Wednesday, 30 November 2011

November 30th Public Sector strike: the St Andrew's Day mass strike in Scotland

Photo by Aoife McKenna

“An old communist conceives an embryo of longing. One day his modern prince will come.” So wrote the leftist doctor David Widgery in a reflection on the place of revolutionaries shortly after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 election. Does the UK public sector general strike, nearly thirty-three years on, signify the coming of ‘the proletarian kiss’?  Too soon to tell, by more than half. What can be said is that this is the first mass strike since the offensive mounted by Thatcher started winning for her side: the first national collective action of a working class reconstituted by the neo-liberal decades: the first since Widgery called for ‘a politics that can move with astonishing ease from the details of a strike to the problems of childrearing…which is seeking not Euro-Reforms but a new way of life, love and government.’
What has happened and what does it mean?

The Events

    The day began, of course, with pickets. At my own picket line, one of eight at Edinburgh university, the strike was not completely solid.  At least ten cars and thirty pedestrians entered, without accounting for the other entrances. However, this was a several-fold decrease in traffic from the last time we held a strike. This is an important sign of progress because part of the meaning of this strike, particularly in higher education, is re-constituting a tradition of collective action embodied in not crossing picket lines. An increased stay-away rate is a good indicator of this understanding. The postman refused to cross our picket. The main library picket line, when I visited it, was a quite superb mixture of staff and students, segueing into a feminist-inspired ‘teach-out’ at the end. Law lectures and several workshops and seminars in the Politics department were cancelled, although definitive information is not yet available. Chambers Street was, in the words of one UCU official, ‘one giant picket line’ and the National Museum of Scotland was closed. A ‘battle bus’ arranged by Occupy Edinburgh and the Coalition of Resistance toured the picket lines, to great acclaim. When the derelict Forest CafĂ© (a former anarchist collective) was occupied, the cops turned up in a taxi. Had they run out of vans?

    Across Scotland the strike can only be judged a resounding success. Almost every school was shut (although certain SNP councils make St Andrew’s day a holiday anyway). The Glasgow underground was closed. Councils almost everywhere stopped. Ferry services were stopped in the Western isles and all classes at Strathclyde university cancelled. According to the Guardian, 300,000 workers participated in the strike in Scotland. So nearly one-in-ten: if you add in their families then we almost certainly can speak of one tenth of the population involved in some way. The multiplier effect of having schools on strike must have increased the effective impact as workers stayed home: a salutary reminder to those who regard teachers, amongst other public service workers, as a bloated waste of money. What would you actually do without them? When was the last time so many people took in Scotland took the same act⎯a political act⎯at the same time?

    The rallies confirm the breadth and scope of strike action. 30,000, or thereabouts participated in Glasgow, 10,00 in Dundee, 20,000 in Edinburgh. The crowd in Edinburgh was shockingly beautiful in its size and composition. The Unison section alone filled the assigned meeting place in front of the parliament. The march filled the Royal Mile for the best part of an hour: for the most part cheered on by onlookers.
Photo by Aoife McKenna
    Some points about the composition of the strike, visible on the rally, are worth noting. It seemed mostly to be people who had never struck before, as confirmed at least by some anecdotal sampling. It was mainly female. It had young children⎯the schools of course being shut by the strike itself, but what an excellent ‘early years intervention’ this must have made. The strike and rally were, in short, representative of the working class. That class as it is, and not as it exists in the fantasies either of the Clarksonoid right or parts of the left (who will especially have to buck up some gender-related ideas if they intend to retain contact with the 21st century proletariat).

     This was more than a march. Just as the Occupy movement represents an act of reconstituting space under the control of a collective subject, so this mass strike represents a (so far temporary) taking of control over the central relationship that structures most of our lives- and in this sense is even more radical than the retaking of privatized space.  It was the physical expression of a reversal of the normal order of things. You usually have to work and you usually take what’s coming to you, because you’re on your own. In Edinburgh and everywhere else in the strike, that was no longer true. We were together, and we were powerful. That, I think, is why when I looked around half-way down the walk I noticed that everyone was smiling.

