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Reflections on International Labour Networking in the UK

Peter Waterman

These are some notes, initially prepared for an informal meeting, hosted by Richard Flint, London, UK, September 24, 1998. They have been redrafted in the light of that event. Any response to them is welcome. They are meant to complement a 1-2 page note by Malcolm Corbett of Poptel, submitted to the same meeting. I would like to hope that these and others related to them will be made available to relevant websites or lists. Sources for arguments here can be found in recent items on my own website.
My own past contribution to this vital and growing phenomenon has been by research and writing, the latter published in both academic and political publications, in the UK and elsewhere, both on paper and on the net. I have also taken part in a series of seminars and conferences on labour and the new communication media, one of which I organised myself in the mid-1980s. A number of such writings are on my website and therefore now available to others with both interest and browsers. I have also been working, for 15 years or so on labour and the newer internationalisms, as well as on alternative international communication and culture more generally. This year I have a book out on the `new internationalisms'. A co-edited one on `alternatives for unionism in the new world order' will be out by year end. Most of this writing contains not only analyses but also ideas on `what is to be done'. Most of this work was done as part of my job, the rest by `sweat capital'. I am looking for an institutional/financial base for my work, but not desperately. If I cannot find such, I will fund my activities out of my own resources or by finding temporary or parttime work or grants.

As I moved toward fulltime retirement (Mayday 1998!) I also started considering where and with whom I could work in the future. My own website has been developing slowly whilst I build up personal technical capacity. It is called Global Solidarity and is concerned with both the organisational and communicational/cultural aspects of this newest internationalism. Whilst retaining a strong bias toward labour, it concerns itself with all the new internationalisms. This is due to a conviction that any new labour internationalism, culture or, for that matter, computer-mediated communication (CMC) model, will not develop until and unless - and only to the extent that - it articulates itself with other radical-democratic internationalist movements (women, human rights, environment, communications itself, etc).

The site is presently divided into two parts, one personal, one general. The proportion of the one to the other will develop (as with other aspects) in accord with response to it, or perceived need. The purpose of the site is to stimulate information exchange, debate and dialogue on global solidarity - something sorely missing at present. The orientation of the site is (as with my Newsletter of International Labour Studies, 1979-90) toward research-minded activists and action-oriented researchers. It is also concerned at developing a space in which these can exchange information and ideas with each other. In so far as I am familiar with the academic world, and have good relations with a number of academics working in this broad area, in the UK and abroad, I think that creating such a space might be the major contribution I could make to our common project.

My political orientation toward this area, broadly, is the following. A new labour internationalism (and related culture) can only be built in the political dialectic and dialogue between a broad range of unions, parties, movements, groups and individuals. Contributions can (and are) made by both institutional centre and autonomous periphery, men and women, labour and others, West and Rest. Internationalist action, and a related culture, furthermore, can no longer be seen as an extension or add-on to the national. Under present conditions, it is - it has to be - integral to any national or local labour protest that is to go beyond the self-isolating, the self-defeating or the chauvinist/racist option.

The role of CMC here I see as quite central. In so far as we are living under a globalised and networked capitalism, any effective response has got to be globalised, networked and anti-capitalist (-patriarchal, -racist, -imperial, -consumptionist, etc). The new internationalisms are, in practice communication internationalisms, both making public concealed information and giving new meanings (socialist, ecologically-friendly, feminist, pacifist, etc) to what is publicly `known'. I also think that cyberspace provides emancipatory movements with an appropriate space, and one which they can more appropriately use than can capital, state, patriarchy, racism, fundamentalism, etc. 

Right now I am trying to write a piece on the Liverpool Dock Site. This is intended to look at it within the context of a globalised networked capitalism, in relation to the Liverpool workers'/women's cultural practice more generally, and finally in relationship to `local particularism and global ambition'. I actually feel I need two kinds of expertise in order to do this job properly. The first is the local knowledge, the second is hypertext experience. The reason for the first is self-evident. The reason for the second is that I would like to publish this in hypertext form, making it immediately available, in both draft and final shape, on the net. This is an invitation for collaboration from one or more companeros/as, with credit being accorded in relation to contribution made (up to co-authorship). I think such a production might stimulate more people to produce audiovisually on the net, rather than in obscure, dull, small-circulation, print publications accessible to limited political/academic readerships. 

The implications of all the above for (international) labour networking in the UK have to be worked out. General problems of, or challenges facing, international labour culture/communication have been raised by myself (most recently in a submission to and report on the Seoul LabourMedia 97 event). Those more specific to international labour CMC have been raised by Eric Lee in the last chapter of his book. Rather than addressing these, let me make two suggestions, one coming out of international labour movement history, the other out of recent conflicts between those prominently involved in developing international labour CMC in the UK.

The first idea is that of creating a national/international labour/worker/popular computer movement. The model here is, of course, the (inter)national labour sports, cultural and communicational movements of the first part of the 20th century. The present problem to be confronted is twofold: 1) Many British workers have computers and make heavy use of such, but this use is largely determined and dominated by capital and consumptionism; 2) Even in the best case of internationalist labour CMC that I am aware of - the Liverpool dock site created largely by Greg Dropkin and stimulated/hosted/supported on Chris Bailey's LabourNet - there was minimal participation by even dockworker activists. An International Popular Computer Movement would differ from such a project as Poptel (Popular Telematics) in a number of ways. It would be global rather than national, it would be a movement rather than a service, it would explicitly promote radical-democratic and internationalist values rather than providing the necessary technical underlay for such. Such a movement would or should, of course, link (in both senses) with Poptel, LabourNet, GreenNet, LabourStart, interested unions and others internationally. Richard Flint's project for a Virtual Seafarers Centre would seem to incorporate the spirit of such a more general project. It would or should link up with the growing international movement for the democratisation of communication (which does not yet have a name!). But it would or should keep its nose close to labouring people and popular culture.

The second idea is that of drawing up a Code of Conduct, Netiquette, or Leftnetiquette, to guide relations on the net, and even that between those variously involved in electronic labour networking when off-line. In so far as I have been party to a recent polemic, I think someone else could or should either draw up such a code, or look for one that could be reproduced or adapted. This is a problem which has also arisen on Labour-L, and maybe Sam Lanfranco (who has dealt with one such problem in a practical and low-key way) might have some ideas. My own initial feeling is that polemic, competition, personalisation of issues, the logic of binary opposition (right/wrong, autonomous/incorporated, revolutionary/reformist) belong to the Old Left and the New Right (Thatcherite, Fundamentalist), and actually to the era of industrial and national capitalism/statism (not to speak of the Middle or the Classical Age). An informatised capitalism is an increasingly complex one, in which all of us are willy-nilly implicated, and in which the identification of Evil with the Other (whoever this might be), simply obscures they manner and extent to which We (whoever we may define ourselves to be) reproduce and even propagate the relations we ostensibly oppose. This is neither a touchy-feely nor an amoral position in so far as we propose relations of solidarity/dialogue/dialectic appropriate to emancipation in our age.

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