French syndicalists interview one of the UK McDonalds Workers Resistance group about the political climate, how McDonalds functions and the politics of MWR in January 2004 .
The interview has three parts:
Part 1- Introduction and brief overview of the political climate in the UK and the anarchist movement in the UK and their relationships to MWR.
Part 2- Description of the demographic of McDonalds workforce in the UK and a study of McDonalds management, how the productive process if policed and how it can be challenged.
Part 3- The politics of MWR, anarcho-syndicalism, structures of struggle and revolution, insurrectionism, capitalist crisis and more…
You were very keen to do this interview! Why do you think your experiences are important?
They are not especially important but are potentially as important as any other record of class struggle. I am very interested in looking at workplace resistance, both as a defensive reaction of working people and as a focus for the struggle to create a revolutionary economy. But revolutionaries often discuss these things based on analysis of the past and predictions of the future while they maintain an uneasy silence regarding the present.
My discussion in this interview is based on my experiences with McDonalds Workers Resistance, is limited and contextual and will not announce what structures will bring revolution, but argues that those structures will be determined not by what worked in the past or what is likely to work in the future, but by what works in the present. Sometimes it seems to me that some militants have a preferred way of organising dictated by their readings of theory and history, and if their ideas are not applied widely in workplaces, they continue to put out their propaganda and blame their lack of success on reformist unions, oppressive labour laws, an ignorant workforce informed by state schools and capitalist media, a period of low struggle, previous defeats, capitalist expansion and other descriptions of the world we live in. In other words, they hope to apply pre-determined organising structures to a different world, rather than allowing structures of class conflict to be dictated by the very varied practical experiences of workers in this world and trying to build these structures in a way that is consistent with lessons they have learned from history and theory. I do not doubt that if there were two billion people in the International Workers Association, we would have a revolution, as soon as it was passed by congress. But that is no more relevant than observing that if we had a communist economy based on free co-operation and mutual aid, we wouldn’t need a revolution.
There is no point complaining that there is not enough analysis of structures of workers struggles unless I am prepared to offer my thoughts on what I know- which is burgers. I worked at McDonalds for over six years and don’t know that much about other workplaces. So I want to relate a detailed account of McDonald’s and an analysis of our experiences within it and to argue that revolutionary structures should be constituted out of the practical realities of our everyday lives.
Although you are being interviewed by us, you hope this will be read by militants in the UK?
Yes, the situation in France is very different so the experience of MWR is even less relevant there. I was in Paris earlier this year and I interviewed someone who works at one of the six McDonald’s represented by the CNT France. It was incredible for me, while MWR wore balaclavas in photographs and communicated using pseudonyms, the comrade from the CNT took me to his McDonald’s helped himself to two coffees and explained to his manager that he was doing an interview about the syndicate! Afterwards he showed me their crew room (which had been rebuilt under pressure from the union) where there is a glass cabinet to which management had no access and where he had put up signs including one announcing a date where they would work slowly “in opposition to McDonald’s France”!
Maybe that does not seem so strange in France but it is unimaginable that the same thing could happen at a McDonald’s in the UK. So while it was very interesting for me to see this organising in Paris, it is not necessarily going to help McDonald’s workers in Scotland.
Of course things would be more comfortable if we had French labour laws but such concessions are only granted in response to intense class struggle, which pre-supposes some kind of collective structures. And we must not forget that if forcing such concessions of a state demonstrates a collective victory for a struggling working class, capitalism buys something with those concessions. In labour terms, French labour laws are a liberal democracy to Britain’s autocracy and when dictatorships are overthrown, liberal democracies ensure that very little changes and that the dictatorship can always return. Our revolutionary structures must have strength regardless of any possible law.
MWR was based in the UK so can you give us some background to the political situation there and how it differs from France?
MWR involved workers in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK (there were also a few contacts with workers in Scandinavia and central and Southern Europe) but I think in all those places the political climate, especially with regards to labour is probably closer to the UK than France.
In the UK around one third of the workforce is a member of a trade union and union membership is more prevalent amongst public sector and former public sector employees. This is obviously a higher percentage than in France but you would certainly never know it- the unions are much less powerful than in France and with a very few exceptions, support the governing Labour Party. Even the Fire Brigades Union continues to donate to the Labour Party despite them having threatened to suppress their recent strike with threats to sequestrate funds, seize equipment and pass a law making that strike and any subsequent ones illegal.
