The Samovar


Il y avait un manifestation

There are lots of interesting political things going on at the moment that I don’t have time to write about. In the UK, the government has lost, and probably had stolen, a copy of the records of 25m people (everyone in a family with a child aged 16 or under). There was also a very interesting looking report into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes that I may yet write about if I get the chance.

Here in Paris meanwhile, the transport unions and the students of many universities (not mine) are on strike. The issue for the transport workers is the regimes speciaux whereby transport workers have to work 2.5 years less than other workers before they can retire (37.5 instead of 40).

manif-2.jpg

Much of the discussion seems to revolve around the fact that this measure was introduced because the labour involved used to be much more onerous, but is no longer thanks to mechanisation. Personally, I think that’s not really the point. Sure, if society were organised along rational lines in the public interest, there would be no justification for it. But, that’s not the society we live in. We live in a capitalist, class based society in which different groups fight to keep what they have. The wealthier classes fight a quieter battle, by appealing directly to governments and media, or by moving their capital overseas. The poorer classes don’t have this access or any capital to move, so they use strikes. To be against strike actions to retain or gain privileges is in effect just siding with the wealthy.

It might be said though that the competition here is between the transport workers and other workers, not between transport workers and the rich. But, that’s where the principle of solidarity comes in. The idea is that other workers support the transport workers when they are fighting their battle, and in turn the transport workers support those workers when they fight theirs.

manif-3.jpg

The rail strike is apparently costing €400m /day, and the regimes speciaux cost €5bn/year (government figures), so 12.5 strike days is equivalent to 1 year of regimes speciaux. A reasonable compromise suggests itself. Why does the government not offer a pay rise of a total amount say €2-3bn/year. They would then be saving €2-3bn/year (which means losing the equivalent of 5-7.5 strike days compared to the situation if they could get rid of the regimes speciaux completely), and the transport workers would probably go for it, because for most people earnings now count for much more than earnings some 20 years down the line. I suspect the answer is that this isn’t really about saving €5bn/year at all, but really a strategy to weaken and divide the unions.

The pictures are of the manifestation that was going down my road today (some 300-700,000 people apparently).

manif-1.jpg

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13 Comments

In our de-unionised society, we’ve forgotten that thw whole point of union membership is solidarity. I’m obviously a TU member – it’s in my blood. When trying to persuade others to join, I tell them that it’s the cheapest way to get access to the very best employment lawyers, if ever you need them. But that really isn’t the point.

The CGT have an interesting political history, being anarcho-syndicalists. Can one still tell? Eg, is it reflected in their organisational structure?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I’m afraid I don’t know anything about CGT, although you’ve just told me something sufficiently interesting that I might go and look them up…

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

You seem to be saying (third paragraph) that because society is not organised in the way you would prefer, whatever that may be, it is pointless to talk about making rational decisions in the public interest. In other words, people (rich and poor) have a license to behave selfishly purely because they live under a certain political system that you do not approve of. Is there no room for personal responsibility? I believe there are many people, rich and poor, who do not act purely selfishly. Not all rich people dodge taxes using offshore accounts. Some strikers are presumably also a bit concerned about the disruption they are causing to the average commuter, and I imagine this concern is part of the reason most of them have returned to work.

Comment by Simon West

Hey Simon!

I’m not saying that it’s pointless to talk about making rational decisions, but that applying rationality inconsistently can lead to very highly irrational outcomes. For example, one of the reasons claimed for the war on Iraq was to depose a dictator. A fine sentiment. However, if you only apply that reasoning to oil-rich states, in what way is the outcome different from imperialism? In this case, if you demand that the workers must behave rationally and give up any unnecessary or unfair advantages they have, but you don’t make the same demand of the rich, how is that different from just supporting the rich against the poor?

This talk of rationality is only illustrative though, because you can only be rational with respect to an (arational) set of aims and values (you can’t derive an ought from an is). Politics is not about rational decision making because there are no shared aims and values. Pretending that the struggle between different groups doesn’t exist, and taking a neutral stance, explicitly supporting neither the rich nor the poor, implicitly supports the rich, because they already have the advantage (i.e. conservatism favours the rich).

So it’s no that society isn’t organised in the way I’d prefer, or about my disapproving of our current political system, it’s about understanding the political system that – like it or not – we actually have. It’s also not about people having a ‘license to behave selfishly’. I can’t give people a license to behave one way or the other – they simply will behave the way they behave. What I’m saying is that both sides are doing this, that it’s not possible to not take sides, and that consequently I prefer to choose to support the weaker, less advantaged side.

