Last April workers at the Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores went on strike for one day to protest zero-hour contracts. Their action received plenty of support and was widely viewed as just. However shortly after the protest, Dunnes’ management targeted a number of the workers involved. According to their union, Mandate, this amounted to “sanctions including dismissals of a small number of staff, cuts to hours, changes in roles and changes in staff patterns”. The experience of the Dunnes workers would not be out of place in Blacklisted – a timely and important new book written by building worker and stalwart campaigner, Dave Smith in cooperation with journalist Phil Chamberlain. Blacklisted is a comprehensive account of the ongoing war that was (and is still) being waged by employers across the building industry in the UK. In terms of subject matter it is largely confined to the situation in the UK but in many ways that only strengthens its main argument. Bear in mind that in the UK (and here in Ireland too) workers have some legal protection against excessive bullying and harassment by employers. Consider what it is like for workers in countries where such legal protection is non-existent. Last year attention focused on the predicament of building workers on the World Cup site in Qatar – where it was reported that workers were dying on that huge building site at a rate of one every two days. Qatar is not an exception unfortunately. Take a look at the excellent www.labourstart.org site and you’ll get a very good idea of the scale of the problem faced by workers the world over right now.
What Is Blacklisting?
“Blacklisting” is the process whereby certain workers – usually for reasons to do with speaking up for their rights – are and were denied work in their industry over a consistent period of time. Blacklisting of course occurs in many industries but the building trade has been notorious for the practice. This is in part to do with the greed of the building companies but it is also to do with the problem of casualisation. Workers are employed for short periods on a particular building job and often let ago at the end of that job. If a worker gets a reputation for speaking up then it is simple to say when he next turns up looking for a job ‘Sorry there’s no work here just now.’
Many workers know full well that speaking your mind is “bad for your health”, but in the building trade the process went way beyond that. Blacklisted recounts how the current practices got underway in the UK after the successful mobilisation of workers around the Building Workers’ Charter (p52) in the early 70s. That struggle improved wages and conditions across the industry and generated fear in some of the big building companies. Afraid that workers might be getting too well organised they turned to systematic victimisation. The Consulting Agency (CA) was the vehicle they used. A relatively small operation, the CA worked under the radar from an ordinary house in the West Midlands not far from Birmingham; it was composed of a few staff and a well maintained database. To check a name against the CA’s database cost an employer – or its HR department – £2.20 per name. Forty-three building companies used the CA and were free to access its database after a sign up yearly subscription. For example Carillion were invoiced for £32,393 + VAT for the a period of checking lasting from 1999 to 2004. In other words it checked quite a lot of names!
The person behind the database was a man named Ian Kerr. He had a record of involvement in right-wing groups and was clued-in to the intricacies of left wing politics. He collected lots of information, purchased and scanned a whole range of left literature looking to cull information on anyone he could find that was connected to the building trade or its various trade unions. He noted down all sorts of things about individuals, building up substantial files over many years of work. He was dedicated, thorough and well disposed to policing the industry for his masters. Comments about individuals like ‘will cause trouble, strong TU’ (p35) and the like were not uncommon.
A particular strength of Blacklisted is that it is dotted with examples of the type of discrimination that went on and the impact that this had on individual workers. Alex Rayner, an electrician, typifies the experience of many construction workers. He made complaints about safety standards on a job and suspected that from that time onwards he was being targeted. He says (p75): “I knew I was [blacklisted], but I couldn’t prove it. I was on a job and I complained about safety. Sometimes it was silly things. On another job I complained about asbestos, which is deadly.” Rayner was blacklisted for 45 years.Safe reps were systematically targeted. On a job refurbishing a Tesco branch, Dave Smith (the co-author) organised for the distribution of a UCATT leaflet on asbestos awareness. He was dismissed from that job but a copy of the leaflet also found its way into a file held on him by the CA. This dossier ran to 36 pages in total and showed that he was repeatedly dismissed when he was elected as a union safety rep. Another case was that of Roy Bentham. He was centrally involved in a successful strike in 1995 at a major North Wales power station that forced employers to use direct labour rather than self-employed contractors. Despite the success of the strike Bentham and a number of other were later targeted by management and were let go. Bentham knew this was retribution for the work he had done organising at the site but it didn’t end there. A file was opened on him with the CA and after that he ‘couldn’t get work anywhere in the north west [of England].’ Occasionally he got small bit of contracting work but he ‘suffered long and frequent spells of unemployment’. A Liverpudlian and a Hillsborough justice activist he recalled how he had hopes of getting work on the huge shopping centre site, Liverpool One, in 2004. But he said, “They were crying out for skilled men … but I couldn’t get work on there at all over four years’. It had a major impact on his home life and well-being. Many of those blacklisted were eventually forced out of the industry which was exactly what the employers wanted.
The CA’s operation was uncovered after an investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, a body charged with overseeing data protection matters in the public interest. Since Kerr and the CA were acting under the radar (and avoiding any disclosure of what they were at) they were in breach of these regulations. It was on this basis and this alone that the CA was prosecuted and its murky activities exposed. The uncovering of the CA’s existence was a huge relief for thousands of building workers who were exposed to blacklisting over many years and decades. For most of those blacklisted, they were aware some sort of discrimination was going on but they could never prove it. Eventually with the legal prosecution of the CA, many victims were able to see the files that were held on them and small amounts of compensation were also eventually paid out.
Blacklisted is a powerful book. It details the real world of capitalism and how neglect of health and safety is often one of the first consequences of the hunger for profit. It will come as no surprise to many that health and safety is a core issue of concern for building workers. It might seem obvious too that speaking out about safety is the right thing to do but as many building workers have found to their cost this is not the case. Take the case of Garry Gargett (p200), an experienced electrical supervisor. On the massive Crossrail site in London in 2013 he witnessed a dangerous situation where a section of 11,000-volt electrical cables was covered by scaffolding and debris thrown on top of it. He took a photograph of the problem and printed this off. He was taking this to his supervisor when a manager intervened: Gargett was removed from site and dismissed on the grounds that he hadn’t permission and shouldn’t have take a photo on site! That’s just one of a huge number of examples in this book.