Perhaps the very limited ambitions of the British trade unions can be explained by the failure of social democracy in Britain and the union’s consequential loss of direction as traditional left-capitalism became unable to administrate a new phase of capitalist development. The ‘winter of discontent’, a massive working class movement against a Labour government, symbolised the end of almost three decades of Keynesian economics, consistent growth, full employment and tolerance of strong labour organisations. Neo-liberalism necessitated a confrontation with those organisations and the working class, most famously the miners, suffered a series of defeats. Since then union memberships have generally been passive with notable exceptions such as the postal workers who have taken wildcat action on many occasions over the last few years. Indeed recently there has been a marked increase in days won through strike action with hospital staff, refuse collectors, aviation workers and many others going on strike. Unemployment is relatively low which may be contributing to a slight increase in confidence. However, industrial action is still very unusual compared to in France and is overwhelmingly defensive; opposing redundancies and deterioration of conditions. The economy has shifted very heavily towards high turnover, de-skilled, service sector employment and the unions have made little progress in these sectors. There is no alternative union equivalent to SUD.
Compared to France the left is small and insignificant with the biggest party being the vaguely Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party whose membership is perhaps 3000. The far right is also very small; the British National Party craves electoral respectability and has had some success in council elections but nothing approaching Le Pen’s Front National.
So the political spectrum is very narrow, electoral turnout is declining and popular participation is negligible. Recent exceptions include the massive anti-war movement (mainly marching about but school kids went on strike and blocked roads across the country). And the slightly more successful landowner led Countryside Alliance movement.
In short, a working class that has been on the receiving end of two decades of attacks, not even a pretence of an electoral solution, and a labour movement that is irrelevant to most workers and of limited value to the rest. To me these circumstances seem fertile for an explosion in libertarian class struggle but there is very little evidence that this is happening.
What about Anarcho-syndicalism?
With every respect to the Solidarity Federation, it has very little influence. British anarchism is strongly influenced by the environmental movement and so it remains very focused on direct action street protests. In France it seems that workplace militancy is central to how most libertarians understand revolutionary struggle, but in the UK it is often treated as just another issue- ‘climate change, anti-war, animal rights, workers’ rights, etc.' Obviously this is a generalisation- there are libertarians who are active at their work, or in claimants unions, or in support of workplace struggles- but much more emphasis seems to be placed on street protests and samba bands. Already there are excited preparations underway for the visit of the G8 in 2005. Here again there is a difference- the VAAAG in France appeared to be an occasion to gather, promote and discuss the struggle against capital, while similar smaller events in the UK are mistaken for the struggle against capital. Of course, capitalism is an economic relationship and you can no more protest it away than blow it up, but while this is generally accepted, the appendage to most protest descriptions that “the real struggle is in your workplace and community” is rarely followed up with much enthusiasm, especially with regards to the workplace. A lot of people who call themselves anarchists in the UK would maybe be considered autonomes in France.
However, there are class struggle anarchists in local collectives and also in the national organisations the Anarchist Federation and the Solidarity Federation. The Solidarity Federation is anarcho-syndicalist and IWA affiliated but its small numbers mean if mainly functions as a propaganda group rather than as a union. There is also the revolutionary Syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World who, not being confined to anarchists, have more members but are also small. There is also a tradition of anarcho-syndicalism in Northern Ireland. The Anarchist Workers Group is a network mainly focused on linking anarchists who are in reformist unions.
How did the British anarchist movement respond to MWR?
In Britain there is a strong influence of sub-culturalism and ‘opting out’ within what is called anarchism and some of these people regard wage slaves as the enemy that reproduces capitalism, cuts down trees and kills chickens. So these people could sometimes be very hostile and for a time we received sporadic abuse and death threats in the name of ALF, ELF or (presumably) invented paramilitary organisations. But far more often the reaction was indifferent or supportive. We received excellent solidarity from some community action groups and class struggle groups but also picked up a lot of help that would not be available to other workplace initiatives from those who protested McDonalds on an environmental or animal rights basis, but would pass our stuff to workers because they saw it as another way to get back at the company, rather than because they were necessarily interested in class struggle.