Politics before and after

        There is little need to re-hash the reasons and the context for the strike: Tory arguments that either public sector workers are going to be fine once their pensions are cut, or that they have it coming to them, are transparently piffle. We encountered a few such outbursts on the picket today (including an indignant ‘I have school fees to pay!’) but not many. The day was very well chosen indeed: Osborne’s pledge of another decade of sado-monetarism and European commissioner Olli Rehn’s insistence that the Euro would not survive another bout of inaction further proof of its pertinence. The ruling class are in disarray. Their prescription that everyone must pay for the crisis except for its authors is failing even in its own terms.

    What about Scotland? One of Alex Salmond’s great advantages has been the low quality of his opposition. Faced with opponents of the calibre of Iain Gray, few could fail to shine. The SNP have been able to gain electoral support through nods to a broadly social-democratic consciousness, expressed in the retention or introduction of moderately humane policies such as those on tuition fees or prescription charges. Serious class struggle, however, is likely to confuse, disperse and discombobulate. The pensions policy belongs to the Tories but the  sectors on strike are under devolved control. Witness Salmond’s performance today. First, and this should be eternally recalled, he crossed a picket line. Since there was a PCS picket line outside of his official residence he would have had to cross in order to get a pint of milk. While Miliband flustered in London, Scottish Labour (and the Greens) at least respected the pickets at Holyrood. The SNP, with one exception, walked straight in to hold a debate they themselves had tabled. The topic of the debate was public sector pensions, which, the SNP tweeted, were subject of a ‘cash grab’ by Westminster. It’s terrible that you’re having your cash grabbed but you’re not allowed to stop the grabbers.

    Seven months into his super-majority administration, Salmond seems a silly hypocrite and a scab. This is not because of Labour, still less the ConDem fractions in Scotland. It is because of class-based resistance to the economic crisis that now defines politics everywhere. That resistance has morphed, re-grouped, strengthened and re-appeared in new places and new forms (which sublate rather than supplant the old) on almost monthly basis throughout 2011. Its most recent phase has been the Occupy movement. Might this strike mark a new metamorphosis? Unions, after all, have leaders and they tend not to be keen on things changing too much. But, Edinburgh is beginning to experience something that feels like victories for the good guys. Not only was the (SNP led) council pressurized into supporting the Occupy camp, the council’s plans to privatise services were dropped in part because of a Unison-led campaign reflecting the sway of the city’s left in that union. Being with 19,999 other strikers on the streets makes one feel like there could be more to come.

    Is there a chance for more than votes, for that different way of life, love and governance with which I started? The left of the left is not in much of a state to answer that question. However, the strike offers some way to begin. The two slogans that have defined 2011, “the people demand” and “we are the 99%”, interpellate a popular subject. Yet there has always been a tension and ambiguity present within them. Who really are the 99%? Who does not belong to the people? The strike may present some resolution, or centre of gravity for that popular subject: amongst those simultaneously attacked and rendered powerful by capitalism.

    The Italian intellectual Lucio Magri, editor of Il Manifesto, died the day before the UK strike. In his last book , he resorted to Brecht’s parable ‘the Tailor of Ulm’ to capture the experience of the twentieth century. The tailor thought he could fly. He built ‘things that looked like wings’ and jumped from a church roof. Of course he died. The bishop, who had mocked the tailor, said to the people: ‘It was a wicked foolish lie. Mankind will never fly.’

Maybe. Maybe.

Photo by Aoife McKenna

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Being White means never having to say you're sorry: on the Christian fundamentalist terror attack in Norway

       One of the chief characteristics of the capitalist ideological apparatus is, as Malcolm X said, to 'make the victim look like the criminal and the criminal look like the victim.' The organisers of the superb 'Slutwalks' are surely aware of this: as are the family of Alfie Meadows or the activists attacked on the Mavi Marmara. The seemingly puzzling response of most Anglophone media to the terrorist atrocities in Norway - atrocities that they refuse to identify as such, preferring to refer to 'violence' carried out by a 'lone extremist' - are explicable once we understand this. Richard has written an excellent post on the topic, to which I can only add these thoughts.