Blacklisted spends a good number of pages recounting and discussing the various ways workers have resisted and fought back inside the industry. These struggles were carried out in conjunction withe the various building unions but more often than not they were led by rank & file networks. One example – the BESNA dispute – began when a number of building contractors tried to abandon a longstanding agreement with electricians; they wanted to put a new contract in place – called BESNA – which would have involved a 35% cut in wages. A series of strikes got underway (in 2011-12) which in turn had to address the matter of blacklisting. After defeating BESNA, more electricians were victimised but this time the network that had defeated BESNA remobilised and tackled this development. It took further strike action to force an end to the new round of attacks on the rank and file activists.
Despite the revelations surrounding the CA and positive coverage given to the Blacklist Support Group – which has campaigned for justice and compensation for victims of blacklisting – the practice of blacklisting continues. Some of the major of building firms were embarrassed when their links to the CA were make public but other defended their actions claiming they had a right to vet who worked for them. For most of the building firms what happened in regards to the CA amounted to no more than a knuckle rapping. As is made clear in this book blacklisting has not gone away.
The nature of what went on with the CA is further exacerbated by two other aspects discussed in Blacklisted. One is the murky role of the police and Special Branch who – are we surprised? – colluded with the CA (see Ch 9). The second matter is the collusion of some sections of trade union movement with the CA (see Ch 8). The efforts to unearth the extent of this collusion between some union officials and the building firms (and the CA) has been particularly fraught. Comments were found on some CA files were sourced back to active union officials. When the BSG and others attempted to get explanations, they were blocked.
Blacklisting and its relative, whistle-blowing are indicative of one very obvious feature of the workplace today: it is not free. Not only is it not free, in many, many situations the workplace is run like a dictatorship; step out of line and you’re gone. True the situation varies widely and depends hugely on whether trade union organisation is in existence at a workplace or not, but it largely the case for most workers that speaking your mind can have a myriad of negative consequences. Why? We live after all in a democratic era where it is accepted as normal and right that we should have a say over how we live? Why not the workplace then? Why does work – a core human activity – not come under the umbrella of basic democratic rights?
The answer of course is no great secret: the workplace is un-free because capitalism requires it to be that way. Making money and extracting it from the workforce is the aim, but actually making that happen requires that owners and managers have the means to exercise control. Recall the Thatcherite mantra from the 80s: ‘Management must be allowed to manage’. What she was really saying was management must able to order you about – end of story.
The authoritarian workplace is central to capitalism. Ask a garment worker from Bangladesh, a miner from South Africa or a Foxcon/ Apple worker from China and s/he will tell you how bad it really is. To change this is really the challenge of our time. Blacklisted ends with a great quote from someone on the front-line. Speaking about the reality of fighting for your rights at work, Paul Crimmins, a victim of blacklisting, states “It’s a thankless task but someone’s got to do it.’ That is the other amazing story recorded in Blacklisted: against the odds, time and again, workers have fought back against the authoritarian workplace. They keep insisting on their rights and when they resist collectively and build solidarity they often go far beyond even their own aims. There’s a lesson in that no doubt – but that’s for another day. In the meantime this books needs our support. Beg, borrow and share it! Promote it wherever you can.
Related Articles and Links:
Death toll on World Cup site (The Guardian)
Interview with Dave Smith (Hazards Magazine)
Information on the current prosecuction of Dave Smith/ Blacklist Support Group (Unite The Resistance)
Blacklist Support Group (on Facebook)
No Payslip, No Holiday Pay (Rebel City Writers)
According to legend the FBI always gets its man – leaving sexism aside for the moment. Whether true or not, a recent case undoubtedly highlighted the extremely long reach of the US’s famous law enforcement agency. The case involved Anis Abid Sardar, an Iraqi national, who was working in London as a taxi driver. Last month Sardar was convicted of killing a US soldier in Iraq in 2007 and for this heinous crime he has been sentenced to serve a minimum of 38 years in prison – in the UK.
It seems that Anis Sardar became involved in the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq and took up making improvised explosive devices or IEDs. One of the bombs that he made exploded under a troop carrier west of Bagdad in 2007 killing “34-year-old Sergeant First Class Randy Johnson, of 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment” . Some months after the attack Sardar was fingerprinted as he entered the UK having travelled via Syria. Seven long years passed and then he came into the sights of the FBI. The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Centre (TEDAC) identified his fingerprints on a number of devices that were similar to those that killed Randy Johnson. They issued a warrant for Sardar’s arrest and just last month he was convicted in what Sue Hemming of the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service described as a “landmark prosecution”.
Now you might ask what is TEDAC? Well that’s part of what’s interesting . The FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Centre is located at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico in Virginia. In the FBI’s own words it is the “US Government’s single repository for IEDs that have been collected or are of interest to the United States government.” To put it another way ‘it’s the bomb library of America.’
The FBI are extremely proud of TEDAC. It comprises a huge warehouse to where are repatriated the remnants of any device used against US agencies or its armed forces. Right now there are thousands of boxes in the warehouse awaiting examination (see above). When a device explodes anywhere and the target is US troops, the fragments from the entire conflagration are gathered up, logged and transported all the way back to said TEDAC facility in the USA. Just imagine the logistics involved here for one moment. The gathering of everything from a bomb blast must take place; the attention to detail must be paramount; everything is then packed up and posted in over to Virginia.
Amazing right. Take a look at the photo above of the warehouse and those racks of crates and you get some indication of the huge effort that is taking place. Every single one of those crates is a crime waiting to be solved. This is cutting edge detective work alongside a cutting edge commitment to justice too. Am I not right?
Eventually these bits of metal are examined and checked, and sometimes, as with the case of Sardar a prosecution results. The FBI notes that ‘Since its creation in 2003, TEDAC has examined more than 100,000 IEDs from around the world and currently receives submissions at the rate of 800 per month. Two million items have been processed for latent prints—half of them this year alone.’ An FBI spokesperson added, ‘We have a lot of experience identifying IED components and blast damage. As a result we have identified over 1,000 individuals with potential ties to terrorism.’
