Saturday, 30 July 2016

Coal Not Dole

The coal mining industry has a special place in working class history and culture.  The hardships and dangers of the miner's life feature in the literature of social reform, with DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Emile Zola's Germinal both featuring the hardships of the miners life and in Zola's case, the devastating, life and death struggles to unionise and negotiate a fair wage.

It has an even richer tradition in folk song.  Here's one of my favourites, 'Coal Not Dole', written in 1984 at the height of the British miners' strike by Kay Sutcliffe, who was married to one of the strikers.  It's sung here by veteran English folk singer Norma Waterson.

It stands so proud, the wheel so still,
A ghostlike figure on the hill.
It seems so strange, there is no sound,
Now there are no men underground.

What will become of this pit yard
Where men once trampled, faces hard?
Tired and weary, their shift done,
Never having seen the sun.

Will it become a sacred ground?
Foreign tourists gazing round
Asking if men once worked here,
Way beneath this pithead gear.

Empty trucks once filled with coal,
Lined up like men on the dole.
Will they e'er be used again
Or left for scrap just like the men?

There'll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power;
They'll never realise the hurt
They cause to men they treat like dirt.

You can find many versions of this on the internet - the Oyster Band do a lovely one which segues into Bells of Rhymney, another coal mining song written by Welsh poet Idris Davies in the 1930s and first recorded by Pete Seeger.  Other mining songs are even older.  'Blackleg Miner', made famous by Steeleye Span, originates from the north of England in the 1840s and delivers a blunt warning to strike-breakers, who would stain their legs black to journey to the mine at night unseen.

The mining industry was always fertile ground for unionism.  The work was hard and dangerous, and in the early days of industrialisation often poorly paid.  The workers not only worked together but lived together in specially provided housing near the mine.  They had the motivation to organise, and their proximity made it easy.  Of course they faced opposition but the stakes were high - not only their livelihoods, but their very lives, were often at issue.  Over time they succeeded in extracting better pay and conditions from their employers.  In addition, unions were at the forefront of social initiatives - working men's clubs, hardship funds for injured miners or widows and orphans, and so forth.

By the third quarter of the 20th century the British coal industry was being run by a government owned corporation which, while a model employer, was not especially profitable.  The industry was sustained on the basis that it was in the national interest to have a local energy source even if the prices for British coal, dug up from old fashioned pit mines, struggled to compete with product from sources like Australia.

In early 1984, Maggie Thatcher decided to change all that.  The British coal industry involved three things she despised - government ownership, the prioritisation of social goals over profit, and a strong union presence.  She announced that a large number of marginal mines across the country would be closed.  The result was a bitter industrial dispute which lasted into the early part of 1985 and at its height saw over 140,000 miners out on strike.  The miners knew that their livelihoods and way of life were at stake, and they fought hard.  Ultimately it was a fight they couldn't win - when your only weapon is to withdraw your labour it is not very effective against an employer who doesn't particularly want it.  Thatcher got her way, the mines closed, and today there is little coal mining anywhere in Britain.

It was a defining moment for British society, a moment when battle lines were drawn.  The left was firmly in the miners camp - the mines should stay open, it was better than putting the men on the dole.  Folk singers, always on the left, sang "Coal Not Dole" up and down the country.  Other songs were written too.  Even Sting, famous for his environmentalism, wrote one called "We Work the Black Seam" because not only was the closure of the mines an attack on the working class, Thatcher's preferred alternative was nuclear power.

One day in a nuclear age
They may understand our rage
They build machines that they can't control
And bury the waste in a great big hole
Power was to become cheap and clean
Grimy faces were never seen
Deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen

Sting has his substances mixed up, but his point is a valid one - Thatcher's strategy was to pursue private profit at all costs, and the future be damned.  And of course the closure of mines was only part of a wider process of de-industrialisation in the western world as factories of all sorts closed down, shifted offshore in search of cheap labour or mechanised to the point where hardly any labour was needed.  In each case the process was fought tooth and nail by unions to no avail, and mourned by singers, as in the Oyster Band favourite, "Another Quiet Night in England".

Where is the pit and the mill
Where is the skill and the sweat from their hands?
Gone with the smoke and the heat
The noise and the beat of the heart of the land.

Anyhow, I live in Australia, it's 2016 and haven't times changed?  Coal mining is a huge industry here.  It is still unionised to a large extent and it is still somewhat dangerous although, thanks to those generations of union activists, nothing like it used to be.  But there are not that many actual miners any more, and they are no longer wiry men with picks and shovels.  They are highly trained, well paid machine operators.  Sometimes they still live near the mine, but once they quit the job they head for the coast and more and more of them fly in and out on a weekly basis.

