KPK argue that protests against the "socially excluded" Roma which took place in North Bohemia in 2011 were an expression of the weakness of the working class and stood in the way of the defense of its living needs.
This article is an attempt to find out what was behind the protests pervaded by anti-gypsy racism which spread over north Bohemia in autumn 2011. What reasons, what motivations and what material reality (and what perceptions of this reality) brought people (mostly workers and unemployed) to the turbulent squares in a towns like Varnsdorf, where protests were the strongest? That was the question we tried to answer following discussions with local people, both demonstrators and non-demonstrators.
A few notes concerning the background of the events
1.The wave of sixteen demonstrations aimed mostly against local Roma rocked Šluknovsko, region around towns Rumburk, Šluknov and Varnsdorf in North Bohemia from the end of summer till the middle of autumn 2011.
Some of them were violent, accompanied by attempts to attack Roma dormitories. The most numerous ones had 1000 – 1500 demonstrators, though usually 200 – 300 people joined the protests. Although sometimes there were Neo-Nazi activists inside demonstrations (three of them were organized by far-right DSSS, Workers´ Party for Social Justice), the engine of the protests were the local people.
2.The instigator of the events was an incident when Roma people attacked customers of bar with machetes in the town Nový Bor after a quarrel, and a fight between young Roma and young “white” people (firstly this incident was interpreted by the media as a racist attack of Roma against “white” youth; it took half of year to find out that this fight was in fact part of a battle between a gang of thieves and a gang of drug dealers which lasted the whole night).
The big issue behind local mobilization very promptly became the question of social benefits “abused” by Roma (more about it in the text itself) and alleged “massive immigration” of big Roma families from the whole Czech republic into the region of Šluknovsko.
The biggest town in that region is Varnsdorf, where about 15 900 people live. It is followed by Rumburk (about 11 500 inhabitants) and Šluknov (5 700 inhabitants). The region as a whole had about 55,000 inhabitants at the end of 2008.
The Region has been witnessing in the long term a decrease in inhabitants – mostly young and skilled ones are leaving. According to a recent study “massive immigration” is a myth. Between 2009 and 2011 the number of people who left towns in the region (to move another town in the region Šluknovsko or to utterly another region in the Czech Republic) is bigger (174 people) than a number of people who moved to towns in the region (coming from another town inside the region or from utterly another region in the Czech Republic) – 153 people. In the case of immigration to towns inside the region this was in 69 per cent inter-regional one (from one town in the region into another one within the region).
There are many reasons for this migration (debts, to move to stay with a larger family etc.) but most often the privatization of housing is the reason: If a flat tenanted by Roma goes to be privatized, Roma have no money to buy it so a flat is bought by a another private buyer who subsequently forces by means of increase of a rent Roma to leave the flat. Roma people are not able to find another flat (very often because of discrimination on the housing market – landlords are afraid that Roma would not pay the rent or they are afraid that a flat inhabited by Roma would get a “bad address” because of Roma etc.)… so Roma end up at dormitories. These dormitories are for their owners very profitable business: they offer to Roma who have no another chance to live in other conditions housing for much more money than it is common in the normal housing market (for instance: a Roma family pays for one room in the dormitory owned by a city council the same money as it is paid for three room flat in normal house in that town).
3.Class composition in Varnsdorf
Varnsdorf developed in the second half of 19th century as an important industrial town. About 80 per cent of its inhabitants worked in industry at the beginning of 20th century, a big factory - TOS - producing machine tools was created in 1917 as the most modern factory for a production of machine tools in Austria-Hungary. (Also important working class struggles happened here: 1 600 workers fought with police officers on 1st May 1891, 3,000 workers joined the strike movement for shorter working hours in 1900…)
After the Czechoslovak republic was founded in 1918 the region (mostly German speaking) happened to be on the periphery and subsequently the decline of (mostly textile) industry followed. Industrial crisis in the 30´s was another blow but despite this the region kept its factory character even during WWII.
The strike of 10,000 of workers of a textile factory for a nationalization of the factory became one of the biggest postwar struggles. But even in 1954 Varsndorf witnessed a short strike for better wages.
This once industrial region became a forgotten land after 1989. Restructuring killed almost all the textile factories there. Company Elite (137 workers in 2009) and Velveta are some of the few remnants of it. TOS survived but has only 450 workers (2010). No important thoroughfare leads through the region.