So there you are. Shit hot, right? TEDAC and everything associated with it is a commitment to justice that is second to none, right ?Except… Wait a minutes… What about…?
Before I set down another letter on WordPress, let me hasten to point out here that I’m not intending FOR ONE MOMENT to get into the matter of whether or not the US is entitlement to wander about the globe killing what it terms ‘legitmate’ targets at will. That is not for now. Afterall, a lowly writer such as I, who am I to question the right of the United States to execute at will those it deems to be its enemies?
Instead I will confine myself here to what are termed collateral deaths associated with this drone campaign? In a recent interview regarding the Naming The Dead project, Jack Serle of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said, ‘We don’t have an absolute figure on how many people have been killed, but our best estimate is about 2,318. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we’ll be able to name every single one of them, partly because a lot of people have died anonymously.” To date in fact NTD have managed to name just over 700 individuals.
For me it beggars belief that in t his day and age this sort of murderous activity can go on with no one or no organisation able to stop it, but there you are it does. The point however is that with regard to the US’s drone bombing campaign, significant numbers of civilians are being killed each week. This is simply a war crime, but one that is happening week in and week out now. The drone bombing campaign contravenes all the usual standards of conduct in war – where reasonable effort must be made to avoid the targeting of civilians. And in almost all the cases I know of there isn’t even a war on in the first place. The US is targeting and killing at will in areas of the world where it sees fit. Which puts TEDAC and the FBI’s investigative prowess into a somewhat different light, no?
The Naming The Dead project got underway due to the fact that in many of the cases where drone bombings have been conducted, the extent of the destruction and the arbitrariness of the attacks is such that no one knows often how many or who has died. It is not unusual on any day to have on the newswires a brief report that a drone bomb attack has taken place. In such reports the general number of casualties is reported on. The names of the victims are rarely given… and the world moves on. [Rest assured that no stellar effort by FBI or anyone else for that matter is going to take place in regard to these murderous attacks; in fact the victims’ families will be doing well if they manage to recover the remains of their loved ones.]
As I composed this post, I noted that the following report appeared on the wires. It is entitled, Fresh US drone strikes have claimed the lives of at least 14 people in the troubled eastern part of Afghanistan. To summarize the information in this report. There were six casualties on Friday when a group of people were targeted by a US Drone flying over eastern Paktia Province. ‘Witnesses and local resident say the victims were civilians, but Afghan officials insist that they were all Taliban militants.’ Furthermore, it is noted that later on that same Friday, ‘eight people were killed in another US drone strike in the eastern Nangarhar Province.’ The following is also noted: ‘The US has stepped up its drone campaign across Afghanistan in recent weeks.’ And the following was also noted:
- June 5th at least 15 civilians lost their lives in a US drone strike in Alishir district of Khost province near the border with Pakistan. Local residents said the victims were attending the funeral of a local tribesman.
- On June 4th Separate drone attacks across Nangarhar had claimed at least 17 lives the day before.
If you wish to know more about the extent and nature of the US’s drone war, the following pdf is worth examining.
So there you have it. One the one hand people are beavering away in TEDAC day in and day out, scouring fragments of metal, powering up scanning electron microscopes, piecing together tiny fragments of prints – generally DOING THEIR DAMNEDEST to find those criminals out there in the world. While on the other hand, under the same grand canopy that is US Justice and Law Enforcement, people are being blown to smithereens at will, with such gay abandon that in many cases it isn’t even known who is being killed or who they even are.
I guess you’ll drawn your own conclusions from all of this but I know one thing for sure, the days of having one law for one set of people in the world and another for another set, is long over with.
Related Links and Articles
In this second post, Anarchist Lens returns to the subject of electoral politics and how it demobilises the struggle for change. The example of the German Greens is examined. In the late 70s, Die Grünen (The Greens) emerged as a new force on the German and European left. Radical and activist led, they claimed to be aware of the pitfalls of the electoral process and were, in their own words, an ‘anti-party party’. Yet, in less than twenty years, they had capitulated on all their key principles: tolerating nuclear power, rubber-stamping German participation in NATO and even agreeing to capitalist-friendly market reforms. How did this transformation come about?
The town of Wyhl is located in south-west Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg, not far from the Alps. Wyhl and its hinterland is largely agricultural and is also rich in terms of natural beauty. Even so, in the early 70s, Wyhl was chosen as the preferred location for a nuclear power plant. The technology had been under development in West Germany since the 1950s but it was really only in the late 60s and early 70s that the German state moved to make nuclear power the cornerstone of its future energy needs.
There was immediate opposition to the proposal in Wyhl and over a number of years planners and politicians were lobbied to oppose the project – all to no avail. In February 1975, building contractors moved onto land near the town to prepare for construction. A few days later local activists and farmers occupied the site and prevented preparatory work from progressing. The police intervened and removed the protestors but the subsequent publicity – which exposed heavy-handed police tactics – drew attention to the struggle in Wyhl. A short while after nearly 30,000 people – including large numbers of students from nearby Freiberg University – converged on the site and all work was halted on the construction of the power station. Less than a month after, faced with ongoing protests and occupations, the grand plan to make Wyhl nuclear was abandoned. In an ironic twist the site for the power plant was later turned into a nature reserve.
The victory at Wyhl is considered to be one of the first major successes of West Germany’s impressive anti-nuclear movement which held sway mainly in the 1970s and 80s. Other significant confrontations were to follow – such as that at Grohnde and Brokdorff  – but Wyhl is noteworthy for the decisiveness of the victory. How did this happen? A key factor was local involvement and resistance. A second feature was the willingness to commit to direct action – such as the site occupations. A third and vital factor was the movement’s ability to win practical support in large numbers when the West German state opted to use its repressive hand. This wider support and solidarity was vital to what was eventually achieved.