It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that despite their rhetoric and enthusiasm for the first CGT strike at McDonalds in Paris, the Socialist Workers Party (as well as smaller leftist organisations) refused over a period of years to admit the existence of MWR. Even a small column reporting the global McStrike that was submitted by one of their cadre to their youth paper was never printed. Various messages, letters and news releases went without reply.
And what about McDonalds in the UK?
There are over a thousand restaurants and they employ 38000 people. The first one opened in 1974 and the company expanded until last year when a decline in their business caused them to close a number of restaurants. There haven’t been redundancies as staff shortages are sufficient that workers can be offered at least some hours at a different restaurant.
More than half of the McDonalds in the UK are franchised with the owner paying a percentage of sales to McDonalds and keeping the remainder of the profits. McDonalds keeps very tight control over franchised restaurants so from a workers’ perspective it makes very little difference whether they work for a company or franchise store. A number of senior managers swapped their lucrative salaries for restaurant franchises and are now earning less than they used to. Unlike in Germany and Italy there has been no collective movement of franchise owners objecting to high payments while McDonalds popularity declines- and we don’t really care. However, if the ‘owner’ of a business is working hard and not making a great profit, it serves to obscure exploitative class relations.
Wages are defined regionally and so vary according to the local employment situation, tending to be highest in the South East of England and lowest in formerly industrial areas in Scotland, the North of England and Wales. The lowest I know of was in Northern Ireland and the highest was in Oxford. Generally, the introduction of the minimum wages has made very little difference to McDonalds workers since most are too young to qualify and it is maintained at about the level that most ‘adult’ workers at McDonalds would earn anyway.
A slight majority of workers are part time and this is usually through their choice. There are school kids who work at McDonalds at the weekend and in the evening. School kids have rarely become seriously involved with MWR since they normally live with their parents, just work for pocket money, the money is more than they have ever earned before (doing paper rounds for example) and the idea of work is still new and interesting. However, they have not yet finished their capitalist socialisation (McDonalds is part of it) and bring with them tactics and habits of resistance to the school system, often treating managers like teachers and upholding defiance as a virtue and an end in itself. So they are often willing to participate in acts of resistance initiated by others.
University students are more likely to be forced into McDonald’s employment by financial necessity. Students predict they will get better employment when they finish their degree and this can work in two ways- they may resent having to do a shitty boring job but they know their future lies else where and often have individualistic ideas of how to improve their working conditions- get their degree and get a better job. Some students develop explicit critiques of the McProfit machine and can be important in initiating rebellion. Other students are used to succeeding within institutions and approach McDonalds as they approach the education system. In short, they were kiss asses at school and they are kiss asses at work. There is a special problem with business students who favour McDonalds as an employer and would vote to cut their own wages if they had the chance.
College students follow similar patterns although their future in more comfortable employment is less guaranteed and they are likely to be closer to full timers. The full timers are usually unqualified and unable to find other employment. Many are sent to McDonalds by the Department of Social Security, refuse to submit to discipline and are quickly fired for individualistic rebellion. Some people go through numerous similar jobs in a year. Other full timers are trapped in the job with few alternatives and for some this leads to prolonged bitterness and determination to organise and resist. Others try to improve their wages and standing with promotions- there are real opportunities to rise to the lower rungs of management and receive a reasonable salary. For some workers these attempts at promotion are accompanied by an ideological identification with the company, for others it is purely pragmatic and they remain very bitter.
In many places, Scotland for example, most workers fit into these descriptions and very few crew members are over 22 (by which time they have either become more employable with maturity and a record of employment and have got other jobs, have been promoted within McDonalds, have finished their degrees and obtained other work or have settled into long term unemployment). The exceptions normally do specific tasks, for example “lobby hosts” are often mothers working part time while not looking after their kids. Technicians are employed by different companies, as are delivery staff, while we have no contact with any office staff.