These days the left is unlikely to fight to keep mines open.  In fact, we are engaged in a bitter and high-stakes struggle to have them closed.  Coal mine closure is no longer an attack on the working class and a Trojan horse for the nuclear industry.  Now the shoe is on the other foot.  We are in a desperate fight to avoid dangerous levels of global warming and shift rapidly to safer renewable sources, resisted tooth and nail by greedy mining companies who want every dollar of profit they can get and the future be damned.

The other thing that has changed is that to a large extent, Thatcher and her likes have won the battle with the unions.  In the end, the battle wasn't won by confrontations like the miners' strike and Murdoch's lock-outs of striking print workers.  Instead, it took place gradually through the shift to a post-industrial economy.  Unions remain strong in traditional industries like mining and manufacturing, but these have become less and less important.  The emerging powerhouses - information technology, retail and service industries, aged care and so forth - are largely non-unionised and it shows in the levels of casualisation, low wages and repeated examples of exploitation.

Unions have struggled to adapt to this new world, their rhetoric and models of organisation still based on those developed in the factory and the mine.  Nor have they coped well with globalisation - while employers and investors skip freely across the globe searching for low wages, unions remain firmly within national borders, arguing for protectionism and limits to immigration rather than making common cause with exploited brothers and sisters in the factories of Asia or South America.

"Coal Not Dole", "We Work the Black Seam" and "Another Quiet Night" are all beautiful, emotive songs.  They make you want to go out and fight for the workers who are losing their jobs, to resist the heartless machinations of capitalists intent on nothing but profit.  But their fights are over, the battles lost.  The battles of today often look the opposite although greed and short-sighted self-interest are the same in every generation.  Are there songs for our age and our battles?  None spring to mind that have the same power and resonance but perhaps, although rap is not my thing, this one might be a good place to start?

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Escape from Freedom

So I finally have time and brain space to blog again, and I've been thinking: what do Brexit, Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump have in common?

To my mind, there are at least three similarities.

The first is that each of them represents a response to perceived threats to the wellbeing of their nations from people who are labelled "terrorists".  These terrorists are pictured as an existential threat and mainstream political forces are portrayed as being too weak to respond to these threats.  Hence, a certain proportion of our population turns to someone who will be "strong" and act decisively.

In Britain, a majority turned against their more moderate leaders and voted for a movement led by the right-wing UKIP and the far-right elements of the Conservative Party.  In the US, establishment Republican figures are rejected in favour of an outsider who promises to fix their broken nation.  Here in Australia Pauline Hanson remains a marginal figure but after 18 years of trying she has finally achieved a return to parliament - and her rhetoric is hardly more extreme than that of some members of our Coalition government.

The second similarity is that Islam provides a lightning rod for the fears that have propelled these right-wing outsiders into the mainstream.  Brexit is driven by a desire to control immigration, primarily to exclude the wave of refugees from Syria and other Islamic trouble spots who are flooding into Europe.  Both Trump and Hanson promise to end Muslim immigration, prevent the building of mosques and defeat Islamic State.

The final similarity is that in each case the debate is driven by fear, even panic, unsupported either by facts or by clear policy responses.  People have not elected a person who has thought through the problem and developed a response.  Instead, they have turned to someone who has played on their fears and produced a simple slogan which calms and comforts them.

Our fear of terrorism is not unreasonable, but in all three countries it is out of proportion to the threat.  The worst mass shootings in the US (and there have been many) are nothing to do with terrorism, they are carried out by disturbed young people making use of their community's lax gun laws to create mayhem.  More innocent people are shot each year by police than by terrorists.  More people die in all three countries as a result of domestic violence and alcohol-induced violence than Islamic extremism.  Yet none of these much more serious problems creates the same level of panic or calls forth a "strong" or "decisive" response.

The proposed solution - banning Muslim migration - is not so much a solution as a slogan.  Aside from the obvious - that the ban is misdirected because the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorism - the policy has no legs.  How will such a ban be implemented?  Will all immigrants be subject to a religious test?  How will lying on such a test be detected?  Will background checks include evidence of a person's religious practice?  What degree of connection with, or devotion to, Islam is sufficient to exclude someone, and how will this be measured?  If someone has previously been Muslim but has abandoned the faith, will they be allowed in?  And will their visa be subject to continued non-attendance at Friday prayers once they are here?