About personal responsibility: think of the prisoner’s dilemma. You could say that both of the individuals are responsible for deciding to betray the other person and therefore of both getting the harsh sentence. I agree. But you could also say that given the situation they find themselves in, being selfless and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the other person is not something that could reasonably be expected of them. The same type of argument holds in political society. That’s not to evade personal responsibility, but just to say that it’s unreasonable to expect people to be saints.

And I’m absolutely sure you’re right that there are people who do not behave purely selfishly – probably almost everyone. On the other hand, I’m sure there’s almost nobody who behaves entirely selflessly. As you say, there are rich people who don’t dodge taxes, which is fine, but the majority must do because the rich pay less as a percentage of their income than the poor (despite the fact that we have a progressive taxation system). Similarly, I would guess many of the strikers have the disruption they’re causing on their minds, which is one reason strikes happen so infrequently. There’s a famous socialist novel by Robert Tressell called “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” (I recommend it, although it’s not the height of literary style). The explanation of the title is that the working classes (ragged trousered in his day) are philanthropists because they work so hard to enrich their bosses when it gets them so little.

In a capitalist system, to be poor and selfless is to be exploited. That’s one of the reasons I hate capitalism – you have the choice between being selfish and being exploited.

I hope you have enjoyed this screed. 😉

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Hi Dan,

Here are a few random comments, not very coherently assembled.

Just to be clear I should say that I don’t know enough about the strike to have an opinion on whether or not I support it.

You say:

‘In this case, if you demand that the workers must behave rationally and give up any unnecessary or unfair advantages they have, but you don’t make the same demand of the rich, how is that different from just supporting the rich against the poor?’

I agree with this. But you previously said:

‘To be against strike actions to retain or gain privileges is in effect just siding with the wealthy.’

You didn’t leave any room for saying, ‘I disagree with the strikes and I also disagree with a lot of the benefits that rich people have, such as the ability to avoid tax evasion’. Since you don’t explicitly say what ‘unnecessary or unfair advantages’ the rich have, it’s not clear whether you are talking about a fundamental problem with capitalism, or just that there are certain laws that you would like to see changed or enforced better within the current system. I judged from your tone that you thought capitalism was the problem.

I find the rich/poor distinction too simplistic. Most people are in the middle. It is not supporting the rich to say that the strikers should go back to work, since the tax money going to their extra retirement comes from everyone. Also, if what you said regarding tax is true then the poor should have a special interest in how their tax money is spent, since they put a proportionately larger amount in.

You appealed to solidarity as the reason why other workers should support the strikers. But you also say that it’s not reasonable to expect people to behave selflessly and sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Why should the other workers then be expected to act in solidarity?

The dodging tax thing – I don’t know the proper figures. I’m sure the very rich dodge a lot of tax, but they are a small minority. I would guess that the merely well-off don’t generally have offshore bank accounts. So I don’t believe that a majority of well-off people dodge taxes. But I don’t know for sure of course.

‘In a capitalist system, to be poor and selfless is to be exploited. That’s one of the reasons I hate capitalism – you have the choice between being selfish and being exploited.’

That’s not true of everyone. For example doctors and teachers are not necessarily selfish or exploited. Not everyone who works in a job and is not a boss is exploited. Someone who starts a company is not necessarily selfish, they might want to make a living doing something they’re good at whilst treating their employees well.

Comment by Simon

Good stuff Simon. I’m afraid I’ve just written a rather epic reply.

To start with, I agree that the simplification of rich and poor is too simple. I’ll get on to that below, but for the moment I’ll continue to use it as a sort of shorthand.

You didn’t leave any room for saying, ‘I disagree with the strikes and I also disagree with a lot of the benefits that rich people have, such as the ability to avoid tax evasion’. Since you don’t explicitly say what ‘unnecessary or unfair advantages’ the rich have, it’s not clear whether you are talking about a fundamental problem with capitalism, or just that there are certain laws that you would like to see changed or enforced better within the current system.

A fair point. I would say that within a capitalist system, even if the rules were applied absolutely scrupulously and evenly, the rich still have an advantage (their wealth). So I stand by my point that it doesn’t matter whether or not I approve of capitalism, being neutral is to support the rich. That’s not because I don’t like capitalism, it’s because in capitalism inequality naturally increases unless steps are taken to prevent that. Social democrats and market socialists think that capitalism is a good idea (in disagreement to me), but they agree that action needs to be taken in favour of the worst off. One of those actions is unionisation, collective bargaining and (ultimately) strikes.

