Monday, 26 September 2016

Defend Free Movement

Rachel Reeves, my MP, has issued a report via the Fabians and several follow up articles advocating labour adopts a position against free movement.
Here is my letter to her opposing this.

Hi Rachel

I read your piece in the New Statesman about ending free movement post Brexit.

As a shop steward at ****** in East Leeds and coming from Hull I also got an inkling a couple of days before the vote that Brexit was going to win. People I had helped convince vote Labour in 2015 at work and my family at home were nearly all voting out. Immigration was the number one reason. But I also represent polish workers who feel very anxious that this vote was directed at them..

I do think Jeremy Corbyn was one of the few politicians on the remain side to recognise the issue of wages and the EUs impact on working class people. I feel if the entire labour party could have got behind that we would have had a better chance.

However I think it will be the entirely wrong course to advocate the end of free movement.

Firstly in a situation of murders and attacks on the street of migrants and the far right growing across Europe, we have a duty as internationalists, socialists, progressives to stand against that. I think adopting an anti-immigration stance will undermine that and give credence to UKIP and the Tories lies.

Secondly free movement is a positive right. Our citizens enjoy it in Europe and it contributes much to our society. Ending it for people coming to Britain means ending it for people going from Britain. Also why should big business have the right to move money, goods and capital and people not have the same rights?

Thirdly You admit that the evidence is that EU migration might have a slight drag effect on wages but nothing compared to the depression of wages caused by the governments public sector pay freeze and the growth of casualization, zero hours contracts and the weakness of union’s. So ending free movement will not materially change workers conditions much if at all. If we know that to be the case we need to be honest about the true causes of growing inequality not give credence to the right wings blaming of foreigners for these massive structural issues.

Strengthening and extending collective bargaining, a real living wage properly enforced and banning Zero Hour contracts would have a massive material impact on millions of lives. We should focus on this.

Bringing back the migrant impact fund will also help.

Finally in electoral terms its not ground we are ever going to win on. Presumably you are not advocating ending immigration full stop or sending people already here home? The problem is there will always be right wing papers and right wing politicians willing to countenance this. Our anti-immigrant stance like the much derided Ed Stone will rightly never be credible because people know we don’t actually believe in it and think we should be an open welcoming country. Better to win people to our positive politics then offer a pale version of the rights rhetoric that’s not convincing.

Winning back lost working class voters in some areas is going to be hard and needs further discussion but I don’t think this route is the way will do this.


Dave K

Friday, 20 September 2013

Blurred Lines- There are better songs to sing then this

Leeds Univerity Union and several other student unions has banned the song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke being played on their premises. This is because a lot of people think the Blurred Lines Thicke is singing about is between consentual sex and rape. Thicke denies this is what its about and I have heard other interpretations. But on the whole there's no denying the songs lyrics and video are sexist.
Even if this song was more unambigously problematic I would be against supporting bans on music, films etc even if done with the best of intentions. We live in a world full of the worst most horrific injustices and crimes including rape and domestic violence. This is often reflected and re-inforced in the cultural commodities thrown at us daily.
Our role as socialists and feminists is to attack these horrors directly, point out their root causes and propose the way to make an new world out of the old. We cannot nor should we seek to hold back the tide of crap through bans. It will not work, it could work against us, and their is a real danger of being seen as Mary Whitehouse's of the left rather then fighters for human emancipation.

Whitehouse became the butt of jokes and sexist abuse partly because of her bizarre obsessions with blashpemy, her homophobia and victorian attitude towards sex but her insistance on bans meant that when in the main she objected to violent pornography and the kind of crap misogynist sit-coms the 70s seem to be full off her concerns where equally written off even when some of her criticisms in hindsight seem fair enough.
Rather then the bans, would not it be better to talk about the music we listen too or hear,  produce and promote alternative music that fights back against this shit. It can be turned round. Country music was turned into a genre defined by female singer song writers singing about their experiences rather then the dinosaur attitudes of Nashville by artists like Kitty Wells, Lorretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and K.D. Laing. Punk was transformed by the "riot girl" bands. Even in pop artists are fighting back. Check out the Micklemore song Same Love supporting gay marriage thats in the top 5 right now. Our answer to Robin Thicke and all those like him should not be to be to ban the song  but to tell people there are better songs to sing then this.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Reasons to be Cheerfull

What with all the Thatcher worship, demonisation of benefit claimants and talk of nuclear armageddon its easy to get despondent. 

