was a vital limitation & weakness of that remarkable explosive struggle. Undoubtedly, in the heat of practice, the union baggage is often pushed aside and ignored, but only to be slipped in sideways when it seems pragmatic to do so. Thus, even in wildcat actions, the smokescreen of unionism ("This strike is official" when it very much isn't, etc.) keeps making an appearance and it squeezes perception of struggle (which matters, too) into an outmoded shell which stops others connecting and catching on. Oh for the day when employed proles in the U.K. will be as forthright as the French railway workers in the long and difficult task of emancipating themselves from the trade union form."
This is still one of the essential problems facing working class struggle in the UK today.