  One could be forgiven for thinking that the near one-hundred victims had, in the opinion of the broadcasters and once the necessary effusions were over, almost brought it on themselves by living in and defending a multi-cultural society, by being immigrants themselves or by some strange osmosis of 'jihadi mentality' into a previously pristine blond head. This Guardian opinion piece suggests that Breivik's violent politics 'may have been a response to the arrival of al-Qaida-inspired terrorism', while informing us that he had 'adopted the language of Muslim jihadists'. The only evidence offered in support of this claim is his use of the word 'crusade': I don't need to tell you what's wrong with the inference there. The BBC news anchor interviewing one of the survivors first summoned the bad taste to ask 'how many guns did he have? Did he stop to re-load?' Then followed up with a question to a previous Norwegian Prime Minister: 'Do you think not enough attention was paid to those who were unhappy with regard to immigration?' Surely, this reduces the normal pandering to racism to a horrific absurdity: yes, he's massacred one hundred children and set off a bomb in the middle of the capital but we have to acknowledge the legitimate concerns.

  It is as yet unknown whether Breivik acted alone. What is known is that mainstream commentators and news are unable - they cannot conceive- of drawing the conclusions they would had their original assumptions of Islamist responsibility proven true. Breivik was formerly a member of the 'Progressive Party', Norway's equivalent of the BNP: an admirer of the EDL and the European post-liberal Fascism on which I have written before, and a frequent contributor to the online discussions permeated with violent Islamophobia and threats against the left. His every word reeks of the wounded, lying pomposity of a comment on the BBC 'Have your say' website. The building blocks of his ideology are repeated daily by Fox News, Melanie Philips and every bore who winges on about how 'they're not integrating.' Were this an Islamist, we would soon have been reminded of how Al-Qa"ida is a network, a franchise, an ideology that inspires terror but must still be rooted out: most certainly not a lone crazy.

But Breivik must be a loner, or something else would come into question. We do not have here a clash of extremisms, of Jihadists (or 'Cultural Marxists') against right-wingers exploiting fears about immigration. The texture of Breivik's ideas, right down to the admiration of Hayek and the claim that 'the inability to create a competitive environment, the over-regulation of the economy, the bureaucratisation, it is going to lead to economic collapse' comes from the ruling class. The Norwegian leftist Aslak Sira Myhre  gets to the bottom of it:
' For at least 10 years we have been told that terror comes from the east. That an Arab is suspicious, that all Muslims are tainted. We regularly see people of colour being examined in private rooms in airport security; we have endless debates on the limits of "our" tolerance. As the Islamic world has become the Other, we have begun to think of that what differentiates "us" from "them" is the ability to slaughter civilians in cold blood.
This is what liberals misunderstand when they see in every niqab a threat to 'tolerance' and refuse to see the EDL and its allies as fascists because they like Israel and Sol Campbell. For them, there really are different 'races', between whom the best relations one can hope for are marjoritarian tolerance. But racism does not produce oppression: it is a product of it. Breivik's murderous Islamophobia is the noxious exhaust of a decade or more of Western wars expansion in Islamic lands, just as much as the ideology of biological racism reflected Europe's imperial heyday.

    There is one final, underplayed or ignored, aspect to the terrorist atrocity that places it firmly on the fascist spectrum. It was an attack on the left and the workers' movement. The murdered youth belonged to the Labour party youth wing and the bomb was directed at the PM's headquarters. Breivik's testament is of course full of denunciations of 'cultural Marxism' and 'Soviet style regulation of the economy in the name of gender equality' - perhaps to be expected from a man who seems almost a cut-out of the failed and resentful petit bourgeois. Where are the Breiviks in Britain, and what service are they likely to provide in the coming years of struggle over austerity? We have a fair idea - you can enter the service of an overt anti-terrorist operation in London on September the 3rd.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Slutwalk - my best pal Rose C Munro's blog

Slutwalk is happening in Edinburgh tomorrow. If you think people have the right not to be sexually assaulted and that the victims are not to blame come to it. It starts at 1:30 in the middle of the Royal Mile.