Here are 4 reasons to be cheerful

1- Its sunny!

2- Despite or because of the the Maggie coverage and the exploitation of the Philpott case the Tories opinion polls have fallen further and across all the major polling bodies.They are now on 28% of the vote.

3- we are beginning to win over the Bedroom Tax both in terms of public opinion and in the pressure we are putting on Local authorities not to enforce it by re-classifying rooms as study rooms etc or evict people who cant pay is starting to tell. Large scale re-classifications and pledges against evictions by Councils and housing association are spreading.

4- Black Sabbath are reuniting.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Taking stock in the fight against austerity- part 1

This is the first part of a long look at where our movement stands in britain now. The first part looks at the general situation, the Revolutionary Left and Anti Cuts activism. The second part is going to look at the Unions, Labour Party and the wider working class. 

Since the collapse of Lehman brother's in September 2008 we have seen a unprecedented economic crisis. In Britain this as manifested itself in a shallow but destructive recession in 2009 a brief dead cat bounce from Autumn 2009-Autumn 2010 and then since then we have had on average Zero growth and seem to be heading into our third technical recession.

For the vast majority wages have fallen in real terms as rents, bills and basic costs rise far above stagnant incomes. The Resolution Foundation predicts with the continuation of austerity policies the income of the poorest workers could fall up to a 5th or 4th in real terms by the early 2020s. Unlike in previous recessions inequality is actually increasing. The rich are doing very well out of this recession with incomes of the richest 1 percent rising at unprecedented rates.

Although the position in Britain is inextricably linked to and closely aligned with the economic situation in Europe there is also the major effect of the response of the coalition government to the crisis. The Coalition government has now been in power for over 2 and a half years. The left and the labour movement needs to take stock of its response to this government and austerity and the state of its own forces. 

The politics of Austerity.

The aim of the coalition is said to be the reduction of the deficit. At this they have been wholly unsuccessful and their austerity policies and the lack of growth make the situation even worse. However austerity actually has other aims that the government is less loathe to shout about.

1- An economic policy to restore profitability to British business and the capitalist class in the long term. This plan includes explicit direct measures by reducing taxes on businesses and the rich and by gutting health and safety and other regulations. However there is a less indirect attempt to suppress wages and increase productivity. The public sector pay squeeze and limit on benefit up-rating unofficially effects the pay settlements in the private sector depressing wages below the inflation rate. The work fare scheme, the benefit cuts and general harshness of the benefit regime also pushes people in to the labour market on the employers terms.

2- An ideological and political project to undermine the pillars of the labour movement, the post war social democratic settlement and in particular the public services. This has been the conservative project from the days of Edward Heath but the economic crisis, coalition and the rhetoric of austerity allows this to be pursued with vigour at a time when the support for such neo liberal agenda is very weak. This is the reasoning behind the dismemberment of the NHS, Michael Gove’s education policy, the attacks on benefits, social housing etc. The massive sackings in the public sector also weakens the unions in their areas of greatest organisational strength.

These policies are all political risks but only in so much as the Labour and the left effectively mobilises against them and wins over millions of people.  This is so far where on the whole we have failed and we need to analyse why this is and our possible prospects for success.

The Revolutionary Left.