Local factories went through massive waves of redundancies in 2008/2009: almost half of workers were sacked from Metalurgie Rumburk, Elite sacked almost one third of its staff, wood-working company Uniles sacked 40 per cent of its workers. The unemployment rate after 2009 is at 15 per cent and is rising slightly.
There is only one company employing more than 500 workers – it is a modern factory of the German concern Benteler (founded as greenfield in the industrial zone Rumburk in 2005) which produces parts for car industry. Together with German producer of cables KWL it represents the most modern plants integrated into international production chains.
A long time before the recent protests there was a dominant feeling in the region that nobody cares about its fate. The region is among the most poor in the Czech Republic.
4.The protests in Šluknovsko died away in the middle of October but it could be just a temporary silence. After all, January 2012 witnessed two demonstrations in Varnsdorf again.
Similar protests (both violent and non-violent) took place also in other regions in the Czech Republic (but reached the form of continuous wave of demonstrations in Šluknovsko only). To have been a “vanguard” which would encourage and mobilize other regions “with gipsy problems” and to create a movement was and it is one of the declared ambitions of organizers of the protests. Fortunately this ambition has two limits: events in Šluknovsko were not lucky enough to have good leaders. The most active and visible one was a local ego-maniacal showman (convicted in very publicised case for fraud a long time before the protests) whose personality as time has been passing discouraged many people from joining the protests. Other leaders were not produced by this small movement. And secondly, this ambition to lead like a “vanguard” had so far just the form of declarations and appeals to the media – organisers from Šluknovsko have never visited those other regions in line with their plans to find companions.
But we have to be on the spot. The general context of the events gives us a great reason to be cautious. In the Czech Republic the working class experienced severe attacks on the level of workplaces (2009) and on the societal level outside of workplaces (raise the price of costs for reproduction of labour force: austerity measures, the still not unfinished cycle of hardest anti-working class reforms since 1989). The class was not able to react and defend its collective interests against this capital´s offensive.
In this situation the protests permeated by anti-Roma racism could reach, if they will not be confronted by class struggle, a more widespread social basis in society.
This is why we wrote the following text in the end of last year and why we will follow the situation henceforth.
KPK, March 2012
In the region of Šluknov, Czech Republic, 2011: analysis of Protests “against the socially excluded” from a class perspective
When in 2008 and 2009 companies were laying off staff and worsening working conditions, the people of the region of Šluknov were not able to mount any defense. This experience of powerlessness and defeat must be included as one of the reasons why, when they took to the streets in autumn 2011 in protests against “the socially excluded” - in other words the local Roma - they did not defend their own interests. Protests against the socially excluded had nothing to do with independent working class politics – they were a copy of the politics of capital and state. When they were pushing for an agenda of strict treatment of the poor, they kept forgetting that this is already the agenda of the government's reforms, and that they themselves (as poor in a poor region) will be the first to suffer from them. They kept forgetting that they cannot defend their own living needs by calling for zero tolerance, for obedience and discipline, but only by pursuing maximum disobedience and indiscipline vis-a-vis the hectoring companies and government.
The autumn protests “against the unadaptable” were chilling. Behind them loomed a perspective of racism and proto-fascism taking root in a more solid social base than the traditional ultra-right environment in the Czech Republic.
However, this was not the first time that we witnessed mass anti-Roma demonstrations and attempts at pogroms in the towns of the Šluknov region attended not merely by neo-nazis, but also – or mostly – by the locals. The debut took place three years ago in Janov, when residents of different social classes and age groups participated on the public promotion of racism which had up to then been a domain of ultra-right activists. And the support was not merely symbolic. Not only did the locals take part in the demonstrations, they took it a step ahead – they hid weapons for the neo-nazis in their own households or allowed them to escape from the police through their own yards.
But this attempt to anchor organized, publicly articulated, political (not the “ordinary”, everyday) racism in social reality (especially in the working class), to give it a more solid social base than that offered by the environment of neo-nazi activists and hooligans, was ultimately a failure – one of the reasons being the incompetence of the ultra-right. However, two matters have been on the agenda ever since the events in Janov three years ago:
- First of all, Janov reminded us, albeit on a micro-scale, that fascism has always been carried by a movement from the bottom, from within civil society, a movement which included members of the working class. It would be a tendentious caricature to imagine fascism – as the “radical left” often does – as a product of a conspiracy of capitalists, as capital's invention subsequently implemented in society. To describe fascism as an evil coming from the side of capital may be comforting, but it is still wrong. (At the very least because the working class and capital are not two separate entities, but rather two moments of one reality.)