My best mate and comrade Rose C Munro will be speaking at the event as a rape survivor. She says why on her blog SmorgasNog.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Lies taken for wonders: on gay girls, straight guys, Arab revolutions

Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind.
                         Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
Amina often flirted with Brooks, neither of the men realizing the other was pretending to be a lesbian.  
                                         Washington Post Blog 13th of June 2011

I have never met Tom MacMaster, the Edinburgh-based fantasist behind 'Gay Girl from Damascus' although I assume we must have passed one another in the library or a cafe: unless, of course, 'MacMaster' is yet another alter-ego. He is, he says, sorry. He certainly should be. He took in some people, me included, but much more seriously has surely emboldened the Syrian regime in its efforts to portray the current uprising as a fake media war against the country and endangering real online gay activists in Syria who don't need him or anyone else to make things up on their behalf. This is before we get to the enormous assumption of entitlement behind this identity theft. Given the subject position from which I speak  and my own execrably scanty knowledge of post-colonial, gender and queer theory I don't think I can say much about that: but I eagerly await the thoughts of comrades and friends who,unlike me, know what they're talking about.

  There's still a lot to be said about this incident, the extraordinary richness of which can be summarised by the image of two middle-aged straight men flirting with each other in the guise of lesbians while neither knows the other is pretending to be a lesbian. This seems an almost-haiku like condensation of the ideological construction of the self. What I find especially interesting about the story lies in what it says about Western liberal response to the Arab revolutions and the analogy - certainly tenuous but I hope not offensive - between 'Amina' the online sock-puppet and that response.

 MacMaster's 'Amina' is an avatar of what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the ' cynical wisdom of western liberals, according to which, in Arab countries, genuine democratic sense is limited to narrow liberal elites while the vast majority can only be mobilised through religious fundamentalism or nationalism.' Far from overturning 'orientalist assumptions' as he seems to have believed he was doing, MacMaster's creation of Amina confirms them. Amina is a woman: this innoculates against the assumed misogyny of the Arab male, potentially unleashed if the dictatorships fall. Amina's support for the revolutions therefore functions to legitimate them against this danger, and in the process legitimating the original assumption. Arabs and Muslims are assumed to be homophobic: let's make Amina gay (without regard to the actual experiences or voices of gay people in the cultures in question) to perform the same function. The avatar Amina congratulates its own creator by legitimating the revolutions through an unimpeachable interlocutor. That there already exist campaigning (and anti-imperialist) LGBT organisations in the Middle East is irrelevant to the echo chamber.

MacMaster is not alone in this maneouvre, I think. The current Euro-American attempt to appropriate the Arab revolutions for a narrative of liberal progress towards market democracies reveals more than a dash of this sock-puppetry. When Barrack Obama speaks of how 'we must teach our children to be like Egypt's youth' is there not a hint of Amina? When the World Bank's Robert Zoellick tells a conference of other bankers and bigwigs that Mohammed Bouaziz set fire to himself for the sake of more free-market policies, is there not a flash of Tom MacMaster and Bill Graber flirting with each other in the mirror image of each other's delusion?

One establishes a mirror vision of the ideological image of oneself and then sets it up to be emulated. Here is what Egypt's youth - it's ragged, confused slum youth and the workers of Suez - had to do in the revolution  when they faced the riot police.

I think we do need our children to be like this: but I don't think Obama really does.

This brings us back to Amina. She stands in well for that group of online, Anglophone activists most accessible to and therefore favoured by the Western media - to the extent that her non-existence only became a problem when her inventor went on holiday. The real activists of this kind should not be disparaged: they are brave and important.But the desire of the Western liberal gaze to invest them with ownership of the revolutions should not be accepted. It is the feared Arab masses to whom these revolutions belong and who will determine their future. 

This film, for which I find it difficult to muster superlatives, demonstrates the emergence of such a collective subject. 

It also shows, I am perfectly sure, the largest assembly of LGBT people that Yemen has ever seen - simply because it is a cross-section of the population. Some of those will be wearing full niqabs; others beards; some may be undergoing the turmoil of a suppressed identity, others not. The women are separated from the men. But when they've come out onto the streets in this way, in these numbers and in the face of all the violence directed against demonstrations in Yemen for the past four months, is it so difficult to believe that they might march out, proud  and together one day?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Why Supporters of the Arab revolutions should oppose Western military intervention in Libya

The US led NATO  air attack on Libya, widely trailed for the past few weeks, raises an urgent demand for political clarity on the part of supporters of the Arab revolutions. Things are going to get much more complicated in the Middle East now as regimes which the US and its allies would be happy to see toppled, such as Syria, face off against potential revolutions. Difficult arguments are going to happen, and it is as well that we clarify them now.