The revolutionary left in Britain went into the crisis in a weak state. The fall of the Berlin wall nearly 20 years earlier had ushered in a period of capitalist expansion and self confidence. All of the left wing groups in Britain that called themselves revolutionary went into decline in terms of membership, energy and influence within the working class and labour movement. The anti Globalisation movement of the turn of the millennium and the anti war movement did provide an influx of younger recruits to some left groups and provided new areas to intervene into but these gains were limited. It is fair to state however that the Socialist Party, AWL and some other groups where in a better state to intervene in 2008 then they had been since the early 1990s but this again is a very limited achievement. 

In most of the western world there had been successful or semi successful unity initiatives and re-groupments in the revolutionary left during the decade preceding the crisis. This did not happen in Britain despite several attempts to achieve unity. The most substantial being the Socialist Alliance form 2000-2004 and the SSP in Scotland. Both of these projects ended in disarray and in the case of SSP and Tommy Sheridan the fall out has severely damaged the far left politically and organisationally.

As the crisis began there were expectations that revolutionary groups would be able to grow substantially. At first this seemed to be the case for certain groups. The SP grew in size and influence, the AWL grew by a third in 2010-2011. The largest group the SWP was politically and organisationally in a bad state following their expulsion from the Respect Party. Their former leadership left the SWP after a acrimonious and disorientating faction fight and founded another group Counter-fire.

Even before the Coalition Government came to power the revolutionary left had thrown itself into the emerging anti cuts committees and to this day often provide the bodies that allow anti cuts activities to be organised. However the failure of the anti cuts movement to take off so far into a mass movement such as the Anti poll tax movement or even the early days of the stop the war movement has dashed hopes and led to a certain level of demoralisation.

One notable area where the far left did help initiate a mass revolt against cuts was in the student movement where the walkouts and marches against the scraping of EMA and the tuition fees rise initiated by the far left were beyond the organisers expectations. Even after the government pushed through these policies it left a whole layers of activists who won positions on student unions and on individual campuses are continuing to carry on the fight against cuts sometimes successfully.

A chief area of failure was in relation to the public sector pension strikes. It should have been obvious from the beginning that the leadership of the unions strategy was to go for big one day strikes and settle with the government after winning minor concessions. The revolutionary left with some implantation within unions should have prioritised rank and file organising and tried to argue for control of the strike by membership at a local level via joint strike committees and local protests. However the two groups with much weight in the unions involved, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party directed their propaganda to supporting the leaderships strategy whilst making abstract demands for a general strike. A revolutionary left that had been used to organising demonstrations and meetings with little or no support from the union leadership seemed to lose the ability to do this and instead followed the sluggish timetable of strikes and demo’s coming out of the TUC and unions but trying to be the loadest cheerleaders on those demo’s and shouting for a General Strike they knew they would not get.

The self inflicted defeat of the unions led to a period of despondency and stagnation amongst revolutionary left and in the case of the SWP probably fed into the disarray they now are in. Some groups like Socialist Appeal have decided that in this period it is better just to build their own organisation and not intervene in the anti cuts movement.

However there is no need to fatalistically assume the lack of trade union fight back condemns the far left to stagnation. This can be most plainly seen by what happened in the 1980s. Throughout the decade, the Labour Party and the Trade Unions had been on the receiving end of decisive defeats yet the revolutionary left probably reach its post war zenith in terms of membership in the latter part of the 1980s after the defeats in the miners strike, Wapping and Labours defeats at the 1983 and 1987 elections.  The far left were then decisive in defeating poll tax.

Now we are facing massive attacks on the unemployed and working poor. So far the revolutionary left has not mobilised over the “bedroom tax”, the reduction in Council tax Benefit and the 1% benefit up-rating bill in the way it did over the Tuition fees rise and the public sector pension fight. This is a damning indictment of the revolutionary left and reflects its lack of implantation within the class that it cannot see this is by far the most fundamental and destructive attack on the working class so far this crisis.  

