Live working – den reelle historie om “underklassen”

Nå, men nu er vi så trætte af Karina Pedersens og hendes LA-venners asociale og ahistoriske moralisering over den såkaldte underklasse. Apropos historien: må jeg anbefale Paul Masons bog “Live working or die fighting – how the working class went global”. Ja, titlen lyder som et militant ekko fra 1970’erne. Men der er dækning for den.
Masons genistreg er, at han kæder journalistiske reportage fra nutidens globale underklasse – hvad enten vi taler om industriarbejdere i Kenya eller migrantarbejdere i de europæiske metropoler – sammen med relevante nedslag i den europæiske og amerikanske arbejderbevægelses historie. Her er f.eks. et forkortet uddrag af han beskrivelse af livsvilkårene for Londons havnearbejdere og den store strejke i 1889:

The ‘class struggle’, Robert Roberts (who grew up there in this period) will recall acidly, is something that goes on within the working class: between the skilled, the semi-skilled, the unskilled, the unemployed and the irretrievably drunk. Sociologists are struck by this layer cake of misery, above all in that glittering central hub of global trade, the London docks.
Beatrice Webb, a social reformer, tramped the streets of London’s East End jotting down notes about the misery they lived in, less than a mile from the financial district:
‘Go to the docks in the early morning. Permanent men respectable, sober, clean. Casuals low-looking, bestial, content with their own condition. Watch brutal fight and struggle: then sudden dissolution of the crowd with coarse jokes and loud laugh. Look of utter indif¬ference on their faces; among them one or two who have fallen from better things.’
Webb did not stop at recording the poverty, drunkenness and despair. She plunged into this world, getting herself jobs in the sweatshops where the dockers’ daughters worked, and shocked polite society by publishing the diary she kept. Some facts, however, were too brutal to be included:
‘I omitted the references in my diary to the prevalence of incest in one-room tenements. To put it bluntly, sexual promiscuity and even sexual perversion are almost unavoid¬able among men and women of average character and intelligence crowded into the one room tenement of the slum areas.’
It was the hot, late summer when trouble broke out. It was a pathetically irrelevant dispute over pay rates on a single ship. The men involved laid siege to the nearest union office they could find and pleaded for help. Together they set about pulling the whole of east London out on strike.
The docks had their own notorious class system: above the docker ranked the stevedore, who acted as a makeshift gangmaster. Better than the stevedore was the waterman — entitled to wear a ludicrous pink uniform while surviving on next to nothing. At the bottom of the pile were the women, who Webb described as ‘the Chinamen of the East End’ – the slaves. In normal times you were lucky if you could persuade members of these urban castes to drink in the same pub together, but these were not normal times. Within a week 30,000 dockers were joined on strike by an equal number from ‘allied trades’.
There was a mass meeting every day, then the strikers would set off in an orderly procession around the banking district. The Salvation Army — sternly anti-socialist but a potent force in its east London homeland — had no option but to support the strike. The Catholic Church also weighed in.
What tipped the balance was Australia. The powerful Australian unions used the issue of the London strike to inflame animosity against the English upper classes. By the end of the strike a total of £30,000 – at least £1.1 million in today’s money – had been wired via the Australian dockers’ union. Sixty thousand London dock strikers were now joined on strike by another 60,000 of their drinking buddies and daughters from the rat-infested streets along the waterfront.
‘Dockmen, lightermen, bargemen, cement workers, carmen, iron¬workers and even factory girls are coming out’ wrote a London evening paper.
A few days later, following the intervention of City bankers, shipowners and a Catholic cardinal, the dockers won. History records that they won the ‘docker’s tanner’ — sixpence an hour instead of five. But they had won much more. Burns wrote: “Labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything”.
To Beatrice Webb, the emergence of solidarity in the East End was ‘a new thought, modifying my generalization on dock life’. It dawned on a whole layer of middle class do-gooders that workers might not have to wait for betterment to be handed down through legislation and lectures. The same thought also dawned on tens of thousands of unskilled workers who rushed to join trade unions.

Ja, Paul Mason romantiserer. Ja, han har et svagt punkt for syndikalismen, som vi på venstrefløjen kan holde studiekreds om herfra og til evigheden. Men i modsætning til vores egen indelukkede og kælderstinkende debat om “underklassen” så forstår han at åbne perspektivet, historisk og politisk – fra Londons kuldslåede East End til den mest storslåede idé i historien: at man kan ændre sine livsvilkår, hvis man står sammen på tværs af tåbelige, indbildte forskelle.
Og tænk hvis Karina Pedersen havde demonstreret samme empati og samme vilje til at lade sin egen, fastlåste opfattelse bevæge af virkeligheden som Beatrice Webb?
Så kunne vi måske have haft en diskussion ikke om og imod men med ”underklassen” om, hvad der skal til for at vi alle kan leve et godt og ordentligt liv i det rige land, vi kalder Danmark.

Fik jeg sagt at Paul Mason skriver så fuglene synger? Og at man kan følge hans aktuelle skriverier i Guardian?

Paul Mason: Live working or die fighting – how the working class went global. London: Harwill Secker, 2007.

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