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General strike

Today there is a general strike in Belgium in protest against inflation, demanding that the government do something or other about it in this month's federal budget.

Being a child of the Thatcher era, who witnessed the taming of the unions in the UK, this seems to me extraordinary. While I support anyone's right to join a trade union and to go on strike to improve their circumstances of employment, I don't believe that the unions should be allowed to call a strike over an issue that doesn't particularly concern their relations with their employers. The people inconvenienced by today's strike are, on the whole, not those responsible for the recent increase in the prices of food and fuel; indeed, very few of the latter reside in Belgium, so the strike completely misses its ostensible targets.

As you know, Bob, Belgium has not only Socialist trade unions, but also Christian and Liberal unions, each organised into a separate national federation. Aha, you are perhaps thinking, the strike today is presumably called by one or two of the three sets of unions at least partly in protest against their rivals being more closely linked to the government. Well, no. First of all, the current government includes the Liberal, Christian and (Francophone) Socialist parties (the Flemish Socialists are in disarray). Second, all three national federations are supporting the strike. So the federations essentially appear to be striking against their own political allies in the government.

Or are they? I think this is really a manifestation of the cosy, collusive nature of Belgian politics. One or both Socialist parties have been in government solidly since May 1988, indeed for two-thirds of the last half-century; in that same time frame the Christian Democrats have been in government for all but the eight years of Verhofstadt's premiership. In a political system where you can't really vote the bastards out, indeed where layers of government proliferate so that a party, and a party leader, who lose one election can pop up again almost immediately elsewhere, the occasional general strike may be a useful safety valve to fool the workers into believing that they have more impact on the system than they really do. Of course it infuriates those of us from the ranks of the self-employed and small businesses, for whom today's action has no obvious benefit and for whom it causes immense and (what seems to us) avoidable inconvenience. But the system has other ways of buying our allegiance.

Edited to add: I am fundamentally hostile to the idea of a general strike bringing down the entire system of government, for reasons local to my birthplace.


Oct. 7th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
The Ulster Workers Council strike may be the only case of a general strike bringing down a system of government in the last 50 years. I will come back to this, but I don't think that you can say from one bad outcome that all general strikes are bad.

I'm only interested in the original question, general strikes that bring down entire systems of government. If a general strike brings down a bad system of government, I'm all for it. If it brings down a nice system of government then I am against. I am not going to complain about a general strike bringing down the Burmese Junta, were that to happen.

General strikes are pretty ineffectual in practice, though, and it is very hard to think of any one other than the UWC that brought down a system of government. One that springs to mind is the time in Germany when an emerging right-wing dictatorship was defeated by a general strike. I deduce from this one example that all general strikes are in all circumstances good (I do not actually deduce this, but it is the mirror image of your argument).

I reckon that general strikes can only bring down very shaky systems of government. The power-sharing government in Northern Ireland suffered from an alarming legitimacy deficit, and was already on the brink of collapse through internal pressures when the UWC stuck the knife in. Likewise, Kapp's would-be dictatorship was defeated before it was fully established. I reckon the chances of a general strike ever bringing down an entrenched system of government, legitimate or not, are pretty minimal. General strikes are disruptive and cause great annoyance to some people, but they are too blunt an instrument to be used for genuine change apart from in the most exceptional of circumstances.

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