The German green movement was an important component of the broad anti-nuclear mobilisation in that country. They played a role in building that struggle and were, at the same time, fundamentally influenced by it. Local activity, which focused on local issues and which utilised local action, was a key ingredient in growth. Grass roots participation was also highly valued as was consciousness-raising around the issues and concerns of the day. In other words before the greens ever became Die Grünen, the political party, they were a coalition of all sorts of practical activists – citizens action groups, campaigners against nuclear power, anti-militarists and pacifists as well as anti-capitalists. Politically speaking they drew their membership largely from the radical left – anarchist, New Left and Maoist ideas were all part of the mix – but no one ideology wielded a decisive influence.
Two factors were important to the political challenge that the green movement came to represent. The first was the emerging importance of “environmentalism” and “ecologism” as political issues. Seen from the perspective of today, environmentalism and concern about the earth’s resources appear to be a mainstream issues, but back in the early 70s, concern about the impact of human development on the earth’s ecology was decidedly new. Central to this was the green perception that capitalism itself was a key part of problem that the environmental movement faced. Capitalism’s unrelenting demand for growth, its voracious search for new markets and cheaper raw materials were core to its dynamism. Yet these same elements were directly at odds with the earth’s environment and green movement’s contention that the planet had exhaustible, finite resources that needed to be carefully managed and minded. For this reason significant sections of the Green movement held that social and economic transformation away from the dictates of the ‘free market’ would have to take place if the environment was to be saved.
A second factor was that the early green movement was also about a different way of doing things. Its evolution – as indicated by protests such as that at Wyhl – emphasised grassroots involvement and participative democracy. But in practice too there was a commitment to doing things ‘a different way’. This translated into an anti-professional, participatory and decentralised attitude to party organisation. Horizontal organisational forms were favoured over traditional ‘top-down’ arrangements, as were internal organisational practices that promoted and maintained grassroots empowerment and participation.
The overall praxis then – maintaining a radical organisational form that encouraged and facilitated participation as part of the process of building a movement for change – was seen as core to the green perspective.
Key protests such as that at Wyhl had been successful because such actions were locally based and relied heavily on the active participation of grassroots members. However this ‘local’ nature of the early green movement also meant that from early days and in some regional areas, sections of the greens also openly intervened at city and regional level elections. These initiatives were initially tactical and relied heavily on the emerging movement’s ability to exploit the rivalries that existed between the dominant political parties in West German politics – the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. Broadly speaking these electoral initiatives fared well (winning modest, locally valued concessions) with the result that there was increasing openness to using such methods if the opportunities presented themselves. In the early days these electoral tactics were used in conjunction with (or parallel to) tactics involving direct action. This parallel approach – using extra-parliamentary action alongside a visible parliamentary presence – was an old strategy of the Left’s and quite viable.
Inevitably, however, the greens moved to consolidate this base of operations and this culminated in the formation of the German Green Party (Die Grünen or The Greens) in 1980 at Karlsruhe. The central tenets of this new organisation were environmental concern and action, social justice, grass roots democracy and non-violence.
Die Grünen had negligible impact in the Federal elections of 1980 but this was not surprising given that it had only just formed. The situation, however, changed radically just three years later when the new party burst onto the Federal and European political scene capturing 27 seats or 5.7% of the vote. Further significant growth followed, fortuitously accelerated by a series of high profile controversies. The first, involving the deployment of Pershing II missiles on German soil, further underscored the precarious position that West German society found itself in at this time i.e. at the epicentre of any future East-West nuclear war. The other equal worrying issue was radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident (1986) which underlined further the dubious safety record of nuclear power plants as well as the silent danger that nuclear radiation posed. Not surprisingly when Die Grünen marshalled their forces for the 1987 Federal elections they achieved another high vote, this time of 8.3%.
The meteoric rise in support, however, papered over a serious internal crisis. This schism, which revolved around the extent to which The Greens were remaining true to their original principles and aims, was sharpened considerably by the reality of German unification. The ending of the Cold War in the late 1980s and, with that, the uniting of East and West Germany, precipitated a new round of Federal elections. Die Grünen however was unable to agree a unity programme with their counterparts from the former East Germany, Alliance 90, with the result that its vote actually shrunk to 4.8 percent and – crucially – came in under the politically decisive 5% threshold mark – reserved within German parliamentary politics as minimum level of support needed to establish a parliamentary presence.
A decisive and bitter period of internal conflict, often termed the ‘Realos’ versus ‘Fundis’ debate, now broke out within Die Grünen. This was a conflict over the movement’s political soul and future direction and it resolved itself decisively in favour of the ‘Realos’ faction in the early 90s. Consequently, in 1993, The Greens (in a new alliance with Alliance 90) re-emerged as a serious electoral force, capturing 7.3% of the popular vote in the Federal election.
With the issue of internal party wrangling more or less finished with, and the Realos faction in the ascendency, Die Grünen as a political party moved closer to the centre of German politics and went on to emerge as the third largest party in the country in the 1998 elections. In effect they now displaced the right-of-centre Free Democrats from their sitting role as coalition king-maker. Soon after this Die Grünen entered into their first Federal level coalition with their old rivals, the SPD and the ‘red-green’ coalition emerged.
On the one hand it could be said that The Greens had achieved success but the nature of this was tempered by the knowledge that the organisation had abandoned its core principles. This became glaringly clear when Die Grünen backed the decision to allow German participation in the NATO intervention in Kosovo in the early 90s. Not only did Joschka Fischer (Green leader and Foreign Minister in the ‘red-green’ coalition) actively defended participation in the aerial bombings of Serbia, he was supported by one time ’68 hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The controversy provoked a massive crisis inside Die Grünen and nearly a full third of its membership resigned in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s bombing of Serbia. In any case just as significant was the party’s endorsement and participation in the implementation of a raft of neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’ (the Agenda 2010 programme) which sought to revitalise the flagging Germany economy via ‘workplace’ reforms. As one commentator noted, ‘this led to [the] plundering of the public assets, social insurance and pension funds, while repressing wages and granting tax cuts to business worth billions of euros – effectively a redistribution of wealth from poor to rich’. In a sense so much for social justice.