In other areas, London for example, the demographic is very different with many restaurants staffed predominately by unqualified black workers and immigrant labour. The immigrants are often older and heavily dependent on the job, sometimes working long hours supporting families in the UK or abroad. We had contact with a few immigrants who were managing to work illegally and although new laws demanding everyone submit proof of their legal right to work in the UK may have reduced this, doubtless many have been able to continue through management incompetence or collusion where they don’t want to lose good workers. These workers may have advanced understandings of their exploitation but their exceptionally precarious positions mean they are the least likely to want to participate in any collective action, though they may express vocal support for the idea.
Amongst first, second, third generation immigrants with British citizenship, the situation may be different. I worked at a McDonalds in England where half the workers were from the Jamaican community and they were impossible to manage, sticking together, refusing to take orders and generally not giving a fuck. They responded very enthusiastically to written MWR material but our communication was limited because I couldn’t understand anything they said and they couldn’t understand me. Even restaurants where there had been an MWR influence over time could rarely come close to the unproductive and shambolic standards of this store. A particular problem at this restaurant (from McDonalds point of view) was that the management was very predominately white, which contributed to an oppositional collective identity amongst the black crew members. Normally where the crew are predominately black, low-level management positions are also filled by promoted black workers, which presumably alleviate these problems.
Female workers are a significant minority and often rise more quickly to low-level management positions. This may reflect perceptions of female communication skills or just the preferences of the predominately male senior managers who influence promotions. The work is often gender segregated with female workers more likely to work on tills than in kitchen. This is consistent with a general trend favouring females for customer service work. Although the original MWR were almost all male, females have maybe been over-represented in MWR relative to the proportion of the workforce they comprise. This may reflect gender socialisation where women are expected to be compassionate and interested in fairness and men are supposed to be too individualistic for all that hippy shit.
It should be obvious that what is going to motivate different workers at McDonalds to resist their exploitation, and what structure are going to be effective, will vary with place and time. And it goes without saying that the work is repetitive, constant, robotic, hot, loud, likely to cause minor injury, etc.
What type of workers were involved with MWR?
All the types I mentioned, except really the older immigrants (and the damned business studies students!). The original MWR group was comprised of unqualified full timers, students and school kids. I have been an unqualified full timer, then college student, then university student and then qualified full timer which, despite campus jokes about arts graduates would not have happened if I wasn’t continuing with MWR and a bit of a bum.
What about management, how does that work?
It’s built on elaborate hierarchies both formal and informal. Even if someone has only worked at McDonalds for two months it is already considered part of their job to enforce correct practices amongst even less experienced co-workers and failure to do so will lead to rebukes that pass up the hierarchy. The first official promotion is ‘training squad’ (supervisor and trainer), then floor manager (higher ranking supervisor and trainer) and then shift running floor manager (may be left to supervise the whole restaurant). Then each restaurant has salaried managers who are classified as second or first assistants to the store manager. In addition to their supervisory functions, salaried managers perform various administrative tasks like ordering the burgers, but all the important decisions are taken above their heads. ‘Operations consultants’ are above store managers and even they perform a predominately supervisory role. All new procedures are dictated centrally, how I have no idea. There is a procedure for absolutely everything, it’s scientific management taken to extremes.
The business functions because, to stay out of trouble, everyone is dependent on those below them to follow procedures accurately. Even at the lowest levels, if someone less experienced than you is neglecting a procedure and you don’t correct them then sooner or later you’re going to piss off the floor manager since because you are not performing your supervisory function, he or she risks getting in trouble from their superior. This logic passes right up the hierarchy.
This is the “I’m going to get in shit if you don’t do it mate” effect which can be very persuasive at a human level. It’s a paradox that McDonald’s creation of “team spirit” is dependent on the assertion that those above whoever is giving out orders are nasty slave drivers. Additionally, there are some times when people supervise each other out of genuine self-interest; everybody wants to go home at the end of a long night and if someone is slacking on the clean up operation then this is understandably going to piss others off.