 Anyone seeking a understanding of the Western liberal fetish for armed intervention - and have you noticed how the TV is now filled with 'strategic expert' types visibly glistening at the thought of a cruise missile rather than heroic young revolutionaries ? - should of course turn to Richard Seymour's book The Liberal Defence of Murder. While you find it on your bookshelf, consider the arguments of Gilbert Achcar, the Lebanese leftist. Gilbert argues, in a vein with which many will agree, that the No-fly zone, and therefore the bombing required to enforce it, should be supported because:

if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi's forces was hours or at most days away. You can't in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can't in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.

Now, aside from the implicit acceptance of the liberal imperialist vision of Western military power as global police , this argument is simply that something must be done and that NATO are the only people who can do it - 'there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.'

Is this right? Why believe that Western military intervention would, as an unintended consequence of the duplicitous imperialist intentions that such an experienced observer of the scene as Achcar must recognise, prevent Gaddafi's overcoming and killing the opposition? Is there an example of where a no-fly zone has done this and then led to the desired outcome of the fall of the regime?

No-fly zones were enforced on northern and southern in 1992, ostensibly to prevent Saddam's further repression of the Shi"a rebellion in the South and the Kurds in the north. The Kurds did succeed in fighting off Saddam's forces only then to fall into vicious civil war amongst various externally backed factions themselves. Incidentally, the Kurdish autonomous region has seen some of the most violent suppression of the recent mass demonstrations in Iraq that form a little known part of the current popular upsurge. In the South, where the rebellion had been defeated before the no-fly zone was announced, Saddam carried out some of his worst acts of repression - summary executions of civilians picked at random, the destruction of city blocks by tank shelling, the draining of the marshlands to drive out their inhabitants - under the no-fly zone. They did not lead to the ousting of Hussein but eventually to the 2003 invasion. We all know how that turned out.

 Neither the Bosnian no-fly zone nor the Kosovo war led to the toppling of Milosevic - although most refugees fled Kosovo after the Western bombing began. It took mass demonstrations and strikes to get rid of him.

But hasn't such a movement risen in Libya and now faces extinction, which can only be prevented by Western military intervention? The desire to prevent a massacre, and the wish of the Benghazi government to have air support is understandable. But the dynamics of revolution are fundamentally political - it seems that the initial momentum of the revolution politically winning people to its side was lost as the Gaddafi's patronage networks functioned effectively in the centre of the country, forming a block to the revolutionary advance on Tripoli. The attack by foreign planes is going to exacerbate, not alleviate that political problem. This leaves the door open at best to a semi-partition of the country, of the kind that prevailed in Iraq between 1991 and 2003.

 Second, this process is not confined to Libya. It is not mere rhetoric to contrast the military intervention in Libya with the silent support for the vicious represssion in Yemen and Bahrain, now invaded by Saudi troops. Each case of revolution has been boosted by previous popular victories - but the NATO bombing gives unneccesary credence to the regimes' claim that the popular movements are foreign stooges. Yes, the Arab league has called for this no-fly zone, perhaps as a quid pro quo for the invasion of Bahrain. But the very fact that this assembly of despots supports it should make us think twice about the effects of this policy on the revolutionary process. Nor will these public pronouncements make any difference to the mukhabarat and official propaganda who will use the Libyan example to the hilt to discredit the movements.

  This does not - absolutely does not - mean support for Gaddafi. This is not the case of the Lebanese war of 2006. If you want to support the revolutions and not the hypocrisy of the Western powers, I suggest the following demands:

Release the Gaddafi regime funds to the revolutionaries and allow them to buy weapons

Condemn the Saudi (GCC) invasion of Bahrain, cut ties with both regimes and with Yemen's Ali Abdallah Saleh - removing also the military aid to his regime. Cancel all military contracts with them.