It could be argued The Greens were naive and ultimately unprepared for the process they engaged in, but this is far from being the full story. As is obvious from some of the early, formative debates in the movement there was a good deal of discussion about what the road ahead involved. In part this reflected the influence of New Left ideas inside Green party ranks, but in part it also reflected an acute awareness of the past compromises and capitulations – particularly poignant in terms of Germany’s own tragic history.
To recap the socialist movement in Europe, during the early 20th century, was numerically strong and hugely popular. In many countries this translated into electoral success and many socialist parties had actually entered into government. Yet sell-outs and betrayals were the order of the day – an outcome that was particularly true in the case of Germany where the once powerful Social Democratic Party (the GSPD) had not only voted for war in the prelude to WW1 but had also played a pivotal part in the suppression of the workers uprisings in 1919 – a course of action that did, in time, pave the way for the rise of Nazism.
Another factor was the influence of anarchist ideas and in particular that movement’s critique of the parliamentary process. As a political theory anarchism had warned about (and predicted) a good deal of what had come to pass in the mainstream socialist movement in Europe in the 20th century i.e. dilution and abandonment of political principles as part of full engagement with the parliamentary process. These predictions had been made during various debates with Marxists and other reform oriented socialists in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century period. But, for the most part, these concerns and criticism were swept aside.
Many socialist leaders believed that they understood the project of reforming capitalism and that all that was required was that they be handed the levers of power and the working masses would see the benefit. In addition these same socialist leaders held a superficial (even innocent) appreciation of how the State (as a structure) operated on the political front. Many regarded the ‘state’ benignly: a ‘bad’ thing in the wrong hands, a force for ‘good’ once steered in the correct direction by enlightened vision. How the State was actually structured – its hierarchical core – and how this affected decision-making as well the means for the mobilisation of resources – was largely ignored.
Yet the evidence of the 20th century history had done much to vindicate the anarchist critique. So much so that the critique and the debate itself – centring on whether the parliamentary process was fatal to ideals – was to the fore in Die Grünen in its early days. Thus Frieder Otto Wolf, a former Green European MEP, noted about the organisation:
One key debate was about how far social emancipation could be a matter of party politics as they had been in the 1920s. This debate involved addressing questions of internal party democracy and challenging political scientist Robert Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’. Michels argued that parties are always doomed to degenerate into apparatuses by which the leadership dominates the mass membership. To counter this effect, the Greens devised the principle of ‘grassroots democracy’. The party developed a strong set of institutional rules to prevent the development of a permanent party elite and to ensure that power spread constantly out to the membership. This would renew the leadership with fresh energies and experience. 
To an important extent then the parliamentary process was viewed by Die Grünen as treacherous. What was devised to protect the organisation and its aims was the construction of an organisational bulwark known as basisdemokratie. It was inevitable that the party would taste electoral success and popularity, the point was to prepare for it. Basisdemokratie was essentially a set of ‘institutional rules’ designed to protect the new party and organisation from the corrupting aspects of the parliamentary success. Its key features were:
- Any party member could attend any party meeting at any time. Although this might seem like a basic matter in a democratic party, in reality the majority of political parties don’t allow this; for example an ordinary member is not allowed attend a meeting of, say, the parliamentary party.
- Consensus would be sought in important debates and was to be preferred over outright majority rule. However majority vote decisions were acceptable after an appropriate amount of debate.
- Important items of policy were subject to a collective decision making process – involving the grassroots. This was considered to be particularly important and was to act as brake on the scenario whereby key party policy decision could come to be seen as decision that should be the preserve of the elected parliamentarians.
- There would be strict limitations on the holding of party officer-ships while also holding a parliamentary seat.
- Green deputies were to be mandated and bound by the party conference and the agreed party programme if they took up elected ‘member of parliament’ status. Note that this was an effort to introduce a modicum of ‘direct-democracy’ practice over representational parliamentary democracy.
- Members elected to state and Federal assemblies would step down halfway through their terms of office – to be replaced by the next Green on the electoral list.
- Party roles and officer positions were rotated to as to avoid the development of career politicians.
- The party was committed to gender balance in officership roles.
- Finally The Greens were committed to basisanbingdung or “tied up with the grassroots”. This concept stressed the ‘importance of ensuring that members in senior offices within the federal party maintained a direct link with those active at local and regional levels’. This was to be achieved by attending meetings or activities organised by local branches.
Underpinning the idea of basisdemokratie was a specific concern about ‘professionalisation’. This was not just the issue of career politicians and the deformities that could arise from the influence of a particular ‘shining light’ or ‘leader’. It was also about confronting the process of change that occurred within a party through prolonged exposure to the electioneering process and the media limelight. In traditional parties, the Federal MPs often became ‘the face’ of those parties. Consequently they accrued power, linked to their media profile that was outside the grassroots mandate. It was a development that distorted the internal culture of the party unless specifically countered; basisdemokratie was an attempt to provide that.
Early electoral success meant Die Grünen was flooded with offers to participate in coalition arrangements. These had to be acted upon. In favour of forming coalitions was the age old desire to achieve a certain number of real reforms. If well chosen, these could then be further used to underline the party’s future potential. The downside was that Die Grünen might have to support unsavoury measures that clearly weren’t in the party’s manifesto. Such measures were capable of damaging the party’s prized image of being ‘new’ and ‘different. They also risked antagonising the party’s activist base – which was a corner stone of Die Grünen’s organisational achievements.