- Second, Janov brought up another question: How do we react to public expressions of racism in which the city squares are not filled with the usual subcultural freak show of Third Reich worshippers and thugs; i.e. in a situation when it would not be productive to use the “traditional” methods of monitoring and physical confrontation?
Unfortunately, this question is still on the table. During the three years after Janov, it has not been answered. The events of Šluknov offer an opportunity to take up this discussion again. Broadly speaking, we will attempt at an answer which will imply neither charity care for the socially excluded, nor “violent charity” (preemptive violent “protection” of the victims from ultra-right violence).
We will rather focus on elements of social reality which could enable a practical critique of racism. Moreover, at least for now, we will focus on working class people – on the conditions and motivations that brought them into the dead end of racism, and on where to seek support in an eventual intervention. Not only because the question of the people from the very bottom of the working class (the “socially excluded”) is too complex for us to take up right now. It also has to do with the fact that, paradoxically, in terms of living conditions and attitudes, thanks to the interest of social workers and various analyses, we actually know more about the socially excluded than about the people who filled the unruly squares in the north of Bohemia.
Which way? The impotence of abstract imperatives and the necessity of understanding concrete reality
Any attempt at understanding racism should realize from the start that capital, facing a numerous and formidable opponent in what Marx termed the collective worker, builds its dictatorship on the basis of competition within the working class. It does this in a myriad of ways: by means of dividing employees with wage differentials, by work qualification, productivity of labor, age or gender... Xenophobia and racism, however, are almost a sure bet. They are some of the most effective instruments of deepening and strengthening competition inside the working class. Unless it is stopped by class struggle, competition within the working class culminates in times of economic downturn or crisis, such as the current phase of capitalist cycle.
This “a priori” insight on the relationship between racism and capitalism is indispensable in facing racist tendencies in the working class. However, even though this general insight forms the fundamental basis of our approach, in itself it is insufficient. Frankly: any warnings that “racism breaks the unity of the working class” – pleading and honest as they can be – are necessarily ineffectual. Working class people could not care less for appeals to “class struggle” or its own “historical mission”, even though, of course, the working class really exists and the class antagonism is a permanent fact of the capitalist mode of production. If we, with all the humbleness appropriate in the situation of a political minority, given our numbers and possibilities, want to intervene meaningfully in the matter of racist tendencies in the working class, we need to approach this from a different angle.
Obviously, then, vague imperatives like “attacking the (socially) weakest is despicable”, “prejudice is wrong”, “racism and the principle of collective guilt are inhumane” need to be rejected as well. No matter how true they are, their argumentative and mobilizational power is nil. They only serve to decorate and comfort those who pronounce them. And they simply do not work.
The point is not in choosing the correct abstract phrases to throw at racism and in trying to inject them into the life of the working class: the challenge lies in understanding (with the help of general proletarian politics) the material reality in all its concreteness and triviality, in a range of its aspects. All of those aspects may bear an influence upon the social dynamic and only by knowing them (by means of the concepts of class composition, organization of capital, and workers' inquiry) can we hope to be able to find contradictions in the concrete conditions (and in the way they are perceived by people and expressed in their actions); contradictions which we can lean on and which can prevent racist channeling. This is the point: finding gaps in the reality around us through which those general (and in themselves artificial) morals will assert themselves on their own, through which they will take on a concrete form and appropriate attractiveness, through which they will become visible and immediately “tangible”.
The following text has no greater ambitions than to be a contribution on the way to such goal. We have attempted to examine the reality which gave birth to mass and organized racist activity by means of interviews with the people who participated in the demonstrations against the socially excluded in Varnsdorf and with other locals, as well as through an analysis of class composition and organization of capital in the region of Šluknov.
The protests in this region have faded away, but perhaps it is still worthwhile to publish our findings. Even if they are based on the situation in a particular region, they may have more general validity and perhaps convey something about the method which we have tried to pursue in approaching this problem. Moreover, due to the overall economic outlook of the region we need to expect that the burden of racism will continue to weigh down upon the working class and will therefore require attention in the future.
“Give us your benefits!”