Generally, even those who may be quite happy going to work (because they like the workmates for example), hold a low opinion of the company and would agree they have a shit job. This is not reflected in the results of the company’s annual employment satisfaction survey (which could be fictitious anyway) partly because they don’t ask questions like “do you think McDonald’s is ethical?” and partly because managers can “get in shit” if results from their store are disagreeable (or at least believe that they can) and so tell everyone “I’m going to get in shit if you don’t write good things…”
So managers who can strike up a rapport with the crew are much more effective. Most effective is to divide and rule, to split the crew into two sections; a favoured section of mainly experienced workers and a sub-class of mainly inexperienced workers. Those in the favoured section are privileged with less strict discipline (even oversight of small thefts), more freedom and less crap tasks, while the sub-class are universally pissed on. When the manager says “I’m going to get in shit unless…” the favoured section work hard themselves and police the sub-class, firstly out of gratitude for their preferential treatment and secondly because they do not want to be relegated to the sub-class. In these times of disposable labour, the relatively unproductive sub-class can do very little to disturb this mechanism. The situation can only be broken if the favoured section rebel collectively which is my no means impossible as they are likely to drink and socialise together. The original MWR group was an example of a favoured section that continued to order the workforce but did so increasingly in the interests of the workers. Consequently, over a year, average labour costs as a percentage of sales increased by almost 4%, which represented a 30% increase in labour expenditure. For a time we were even able to include the non-privileged group in direct democratic decision-making though we probably did not know the term at the time. When I later worked at other McDonalds, my first concern was to ‘infiltrate’ the privileged group. Whether there is any metaphor for the world beyond McDonalds in these observations, I could not say.
Even since 1996 when I started at McDonalds, I have noticed a movement towards the styles of management described above and away from the traditional militaristic approach. The militaristic approach relies on strict discipline and verbal and physical intimidation. McDonalds admitted a preference for ex-military personnel because “they bring a sense of discipline” and having an enormous former soldier shouting at a sixteen year old can be effective. However, it is much easier to break down, especially for a group like the original MWR whose ranks always contained those who were unlikely to be intimidated. It also led to embarrassing media stories, like when a manager set fire to a kid’s eyebrows. Here I think there probably is a metaphor for the world beyond McDonalds.
None of you were political activists before starting MWR? Can you describe how you became politicised, or why did MWR develop as an anarchist organisation and not go in reformist directions?
I think our political understanding developed in response to our interaction with life and work and the theory provided a retrospective justification. We began to organise because we implicitly understood we were being exploited, the ability to partially articulate that exploitation came subsequently.
With regards to trade unionism, there has never been a McDonalds unionised in the UK and there is no evidence that the trade unions have any interest in trying. So in this sense traditional trade unionism was never an option to us- it doesn’t work.
However, our first attempt was based on the existing trade union model but we tried to start our own union and had the half-baked notion that it would be legally recognised because we collected 40 signatures from a payroll of about 60. Of course, by the time we worked out what to do with the signatures, the high staff turnover meant that most of our signatories had quit or been fired. In this way the practicalities of organising in a high turnover workplace that’s very hostile to unions forced us to turn to structures that were very different from those of traditional labour organisations. We subsequently made the mistake of trying to turn back to traditional labour structures, but perhaps we can discuss that later on.
Non-hierarchical organising was forced on us because nobody would agree to be the leader! During our initial union drive everybody knew that whoever was identified as the leader would be sacked so from that point onwards we developed a leaderless structure.
And as I have already touched upon, once we were involved in some sort of struggle we could see the leftist organisations that ignored us and the government that gave McDonalds awards for ‘investing in people’, for what they were.
So we could be said to have organised in a way consistent with anarchism but MWR could at no point have been described as an anarchist organisation since only a few people involved ever considered themselves to be anarchists. If you set up an industrial network in the education sector there is a good chance that there will be other anarchists who are interested. But anarchists and leftists don’t work at McDonalds; it’s the last place they are likely to work!
Overwhelmingly, the people who were involved with MWR described themselves as ‘apolitical’ or not interested in politics (we actually surveyed this) but most of the individuals and collectives that became involved adopted our totally confrontational line. Why wouldn’t they? It takes reformist organisations to convince us to settle for less than what we really want and most young workers in the UK have never had any contact with those.
So you would be very critical of anarcho-syndicalism?
