Strike! Labour and Violence

Strike! Labour and Violence

5.4.2013

Labour is described, in classical economic terms, as a ‘factor of production’ along with land and capital. The Future State turns its attention to labour in a year when Ireland commemorates the centenary of the 1913 Dublin Lockout and over the coming weeks will explore cultural engagement with labour related themes: working, migration flows, workers’ resistance and violence and contemporary work phenomena such as outsourcing, flexible working, working from home and the mobile office.

Strike!

The title of Limerick City Gallery’s exhibition Strike! could be a double entendre, open to multiple interpretations.

strike 

/strīk/

Verb

Hit forcibly and deliberately with one’s hand or a weapon or other implement.

Noun

A refusal to work organized by a body of employees as a form of protest, typically in an attempt to gain a concession or concessions…: “local workers went on strike”

Either interpretation will fit the pieces that were selected for the exhibition exploring industrial disputes and workers’ resistance.  Strike! takes its title from Sergei Eisenstein’s feature film The Strike (1925), a story about factory workers’ resistance against the factory’s management that ends, after a lengthy battle, with the massacre of the workers.

Violence, bloody battle, vicious beatings, fierce fighting and suffering are recurring motifs throughout Strike! eventhough each piece selected for the exhibition deals with specific instances of workers’ resistance in terms of place, time and the cause of resistance. The commonality of the violence makes it difficult to detect differences between the workers’ struggles and it acts as an obstacle to deciphering the true nature of the resistance. How can we see past the screen of violence?

Walter Benjamin’s essay, Critique of Violence,  unpacks the nature of violence and in doing so offers an alternative  point of departure for assimilating cultural responses to industrial strikes and strained labour relations. It confirms that violence and workers’ resistance are closely intertwined, as foregrounded in Strike!, but goes a step further to deconstruct the relationship between them and in doing so sets out a quasi-framework for understanding the underlying power relations in workers’ resistance .  Firstly, Benjamin identifies two distinct categories of worker resistance: the “political general strike” and the “proletariat general strike” and, secondly, he proposes that violence be evaluated in the context of law rather than in terms of sanctioned/unsanctioned violence or in terms of the brute force of violent actions.[1]

Benjamin proposes that the ‘political general strike’ is used by workers to “escape from a violence indirectly exercised by the employer”.  It is a temporary “withdrawal” from the employer in order to attain distinct and reasonable ends such as better pay or working conditions but, crucially, it does not seek to fundamentally change the worker-employer relationship.[2] In this sense, Declan O’ Connell’s film 161 Days: The Vita Cortex Workers Struggle,  capturing the occupation of the soon to be closed Vita Cortex plant in Ireland by the workers after it was announced that redundancy payments could not be paid, documents what Benjamin would call a ‘political general strike’.  Technically an occupation rather than a strike, the Vita Cortex factory struggle is nonetheless a refusal that remains within the existing worker-employer framework.  And, although the narrative is that of a non-violent sit-in, there is violence in the way that Benjamin proposes as the occupation of the factory is used as a means to extort redundancy payments that are due to the workers from the factory owners.

For the same reason Mike Figgis’ documentary, The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One Is an Injury to All) (2001) that captures artist Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the infamous British miner’s strike of 1984 at Orgreave during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, also depicts what Benjamin would categorise as a violent political general strike. Violent not because of the heavy handed and bloody battles between the police and the miners or because of the fighting within and between mining communities but violent because the miners were acting within the given framework of the worker-employer relation, in this case the British government as employer, and using a temporary withdrawal from the framework to extort concessions from the government.

In contrast, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s film The Take (2004), documents a workers’ resistance that is closer to the ‘proletariat general strike’ that Benjamin refers to, a strike that aims to completely disrupt the social relations between worker and employer.  In The Take former employees of a dormant car factory in Argentina move in to occupy the workplace with the aim of establishing a workers cooperative that will create new jobs for the former employees. The workers reject the status of the factory’s owner and the banks, trying to abolish the power that this ruling group possesses.

From Benjamin’s perspective refusal by workers to recognise a factory owner and a contextualising legal system is senseless and anarchistic as it seeks to “overthrow the legal system that has conferred it”.[3]  This kind of workers’ resistance, the ‘proletariat general strike’, is in his view non-violent because the strike action is ‘pure means’ without ends because the ends that the workers are fighting for are “radically senseless, unreasonable and extravagant”.[4]

Further Benjamin discusses the duality of violence and proposes that all violence is either law-making or law-preserving and is cyclical in nature.  Therefore the power that establishes itself through law-making violence, maintains the law through law-preserving violence, which serves as a reminder that if the Argentinian workers cooperative wrestle power from the factory owners they will be the new power and will seek to maintain the new legal system by a law-preserving violence.

Benjamin thereby provides a framework that can be used to distinguish workers’ resistance movements from one another based on differences in the manifestation of the worker-employer relation. The Argentinian workplace occupation is distinguished from the occupation of the Vita Cortex factory in Ireland, not just geographically and chronologically, but , using Benjamin’s terms, by the violence/non-violence of the ends, regardless how fierce the means.

Strike! took place at Limerick City Gallery 24 January – 15 March 2013.  The exhibition foregrounded Mike Figgis’ documentary The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One Is an Injury to All) (2001) and was accompanied by a film programme curated by Anthony Haughey and exhibition of memorabilia from the Limerick Soviet.  For more visit the gallery’s website.

Written by Stephanie Feeney.


[1] Benjamin, W. (1892-1940) Critique of Violence in Selected Writings. Walter Benjamin. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London 1999 (p277 – 300)

[2] Benjamin, W. (1892-1940) Critique of Violence in Selected Writings. Walter Benjamin. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London 1999 (p277 – 300)

[3] Benjamin, W. (1892-1940) Critique of Violence in ‘Selected Writings. Walter Benjamin. Volume I’ Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London 1999 (p277 – 300)

[4] Auerbach, A (2007) Remarks on Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence [Online]. Available at http://aauerbach.info/research/urban/benjamin_violence.html (accessed 1 March 2013)

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