Yesterday the TUC predicted that workers will get increasingly angry in the coming months, with the economy slowly getting back on track yet workers not seeing the benefit.
The argument is a classic one with much precedent in political thought and practice – if you oppress people they will, in the end, resist. Zizek refers to it as ‘the return of the Real’. Foucault says ‘where there is power there is resistance’ and Hardt and Negri say ‘It is completely obvious that those who are exploited will resist’.
The TUC is predicting organised strikes, with unions leading the way, in a campaign for better conditions and pay for workers.
Political thought and practice for centuries, however, also indicates that this is an optimistic prediction.
Even if you ignore the fact that traditional unions have fewer and fewer members, or that unions in the private sector are very different from the public sector, its notable that resistance is often more complex and difficult to identify than this.
Sometimes resistance to oppression is through union led strikes, aimed at better conditions. Often not.
Here are three ways that this resistance may play out instead.
1. Dissipation. Nietzsche points out that in Ancient Athens the desires and passions of those who might refuse the system were channelled into ‘agonistic’ processes that enabled them to contest and argue without endangering the system. It had the effect of dissipating disorder.
Today, many workplaces provide employee engagement channels , which dissipate resistance through formal processes for gathering workers’ views, offering elements of devision making power and trying to make the organisation feel ‘theirs’.
This kind of absorption of resistance is a likely outcome of much resistance, meaning change will be minimised.
2. Resentiment. For many, resistance to oppression is often individualised, not conscious and therefore hard to identify. It results in unconscious, unarticulated and generally negative actions. It’s a bit like what Nietzsche calls ‘resentiment’ – a kind of seething, unarticulated sense of injustice that occasionally manifests itself.
At work it might mean simply being bad workers – spending time on Facebook, talking, going slow, pushing break times, recalcitrance, etc.
Outside work, people like Zizek have pointed out that racism and far right politics are easy responses to oppression, where an ‘other’, rather than inequalities in workplace, are blamed by indigenous workers for their problems. Similarly, events like the riots in Paris or London could well be complex examples of people resisting the everyday sense of inequality they face.
With less and less union influence and reach, these different forms of largely unhealthy resistance are likely to be more and more common.
3. Events. Occasionally bigger acts occur, when those who feel excluded assert their right, together, to be included.
These are momentous and rare occasions. Sometimes they are in the workplace; often they are something much bigger.
This what Ranciere calls ‘politics’ and Badiou calls an ‘event’.
We have seen these events in the Arab Spring, for example. In the UK this has not been much seen; the seeds of it may have been in Occupy. It requires more than trade union organisation for a tactical end like better conditions; it is a collective action, by the people, in the name of a bigger goal.
Mass action for workplace democracy, more equal pay, or decent jobs for all, for example.
Whether this will be the outcome of the current oppression remains to be seen; certainly, it’s something very different from the vision of our unions.
The point is that workers may be well be fed up, feel oppressed and seek to resist – whether that’s conscious or unconscious.
But the TUC’s prediction that this will take the form of strikes for better conditions is optimistic at best; this might happen, but we are far more likely to see opposition dissipated and resentiment grow, with the tiny, tiny chance of a political event.