So to get back to the point of the first line of the quote above, someone saying that is still implicitly supporting the rich, but yes there is space to say you disagree with the strikes if you have in mind an alternative or better strategy for them to achieve their goal. In some countries, when the transport unions go on strikes they maintain the service but don’t charge anyone to use it. Whether or not it’s a better strategy isn’t clear (good arguments suggest themselves for both options). My feeling though, is that in the spirit of solidarity, if someone was really on the side of the poor, they’d support the strikes even if they thought there was a better way. That gets us into the whole boggy realm of socialist infighting though…

I find the rich/poor distinction too simplistic. Most people are in the middle.

Oh, I don’t think most people are in the middle (except in some of truismy sense). Looking at wealth and income statistics is a real eye opener! A quick google found this data for 2000/1 (which is a bit out of date, but is in the right ballpark). So, of the 29m people paying tax (this excludes a large number of people who aren’t earning anything obviously), 51% were earning less than £15k before tax and 68% less than £20k. That means that you and I, on our PhD grants alone, were probably already in the top 30-35%. If you get a job paying £50k you’ll be in the top 4%, and if it pays £100k it’ll probably be more like the top 1% (although the figures don’t go this far). If you look at wealth rather than income, the figures are even more stark.

Anyway, I agree that just talking about rich and poor is too simple. There are all sorts of class divisions one could talk about, and all sorts of nuances when you get into that. I quite like Michael Albert’s (of parecon) division into working / coordinator / capitalist, but I won’t get into that right now. For the sake of this argument, I’ll say that the rich are those who disproportionately benefit from capitalism, and the poor are those who don’t. I’m not going to make that a strict definition, but in terms of the stats above, about 20% are probably earning more than the mean income (about £24k I think), and 80% less. I wouldn’t call all of those 20% actually rich though, just better off than the average (and much better off than most).

It is not supporting the rich to say that the strikers should go back to work, since the tax money going to their extra retirement comes from everyone. Also, if what you said regarding tax is true then the poor should have a special interest in how their tax money is spent, since they put a proportionately larger amount in.

Well, I think if does support the rich, although I agree that might not be the intention. It’s quite difficult to get a handle on who exactly is benefiting the most from higher or lower taxation, because it’s so complicated. According to wikipedia (I know, I know), about 29% of revenue is income tax, 18% national insurance, 17% VAT, 8% corporation tax, etc. If it was just income tax, and the 2000/1 income statistics above are about right, and if everyone was paying an equal proportion of their income in tax, then about half of tax revenue would be coming from the top 20% and half from the bottom 80%.

What I said before about tax was looking back on it, less than precise (and my conclusion about tax dodging was almost certainly wrong!). The poor pay more tax as a percentage of their income than the rich, but not in income tax alone. That includes other forms of taxation such as VAT. Overall, the tax and spending system in the UK is redistributive I believe, although less so than it could be.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. The reason that being against the strikers is supportive of the rich is that it’s an attack on solidarity. If unions and strikes were illegal for example, the poor would get even poorer and the rich would get even richer.

You appealed to solidarity as the reason why other workers should support the strikers. But you also say that it’s not reasonable to expect people to behave selflessly and sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Why should the other workers then be expected to act in solidarity?

Another excellent point. In the UK, there is no longer any solidarity, but it still seems to exist in France (although to a lesser extent than it once did I think). I think what you say is one of the reasons the world tends to get more and more right wing, with only occasional jumps to the left. Ideally, solidarity should be like the tit-for-tat strategy in the repeated prisoners dilemma. You probably know about this already, but in case not I’ll quickly summarise (and thereby put off anyone else who might be reading this).

If you play prisoners dilemma once, the optimal strategy is to betray the other person (defect). However, if you play it multiple times, the best strategy appears to be tit-for-tat. You start off by cooperating, but if the other person defects, you also defect. This was found to be the best strategy empirically, by running computer simulations of thousands of different strategies off against each other. Variants of tit-for-tat tend to win.

So, solidarity is like saying: I will support your strikes assuming you’ll support mine until I realise that you’re not doing so, at which point I’ll stop. It’s like there’s a stable point at 100% solidarity and one at 0% solidarity, and at the moment we’re in the basin of attraction of the 0% one in the UK, whereas in France they’ve perhaps just teetered over from the basin of the 100% to the 0% one. The victory of Thatcher did it for us in the UK, and Sarkozy seems to be doing the same thing now in France.