The prospects of advancement of the revolutionary left depends on five things.
1, We need to emd the arid sectarianism and duplication of effort caused by our disunity. Genuine left unity on the basis of democracy and built through struggle would draw a whole periphery of people in who refuse to join or have fallen out of left groups. The imminent break up of the SWP and the general sentiment for unity amongst much of the left makes this a viable option but it still remains difficult to achieve.
2,  Politically the domination of sloganeering rather then genuine analysis and debate is a key problem. When the mechanistic schema of this or that trotskyist group parts company with reality it leads to despondency and disorientation that could be avoided with honest accounting and clear eyed analysis.
3, The revolutionary left does have some implantation in the unions. We need to use this to do all we can to build the rank and file. Obviously we cannot substitute for militant workers but we can use our strength in unions to run bulletins, build rank and files where they exist and making the case for members having active control of disputes.
4, Fundamentally the chief problem with the revolutionary left is its lack of implantation within the working class. There is no easy way round this but involvement in local tenants campaigns, estate sales, trying to organise the unorganised all would help this. 
5, The far left is meant to be full of idealistic radicals who want to change the world. So why do we so often seem like dour train spotters. fly posting, political graffiti, gigs, mass trespassing, red hiking groups, film showings would be a start to build the kind of political scene that draws people in. 

The Activist Groups

There is a large activist milieu that involves people coming from all kinds of different political traditions and places.  It includes Trade unionists, Social democrats, unaligned socialists, Greens, Labour lefties, Anarchists, Libertarians etc. The one thing they share is that they are organising outside of (though often alongside) revolutionary groups, the trade unions and the Labour Party.

As this group is so diffuse its difficult to tell whether it is attracting people or not. I think its likely that most people on the green and anarchist side where attracted into this scene in the period 1998-2008 through the anti globalisation and climate camp movement and since then there seems to be few new people from that scene. However there also seems to be a influx of older social democrats, socialists, labour lefties who have got active again since the crisis hit.

I think we have seen two distinct type of organisations campaigning against the cuts develop. I call these the spectacular and the substantial.
Two spectacular organisations are UK Uncut and Occupy. They are both spectacular in the sense they want to create spectacles in the situationist sense. They are also spectacular because they are the rock stars of anti cuts movements. Receiving far more press attention then the other campaigns, groups or marches combined. However they are also less substantial then they appear.

UK uncut has done many actions against tax dodging  companies, got in the headlines for doing this and is one of the success stories of the anti cuts movement. Even Ed Miliband said he sympathised with UK Uncut.  However it sees it self and is best understood as a umbrella group and a type of protest carried out by militants who on the main spend most of their time involved in other more traditional campaigns.  Its great fun to get involved with, makes good points and draws people in. In that sense it has become a key part of the anti cuts movement whilst not claiming any kind of leadership or ownership of the movement.

The other major spectacular group Occupy may share some activists and press with UK Uncut but actually it is fundamentally different. Where as UK Uncut went out of its way to link up with other groups and is aware that its just one part of a wider movement, Occupy often sees itself as the movement against cuts/austerity/ capitalism itself. Whilst the press the original London camp gained initially did have some effect in the anti cuts fight on the whole Occupy has been self destructive and has damaged decent militants and taken some of them down dangerous paths. It needn’t always have been that way. In many countries Occupy type protests linked up with trade unionists and other activists, in Britain however it went wrong on day one. The failure to occupy the space outside the stock exchange led to it re-grouping on the Steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If this was seen as a temporary stop before launching themselves against other capitalist or government institutions as a political protest this would have been fine. Instead the decision was made to stay and create this as a “space”. The meaning of the protest was subverted as it became about a tussle within the Church of England and the decision not to make demands of the government meant that the spokespeople for the camp wasted the exposure they got in the worlds media. From then on the situation degenerated. Cranks, Anti Semites and the apolitical started to descend on the camp and the leadership seemed to some believe their own self regarding propaganda and lost their message. The camp turned inwards and because obsessed with the importance of the “space” created which was after all just a pavement. Similar camps set up in different cities followed the same path. Soon all the best activists drifted away and  finally in the cold midwinter the camps died with a wimper, the entire movement lasted less then a year. Nothing remains but quite a lot of bitterness and a huge wasted opportunity.    

