Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Running Commentary: Through the looking glass (1980)

The Running Commentary Column from the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Through the looking glass
One achievement the Polish strikers could not have expected was to bring about an apparent reversal in English political attitudes, almost as if events were being looked at through a looking glass.

The strikes broke out against a background of serious crisis for the Polish economy—massive foreign debts, shortages, falling production and so on. Even so, the strikers pressed home their campaign and, at least as far as the written agreement goes, won their point. A side effect of the strike was to topple the Polish leader Edward Gierek, who suffered a fate similar to that of Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1970 who also resigned after a “heart attack”.

Now a naive observer of the strike, remembering what happened in England in 1973 and during Callaghan's infamous “winter of discontent”, might have expected Tory and Labour leaders to denounce the strikers. After all, were they not, like the British miners in 1973, said to be striking for a political object? Were they not responsible for the downfall of a political leader—as the miners were supposed to be over Heath in 1974? And, like the engineers and the hospital workers in this country in 1978, were the Polish miners and shipyard workers not striking in disregard of the country’s ailing economy and careless of the welfare of the old, the sick, the needy?

But of such denunciation we have heard not a word; indeed the Polish workers have been elevated to the status of heroes and their leader, Lech Walesa, is almost as popular as any football star. With one exception, no headlines have shrieked abuse at the reckless strikers of Gdansk and Sczezcin. The exception, on the other side of the looking glass, was the weary Stalinist line spewed up by the tedious hacks of the New Communist Party, who in their paper New Worker denounced the strikers as wreckers.

Neither of these sides was concerned with the truth of the matter—that the Polish workers were on strike in resistance to an attempted cut in their living standards. The demand for independent trade unions came from the bitter experience of previous struggles, which showed up the treachery of the Communist Party dominated “unions”.

Both sides were concerned with plugging a line favourable to the particular ruling class whose interests they try to represent. This meant that the Polish strikers, who were showing considerable courage in their struggle, were treated with a cynicism which, had it not become so familiar, would have been sickening. But too much was at stake for it to be otherwise and the workers, here and in Poland and all over the world, would do well to take the point; the interests of capitalism demand an obedience to something more urgent than the truth.

Dirty washing
How is British industry to survive the slump? Will anything be left of it, after the bankruptcies and the sackings and the cutbacks? As the news comes in of lay-offs, short time and redundancies, we are also told about the markets in Britain being flooded by fiercely competitive foreign products, like Japanese cars, Russian watches and French apples. One “remedy” for this, popular with both management and workers, is to restrict imports so that everyone is forced to buy British, eat British, wear British, sleep British . . . 

One industry which has been hard hit in the slump is the one producing washing machines and other domestic appliances. Hoover, once the market leader and an energetic exporter, has had to cut its work force by a thousand over the past two years, now has 8,000 on short time and, it is rumoured, is considering closing down the place where it all started—its factory in Perivale in Middlesex.

Hoover blames its decline partly upon foreign imports and is particularly worried about cheap washing machines from Italy, where there is a veritable slag heap of the things at the moment, worth some £60 million. If this slag heap ever descended on the British market it might well kill off firms like Hoover. So the industry’s trade organisation has been busily campaigning for government action to stop the “dumping” of these machines on the UK markets.

This might pass unnoticed were it not for the fact that Hoover, who once prided themselves on their briskly competitive export trade (which was not described as “dumping”), have themselves been importers of Italian washing machines which they have sold under their own name. Even more, Hoover have done the same for, among other products, refrigerators from Italy, electric toasters from Canada, electric shavers from Germany.

Even now, in the depths of their troubles, they have been negotiating with their big Italian rival, Indesit, to get the right price for a washing machine to be imported and sold on the UK market. Presumably, the Hoover people who went to Italy did not take any idea other than bargaining for the lowest possible price—for, in other words, the cheapest possible imports.

This is more than a simple case of double dealing. The Hoover management are acting in a perfectly sensible manner: they are running their business in conformity with the demands of capitalist production and commerce. If this illustrates the absurdity of trying to solve capitalism’s problems with makeshift patching here and there it is only because it is a typical example of the essential stupidity and anarchy of producing wealth for sale instead of for use.

Playing with fire
When the Labour government used troops to break the firemen’s strike during the winter of 1977/8 they did so with the support of the Tories, on the argument that an efficient fire fighting service is necessary to protect property and lives—which, they asserted, must be their major concern as the government.

Well the firemen lost and now we have a Tory government and we are being shown what all that concern for life and limb amounts to. Fire brigades are not immune from the cuts of the government’s free-swinging axe on public spending and in some areas they are being cut to, and beyond, the bone of safety.

This process began under the Callaghan government; since March 1979 nearly 700 firemen have been cut (by “natural wastage”) and almost 100 appliances have been removed from emergency work. The London brigade is applying to cut out another 42 appliances.

In Staffordshire the situation is, quite literally, threatening with the brigade, which is only just meeting the Home Office requirements, subject to even more reductions. It needs only one big fire, like the recent destruction of Alexander Palace in London, to stretch resources beyond their capacity and perhaps cause an avoidable loss of life.

All of this is quite acceptable to the government, whose recent Green Paper on fire policy talks airily about lowering standards without bringing about an “unacceptable rise in casualties”. (Is there such a thing in Whitehall as an ‘acceptable” rise?) and which insists that the measures needed to bring about an actual reduction in fire casualties are too expensive to contemplate.

This exercise in capitalist priorities—in which, let it be made clear, both Labour and Tory join—might not be expected to impress anyone waiting to be rescued from the fifth floor of a blazing building and who receives instead the equivalent of a note from Milo Minderbinder, that the fire services have been cut in the greater interests of the British ruling class, in whose prosperity we are all allegedly invited to join

As the flames lick higher, the luckless sufferer might reflect on the cynicism of politicians whose attitudes are formed with such a callous disregard for human safety and welfare. And if they ever do get rescued, let us hope that they do not forget the insights born amid the rising flames.

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