Okay, so now we are tired of Karina Pedersen (Danish author of a much discussed book about life in the “underclass”) and her liberal friends and their anti-social and anti-historical moralistic musings about the so called underclass. Regarding history: allow me to recommend Paul Masons book Live working or die fighting – how the working class went global. Yes, the title sound like an echo of the 1970’s. But it is actually backed by solid content.
The brilliance of Mason’s approach is, that he connects journalistic reports from today’s global underclass – whether we are talking about industrial workers in Kenya or migrant workers in the European metropolises – with great moments in the history of the European and American labour movement. Here, for example, is a slightly abbreviated excerpt from his description of the living conditions of the London dockers and the big strike of 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
Yes, Paul Mason may romanticise. Yes, he may have a weak spot for syndicalism, which the left may theorise about from now to eternity. But contrary to our own confined and gutter reeking debate about “underclass”, he demonstrates how to open up the perspective – from Londons shivering East End to the grandest idea in history: that our conditions in life may be changed to the better, if we stand together across foolish and imagined divisions.
And just imagine if Karina Pedersen had the same empathy and the same will to let her own, stubborn imagination influence by reality, as Beatrice Webb?
Then we might have had a discussion not about and against but with the “underclass”, about what we need to change in common to make this rich country called Denmark a place where we all might live a good life.
Did I mention that Paul Mason writes prose like the angels sing? And that you may follow hes most recent writing in the Guardian?
Paul Mason: Live working or die fighting – how the working class went global. London: Harwill Secker, 2007.