Getting back to your point, I wouldn’t expect people to show solidarity, but I’d encourage them to do so because things would be better for them if they did. The other way round, I’m not sure you can really have solidarity between the rich and the poor, although it would be fantastic if you could! The problem is that the rich have nothing to gain by having solidarity with the poor, and everything to lose. On the other hand, one poor person has much to gain from showing solidarity with another one (if enough of them do).

For example doctors and teachers are not necessarily selfish or exploited.

I was using the word selfish and exploited in an economic sense only. Doctors are not selfish in their actions towards others, but their huge pay is selfish. The famous story told of Nye Bevan (who created the NHS) was that he said that in order to get the private medical consultants to work for the NHS he had to “stuff their mouths with gold” (see here). Currently, NHS consultants are it seems paid around £87-110k (putting them in the top few percent).

Not everyone who works in a job and is not a boss is exploited.

No, a city trader on £300k is not being economically exploited. There is another sense in which he is being exploited (the hours he works), but let’s not get into that.

Someone who starts a company is not necessarily selfish, they might want to make a living doing something they’re good at whilst treating their employees well.

Again, I agree. If their company becomes successful though, and they start paying themselves a huge amount of money, then at that point they are being selfish. Compare with someone like Michael Albert who runs ZNet. He spent most of his life building this organisation, which had revenues of $640k in 2000 (peanuts for a business, but pretty good for a socialist website). How much does he choose to pay himself? Answer: $30k. Not many successful company owners would pay themselves so little by choice. Now, it may be the case that people have to be encouraged to start new businesses by the promise of wealth, but we shouldn’t mistake that as something other than an appeal to selfishness.

To conclude.

This is a really good debate for me. It’s very interesting to think about these things, because I’m much less sure about them than my strident argumentative style suggests! 😉

I sort of feel like I’ve given you the impression that I think of the world in terms of rich baddies and poor goodies, but that really isn’t how I look at it. The rich do benefit more by our system than the poor, but I wouldn’t say that they’re worse people than the poor, just luckier. I don’t support things that benefit the poor and oppose things that benefit the rich because I don’t like the rich or think they’re morally bad people (most of the people I know I would class as rich, although the slightly misleading term we usually use for them is middle class), but because it’s not fair that they’re getting so much more than everyone else.

Suppose the average income is £25k – if I was earning £35k I’d be unlikely to give away £10k of it every year (although I would give away some decent fraction I hope). On the other hand, if I could choose to live in a world where everyone earned the equivalent of £25k, I would do so (even though it would mean I was equivalently worse off). I imagine that many people would feel the same. We don’t have the luxury of that choice, but we can make some choices about who we support (and in what sense, another long story).

I suppose when it comes down to it, all I’m saying is that we should have solidarity with things like unionisation and strikes because they are one of the few tools that people who are at the bottom end of the income scale have at their disposal.

OK I think I’d better stop there.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

I’ve been reading about 1930s America lately, when we swung way left. (We’ve over-compensated, since.)

Last night I read a chapter on the strikes at Republic Steel, where strikers were murdered.

They discussed how AFL labor was formed by specific workers (carpenters, plumbers, etc.) but how this wasn’t as effective, for, if the janitors went on strike, they could easily be replaced.

The IWW unions were formed around an industry — so all the workers in a factory were unionized together. Much more effective.

I’m glad your unions are working together.

Comment by ombudsben

Hi Dan,

Just to let you know – I’ve got a lot to do at the moment so I won’t get round to posting again for a while, but I’ll read your epic now and will try and get to it soon!

Comment by Simon

Ombudsben, hi there! Yes, unionisation in America seems to be in a much worse state than in Europe (possibly because of Taft-Hartley?). Things are going that way here too though. If things keep going the way they are at the moment, unions won’t be any sort of force at all in a few years. Have you come across Znet btw? If you haven’t already seen it you should take a look. http://www.zmag.org/weluser.htm

Simon – no worries. I really ought to have spent less time writing it too! Oops.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

American Labor history – now that’s a topic I’ve always meant to read up on more. It wasn’t just in the 1930s it was a major force. In fact, the IWW (aka ‘The Wobblies’) were founded in 1905, and McKinley was assasinated by an anarchist in 1901.

It’s my understanding – I might be wrong – that the IWW were also founded along anarcho-syndicalist lines. Yes organising around a factory or industry gave them their strength, but it didn’t preclude wider cooperation. As with the CGT (and the Spanish CGNT), representation is delegated upwards.

