Saturday, March 27, 2021

What about the miners? (1993)

From the March 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

The recent furore over the pit closures has been notable for the number of public figures, politicians, ex-politicians, lords and landed gentry who were desolated by the prospects of unemployment with its consequent hardships and miseries involved for the miners. From the minister himself, Michael Heseltine, interviewed emoting at peak levels in front of his Adam fireplace in his stately home, to Winston Churchill clarifying the issue in typical upper-class fashion by calling for “a level playing field”, the depth of emotion shown on behalf of the miners has been truly touching, or would be if you were daft enough to believe it.

Huge amounts of energy, enthusiasm and work have been expended to gain a reversal of the decision to close the best part of what remained of British Coal. The eventual outcome is not yet clear but it looks as though some stay of execution might have been gained, and possibly some jobs saved. Are these gains of real significance? Has a “victory" been achieved? If the fight is content with that, if it stays at the level of reversing, or attempting to reverse a political decision, the answer must be a decisive “no”.

This is not to disparage the miners or their struggle. In fact one of the most heartening aspects of the whole sordid business has been to see the regeneration of enthusiasm in the miners' movement, but to the extent that some jobs at the pits have been saved at the expense of others in the nuclear or gas power stations we cannot speak of a working class gain. This can only be applied to a fight which benefits the entire working class.

Limited aims
For those miners who blacklegged in 1984-5 the depths of ruling-class perfidy must now be clear, had they thought that crossing the picket-line would give them any guarantees for the future. The message is evident. There is no such thing as an honourable bargain with the ruling class. They can never be trusted.

The other incontrovertibly clear message is: the power of the working class when we wish to use it. Those workers who are doubtful of the possibility of socialism prevailing against the power of the state must surely take heart. The truth is the capitalists have no power other than what is voluntarily given to them by the workers. We don't have to fight them, we only have to stop supporting them. The capitalists can only have power when they are resisting a minority opposition and even then are totally dependent on the support given them by the remaining majority of workers.

In other words, it is only by getting worker to fight worker that the ruling class maintains control and any close study of ruling-class tactics in their unceasing endeavours to maintain their dominant position will show this stratagem to be a consistent favourite. It therefore follows that the only impediment to bringing socialism into being is the lack of development of socialist understanding.

Unfortunately there is no evidence in the coalmine dispute to show that either the miners or their supporters are looking for anything other than very limited objectives within the capitalist system. They are not even looking for changes to the system nor demanding the restitution of past coal rundowns. They merely asked for a “review".

Because the workers are committed to capitalism they cannot press their demands to the point of threatening the stability of the system. If they push too far and go over the edge they have nothing to replace it with. The capitalists know this too and are ready to use this weapon when it suits them: “If you go on strike we'll lose that valuable overseas order which gives you jobs, and then we shall have to shut the factory down".

This situation is happening on a major or minor scale, continually. It is the reason why the heroic struggles of the oppressed must end in comparative failure and it is why trade union struggles of any kind can at best only ever achieve a limited success.

Tyranny of economics
What is possible or not possible in the context of capitalism is dictated by capitalist economics, and not only capitalist economics but the immediate pressing economic demands of the moment. When Heseltine, being interviewed by Dimbleby was asked about the prospects of North Sea gas in fifty years’ time he positively laughed at the prospect of making any decision for fifty years’ hence. The strength and the weakness of the capitalist system is that it is dynamically balanced to respond to immediate pressures and survive, but it cannot do more than that.

Capitalism is a system geared to the demands of the market. It has devised endless techniques to cope with the varying demands of the market, but it can never break away from them to plan a long-term strategy. It can react but can never act. Therefore the only argument which really has any validity for the capitalist politician is the economic argument. Not all capitalists or even all politicians realize this. After all, they do like to have some human illusions and for them to admit that they support a system which is utterly sterile of all human values, and which in the long run is a living nightmare, is a bit bleak for them to face.

But the Heseltines and Majors and Thatchers and Kinnocks and Smiths probably do realize it and usually make a fairly good job of concealing it from their own followers, knowing that if they allow the truth to present itself without the fancy wrapping there may be some opposition. This time Heseltine got so carried away with the beauty of his own arguments that he forgot to bring out the wrapping paper. Major must have been absolutely furious with him.

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