Criminality? Not in the first place
When asking about the causes which stirred up civil society in northern Bohemia, the loudest answer given by media was criminality. And everyone we talked to had actual experience of it, either directly or indirectly through family members and friends. It took many forms (all of the following quotations in italic come from the interviews in Varnsdorf):
From the comically scared “They gang up. Wherever they are, they gang up, form groups” through complaints about a range of mischief (“Those gypsy kids keep climbing over to our gardens, one always has to watch out for them climbing up apple trees”), bullying and threats (“Their little bastards bully our kids on the playground.” – “They do these small provocations, like a ten-year-old in the street calling you Whitey or shouting White pig! from the window.”) up to thefts and violence (“My mom's had been broken into twice, once the garage, once the shed. Personally I was assaulted with brass knuckles in the Café bar, four years ago. It took six stitches”).
This aspect should not be underestimated in the least. Pushing around in kids' playgrounds can surely be a real annoyance and a source of fear. Any “war of poor against poor” has to be condemned as a dead end, at the very least.
After all, at the very beginning of the events in the north, there were the violent incidents of late September. But if criminality was the trigger, it certainly was not the dominant motive running through the protests, as we will show below.
Was the deepest theme anti-romaism? An overwhelming majority of the people we talked to rejected it – according to such views, the protests were against the “unadaptable”, not just against Romani people. They emphasized that there are whites among the “social parasites” and that they do know decent Romas.
“Of course I know Gypsies who are alright, I'd even have a drink with them in the pub, those are the ones who've been here for long, they have jobs, they're fine.” – “The socially unadaptable people are not just Gypsies, I wouldn't want to vilify just them, it includes white families. This is not a question of race.” – “There are whites who haven't touched work since the [Velvet] revolution and just hang around bars, this isn't just about Romas. But mostly about them.” – “I was just talking about this with a friend. I don't have a problem with Romas. The problem are the unadaptable ones, and that includes whites, even though there's more Romas for sure.”
The decent Romas were spoken about in terms of exceptions proving the rule: I do know one or two “normal” Gypsies, but the 99% of the rest are, supposedly, “unadaptable”. But this is exactly what racist reasoning looks like.
After all anti-romaism is a generally acceptable form of racism in the Czech Republic and it played its part in the events in Šluknov. It does not explain everything, though. This socially legitimate racism offered a framework which made the protests easier, but their causes lie elsewhere.
“They abuse the benefits. That's what this is about”
“If you were to pick one of all the problems, the most important one, what would it be?” was a question which received a uniform answer. Just as nobody mentioned criminality or violence, nobody failed to state the dominant reason which filled the town squares: “We feed them.”
“What people hate the most? That they don't do anything. They live off our money.” – “First of all they live off our money, and second, they often have more money on hand than regular citizens who work. That's why these protests are taking place.” – “If I get sacked, I receive 60% and not a penny more. And the bastard who never worked, where does he get his benefits money from? And it's good money, from what I know.” – “Why does he get more money than me even though I go to work and he just hangs out watching the telly all day?”
Deep behind the protests, there was competition which forms the background of the life of the working class. While none of us have any other way of obtaining means of subsistence than by selling the only commodity we possess (labor-power), there are not enough buyers on the market for all of us. Capital does not need all the workers: it only hires some of us for its active army, while many others wait on the reserve team, just in case. This “superfluous” part of the working class – the one for which capital has no use or which has to sell its labor-power for less than its value (for less than the costs of reproducing it), in precarious conditions, outside of the official labor market – is a necessity of the capitalist economy and is of manifold importance to it. Not only does it competitively push the wages downwards and keep the demands of the active army of workers in check, it also offers an alternative target of the workers' anger.
The real roots of the events in Šluknov lie in the competition within the working class and the separation of this class into two sectors, one on the market with labor-power and the other on the “market” with benefits (with Roma being relatively more numerous on the second one, which gives the issue an “ethnic” dimension).
Of course, this does not mean that no poor (white) people took part in the weekend “uprisings” on the squares, i.e. people who went to collect their benefits the next day, just like the other poor people against whom the protests were directed. After all, this is a region with a 15% rate of unemployment.
Looking at the matters from the point of view of the protesters, the participation on the “market” with social wages may be “acceptable”. The problem is that while a decent person only stays for a while, to find a new buyer of their labor-power – even if it requires selling cheap – there are some “parasites” who depend on the social wage in the long term and who collect benefits illegitimately.
Then there is “the abuse, now that's horribly unjust. That's why people are so upset with them (the 'unadaptable').”