It proved impossible to resist the lure of office. In Hesse in 1984, Die Grünen formally agreed to enter into a full coalition arrangement when they agreed to support a minority SPD government. Interestingly this arrangement was opposed by the Federal Die Grünen organisation but local autonomy was highly prized and, in this case, triumphed. As a result, and with time, other local Green organisations in Berlin (1989) and Lower Saxony (1990) also entered into State coalition arrangements. Moreover, in an early sign of the seismic shift underway in the party, in Brandenburg and Bremen, the Greens entered into three-way coalitions with the SPDs and their ideological adversaries the right-wing Free Democrats (FDP). In the state of Hesse the coalition lasted until the Greens pulled out following the decision by Hesse state parliament to grant a new licence for a nuclear power station!  This case highlighted the challenging situation that Die Grünen was now finding itself in on the policy front.
What was happening internally? As the opportunities for coalition proliferated, the practices of basisdemokratie moved more centre stage – as might be expected. However, the manner in which happened was not fully anticipated. The nub of the matter was that at some level basisdemokratie actually worked. It stipulated certain ways of acting and this was given legal effect by Die Grünen’s rule book. In effect a brake was put on the headlong rush to reconfigure Die Grünen into a traditional ‘professional’ party.
In particular basisdemokratie was effective in the decision-making arena. Die Grünen’s rule book instructed its politicians, if involved, to refer back to the party’s membership before signing off on important decisions. However this style of ‘horizontal’ consultation jarred with the ‘top-down’ operation of the State. If Die Grünen had been the sole political party in an administrative structure, it might have had some means to insist on an accommodation (from the State) but instead, in those early days, it was often working in coalition partnerships. These partners were also antagonistic to the practices ordained by basisdemokratie. Thus Die Grünen discovered quickly that its consensus decision-making stipulations were the source of considerable friction.
‘Top-down’ decision-making, of course, has a logic all of its own. State power rests on a number of pillars, but one of those is the State’s ‘right’ to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. Most of officialdom accepts and supports top-down decision making. This is a product of the elite mindset, but there is also an element of ‘custom and practice’: this is how things are done and have always been done. To up-scuttle the ‘top-down’ way of doing things is, in and of itself, not easy and this is precisely what the Die Grünen discovered. The Greens found themselves battling a conservative civil structure, sceptical coalition partners and, in time, a section inside its own ranks that did itself support basisdemokratie – because it was causing too much friction with the various coalition partners.
This internal faction, elements of which became the Realos wing of the Die Grünen, had existed from the party’s foundation. Recall that Die Grünen was a heterogeneous organisation in terms of its constituent identities. This was widely viewed as a positive aspect, as Petra Kelly explained:
The variety of currents enrich our party, even in the absence of a common consensus in the analysis of society. I don’t want to exclude communists and conservatives and I don’t have to. One current learns from the other. There is not mutual destruction, but a convergence of views. That what is new about our movement.
However Die Grünen was not operating in a political vacuum. It faced, as does any radical movement, strong political headwinds; these were forces that wanted to steer policy and The Greens away from change and towards an accommodation with the status quo. It is worth noting that Die Grünen’s anti-capitalist tendencies were seriously resented by privileged interest in Germany, not to say opposed by Germany’s formidable industrial sector.
As happened then with the socialist movements of the past, Die Grünen found that it contained within itself the seeds of its demise. A pragmatic wing that was content to compromise on long-term aspirations if it meant leveraging any immediate gains came to the fore. In time this wing grew stronger and larger. Election successes accelerated its rise. The balance of forces within the party shifted and as they did the electoral road took on an even more important role. A middle ground in the party – swelled in numbers by electoral successes – moved towards seeing further success in the electoral arena as the sure way to move forward in terms of the party’s prime objectives. It was still worthwhile to have an occasional large protest or mobilisation, but within the movement itself the real fight, as they saw it, had now moved decisively from the street arena to winning elections and, eventually, a majority in the parliament.
Naturally the newer members of Die Grünen were also less likely to see the value in basisdemokratie – and many indeed considered it to be outdated. Additionally a further problem appeared. Basisdemokratie supporters – drawn heavily from the grassroots base – became disenchanted as they were forced to work with traditional professionalised parties that were sceptical of (or even antagonistic to) their ‘alternative’ ways. Many didn’t even stay to fight the swing to pragmatism seeing the battle, from early on, as unwinnable.
The conflict inside The Greens intensified. However continued electoral success now became a defining factor in deciding the outcome. As De Grünen continued to poll well it became easier for the ‘Realos’ to argue that those who supported basisdemokratie were ‘out of touch’ and ‘hung up on principles’ and ‘old ways’. Realos supporters could argue that even though the party was operating in mixed coalitions and adopting ‘professional’ ways, it was still winning public support. If the electorate was with Die Grünen and trusted its promise, what was the need of basisdemokratie and its cumbersome rules?
The logic of the ‘Realos’ faction was further buttressed by a conservative media and political establishment which desperately wanted Die Grünen to ‘behave normally’ and play the game. In their logic Die Grünen needed to be more like the other parties; this was the perquisite for success but also the price to be paid.
The organisational strictures at the core of basisdemokratie became the target. Consensus decision took too long and was unwieldy. For example too much consultation was cited as key reason why the Green were unable to strike an arrangement with Alliance 90 ahead of the first ‘unified’ German elections in 1990 – the poor performance at this juncture becoming as it did a major bone of contention between the Fundis and Realos wings.
Also under threat was the rotation of officer-ship positions. It was argued that it took a party member a long time to gain experience of how a governmental role functioned. But due to the party rules, just as she did, she had to be moved on anyway – in order to minimise the ill-effects of ‘professionalism’. So this rotation concept was also deemed to be quite problematic; best to get rid of that too. And so on. The ‘separation of role from mandate principle’ insisted that Die Grünen parliamentarians did not necessarily sit on party councils at local, Lund/State or Federal level. But this was discredited as the parliamentary arm of the party grew numerically and politically more powerful. The party council – containing ordinary members – was deemed to be ‘removed’ from the reality of the parliamentary arm. Now instead of the dog wagging its tail, the opposite made sense. The parliamentarians moreover were at the cutting edge of where decisions and policy was being implemented: they needed to be able to direct Die Grünen’s resources accordingly. And so – in a way that we’ve come to know only too well – a complete upturning of common sense came to make more sense.