Allow Benghazi to become an open port for Arab -or other - revolutionary volunteers to join the fight.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Arab Revolution and the Coming Insurrection:Multitudinous or Permanent? A response to Hardt, Negri and Newsnight

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into what has gone before. 
                  From Walter Benjamin's 14th Thesis on the Concept of History
      One of the first aspects of the Arab revolutions to strike the observer - and still more, one expects, the participant - is the return of words and concepts widely thought to be the oldest of hat. Who, apart from those of us who have been anticipating these events with far less certainty than we would now admit, could use the word 'counter-revolutionary' six months ago and expect the listener to find a common referent? Yet now, there are tangible counter-revolutionaries and with them the necessity for the defence of the revolution.  Battalions of citizens are formed: palaces marched upon: mercenary phalanxes await with long-prepared chains. Revolutionary time is  a time 'blasted out of the continuum of history'. It is 'a random time, open at any moment to the unforseeable irruption of the new' but equally infused with shards of the messianic moments of the past.

    Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are both right and wrong, then to argue that 'even calling these struggles "revolutions" seems to mislead commentators who assume the progression of events must obey the logic of 1789 or 1917, or some other past European rebellion against kings and czars.' 

This is, of course, true. Revolution is when millions of people make history and for that reason it is an unpredictable process. The interesting discussion for those who aspire to the victory of the revolution (how joyful to be able to write those words without irony or condescension) concerns the circumstances in which history is now being made. 

  Hardt and Negri are no mere facebook boosters. Yet their conception of what is going on in the Arab Revolutions is only a partial truth. They write that the protests resemble 'what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world' in the form of a horizontal network that has no single central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it'. Paul Mason, a man whose attentiveness to the possibilities of rhizomatic rebellion contrasts happily with his job as economics editor of Newsnight, agrees.

This is right. The revolutions are spontaneous, they are "horizontal" and they are not led by latecoming aspirants such as Mohammed el Baradei, Rashid Al Ghanoushi or the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is a mark of continuity with previous revolutions, not a break. Indeed, that's why they were revolutions.  It would be wrong to say that there was no leadership - in the simple, tautological sense of people who give a lead - behind the Egyptian revolution at the very least. The January 25th demonstrations were called by a network of socialist, liberal and Muslim Brotherhood youth activists. They saw the rupture in the normal way of doing things opened up by Tunisia and took a 'tiger's leap into what had gone before'. It took a long time before the millions of revolutionaries, having given Mubarak three more chances than he deserved, moved on the palace at Heliopolis and the state TV building. Arguments went on about what to do next in what a BBC journalist called the 'gigantic open air debating chamber' of Tahrir Square and some people made and won an argument to act. This is a different kind of leadership to Mohammed El Baradei turning up and annoucing he is ready to take any mantle offered to him - but the dichotomy drawn by Hardt and Negri between complete spontatneity and utter obedience misses it.

  Hardt and Negri's perspective follows on from a particular political economy, claiming correctly that 'the Arab revolts ignited around the issue of unemployment and at their centre have been highly educated youth with frustrated ambitions - a population that has much in common with protesting students in London or Rome'. Paul Mason draws the same conclusion  - 'at the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future', living  'in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks.'

   The global spread of 'frustrated ambitions' is certainly visible, and a product of the ongoing crisis of capitalism. Youth unemployment, amongst both graduates and non-graduates (such as Mohammed Bouaziz) is very high in the Arab states and beyond. The khobzistes and the shabab, at best in informal employment or an insecure aspiration to petty bourgeois status, have played a most visible role in the street risings of the contemporary scene. Where we find a shard of the old-new, a renewal of the 'secret agreement between past generations and the present one' is the participation of workers - the employed proletarian sort rather than the diffusely multitudinous sort - in the Arab Revolutions. Indeed, taking the spectacle of a mixed-up time in which twitter feeds announce 'Newsnight special on spreading revolution as our warrant, perhaps it is time to revive the concept of permanent revolution?

      What are the grounds for this dusting off of a historical subject, usually considered at best a 'stage army to be marched on and off the scene of history' ? Consider the Egyptian Revolution. Its origins lie in the strike wave that passed through the country between 2006 and 2008 and most especially in the mill town of Mahalla. More than 1.7 million workers took part in more than 1,900 strikes and other protests (in the absence of free unions) between 2004 and 2008 (Joel Beinin  Workers' Rights in Egypt 2010:49). It was this strike wave that began to weaken the barrier of fear - but also more concretely led to the networks that supported the January 25th demonstrations. One of the groups calling those demonstrations, the April 6th youth movement, although disparate, is linked to this struggle in its very name: it refers to the call for a general strike in support of the worker's uprising that took control of Mahalla on that day in 2008. As Wikileaks has revealed, State Department officials recognised that 'in Mahalla a new organic opposition force bubbled to the surface, defying current political labels...This may require the government to change its script.' Not spear carriers, but authors.