In most towns and cities there is a anti cuts group often formed initially by the trades council. These have always remained a key part of Anti Cuts activism and a central hub in each area this is why these groups are the substantial part of the movement. However in general they have not taken off in the way that would have been hoped. From the beginning they tended to be a sometimes uneasy alliance between the revolutionary left and local union leadership. Independent community activists often felt squeezed out. If the group survived the left wing groups tussling to get it aligned with Right To Work, Youth Fight for Jobs, People Charter or Coalition of Resistance etc (see below) another hurdle they often had to deal with was remaining relevant during the pension dispute. Often the groups just became auxiliaries during the strikes and run up to strikes, which meant there time table was set by the trade union leadership and few decisions were taken in the anti cuts group. Since the collapse of the pension dispute ant cuts groups often found themselves at a bit of a loss. However they remain centrally important and there is some signs of them sparking back in to life. Imagination and linking up with the NHS and tenant campaigns would seem to be the best way forward and the best way to get activists from and organic links with communities affected by cuts.

The most impressive and substantial activist group against the cuts is probably the various NHS groups often organised under the umbrella of Keep Our NHS public. Although the revolutionary left is involved its not dominant and it seems to have brought into activity a whole group of talented older people who may have dropped out of activity for several years. This is a developing arena of struggle but one possible pitfall is the labour party or union leadership trying to take control.

Finally a major obstacle for all the anti cuts groups of different stripes is the lack of a centralised united organisation that van help co-ordinate and call actions. Every city is seeming left to organise alone. The blame for this must surely lie with the Socialist Party, Socialist Worker Party and Counterfire. All three of them have there own undemocratic anti cuts front group that claims to speak for the movement. They all claim to be for unity of anti cuts groups but will not give up their own control. As a result It now looks like the Trade Union bureaucracy and the Communist Party in alliance with Counterfire have stepped in and are creating a Peoples Assembly Against Austerity. The problem with this is it supporters include people who have implemented and accepted cuts like the greens. The gravitational weight of an organisation with the support from the trade unions that the Peoples Assembly has makes it unlikely that a more radical genuine anti cuts national organisation can cohere.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Labour War in Western Cape

For the last few months thousands of farm workers in South Africa's Western Cape region have been on strike.
Western Cape is one of the most profitable agricultural regions in the world with its wines, grapes and apples filling supermarket shelves in Britain and around the world as part of £850 Million export industry. However the around 500,000 mainly black agricultural workers remain working in dreadful conditions and for very low pay. The mimum wage is the equivalent of just under £5 a day and most workers do not get much more then that and many less.

The workers often are poorly housed on the farms themseves as tenants. Human Rights Watch listed serious problems such as exposure to pesticides and lack of access to clean water. Sick pay is often not paid and farmers managers have moved against union organisation.

Since november a rolling wave of strikes has spread demanding a minimum wage of the equivalent of £10.65 a day. Roads have been blocked, Hundreds of strikers have been arrested and three strikers have died. So far most of the Farms have refused to meet this demand and refuse to collectively bargain and in a latest move hundreds of stikers have been sacked and evicted from their tenancies on the big estates.

Nosey Pieterse an activist with the BAWUSA union said ""I do not know how many have been sacked but in one instance, truckloads of workers were dismissed. In Wolseley, trucks drove into townships and dumped the clothes of farmworkers that had been left behind on the farm,"

The Strikers are not only figting the estate owners, they are fighting the ANC led governement that has refused to raise the minimum wage or even properly enforce existing minimum wage and tencancy rights. This should once again show those on the left in Briatin who belive South African governement is in someway progressive that the leadership of the ANC and the South African Communist Party have become brutal agents of capital.

The strikers are also fighting the multinational retailers that have benefited massively from the poor wages in Western Cape to maximise profits on wine and fruit.    

