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Advancing Democracy: Strikes and Sabotage

September 30, 2012

Democracy and Democratization in South Africa. Last month South African mine workers made the headlines around the world when their protest in South Africa was violently crushed by the police. These strikes went right at the heart of post-apartheid South Africa. The country hinges upon the original compromise that Nelson Mandela made with the National Party: the black majority would have gained political freedom but the white would have hold a tight grip on the economy. Black South Africans had to pay an economic price to gain political rights in a peaceful way. Democracy, defined as a regime where elections are regularly held and opposition has a fair chance to win, is today based on such compromise. More radical instances of democratization such as service-delivery for all, land restitution and government ownership of key sector such as mines had to wait. However, the democratic compromise cannot last forever and the wall is starting to crack. The persistence of  stubbornly high unemployment rates amongst young black South Africans has laid bare the paradox: political rights such as voting in elections are not automatically translated into social and economic rights. Social and economic rights have to do with forms of agency which are capable of effective intransigence: strikes, boycotts and other forms of sabotage. When miners went on strike for six weeks in gold and platinum mines in South Africa they were radically disrupting the economic activity to impose their claims: a pay rise and an overhaul of the ineffective miners official trade union. They resorted to more intransigent forms of protest because they saw that democracy in South Africa does not mean democratization and more egalitarian redistribution. Jacob Zuma, country’s president, condemned the violence and the scale of the strikes and warned that these strikes caused a lost in production 4.5 billion rand: a price that the country cannot afford to pay. The economy in South Africa could not afford its citizen imposing more egalitarian claims. From this perspective, democratic leaders become more concerned with manufacturing a new model of citizen who committed to the idea of democracy and therefore willing to sacrifice other more radical claims (pay rise).

Energy and Machinery of Political Action. In his fascinating new book Carbon Democracy – Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell looks at these radical forms of demmocratization and argues that the ability to make radical democratic claims is axed around the organization and the flow of fossil fuels which power the functioning of a country. The more points of vulnerability the  flow of energy has the more power workers wield to impose their right through disruption and sabotage of these flows. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West were for the first time vulnerable to mass demands for democracy. The way coal was extracted, transported and distributed provided the equipment through which workers in Europe could force the powerful to listen to their demands. The political machinery for action was made possible in other words by the energy system and its points of vulnerability.

Coal and Mass Democracy in Europe. The access to subterrean stores of carbon in Europe prompted an exponential increase in the supply of energy. The new coal-based thermal and mechanical energy powered the manufacturing production which fuelled the prosperity of European countries. Countries were dependent on a steady and continuous flow of carbon from the underground to the point of utilization (manufacturing sites and electrical power generation), along narrow, purpose-built channels such as water and railway networks. This flow of carbon was overseen and managed by specialized workers whose position wield a powerful machinery of action: sabotaging and disrupting the flow of coal upon which the functioning the society hinged upon. The disruption of one point of the chain could paralyze the entire chain: a single worker could make a locomotive delivering three megawatts of power unable to work (p.23). This power of sabotage was so great that oligarchies had for the first time to listen to their demands for mass democracy.  Because of the effectiveness of this political machinery crafted out coalmines, railways and power station, workers in Europe were able to advance their social and economic rights: right to an eight hours day and to social insurance programmes, including provision against industrial accidents, sickness and unemployment, as well as to public pensions in retirement (p 26).  This extraordinary political machinery came to an end when coal was replaced by oil as main source of energy and mechanical power in the aftermath of  World War II.

Mass Democracy in the Age of Oil. The production and transportation of oil were far less susceptible to the sabotage of workers located at strategic point of the supply chain. To begin with, oil comes to the surface pushed by underground pressure so its production required less workforce in relation to the energy produced. Secondly, because of its liquidity it can be transported through pipelines which reduce the number of workforce and its susceptibility to disruption (pipeline can be fairly easily patched up as compared to locomotives carrying coal). Lastly, because of its fluidity and lightness oil could be shipped across ocean (differently from coal). Were oil workers to strike, the energy system of a country could tap into the global network. The combination of these factors jeopardized the ability of workers to force the powerful to listen to their democratic claims.

Two Facets of Democracy. In the mainstream development discourse democracy is put forth as a universal good which everybody should access. However, the way the debate is phrased democracy is conceived as a “mean of regulating population through the provision of their welfare”. Elected and therefore representative politicians implement policies which cater for welfare of the population. This mode of governing employs popular consent as a means of limiting claims for greater equality (p.9): president Zuma dispatched the army to crush the wildcat protest and to avoid to set illegal strikes as a precedent. The stability of the mine industry would be at some point beneficial for the welfare of everybody. This facet of democracy divides up the common good into two: areas which are matters of public concern and therefore subject to popular consent and areas which falls outside the realm of the public. The economy and the private are spheres which are not subject to popular consent. From this perspective, the struggle of South African miners for better pay or more radical claims such as government appropriation of the mines is not tolerated because it jeopardizes the economic viability of the mining industry insofar as it scares foreign investors away. And economy is not a matter of public consent.

Historically however democracy has a also existed as a “mean of making effective egalitarian claims” (p26). Mitchell has the merit to remind us that mass democracy came about because workers disposed of a machinery of action which could sabotage an essential good for the powerful: access to energy. This capacity of action was assembled from the way coal was extracted, transported and distributed. In most of the cases democratic governments were more concerned with limiting the power of disruption – and with the power of imposing democratic claims – than with advancing it. When politicians and oligarchies in the West engineered the switch from coal to oil, the masses lost much of their ability to exercise political power. Oil in fact flowed through networks which had far less bottlenecks and required less workforce for its functioning. For this reason, its susceptibility to disruption was reduced: the powerful did not have to listen anymore to the political claims of the workers. The lesson today for those concerned with advancing democratic claims – be that access to work insurance or land redistribution –  is that one has to look at form of political machineries that workers can assemble to take advantages of points of vulnerability: the powerful otherwise will not bend.


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