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

Human rights action at royal horse show: part I

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‘UK: Stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’

On Saturday 13th May I, and three others, carried two five metre banners saying ‘UK stop supporting Bahrain’s tyrant’ into the Royal Windsor Horse Show. At the agreed time, when the prizes were to be given out after a show jumping event, the CSI5* Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup, we climbed over the crowd barriers and shook out the two banners, in plain sight of the royal box and the spectators.

A few weeks earlier I met with a handful of other volunteer activists. Together we looked up information on human rights abuses in Bahrain and the hypocracy of a situation in which our own monarch entertains and is entertained by King Hamad at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

I had my own reasons for taking part in the action. The UK exports to Saudi Arabia are worth £3.5 billion and Bahrain is part of the Saudi led intervention in Yemen, where war crimes are being perpetrated against the Houthis and millions are suffering from severe food insecurity, famine. The UK targets Bahrain for arms exports, despite its repressive regime and violent response to protests and opposition. At the horse show, many of the events are sponsored by the Kingdom of Bahrain; the Bahraini flag is flying from the hospitality suites and plastered all the round the main arena and the fences. It turns out the King of Bahrain loves horses and so does his son, Prince Nasser. The instruction on the back of our tickets, not to display any political slogans, started to seem highly contradictory.

I was  uncertain about doing this action; I wasn’t sure I knew enough about the victims of Bahrain’s repressive regime. The usual qualms sprung into my head: wrong time, exhausting, not my story. But, I reasoned, there was ‘no skin off my nose’.

The Royal Windsor Horse Show is full of shops that sell everything for the pony mad, from fancy snaffles to ear protectors. The clothes shops were strong on Harris tweed micro shorts and Harris tweed ponchos. The Landrover Discovery promotion offered rides up a steep slope in their latest model.

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Harris tweed micro shorts for sale at the Royal Windsor Horse Show

As expected, show jumping is thrilling to watch but this quickly becomes stressful. When the small Arab horses jumped over the fences, they seemed to spring off the ground like harrier jump jets. From our vantage point in front row seats, I saw that before each fence the horse was wild eyed, under stress, not concentrating, being reined in strongly by the rider and then let go at the last minute. Sometimes the horse would dig its hooves into the ground. The crowd would give a soft moan and an appreciative gasp as if they were on the horses side all long.

On the day, five of us, one pair for each banner and a fifth with a camera, met up at Paddington station. At the same time other activists were going to stand with a banner outside the VIP entrance. We kept up the motivation by sending ourselves photos and articles about King Hamad as we were waiting.

Seated as close to the front as possible, I was mentally rehearsing how I was going to clamber over the crowd barrier. We watched the DAKS Pony Club mounted games, where teenagers on ponies hurtled backwards and forwards with sticks, trying to grab rolled up socks. Very popular, at least with press photographers, was the Shetland Pony Grand National, where eight year olds raced tiny ponies round a track to a real steeple race commentary. By this time the stand was full; people kept asking if they could squeeze past us. Kids, couples with babies, families and pony mad little girls, spread across the bleachers.

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Bahraini colours all over the arena

Shortly after lunch, workmen put out a third row of barriers. Security guards in plain clothes arrived and prowled up and down, looking at their phones and peering at the crowd. It was time for the  Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes for The King’s Cup. We anxiously watched the royal box for sign of movement, but no one vaguely royal or Bahraini looking came down. I wishes I’d brought binoculars. Instead there were groups of security guards in dark suits and sunglasses, right up at the back of the grandstand.

I put the banner on my lap. The plain clothes guys paid no attention to me or my partner. Prince Nasser appeared for the prize giving. The six contestants rode their horses into the ring to receive their prizes. Ok Now! I grasped the vertical rail and pulled myself up. Unfurled the banner. ‘Wrong way round!’ We quickly walked round each other and held it up. I pulled as tightly as I could. There were cries of hey! from the crowd, but the commentator never missed a beat. Then almost immediately I felt someone tugging hard. The Bahraini security guys were shouting in Arabic. I let go. Soon some regular security quards, heavy white men in blue blazers, came and started prodding us to walk towards the side. But there was no way out! Finally we were led out through the members enclosure. Through the shops. To the on-site police station.

Two of us didn’t have to give details to the police at all. We were led out through the gates and told never to come back. We made it down the road to the first pub on the left.

Continued

 

Human rights action at royal horse show: part I