At the Neumunster Conference (1991) Die Grünen took the controversial decisions that gutted basisdemokratie. From that point on, the party moved quickly from its activist origins towards the professionalised party model. Symbolic elements of ‘rotation’ and ‘participation’ were retained and occasionally paraded to the public to insist that Die Grünen were still ‘new and different’, but these were largely for show. Basisdemokratie and, more importantly, the thinking that lay behind its development and inclusion, was abandoned so that in time a leadership could come to the fore which was able to sell to the membership the twists, turns and compromises of high office.
If any one person was to typify the scale of the transformation that Die Grünen had now undergone it had to the Green leader of that era, Joschka Fischer. A one-time squatter activist in the 1970s, Fischer was a key proponent of the ‘red-green’ coalition which saw Die Grünen abandon all its main principles for the trappings of power. Later on Fischer would take up a number of lucrative private sector roles as a lobbyist and handler for corporate business interests. His own personal wealth benefitted accordingly.
The fate of the German Greens had a significant impact outside Germany. Die Grünen, to an important extent, was seen as the flagship party of the broad electoral Green movement that emerged in the 80s and 90s in Europe. Organisationally and intellectually it led the way, with the result that the fight for its political soul was intense. But, once the battle inside Die Grünen was lost, it appeared to catalyse a generalised wave of compromise across a range of other similar political parties internationally. In other words, key principles were compromised upon, aims were moderated and organisational structures were modified in favour of the traditional professional party model.
However, the fact that various Green parties succumbed to reformism and moderation in a variety of conditions can also be interpreted in another way. The multi-country experience underlines the fact that the experience of Die Grünen was not a ‘German’ event or something intrinsic to the character of German politics. Rather, instead, the multi-country experience upholds the anarchist analysis that a fundamental process of political corruption is at work when radical organisations – seeking egalitarian objectives – enter into the parliamentary process. The concerted manner in which that process happened to the Green parties at this time in a multitude of scenarios is surely proof that the anarchists are onto something.
The transformation of Die Grünen from radical movement into conventional political party was repeated in a number of other countries in Europe in the same time period. This was no accident. Anarchists then are right to argue, as they have in the past, that electoralist strategies are corrupting and destructive to movement that wish to overthrow capitalism. The rise and fall of Die Grünen is one of the best, recent examples of the anarchist argument that radical democratic movements are undermined and demobilised when they involve themselves in electoral (or parliamentary) strategies.
 Jon Burchell, The Evolution of Green Politics, Earthscan, 2002, p53.
 Daniel Bensaïd et al, New Parties of the Left, Resistance Books, 2011, p98. See also Jachnow in What Became Of The German Greens? New Left Review 81, p101 http://newleftreview.org/II/81/joachim-jachnow-what-s-become-of-the-german-greens
 An important restatement of this central argument is in Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything. See http://vimeo.com/102170079 for the book’s video trailer and http://thischangeseverything.org/
 Technically on the left, the SDP is actually centre party with the left pretensions. The CDP is centre-right and the other main party in West Germany (and laterally Germany) is the FDP which is firmly on the right and pro-neo-liberalism.
 It is useful to define what ‘direct action’ means. It is often confused with unproductive forms of action like taking part in a march for example. Essentially though it is when people take action to further their goals, without the interference of a third party. So if, rather than appealing to State arbitration, a group of workers go on strike and force an employer to grant their demands: that is direct action by the workers. If, rather than appealing to the State to build new homes, a group takes over some vacant properties and uses these as their homes that is direct action. If, rather than appealing to the government not to build a nuclear power plant, the proposed site is occupied and work is prevented from proceeding, then that is direct action.
 The traditional socialist left conceived of itself as having two prongs to attack with – its parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings. In England the Labour Party worked with its trade-union support. They both had the same overall aim of bring the means of production under workers control. But early on it was resolved that the parliamentary wing was the dominant approach. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra-parliamentary_opposition
 Jacknow, op. cit., p101, “…At a stormy conference in 1980, a thousand delegates from local campaigns, as well as several hundred from left, feminist and counter-cultural groups agreed to constitute what Petra Kelly described as an ‘anti-party party’.” An attempt to bar from membership hard-left and Maoist groups was defeated.
 Gender equality was also a tenet, putting the German Greens at the forefront of this type of initiative. There was to be 50:50 men to women in party positions and men’s and women’s names would alternate on electoral lists. Jachnow, ibid, p102
 CDU/CSU – 244; SDP – 193; FDP – 34; GP – 27 seats; total seats 498.
 A legacy in German from the disastrous Weimar period when large numbers of parties obtained small percentages of the total vote leading to the fragmentation of the parliamentary body. The Weimar experience was decried as contributing to instability. Post-WW2 Germany introduced a minimum threshold level of support as a way around this. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Election_threshold
 CDU/CSU – 294; SDP – 252; FDP – 47; GP – 49 seats; total seats 672.
 The FDP wavered in the amount of support they could muster but this placed them in a strong position when neither of the two large parties won an overall majority.
 Jachnow, op. cit., p96
 See http://www.wsm.ie/c/anarchism-parliament-democracy and references therein.
 ibid. and references therein,
 See Wolf’s article http://www.redpepper.org.uk/whatever-happened-to-the-german/
 See Burchell, op. cit., p105-6
 Ibid, p105
The process of course was well known. The ego is massaged in the limelight. With time the party’s public representatives end up leading quite different lifestyles to the ordinary grassroots members. Naturally this leads to divergent perspectives. This situation is exacerbated further when income source intervenes. If a parliamentary deputy’s income derives mainly from her role as a public representative then this inevitably influences her relationship to that role. Objectivity and impartiality can be blurred. See also Anarchist Lens: Clare Daly Affair.
 In both cases these coalitions were with the SPD
 The Greens went into state government in Hesse in coalition with the SPD. Fischer became the first Green state-level minister for the Environment. It was a harbinger of what was to come. Hesse SPD were regarded as being ‘in bed with’ the region’s nuclear power and pharmaceutical corporations. Nonetheless Hesse Greens continued anyway and according to Jachnow broke virtually ‘every pledge they had ever made’.