This argument is problematic. Unfortunately, the Czech welfare system is relatively strictly regulated and according to even the highest estimates, only a tiny part of the benefits is abused, amounting to a negligible sum of money – about 0,35% of the state budget.1 In fact, the issue is the other way around. Due to the complexity and strict individualization of the system (which makes it confusing), as well as due to the brand of being a “loser” attached to claiming benefits, about 20% of the people who could legitimately claim the benefits and are actually supposed to receive them, never claim them.2
How do those “cunning” “unadaptable” people “abuse” the system, then? Well, just like that. There is a vague notion among the poor working class gathered under the banner of racism and populism on the squares of the Šluknov region (but in the pubs and streets of the rest of the Czech Republic) that it is somehow possible. Thousands of fictitious “examples” circulate, born of the purest popular imagination.
“Let me give you an example – a woman comes to the welfare office, dragging five kids with her, crying she can't make a living, that she can't afford this or that... and they give her a thousand or two more.” – “Well, he just comes to the office and gets four, five thousand right away in emergency help.” – “They come over and cry until they get what they want. How is that possible? I don't know, perhaps someone else is making money off this.” – “They simply get better benefits. How they do that? I don't know. But this is what pisses me off the most – that they're getting the money even though they're not supposed to.”
Similar “testimonies” and “explanations” come from the realm of urban legends. No more believable and realistic was the hope shared by the poor people of the north expressed by the words shouted at the Roma dormitories (not only) during the demonstrations: “Give us back your benefits!”
As if the protesters themselves wanted to emphasize that the protests were an expression of competitive struggle among the poor: The state shall take back from you – and give to us.
(Not only) in this respect, irrationality was distributed generously throughout the squares of the Šluknov region.
Something else was terribly missing, though.
The absence of a class point of view
We should not forget that this is a region which is not the favorite destination of capital. Officially, such areas are called “completely structurally underdeveloped”: the companies do not invest here, the state does not care, the education is bad, the connections with other regions miserable. Not many opportunities to find a buyer of labor-power. And if there were no jobs before 2008, the crisis could only worsen the situation.
If everyone knew someone who knew someone else whose garden was plundered by the “unadaptable”, everyone also had some experience of the layoffs in 2008/2009:
“I used to work in Mattel and overnight, the whole factory was finished. The whole factory. Say a married couple worked there, they were jobless on the spot. Then I started working at the paper factory and there the same thing happened again.”
One can hardly overestimate the significance of those two years – and generally, being in an “economic shadow” for years – for the protests in the Šluknov region. How was this inscribed in the collective experience of the workers there? How did it influence the overall condition of the working class? Fatally.
The complete humility, acceptance and submission shown by the people when speaking about the blows dealt by capital in the period of “counter-crisis” measures was startling. Of all of the workplaces mentioned, none experienced any elementary solidarity or attempt at collective defense. The arbitrariness of the capitalist cycle with its crisis was taken as a commonplace fact against which we are powerless... a fact so obvious that it cannot be disputed and is taken for granted as a natural catastrophe for which nobody can be blamed. The people talked about the heavy attack on their income and living standards without a trace of bitterness or even anger at the companies which were laying off.
The experience of defeat on the workplaces, which took place without any attempt to challenge the apparent “necessity” in any way, was a malign contribution to the process of the forming of class perception. However, this is not all. In the current situation of the region, this experience is followed by a feeling of obligation to delimit oneself ostentatiously from the “unadaptable”. And this even despite the reality which the people are up against every day. “The 'unadaptable' are lazy. Anyone who wants can find a job,” said the voices of Varnsdorf, a town heavily hit by unemployment. Miroslav Kalousek and the rest of the fans of the “Poor need a strict hand” watchword would be proud. In a more damped voice, however, people added that this is not exactly true.
“– Is it diffcult to find a job here?
– I'm saying, anyone who wants a job will get it.
– Do you know anyone who has been unemployed for a long time?
– My dad, for instance. He used to work in TOS, where they were laying off and he couldn't find a job for a year.
– So perhaps it's not that...
– ...he was really look everywhere but couldn't find anything.
– What job did he eventually find?
– Well, he works in the municipality program...”
“Let me put it like this: If someone really wants to get a job, they'll get it. I guess. My missus has trouble finding a job right now, but I think she'll find one. Well, I hope so.”
There could hardly be a better example of the contradiction between what is proclaimed due to the populist, romophobic ideology, and the reality in which we live. (Some people ultimately realized that in the Šluknov region, a person without qualification has no chance of finding a job, regardless of their color.)
