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Someone always agrees with you

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
COLIN BARKER says that even in the most difficult workplace there is hope
Issue 1864

IT’S A funny old life, being a socialist. To put it more grandly, it’s a mess of contradictions. We oppose wage slavery, but we work for wages-usually in horrible jobs. It’s even worse when we’re ‘unemployed’-we have to run around trying to find someone to exploit us, just to live.

It doesn’t end there. The only agency that can change the world, we know, is the working class. How does it develop that capacity? Through collective organisation and struggle. We know the arguments, we’ve read the articles, heard the speakers, even argued it ourselves.

Then, at work, we look around. Oh dear… Where’s the self emancipation of the working class now? Jane’s off sick with stress. Terry’s not speaking to John. It’s hot, and only the boss, the smug bastard, has air conditioning in his office.

Bill’s always crawling to management, hoping for promotion. Ahmed’s gay, and terrified people will find out. Sarah argued yesterday that the government is too soft on ‘fake refugees’.

Only seven people came to the last union meeting-or, worse, there’s no union at all. Milly sometimes used to buy Socialist Worker, but she left. There never seems time to even talk these days, everyone’s so busy, what with the new schedules.

Lonely? Frustrating? The contradictions work themselves out in feelings-we get hopeless, angry, bitter, depressed… I could go on. As good old Lenin once asked, what is to be done? Mind, he had it easy, sitting in exile and saying be a tribune of the people, setting up an all-Russian socialist newspaper. He didn’t have to work with my lot!

The classic advice when in difficulty comes from Monty Python: ‘Always look on the bright side of life…’ However bad we feel, we’re not alone. You feel bitter about work? So does everyone. No wonder The Office with Ricky Gervais was so popular, even though nothing ever happened. No one likes management.

Everyone knows if a mysterious virus killed all bosses tomorrow, we could get on with the job without them. They seem to have no purpose but to make life more difficult, squeezing our lives while they award themselves more. And that’s not a minority view.

We feel down? So do most other people. There’s currently a mismatch between what people would like to do and what they feel able to do. But they do watch, and think. In how many workplaces did people think, ‘If only we could do a Heathrow’?

Socialists have to remember Marx’s old dictum about the bourgeoisie creating its own gravediggers. Every petty humiliation, every added pressure for more work from less people, every nasty cut in pensions, every bit of managerial pretentiousness, leaves its mark.

The problem for socialists is how to locate and relate to that bitterness. It can, of course, come out in unpleasant ways, as racism and sexism, and we have to argue for a socialist response.

It often turns out to be easier than we expect. It’s not that everyone agrees with us when we argue against the war, or in support of the firefighters, or against racism. The point is that normally someone does. Sometimes they listen to an argument, and only afterwards turn out to be on your side-they were just nervous about speaking.

People are always surprising us. An apparent ally on many questions will turn round and make an off-colour remark. On the other hand, someone who’s always seemed uninterested will suddenly say or do something brilliant.

We have to start with people as they are, with all their contradictions, not how we wish they were. We always have to be on the lookout for the best ones, and ally with them where we can.

There’s one option we should reject, sometimes known as the ‘weekend socialist’. He or she keeps their politics hidden all week and then goes off to demonstrations at the weekend, but never tells anyone at work! Such people don’t, in practice, really believe their own politics.

The opportunities right now are better than they’ve been for ages. In this period, anyone who’s completely isolated at work is getting something wrong. There are just too many people who think Blair’s a liar, who think New Labour has let them down, who hate the boss, who wish there was an alternative-even if they don’t quite believe there is one.

Progress as a socialist at work sometimes seems like the work of a tortoise. But even a tortoise has to stick their neck out to move.

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