Some of my best friends are anarcho-syndicalist. It depends, there are those anarcho-syndicalists who believe their union structure is a universal truth and all Afghanistan needs is a branch of the IWA. If by anarcho-syndicalism people mean organisation has to be done across industries by card-carrying members of their unions then I can’t agree with them, not because the CNT entered a government 70 years ago or some bloke drove a train with Franco on it, but because, given where I have worked, there is nothing in my experience that suggests that way of organising will ever make any progress. And you would need to be insane to join an organisation where you are certain it can’t work in the context of your own life. There are other questions about whether such organisations tend towards an unhealthy centralisation, but I have not thought about that a great deal. If McDonalds workers all chose to join the IWA then that would be really great but then it would also be good if everyone just turned really lovely and shared everything nicely.
If by anarcho-syndicalism you are prepared to commit to creating and supporting different workplace (and community) structures constructed locally on the basis of what works but true to the spirit of direct action and libertarian revolution, then we are in agreement, though whether we are still anarcho-syndicalists, I don’t know.
With MWR, initially we were a strong collective in one restaurant (strong in the sense of our numbers and importance to the productive process, we were very weak in the sense of knowledge, skills and resources). We realised we had done all we could at ones store without exposing ourselves and just being fired. So we optimistically set ourselves the unlikely task of spreading the resistance throughout the workforce. We turned into a very small collective propagandising to other individuals and collectives. Both phases were successful and with retrospect I think things went wrong when we became fixated on trying to create a structure vaguely similar to the traditional idea of a syndicate. This was a bad idea for many reasons. For a start, we were making decisions with people we had never met in some half formalised federated structure built around e-mail groups. Given the secrecy enforced on our organisation, this was the best we could do. Even deciding whether we were demanding £5.00 or £6.00 an hour took a month. It also robbed collectives of their spontaneity, as they too felt bound by a bad democracy they hardly participated in. Finally, we were again defeated by McDonalds high turnover because the groups and individuals who had taken decisions had sometimes changed jobs before they could be enacted and this had a disheartening effect. Why did we attempt something so stupid? Well believe it or not, it seemed a good idea at the time, not because we thought it was a good response to our problems, but because by this time we had learned that this was how workplace organisations should be and had been glorious elsewhere in the past. In this way we surrendered our wee struggle to the forces of tradition.
In the UK we have a collective problem facing class struggle libertarians whether anarchist or not- our organising doesn’t work. It could work, but it doesn’t. It would work if people all joined us, but they don’t. It might work in a period of intense class struggle but that refuses to appear on the horizon spontaneously. It will certainly work in a period of capitalist crisis, but Nick Griffin thinks the same thing. If capitalists showed the same indifference to their success as we do then the world would be a weird place- “how’s the sun shade business going?”
“Terrible, it rains all the time in Greenock.”
“Maybe you should switch business?”
“Nah, I’d be loaded if people would only buy the things/ there’s going to be an environmental crisis eventually and people will want them with all that global warming/ they used to sell shit loads in Spain”.
The problems are here and now and if we can’t respond to them then our theory is crap and we should give up.
You don’t think an economic organisation should be able to demand some basic agreement from its members?
I prefer the idea of establishing a structure that is as inclusive as possible while not abandoning its central objectives. MWR under its centralised later phase developed a set of statements that individuals and collectives were asked to agree with before signing up. These were inspired by the IWW- that you are an hourly paid McDonalds employee (salaried managers have the power to hire and fire), that you agree to support all hourly paid McDonalds workers against the company regardless of sexuality, ethnicity, etc. and that you agree that the workers and the company have no interests in common. The aim of the organisation was “to use solidarity and direct action to take wealth and power from a bunch of indolent fat cats in order to redistribute it equally amongst the hourly paid workforce”. It was added that MWR could never be profit making or used as an arena for party politics.
So you would allow fascists?
It would be a funny fascist that agreed to support all workers regardless of ethnicity.
It would be a funny Stalinist that wanted to be part of MWR, but in theory, if they shut up about their Stalinism, yes… With which provision I’m sure they could sneak into your organisation or any other!
I don’t like the idea of asking people to call themselves anarchists before they can join an organisation. If we had have set up a network for anarchists who worked at McDonalds and demanded even the most basic theoretical unity, there would have been four of us and, paradoxically, we only held those views because we developed them through involvement with a resistance group that was not explicitly anarchist.
