Dirty Protest

Thoughts on the work ethic and the arms trade

During the week before the DSEI arms fair, protests take place on the service road into the back of the Excel Centre, by London’s Royal Victoria Dock. Lumbering up the road, along with the low loaders carrying vehicles and boats, armoured, camouflaged, tied down with net, boats, along with the white vans of caterers, fitters, cleaners, carpet layers, is one huge elephant. That is capital and the work ethic that supports it.

The arms trade is harmful many times over. It makes conflict more likely in areas of the developing world where there is already tension. Poor countries are persuaded to spend millions on weaponry rather than on infrastructure for their own people. Its industry manufactures war and bloodshed.

Being a capitalist enterprise just like any other, the arms trade, and the industry that supports it, causes damage to the climate. It is a wasteful use of natural resources. It poisons the atmosphere and water supplies and lakes and natural habitats. It hoards the technological expertise amongst its employees that could be used in other creative sustaining ways and prevents progress in other areas.

But also, being a capitalist enterprise like any other, the arms industry depends on our wonderfully strong work ethic. In his book S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, Richard Swift points us to William Morris, one of the first socialists to oppose the ecological decay of capitalism and the society based on ‘useless toil’.

He also directs us to Lafargue’s, The right to be lazy. Written in the nineteenth century, by Marx’s son-in-law, this is a satire aimed at the bourgeouisie, who counted work as a religious virtue and the path to salvation. Industrialists encouraged country people away from their ‘hearths’ into the towns, to the severe detriment of the workers’ and their families’ health. Once in the factory they had no time to tend their vegetable plots, which led to malnutrition, or else had to travel long distances to work, leaving no time to look after themselves and their children.

Lafargue describes conditions for factory workers in Alsace, who worked twelve hour days to produce stockings, which they themselves had no use for, and could never afford. The factory owner then had to find new markets for his products, leading to colonialist expansion. Seen in the context of the arms trade this is particularly apt. The arms companies make something far worse than useless; the only product of an arms company is bloodshed and terror. The arms trade constantly must find new markets so the factory can stay open, so the employees can travel to their full time jobs. It must keep the factories open, otherwise there’d be a riot. The employees of the factory must be kept busy. The devil makes work for idle hands.

This discussion often gets glossed over at protests. Disgruntled passersby shout, ‘get a job’, not realising how ironic this is in the circumstances. MPs inevitably do all they can to protect jobs in their own constituency, for their own sake if nothing else. It would be impossible to tell someone to give up their job, when there is a dearth of manufacturing jobs, and when income is tied to work, but also while the work ethic is so a fundamental to our culture. As Kathy Weeks shows in The problem of work, the work ethic extends far beyond the means of survival. Work defines us socially, intellectually, by class, even by race and gender. Where the work ethic is strong, the system of favours, long hours culture, fellowship, the ritual of office parties and outings, work itself becomes morally right. We’ve all experienced jobs where we have complied with dubious practices, and not until afterwards realized that our desire to maintain a positive attitude triumphed over our own integrity.

The work ethic even extends into our children’s education, (teenagers trained to be ‘work ready’) our leisure and holidays. Who hasn’t thought of conveyor belts when we step onto a plane or ferry. But above all the work ethic spreads into our homes. Someone has to be cleaning, whether this is the same person who goes out to work, a partner or someone paid to do it. However you look at modern employment, it relies on carers, cleaners, cooks, mothers, those who care for the elderly, the very young, the sick, the destitute.

Weeks suggests that the discussion around wages for housework, while unhelpful and unsuccessful in the seventies, was a useful way of seeing how our lives are monetised, which parts of a mother’s work is work, that could be paid labour, and which is love. She quotes Federici,

“For our aim is to be priceless, to price ourselves out of the market, for housework and factory work and office work to be ‘uneconomic.’ ”

Or to put it in terms of the Gospel story we are all busy being Martha, but Martha herself has power in the work she does to resist. (Luke 10: 38 – 42)

Arms work depends on housework. An employee of the arms industry, and therefore all of us, works a full day, picks up her children, keeps her house clean, and even does voluntary work at weekends. So I propose a dirty protest! Or even more drastic, a care work protest. Or even a birth work protest. Just when we thought housework was something that stays in the privacy of our own homes, we could refuse housework and smash the arms trade.

Recently in a horrible twist, cleaning products themselves have become a weapon. Not far from Giuseppe Conlon House, two young men on a scooter carried out 5 acid attacks in a single evening. In the discussions in the media afterwards, the pundits questioned the use of strong chemicals in household cleaning.

Swift, R. S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism, New Internationalist, Oxford 2016

Weeks, K, The problem with work, Duke University Press, London 2011

Lafargue, P. The right to be lazy, edited and introduced by Bernard Marszalek, AK Press, Chicago 2011

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter

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Dirty Protest

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