A working class uprising – how far will it go?

Taken from an article published at LIBCOM

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The fundamental class nature of the protests in North Africa is undeniable. In Tunisia, Algeria and Libya a generation of proletarianised youngsters have led mass protests, the immediate reason for which has been their desperate standard of living in countries which support a wealthy and transparently self-interested ruling class, less schooled in the modern techniques of bourgeois self-justification than their Western counterparts. The same issues are repeated in countries across the region. We will attempt a brief and preliminary survey of the class aspects of events here; again due to restrictions on information and rapidly developing events this survey is necessarily incomplete.

Expropriations

The uprisings in Tunisia and Algeria have involved the expropriation of goods from supermarkets, shops and warehouses during mass demonstrations. This is to be expected ; one of the immediate catalysts for the uprisings was the cost of essentials rising rapidly, with scarcity compounded by security forces shutting down the country. Moreover, during situations where working class people are becoming aware of their own power, respect for the nicities of commodity exchange evaporates, especially when money (or the lack of it) limits their access to the essentials of life. Such expropriations are a feature of all proletarian uprisings, as is the line on “violent looters” spun to justify brutal crackdowns.

Strikes – or the lack of them

Information on the extent to which strikes have formed part of the movement in North Africa is limited. We know of strikes by teachers in solidarity with protesting students. Likewise there have been calls for general strikes led by ‘professional’ workers such as lawyers, but it is unclear whether they were attended by workers more widely. We can say the same of the general strike called in Sfax – until more information is made available, it is hard to say to what extent it was observed. We know of strikes in the mining town of Gafsa, but again the scale of participation in these strikes is unclear. We do not know to what extent people have participated in organised strikes, or simply not gone to work due to the unrest on the streets. Lockouts after the state of emergency was declared would have precluded many strikes.

Obviously the unemployed and students who have formed the bulk of protesters on the streets do not have labour to withdraw in the same way as workers. Demonstrations, blockades and riots all can form part of class struggle, and can advance it by disrupting the economy and drawing lines of confrontation. Radicalisation by police truncheons can often push confrontation with the state further, and draw more people into events by making the role of the state in maintaining order through violence clear. However, all major uprisings have involved mass strike action, and the mass strike is a means by which the common interest of proletarians as working class and their power to cripple capital by expropriating the means of life from it can become clear. The direction and scale of the insurrection is likely to be determined by the extent to which strike action spreads through the economy.

Part of the explanation of our limited knowledge of strikes could be the focus of the media on street protests and the ‘political’ dimension presented by the calls to oust the current government. Strikes taking place in parallel may not be deemed newsworthy. On the other hand, it may be that there has not been generalised strike action. The role of tourism in Tunisia’s economy, employing significant numbers of workers (half of the workforce is employed in the service sector) is not enough to account for this – industry such as manufacturing, mining and the oil industry accounts for a third of the workforce. This is the classic terrain for mass strikes of the kind that has been a feature of all historic working class uprisings, and this would have a significant effect in a major oil and minerals exporter such as Tunisia.

On the other hand it is important to bear in mind the effect a drop in tourism revenues can have in a country like Tunisa – a few global headlines about rioting can lead to the paralysis of a major section of the economy. Ben Ali called on rioters to stop due to fears about the decline in tourism, and was clear and vocal about this. Nonetheless, a generalised strike movement would be vital in broadening a specifically class consciousness, widening the movement and radicalising the situation.

Not a revolution – yet.

The media has been quick to label events in Tunisia a ‘revolution’, and the name ‘ the Jasmine revolution’ has been rapidly applied to bring it in line with a range of other political revolutions which ushered in new governments (usually pro-US) in various countries. Such events are only ‘revolutions’ in a political sense, with one government replacing another. Tunisa has not yet seen a true revolution, as the rule of capital and the fundamental balance of power between classes in the country has not yet changed. Such a possibility would require the working class of the region to draw lessons from the radical display of their own power which has unfolded over the past weeks. Given that the fundamental issues – unemployment, high prices and poor housing cannot be solved by decree by governments even if they wanted to, it is unlikely that we will see the status quo return in North Africa any time soon.

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