 Two clearly divergent decision-making processes were at work here. The ‘top-down’ method of decision-making involves just a few people and happens quickly. The horizontal method involves greater consultation and naturally takes longer. Both methods can give the same output but one trades speed for democratic involvement.
W Hulsberge, The German Greens, London 1988 p124
 Burchell, op. cit., p21-24 and J. Jachnow, opp. cit., p104
 Burchell, op. cit., p p19-20 for a discussion on the different constituent groups within a number of European green parties. Poguntke (p 19) identified two clear allegiances that he termed moderates and fundamentalists. Whereas the Moderates believe in the eventual success of piecemeal reform, the Fundamentalists fear the pacifying and demobilising effects of this strategy.
 Jachnow, ibid, p 99
 Jacknow, ibid, p114 for a discussion on the eco-capitalist forced in Die Grünen
Chomsky is famous for saying that a lot of people don’t know how the world really works and, more to the point, they don’t even know that they don’t know!
There’s much truth to this claim, but with time other factors can come into play and these may alter the disturbing equation that he has set out.
This year, in Ireland, we saw the beginnings of a serious fight-back against austerity. It seemed, at one level, to ‘appear’ from nowhere, but did it really?
Austerity, in case you are in any doubt, has been the occasion for a massive transfer in wealth from the bottom half of society to the top echelons. Money aside, the so-called “1%” has also concentrated an even greater amount of power in its own hands – exemplified by a raft of discarded workplace agreements and unilaterally imposed pay cuts. Austerity, make no mistake, has been a good to the (already) wealthy!
But it is in the nature of highway robbery that, inevitably, it goes too far… And this year in Ireland a point was reached when a significant number of people said ‘Enough’. But the saying of ‘Enough’ didn’t just happen either.
Over the past year and more there have been people out there during long periods of endless protesting and agitating who did the work that made the saying of ‘enough’ possible. Here in Cork I know some of these people from my involvement in the Anti-Household Tax protest. Togher/ Ballyphenane are one notable group, for example, that were to the fore. So also were the activists in Cobh, in lower Cork harbour. In these areas, small groups of anti-austerity activists survived the defeat that was the Anti-Household Tax campaign and kept going. They were stalwart in their opposition to austerity and it has paid off for us all – so far.
I could name some names and in times those names should be recorded for the sake of honesty and to acknowledge the vital role these activists played in this fight-back; but not just now.
For the moment I just want to point the finger at the people pictured in the photo above. When Irish Water set about installing their meters in the estates on the edge of Cork city, it was the Togher and Ballyphane Anti-Water Tax group that stood their ground. They talked to people in the estates like Elmvale (in the south Cork city area) and the result was the action you see pictured here. Non-violent. Determined. Highly effective!
In the accompanying photo we see something captured that simply wasn’t visible for quite some time here in Ireland: it is austerity being held at bay.
The actions at Elmvale, in Lehenaghmore, in Rushbrook (to name just a few estates) produced a number of small but very highly significant victories that others around the country took hope and confidence from. The real heroes of Ireland 2014 are the people who stood up in these estates and said NO.
The Ballyphehane/ Togher activists showed that building the resistance takes effort, time and a lot of work. But they also showed that it is possible to win against austerity. Organise locally, be determined and spread the word.
Bessborough (Cork) was the largest of the mother-and-baby homes that operated in Ireland – the others being at Tuam and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea.
Women who gave birth at the notorious Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork were not allowed pain relief during labour or stitches after birth, and when they developed abscesses from breast-feeding they were denied penicillin.
One nun who ran the labour ward in 1951 also forbid any “moaning or screaming” during childbirth.
The infant mortality rate at Bessborough in the 1940s was close to 55pc with 100 babies out of 180 dying in the space of just 12 months.
Helen Murphy was also born at Bessborough. “We founded the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group as an outlet for all those whose lives were affected by this place,” she said. “The purpose of it is to remember the people who were there and especially the babies who died.”
One campaigner, John Barrett (61), who was born in Bessborough, said he feared that anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 babies could be buried at the Blackrock facility, most in unmarked graves.
Ms Goulding’s book is heartbreaking, revealing how many of the girls cried themselves to sleep every night. Only those from moneyed families who could afford to pay £100 were allowed to leave after 10 days, but many had nowhere to got. June Goulding, The Light in the Window.
The girls who could not make donations to the Sacred Heart order would have to spend three years after their babies were born cleaning and working on the lands around the home to “make amends” for their pregnancy and their children were usually taken from them and given up for adoption or sent to orphanages.
“Where are they, who are they and why? We gave life and those innocent lives were taken and we don’t know where they are.” [quote from Marion Kelly].
Pensioners mobilise in Cork city against cuts in Medical Cards
The severed head of Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. Grand Parade, Cork City
Not My Debt – Occupation of Anglo-Irish Bank offices in Cork city
Gardaí protect the Dáil in Dublin
IMF Orders – Occupy Protest March in Cork City
Vita Cortex – Let Them Go Home
Cill Eoin ‘Ghost Estate’ in Kenmare, Co. Kerry
ICTU “Lift The Burden” March in Cork City
Anti-Household Tax March in Cork
Anti-Water Meter Protest in Elmvale Estate, Cork
‘We should march on City Hall,’ announced my mother. ‘That’s what I’ve been saying. Let’s make a stand.’ She raised her voice even higher. ‘Could City Hall hold out against us? Against all of us, I mean, the interred? Together, united, marching down Patrick Street? I don’t think so. All it takes…’
We Should Be Beyond This, my short story about our plight, has just been published in the current issue of Southwords (No 25, December), the online journal of the Munster Literature Centre.
Please go here to read the story.
To view and read Southwords 25 go here.
We Should Be Beyond This was a commended runner-up in the 2013 Seán Ó Faoláin Prize judged by Joyce Russel. My thanks to the MLC for all their ongoing support for short story writers and the short story form.