  In the three weeks of demonstrations that led to Muabarak's fall, Egyptian workers showed some of the 'awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode'. At first workers participated in demonstrations called by the networks that emerged to support them two years previously and in atmosphere changed by their own struggles. As Mubark proved a more stubborn rhinoceros than many had expected, it was the participation of workers as workers that pushed finally pushed him out. A general strike (remember in a country where there were no free unions until a week beforehand) called on Wednesday the 9th of February spread quickly amongst transport workers, steel workers, Suez canal support workers and eventually so many workplaces that even twitter could not keep up. They are still there and the question is not whether they are organised, but how they can be organised and generalised into an alternative political power.

 In Tunisia, the uprising did begin in the poor, marginalised and semi-employed sectors. What spread it and unified these protests however, were the efforts of trade unionist even against their own leadership, comprised by long years of corporatist compact with Ben Ali. One should not forget the 2008 miners strike: background to key point in the revolution, the storming of the UGTT offices in Gfasa by militants in support of the protests (Olivier Piot, 'Tunisia: Diary of a Revolution', Le Monde Diplomatique 1102). Piot is worth quoting at length here
    'Fearing student protest, Ben Ali closed all educational establishments. A few hours later, the UGTT finally reacted. Its leadership authorised the regional sections in Sfax, Kairouan and Tozeur to organize a general strike the next day and then in Tunis on 14 January. "Those cities were going to go it alone away" said a member of Ettjadid ["Renewal", a party that emerged form the old Tunisian Communist party]. That evening riots broke out in working class areas of Tunis. This was a turning point.'
 What of elsewhere? On Libya, where the revolution has now taken on the aspect of civil war against a dictator mad, bad and lucrative to know, any comment would be speculation . In Bahrain, inheritor of a long trade union tradition the threat of a general strike one week ago seems to have been what brought the Khalifas to offer reforms - much as the decision to call off that strike is surely open to criticism. Iran provides a negative example of where the Green Movement in 2009, but hopefully not now, proved unable to mobilize workers.

   Two points where Hardt and Negri are conclusively right is when they (unconsciously?) echo an earlier revolutionary :
a radical constitutional response must invent a common plan to manage natural resources and social production. This is a threshold through which neoliberalism cannot pass and capitalism is put to question. And Islamic rule is completely inadequate to meet these needs. Here insurrection touches on not only the equilibriums of north Africa and the Middle East but also the global system of economic governance.

The revolutionary state of exception contains within it both the intimations of a future (and a past) that is kind, human and self-organised and on the other the determined effort of the enemy to remain victorious. In both Tunisia and Egypt the military structure remains and is now - as in the most recent attacks on Tahrir square demonstrated - readying itself. As Comrade Hossam rightly argues the only way to prevent retreat is to continue the attack using the fiercest of weapons, the worker's economic power. As Negri and Hardt understand, this is incompatible with capitlalist economic governance.

   And what of that global system? One has but to watch the workers of Wisconsin and the American Midwest - in which the flashes of Tahrir have been both conscious and unconscious - to realise that something is certainly up.

We may wonder where the centre of the world system now lies. The 'global imbalances' of which The Economist have warned for years refer to the dislocation between a Euro-Atlantic (with the exception of Germany) importing zone and a China centred exporting zone, with the oil resources of the Gulf thrown in. Workers have now begun to strike and protest in Saudi Arabia and the monarchy is flailing for some way to buy its way out of the Arab revolutionary wave. Sympathy protests in China so far have been very small but as Paul Mason points out, the social make up of much of the country (what I would like to call the experience of uneven and combined development) is not too far away from the Arab world. Chinese workers have also begun to rediscover traditions of collective action in recent years. Might we believe - is it too soon to hope - that the 21st century has begun?