But it's not just the government architects of anti-worker reforms who would cheer at the class defeatism in Varnsdorf. The voice of the northern towns would certainly bring a smile to the faces of all bosses and employers.
“– Do you know a Roma who's OK?
– We've got one at my job, he's been there for three years, a decent guy, he's never called in sick yet.”
“– Some thirty, forty people were laid off at my workplace. Now the company just calls them on the phone, they come, work for three days on a short-term contract, then go back to the job center to subscribe as unemployed gain, on and off. They're thankful even for this little.”
Oh – what makes someone a good person is their willingness and ability to toil for the company, without absence and with thankfulness for the ever more precarious working conditions! But this logic which targets people outside of the labor market and not the conditions which sent them there, the logic which condemns the poor and acquits poverty, material need and uncertainty, this logic has an extremely sharp anti-worker tip. One of the worst products of the protests against “unadaptable” is the more or less articulated imperative that the ideal opposite of the “unadaptables” is a convenient, obedient workforce which adapts to all conditions, material need, uncertainty, any dictate from the employer or the governement, without talking back.
Betting on the card of discipline, law, and order does not pay off to the workers. Capital's limits to our self-sacrifice for the sake of the companies' profits are very far off. However, the power of ideological proclamations like “anyone who wants to make a living by working will make a living” and “we should be grateful for how the firms treat us” is not without limits: the power of these false phrases is challenged every day by reality itself, the reality surrounding the people of the north, but also by their own perception and reactions as long as they are not taking place at the demonstrations against the “unadaptable”, but, perhaps, when talking to colleagues or family.
We are powerless as against the government and firms, but we sure can handle the socially excluded
Defeatism, and figuratively speaking, its celebration, are suicidal for the working class. After anti-worker measures stormed the workplaces in Czech Republic due to (and also under the pretense of) the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 – and a second round of such measures is now looming – they have now moved on to the level of society in general. On the one hand, the price at which we sell labor-power (or even the very possibility of selling it) has declined, on the other hand, the costs of its reproduction (costs of living – food, housing, medication, water etc.) will rise.
There can be no illusions about what the reforms will do to living standards.
“Working people will bear the burden of those reforms. The way I see it, the tightening of belts is meant for the common people, they're the ones who'll end up worse off. My wife is on disability pension and the medication that cost, say, a hundred, will now be five hundred.” – “It certainly won't be better, it'll be worse.”
Victimizing the “undaptable” prevents us from pursuing a meaningful goal. Not only that – it makes us forget the place assigned to us by capitalist society and look at the matter not from the point of view of our own interests, but from the perspective of “those above”.
“There's loads of Vietnamese. Loads. But nobody minds. They never go to the job center, they never claim benefits, they never want any money. They take care of themselves.” – “They don't work for the state. Why should they be getting any money?”
Thus workers reduce themselves to taxpayers, becoming pedantic accountants of the state, of “the common wealth”, in other words: they identify with the state, an alienated structure which represents the general interests of capitalist accumulation as well as its own interests as an individual capital – but certainly not the interests of the working class. This in a situation of reforms which are implemented by the state and which will plunder the pockets of working people, which makes it obvious on whose side the state is.
Unfortunately, the enemies for the squares of Varnsdorf were not those who are to be blamed for making our living conditions more and more unbearable. The anger was not directed at companies, the government, or the capitalist machinery as a whole.
“We're going to make sure that they won't get any benefits. We'll take care of that. Then they'll be discontented, just like we are now.” – “Let me tell you: these demonstrations will make sure that the ratio will be one to one. If I get nothing, why should he?” – “Why should they get any advantages? I'm telling you, we're going to make this stop.”
The self-confidence with which working-class protesters spoke of their battle against the “unadaptable” is striking, especially when compared to the passive resignation with which they described the everyday problems brought about by the companies' measures.
The blows suffered by the working class on the workplaces (and not just in 2008 and 2009) left it in a terrible condition, without experience of collective power, let alone collective victories, which would enable it to transform the everyday antagonisms into a collective perception of its position in society, and without the ambitions to react to the dictate of capital in a collective way. It is fragmented, atomized, broken, with no working-class community and collectivity. In this situation, it turns not against its real enemies (the state and firms), but against the bottom social strata.
Romas being an ideal target.