BAWUSA and several other unions are involved in these strikes and they have put out a general call for a boycott of South African wine and fruit to put pressure on this largely export led industry. Nosey Pieterse says "The government should be forcing the farmers to the table but it is not," said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the Black Workers' Agricultural Sector Union, (Bawusa). "Our only weapon left is for the foreign retailers to pledge that unless the conditions are addressed, they will no longer import South African products."

To support the striking South African workers we can and should picket the big supermarkets in solidarity with South  African workers and to help ensure strikers demands are met and sacked strikers re-instated.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Murder and Nothing Else But Murder

At least 112 workers were killed in the fire on the 24th of November at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They and dozens of others every years killed in garment factory fires were murdered both by a venal system but also by culpable individuals.

The mainly women workers in the factory were caught when a fire broke out on the ground floor of the factory. The Director of Fire Operations Major Mohammed Mabub said:
“The factory had three staircases, and all of them were down through the ground floor. So the workers could not come out when the fire engulfed the building.”
“Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower,”. 

Some workers jumped to their deaths out of window's to avoid the flames and smoke. Rescue workers have found many un-reconisable bodies so the workers families will not even have the closure of being able to bury their dead relatives.

This is merely the latest of many factory fires in the mainly export orientated garment sector in Bangladesh. At least 3.5 million workers across over 4000 factories work in the Garment Trade. 85% of these workers are women and often work up to 14-16 hour days. These garments are mainly sold to retailers in the west including companies such as Walmart (Asda), Primark, Tesco and  the Arcadia group.  

The owners of this factory and the thousands others like it in Bangladesh and the ruling class politicans of Bangladesh are guilty of murder in the name of profits. They have tolerated wilful violations of poorly enforced safety and health and conditions in the factories of Dhakha. They have not acted after previous incidents and need to be held to account for these deaths and the everyday conditions that can prove to be a slower more insidous death for malnourished overworked workers. 

The major western brands often state they inspect the factories and are intrested in improving the conditions. However these inspections are often announced allowing cosmetic changes to be made and corruption is not unknown to say the least. The prices demanded by the powerful western brands are deliberatley held down and are holding the workers in Bangladesh in misery. If a T Shirt cost £3 in British shops, you can imagine how little of that must be spent on workers wages, safety and wellbeing after the retailers, shippers, and suppliers take their cut of profits.    

Sam Mayer from Labour Behind The Labour said in a interview on the BBC World Service "after every fire we hear from the brands how sorry they are, but action is not taken.....They should be paying the price for the garment that alows factories to be decent".  

The board of Tesco, Walmart, Primark and Arcadia are well aware of the conditions within the factories and the deaths in Factory fires in the Garment industry in Bangladesh and other countries like Pakistan. They say they have acted to improve conditions but still these utterly avoidable deaths happen. As long as they extract vast profits from an industry in Bangladesh were sweatshops, long hours, pitiful pay and dreadful safety is the prevailing conditions they have blood on there hands.

In bangladesh itself unions like thre National Garment Workers Federation is organising mainy women workers for better pay and conditions and has led strikes. Only a strong workers movement there can improve these conditions. We must give pratical solidarity to these workers and aid their fight. 

However in countries like Britain we have a duty to hold the blood drenched directors of our majur retailers as complicit by failing to act wen people are being murdered in the name of profit. Our best tool is organising shopworkers and distribution workers here to fight for their own pay and conditions but also fighting with their brother and sister workers throughout the distribution chain  and building a movement that makes these executives fear the one weapon we have- solidarity

Fundamentally the economic system that rules our planet is guilty of the avoidable deaths of countless thousands of workers across the world. The only humane  and sane stance amongst such atrocity is the overthrow of the murderous rule of profit and the institution of the international rule of the working class.  

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Emile Zola's Paradise

The BBC are now doing a major adaptation of one of Emile Zola’s more neglected novel’s Au Bonheur des Dames (sometimes translated as The Ladies Paradise). This is a good excuse as any for me to wax lyrical about a great but overlooked work.