See also Sacco and Vanzetti:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacco_and_Vanzetti

Then there’s the Civil Rights struggle. J Edgar Hoover was to a large degree correct in his belief that the Southern Christian Union was a front for Communist-led trade unionists. Example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin

And then tehre’s the Pullman Strike:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pullman_Strike
And Eugene V Debs:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_V._Debs

The (black) Union of Pullman Porters later became the backbone of the nascent Civil Rights struggle, with their ability to communicate and organise across the continent.

And required reading has to be the great radio interviewer, Studs Terkel:
http://www.studsterkel.org/

btw…at what stage does ‘un manifestation’ become ‘des evènements’?

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Hi Dan,

Sorry for the delay – I’ll be short and won’t try and talk about everything we’ve mentioned, since it’s probably not fresh in either of our minds any more.

In brief, I’m uncomfortable with unconditional support of any particular group without considering the details. I understand your having sympathy with a group of people at the lower end of the income scale. On the other hand, unions are designed to lobby for their interests regardless of the broader effects on society. That’s not to say I don’t accept unions’ rights to exist, just that when they take a stance on an issue it must be judged according to the particular circumstance. I don’t know the details in this case, so I am not happy giving my support to strikers solely on the basis of their income level. Unfortunately it is generally quite boring to actually look into the details of a particular issue – I certainly don’t intend to do it in this case!

I read up on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and its iterated version on the ever-useful Wikipedia. The Axelrod tournament is an absolutely fascinating piece of research. I’m not convinced that it applies to solidarity however. For a start, it’s not clear who the ‘players’ are; for example, you could take the different unions as players, or a single union and the government, or the individuals in a union. If one takes the different unions as the players, then in order to work out whether a particular union X should support the transport workers union, we need to know whether the transport workers’ union supported X in their previous strikes. Unconditional support of the transport strike is not consistent with this strategy, rather it corresponds to a ‘blind optimist’ strategy in the IPD tournament, and these are a bad choice.

Now suppose the unions do choose a tit-for-tat strategy. This means the decisions of a union regarding which others to support are based on whether these others have supported them in the past, rather than the particular issues involved, a rather petty and unenlightened way of making decisions (which nevertheless occurs to some extent because of the grudge-forming and revenge instincts present in human psychology).

Alternatively, suppose we take the players to be individual French citizens, many of who presumably don’t earn more than the strikers, and will not enjoy retirement in their 50s. They might well see the strike as an unfair use of their tax money, and choose retaliate by not opposing the strikes, consistent with tit-for-tat. In fact this seems to be how a large portion of the population has responded.

Simon

Comment by Simon

Oops, quite a few typos…in the final paragraph I meant ‘opposing’, not ‘not opposing’.

Comment by Simon

Hey Simon,

I wouldn’t be happy about unconditional suport either. For instance I’d oppose a racist or xenophobic workers’ action if there was one. But I’m more happy to overlook points I don’t agree with in order to be supportive of solidarity overall.

The problem with judging each situation anew is that you lose sight of the bigger picture. I’m afraid I have another mathematically type thing to illustrate my point, which is the ‘agenda setting theorem’. I can’t remember who proved this thing, or what the exact conditions of the theorem are, but the agenda setting theorem says that given a population of voters with different preferences deciding on some issue, someone who can choose a series of yes/no questions for everyone to vote on can guarantee any result he likes. If the population of voters ignore the circumstances of what is going on – the bigger picture – they can be easily manipulated even if they are entirely rational in their voting. Politics is not just about what is right or wrong, but about contexts and actions, about systems and processes, etc.

I agree that tit-for-tat is not exactly the right way to analyse solidarity, but it’s in the right ballpark. The situation is not exactly the same as the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, so we shouldn’t expect the best strategy to be exactly the same. Tit-for-tat is basically a strategy in which you give the other player a little bit of leeway – you trust them until they prove that you can’t. IIRC, in the repeated prisoner’s dilemma competitions, sometimes tit-for-two-tats win, i.e. you give the other player even more leeway – they have to betray you twice before you give up on them. So what I’m saying is just that you want to have some sort of leeway in these things, and a bias towards cooperation where possible.

Incidentally, it’s quite interesting that when the RAND corporation (who were partly responsible for spreading all the cold war prisoner’s dilemma logic stuff) tested the prisoner’s dilemma by setting up an experiment with the secretaries at RAND – not a single one of them betrayed the other one! Not one!

Comment by Dan | thesamovar




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