Unlike the working class, they are still a community – although not an ideal one. They can be easily identified with “social parasites”. And moreover, the crusade against the “unadaptable” is suddenly (after the passivity of the workplaces) a struggle worth investing into, a struggle in which one can expect “success”. Why? Because the state will be on your side (it has no problem with tendencies which establish and strengthen borders between particular groups of the working class, intervening only in case the competitive struggle takes on an excessively brutal form, threatening – as in pogroms – that state monopoly of violence etc.) And also because the call for a more strict treatment of the poor goes hand in hand with the reforms implemented by the government.
A proletarian politics was completely missing from the squares of the Šluknov region. What dominated them was a popular caricature of ruling class politics: the people were calling for a “treatment” of poor by means of forced labor and tightening the screws, so to speak.
“– Sure, let them get the benefits, but then they should work eight hours like us. Show up at six o'clock in front of the town hall, this is your strip of the square, now clean it up! You're gonna work. Get up at three in the winter, shovel the snow and at eight you're free to go back to sleep!”
The fact that with such attacks on the socially excluded, the working-class protesters (who were a majority at the demonstrations) were actually aiming at themselves, escaped them. This even though unemployment is a part of everyday life in the north.
Once again: if the workers are calling for discipline, strictness, obedience, zero tolerance and strong-handed government, they will be the first ones to suffer.
Some notes by way of conclusion
* The protests against the “unadaptable” are, with all their anti-worker implications, one of the results of the absence of proletarian political autonomy and of the demobilized condition in which the class finds itself. They are also the result of the harsh lessons of 2008 a 2009, as well as of the expectations of a further worsening of living conditions. The protests are, unfortunately, a perverted, dangerous collective “answer” of the class to the economic downturn or crisis, one of the few forms of reaction to the current economic cycle seen in the Czech Republic.
As far as economic perspectives are concerned, unfortunately we must expect that we will have to face more reactions which channel discontent and social fear into racism. All the hopeless voices suggesting things like “voting for ODS and supporting the creators of the most terrible neoliberal nightmares. The material scarcity suffered by the unprivileged which will follow, as well as the slump in their living standards, could then be an immense impulse for social rebellion” need to be rejected (the quoted part is from an article on the website of an anarchist organization and allegedly summarizes the results of a discussion organized by a leftist initiative in late September in Ostrava). Not only could such a laboratory experiment with the (social and political) fate of the people never succeed, as a wager on the mechanistic relationship of proletarian action and capitalist cycle it is based on a tragic fallacy. The action of the class is formed by a myriad of factors – the “enlightened” “radical left” depriving the workers of bread would be no “guarantee” of the class acting in a “correct” way.
* The glorification of the malleable worker who gratefully submits to the needs of the firms and the state which was behind the protests needs to be criticized. On the other hand, we should be wary of romantic illusions of “anti-capitalist subversiveness” of the (Roma) environment from which many of the “socially excluded” are recruited (and in which they are slaves to their own prejudice, patriarchal traditions and social hierarchies). Similarly, illusions about the way in which people who are branded “unadaptable” adapt to the conditions at the margins of the official labor market or outside it. Illegal work – accepted to compensate for the low benefits in a situation where “regular” income would be eaten by debt installments, or because there are no other jobs, or for some other reason – means first and foremost poverty and uncertainty. Such wage labor (let alone work in the illegal economy) also imposes much worse terms for a confrontation with the bosses.
* One of the last demonstrations in October in Varnsdorf ended in a sort of a Hyde Park-style soapboxing, in the center of which was a local Roma. He proved to be more rational and calm than many other protesters. (And also more critical: he avoided presenting the Roma as angels, but neither did he sanctimoniously distance himself from “those Gypsies”, which often happens to “decent Romas”.) It was mainly thanks to him that something which could have been no more than chaotic shouting turned into a public tribune which offered a much more realistic and useful view of reality than the whole preceding demonstration. “Are we just going to talk about someone stealing a wallet forever? There are no jobs here, the companies don't care about us, the government doesn't care about us, those are the things what we should be dealing with,” passionately asserted this man, in his fifties.
If there is any way out from what has been going in Škunov, leading in a direction that would be more useful to the workers, it is in this. First of all, hopefully, the Romas – a group of people at the bottom of the social ladder – will generate their own militants, who will not become “leaders” because of the material privileges they enjoy in the community (employing others, lending money), who will not like the “middle class” leave for the non-governmental sector, and whose voice will not remain captured within the Roma community. And second, the working class will concentrate on the practical critique not of the poor, but of the conditions which produce poverty.
Collectively against capital (KPK)