In Britain, during the recent protests over taxes on petrol it was interesting to see how papers such as the Sun and Daily Mail became quite keen on the ‘direct action’ undertaken by hauliers, farmers, and cab drivers. When a man appeared on TV saying, "I’ve never been on a picket line before, mind you, I’ve driven through plenty", there was a hint as to why the right-wing press liked such ‘militancy’, and why Tory leader, William Hague saluted them as "fine, upstanding citizens."
Workers always foot the bill
As with any other social question, the fuel protests can only be understood in the framework of the struggle between different classes trying to defend their different interests. When it comes to the fuel blockade, the first idea to knock on the head is that those involved were ‘workers’ (an idea most notably put forward by the Sun). Although engaged in different parts of the economy, the one thing that the protesters had in common was that they did not depend on waged labour but were self-employed, the owners of small businesses, what marxists call the petit-bourgeoisie. They are not part of the ruling bourgeoisie, not part of the exploited proletariat, but also not capable of acting independently of the two main classes in capitalist society, except for impotent actions such as terrorism.
It has been well established that the oil companies made no effort to distribute petrol. This is despite their past records where they have made every effort to keep petrol stations supplied during any circumstances, particularly during workers’ struggles. The example of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 is the best known of many. In the present case the refinery bosses didn’t seek police help; they didn’t sue or press injunctions against anyone. On the contrary, the fuel protesters were actually allowed to use buildings in refineries to hold meetings. Such courtesy is, of course, never extended to workers in struggle!
The reason that the oil companies were happy for the protests to take place is that a reduction in duty on petrol would potentially be a boost for their profits, either through increases in sales at a lower price, or sales at the same price where a higher proportion goes to the oil company.
Fuel protests have taken place in many parts of Europe, regardless of the different levels of petrol tax. There have also been a variety of different responses by the different governments. Some have made concessions, some delayed taking action and some refused to acknowledge any demands. For workers it is important to recognise that there is no government response that can be in workers interests. Every government wants revenue. If it cuts one tax it will either have to find the funds elsewhere, or cut services somewhere. Either way it is the working class that will suffer, either through the loss of a state-funded service, or through a new tax arrangement that will fall on workers one way or another. It’s the same with oil prices. Small businesses might complain at their fuel costs, but increases always get passed onto the consumer, most of whom are workers. As with taxes, when prices fluctuate, it is always the working class, which has to play the bill, as capitalists, big or small, defend their interests.
The working class still exists
The fuel crisis has brought to the surface some real tensions between different parts of the bourgeoisie, but what they all have in common is the desire to mystify the working class.
In opposition to all the propaganda about the ‘fine upstanding’ protesters, some of the unions and the left have all but labelled them as agents of fascism. John Monks of the TUC gave the example of the truckers in Chile in 1973 who, as he saw it, had played their role in ushering in the Pinochet regime. The reason for such talk of ‘right wing plots’ is to try and get workers to rally round the Labour government and the British capitalist state. Bill Morris of the TGWU gave valid examples of collusion between fuel protesters and the oil companies, and then proceeded to complain that the police hadn’t done enough to break up blockades or prevent slow moving convoys. Again, here is the attempt to get workers to identify with the repressive capitalist state of their class enemies.
Also participating in the hymns of praise for the state have been the various leftist groups. Typically demanding that the oil companies be nationalised, so that the profits of the oil companies can be used for cheap, decent transport, they are asking workers to put their confidence in the capitalist state that is the central instrument of the ruling class’s domination.
What all the elements in the fuel protests campaign had in common was the way they attempted to convince the working class that it doesn’t exist. The farmers and hauliers were presented as heroic figures that could bring the country to a halt, and maybe even get cheaper petrol for everyone. The protests were put forward as though they were a real force, in comparison to the workers’ strikes in the past that had ‘never achieved anything’. The working class was asked to see itself as just a lot of consumers, who take their place in queues for petrol, as individuals alongside members of the petit-bourgeoisie and other social strata.
While the right champions the petit-bourgeoisie, as a way of hiding the role of the oil companies, the left champions the state, whether Bill Morris and its repressive arm, or the leftists and their proposals for an increased role for the state in the economy. While divided in their rhetoric, they are united in their concern that workers should never have a consciousness of their class position within capitalism, and that the working class can only advance its interests with a struggle that is independent of other classes. When workers fight they will find that hauliers will try to get through workers’ picket lines, and that the capitalist state has police and an army to defend the interests of the exploiters against the struggle of the working class.