A lot of anarchists know that anarchism could make the world a much better place if enough people would only struggle for it, and they think that if they could only explain this to people then they would want to get involved with whatever activities the group had planned. They assume that if they give someone a leaflet that explains how piss capitalism is and how much better an anarchist world would be, and that person reads it, understands it and agrees with it, then it rationally follows that said person should become a class warrior. That does not rationally follow at all! That thinking only makes sense if one person could decide to bring about a revolution or if people could somehow decide as a block. In fact it only makes sense for that person to become a militant if, like some of us, they are prepared to do all sorts of crazy things that don’t even make sense to themselves because they cannot bear to live with the triumph of capitalism, or if they think they will get other things out of participating, like perhaps they think they’re likely to make friends amongst their new comrades or derive some other benefit (this may perhaps explain why British anarchism remains predominately young, male and white).
So I think that we have to be able to organise in a way that enables us to achieve something now. The problem then is that to achieve something like a wage increase for all McDonalds workers is going to take a massive amount of struggle, where is that going to start? Well what is achieved needn’t necessarily be something like a wage increase and there is no reason to think that is necessarily what is most important to many McDonald’s workers! In different restaurants workers organised locally around things they thought were obtainable, in ways that they could. For example, some girls in Liverpool insisted on wearing make up all day (it’s normally forbidden) as part of the global McStrike, they were inspired to collective action around something that was important to them, and they won! That may seem laughably far from social revolution but I think it’s closer than the same faces organising actions and discussions amongst each other. Also, an obtainable target might not lead to any visible benefit. The most important motivation for MWR was revenge.
You agree at least that the revolution cannot be built without workers’ organisations, but do you see a role for those organisations in running the post-revolutionary economy?
I do not know whether we need organisations, what I said was that I think we need structures but for all I know those could be completely informal. But I do think we need a tradition of collective struggle to build up through those structures and for revolutionary ideas to influence those structures and their ambitions. Having worked so long at McDonalds I see absolutely no evidence for the claim that we would have a revolution if only it wasn’t for the unions! And in any case, that argument again refuses to start from our present situations. Additionally, these structures whether formal or informal will not just arise spontaneously, but will be built by people with patience and dedication. So, I am more interested in the attempts to build such structures and struggles than in the theories of those who wait for them to arise or, more accurately, wait for other people to create them.
I also think that this is a task for the present. There are many clever people who argue with almost religious conviction that everything will happen in a period of capitalist crisis. There are a few reasons why that doesn’t seem a very reassuring plan to me. If we imagine the fiscal crisis suddenly gets very serious, the economy stagnates, they cant afford welfare payments to millions of unemployed people and pensioners that refuse to die on time, then this would be a time when things would have to change. Firstly, this is only a crisis for capitalism because it can no longer deliver concessions it once afforded a struggling working class. So, assuming there are no structures of class struggle, the state is free to revoke those concessions. This would almost certainly lead to spontaneous organisation - we can imagine mass urban riots when the unemployed are told there are no jobs and no dole, we can imagine pensioners besieging government offices, we can imagine workers who have been made redundant and face total poverty, occupying their workplaces and perhaps continuing production autonomously, we can imagine similar (but very different) things to what we have heard from Argentina.
When we spoke with officials from the trade union that represents McDonalds workers in Argentina in 2001, they were in dismay at the economic crisis and panicked by the popular rebellion. They told us this was a reflection of their members desire to hold onto their jobs at all costs and they called for strong government to resolve the crisis. I don’t think this reaction would have been different if there had have been no union; McDonald’s is a lot better than living in a shantytown and scavenging. In this way the productive process has continued to function and capitalist relations have been maintained. Whatever structures of collective struggle existed before the crisis were not strong enough or radical enough to consider taking control of the economy and now that workers are so grateful for their positions they are very unlikely to risk any action against the management when they know 100 volunteers for their position could be found within an hour. When someone from the popular rebellion tells them that the people can run the economy without the politicians and bosses, they may well agree that they could but lacking structures capable of bringing this about they have to make sure that they work well and avoid joining the unemployed. Some people are so pre-occupied with capitalism’s crisis that they forget that the real crisis is for the workers and it is in these conditions when collective action at work becomes most difficult.