Quite a few people (especially on the left) have read Emile Zola’s novel Germinal with its grim realistic depiction of class struggle in the coalfields of Northern France. Others have also read Le Bete Humaine and Therese Raquin which are intense psychological thrillers obsessed with sex and death. Compared to these The Ladies Paradise can seem like a slight work. Its often comedic, it has a happyish ending and the one notable death in the novel is played for black comedy rather then shock, realism or horror.

Its set in an around a department dtore in Paris in the last years of the Second Empire of Napoleon III. This is the “Au Bonhuer des Dames” of the title. This vast new store is run by Octave Mouret a obsessive and innovative retail tyrant. Mouret’s great insight is that the sexual  and gender repression  bourgeois women feel can find a  momentary outlet through a fetishised experience of shopping . One of the main themes of the book is commodity fetishism to the point of erotic fetishism. Zola’s description of the displays of silks, Damasques, muslins and lace set up by Mouret in displays look like the 19th century fantasy of oriental harem’s is deeply sexualised. there is much talk of the shoppers admiring the tactile qualities of the fabrics in a obsessive way. One respectable women find herself becoming a compulsive shop lifter because of her obsession with the store and its goods.  

The hero of the book apart from the store itself is Denise Baudu a impoverished young women from the provinces. She starts work at first in her relatives shop nearby to the department store. This drapers shop like all the other shop is being driven out of business by Mouret’s vast emporium. The relatives along with the other shop keepers rail against the new store. Denise though can see the writing on the wall and does not share her relatives hatred. Much against their chagrin she takes a job in the underwear section of Au Bonhuer Des Dames. Zola’s description of working life in the department store is vivid and very recognisable; snobbery, bullying and sexual harassment from management. Then there is the Snooty and rude customers. However the other side of this is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the workers and for the women workers a level of financial and social independence unknown for the vast majority of working class women in 1860s France. The workers are also depicted as more independent then their heavily corseted, dependent and idle clients.

Most 19th century novels would have shown this vast new capitalist enterprise driving out of business the small shop keeper as a uniformly dreadful thing and side with the small shopkeeper. Zola does nothing of the sort he actually presents the going out of business of the small shops as a necessary and inevitable result of material progress. There is a blackly comic funeral of the last shop keeper in the district to hold out who is literally killed by Mouret’s endless expansion of the department store, all of the old desiccated and broken shopkeepers come out to mourn the death of the way of life of the petty bourgoise. Zola pity’s these traders but does not mourn their passing.   

However if this makes the novel sound like purely an early advocate of consumerism it misses Zola’s whole point which is informed by his radical and socialist politics. Zola in general sided with the workers against capital and particular the dehumanising and alienating effects of Capital. His socialism though was shifting and eclectic. His main influence was the utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier. Fourier was a utopian but he was not a reactionary opponent of capitalism. He believed socialism could be built on of the revolution in production and concentration of workers in large work places. He was also an early advocate of Women’s rights and even LGBT rights (in this he was in advance of  Marx and Engels). Fourier unlike Zola was also a convinced Anti Semite.  Unlike Marx he did not see the workers as the agency to bring this revolution about. Like all utopian’s he presented his blueprint for the perfect society and hoped the French government would carry out his programme.

Zola sees in the large department stores of his day the future basis for a classless socialist society. The camaraderie, the classlessness, the sexual freedom shown amongst the workers is to Zola what modern production allows us to achieve but is held back by the interests of profit, a corrupt government and a hidebound class system.  Symbolically at the end of the novel shop floor workers increasingly take over the running of the store.

The BBC adaptation shifts the action to the north of England in the 1890s. I have no problem with this kind of transposition. You could even set the novel today without loosing a lot of its meaning. However I do hope that the sense of the real possibility for a new society to built out of the old in the interests of the workers themselves is not lost.