Even if we could actually implement such a ban, what is the evidence that it would protect us from terrorism?  This question is particularly pertinent because IS's current practice is to recruit at a distance, targeting vulnerable people who are already in the country they want to disrupt.  Recent attacks in Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Belgium have all been carried out by people who are residents and even citizens of those countries, sometimes even born there.  What will happen when our post-ban societies are victims of another attack?  What will our right-wing demagogues offer us then to make us feel safe?  No doubt when overseas Muslims can no longer be targeted, we will focus sharper attention on those who are already here.  The groundwork for this is already being laid in the proposals (also championed by Hanson, Trump and the UKIP) to ban further mosque-building and to ban women from covering their faces in public.

Of course, driving Islam underground and persecuting its followers will not make us safer or even make us feel safer after the initial sense of relief.  Indeed it will make is less safe as Muslims see proof that we really do hate them and more of them respond to calls to strike back in the name of Allah.  The cycle of violence will spin ever faster.

What is going on here?

In 1941 German-born social psychologist Erich Fromm published a book called Escape From Freedom.  Fromm himself, a man of Jewish parentage, had lived through the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before seeking safety in the US in the 1930s.

Escape From Freedom analyses the psychological processes which underlay the rise of European fascism.  It describes the rise of the Nazis as driven by the fears and uncertainties of particular sections of the German population who suffered badly during the Great Depression.  The lower middle class, in particular, felt confused and fearful, seeing their livelihoods and way of life threatened by forces beyond their control.  In this environment freedom was psychologically burdensome, leaving them insecure, and they turned instead to charismatic, "strong leader" figures who promised decisive action to solve their problems.

The Nazis had a gift for describing both the problems and the solutions in simple (indeed simplistic) terms.  The problems of Germany, they said, were caused by easily identifiable enemies.  There was the enemy without - the Allied powers who were milking Germany dry by demanding war reparations and by manipulating world trade against them.  There was also the enemy within - a secret Jewish conspiracy to subvert German society through control of the financial sector and other key social institutions.  These threats demanded a powerful response - massive militarisation to deal with the external threat, suspension of freedoms and a powerful unfettered police force to deal with the enemy within.

Although our circumstances are not identical, there is a lot to learn from Fromm's analysis.  Trump, Hanson and the UKIP are all neo-fascists.  They advocate the same broad set of policies implemented by the Fascist governments of the 1930s and 1940s - strong authoritarian government, extreme nationalism, a focus on law and order, an insistence on social uniformity, anti-communist rhetoric which covers their own State-sponsored versions of crony capitalism, and a naive free market view of economics.  They also, like the Nazis, build their support base by targeting enemies both without and within.

Sure, none of them are advocating the creation of concentration camps, but nor were the Nazis in the early 1930s.  They began with general anti-Jewish propaganda and progressed by easy stages through laws which restricted Jews from certain occupations, then stripped them of citizenship.  It was not until 1938 that they progressed to open violence towards Jews and even then they retained the fiction that Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that killed over 2,000 Jews and destroyed vast amounts of Jewish property, was not an official government action.

Much of Fromm's psychological dynamic is also on display in Australia, the UK, the US and other parts of the world.  People feel a general sense that things are not right in their societies.  Even though our economies are prospering, ordinary people are finding their jobs and businesses are at risk.  Dangers seem to be growing all around us.  Meanwhile we feel powerless to affect any of these things and the institutions through which we used to act - our trade unions, our churches, our social and sporting clubs, even our political parties - are in decline.

The actual causes of these problems are complex and deep rooted.  I have previously written (here and here) about how the problems that we see daily on our TVs are symptoms of deeper problems - the problems of environmental degradation, growing inequality and our attachment to destructive social and political illusions.  However, the scale of these problems and the complexity of the solutions leads to precisely the fear and disempowerment Fromm observed in Germany in the 1930s.

In this situation it doesn't matter that the problems are misidentified or that the solutions are impractical and counterproductive.  What matters is that someone offers to take the weight off our shoulders, to speak for us, to fix the problem for us, to restore our peace and sense of self-worth.

They won't be able to deliver on this promise.  Their prescriptions will make the problems worse and if we follow them we will feel less secure than we did before.  If they follow the Nazi pattern, they will then attempt to keep our loyalty through escalating the strategy, implementing ever stricter law and order policies, stricter supervision of our imagined enemies, more belligerent foreign policies.  If we allow them to get away with it, they will end up with such a firm grip on power that we couldn't dislodge them even if we wanted to.

I would like to say we should stop the cycle of escalation before it begins, but it's already too late for that.  Rather, let's stop it now before it gets out of hand.