The reason the Argentinean crisis has been of such interest to revolutionaries is because there have been no political alternatives except the grassroots rebellion. If something similar was to happen in France next year then we can imagine Lutte Ouvriere proposing a ‘revolutionary’ left-capitalism, promising to nationalise everything and create jobs for everyone and pensions for old people. And the extent to which they would be successful would at least partially depend on the importance of their ideas and the strength of their organisations in the build up to the crisis. Equally, the communists (the real ones) and anarchists would perhaps be trying to encourage their fellow workers to self-manage the economy communally, but I don’t think the structures or ideas that could enable this are in place. And then Le Pen would be promising to restore order, give a pension to every deserving oldie, jobs for the French and a one-way ticket for dole scrounging, stone throwing Arabs. Unfortunately, I know whom my money would be on.
There are also those who are not fixated on capitalist crisis but argue there will be some massive upheaval or insurrection and then people will start running everything communally. I think this rests on the idea that capitalism is maintained by violence and that once the forces of repression are forced from the streets people can at last do what they have always wanted which, apparently, is not to loot what they can before the cops come back, but to collectivise the economy. But in the UK today, capitalism is only maintained by violence in specific ways and not through terrorising anybody who denounces the status quo. For example, the police protect capitalism by jailing people who shoplift; this is an area where capitalism has to be maintained by violence day after day and whenever the mercenaries of capitalism are removed temporarily, looting is a very predictable and popular response. However, unlike shoplifting, confronting capitalist production normally requires collective structures. Where these exist, the state may well use violence to ensure capitalism keeps functioning, they may attack picket lines, for example. However, many people have never attempted to take steps towards democratising or collectivising their work or at least if they have their struggles have very rarely got to the point where the bosses have had to rely on the police to intervene. So there is no reason to expect that they are suddenly about to try this if the police are temporarily absent - and if people do not demonstrate a successful alternative to the pre-insurrectionary economy, then it is only a matter of time until the police are allowed back.
The arguments that the revolutionary formations will appear ‘at the time’ therefore seem unpromising to me, and do not help us deal with prisons, suicides, poverty and so many other contemporary horrors. Those who present various arguments that make the economic struggle something for the future perhaps demonstrate the ultimate rejection of the present and the most elaborate and complete substitutionism of all.
I am sorry to go on so long and only now provide a much shorter answer to the direct part of your question, but it’s nice I have been able to agree with you so firmly! We will have to work towards the economy we want and yes I definitely think the organisations of the class struggle before the revolution will have to play an important role.
We actually thought, daydreamed, a lot about a moment of social upheaval and we knew that the original MWR collective could force open our work, call a few colleagues, put our CDs on, and very easily run the restaurant while having a few beers and a laugh! The complicated bit was whether we would give food away, ask for donations or charge money. Maybe at first we would charge, those who could afford it at least, and then we could give money to the various suppliers on the condition they agreed to collectivise as well, and we could pay something for the electricity if the workers there collectivised…
But while we might have been happy to run our restaurant during a period of social upheaval, and the direct democracy and lack of exploitation would have been great, in the end it’s still a shit workplace designed with no care for humanity, and we wouldn’t want to keep doing it for very long. But there are some workplaces, like a call centre where the workers only activity is telesales for example, where there may be a militant revolutionary structure but once we abandon the pursuit of growth and profit there would be absolutely no point to the work they had been doing. So I guess they would find something more fun and useful to do…
It’s difficult to imagine how different workplaces will organise themselves but it’s very easy to see how we could have collectivised. And when you have a collective structure of struggle at work and you start thinking practically about how you might do things in a revolutionary situation, then something that seems very abstract suddenly seems imminently possible and deliciously desirable. Incidentally, I’m afraid me and some of the others would have been arguing to move us in the direction of vegan food!
So how would you describe yourself and MWR, council communists? Revolutionary syndicalists?
MWR was just MWR, just a practical response to a particular situation that merged with a basic political understanding of our exploitation and its relation to the world. And my revolutionary strategy, in so far as I have one, is just to try and contribute towards and participate in, the initiation, advancement and maintenance of similar contextually determined struggles rooted in everyday life. I know it’s not much of a theory but it’s the best I can come up with!
But all this is just based on the experience of one small movement at one workplace, at one time in certain regions?
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