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Over the next two months of 2023, a record-breaking eighteen days of strike action has been announced by the University and College Union. The first of these – today – is the ‘Right to Strike Day’ organised by the The Trade Union Congress and involving strike action of at least five unions across the United Kingdom in tandem. It is perhaps symptomatic of the lack of opposition to capitalism in parliamentary politics in the post-Corbyn years that so much energy is being directed into unionism, but it is also cause for optimism that a solidarity between workers across divides might be possible. It is also an opportunity to remember what a strike actually is.

Way back in 2012, amid another historic series of strikes, the BBC reported a story on the confusion of children over where their food comes from: ‘cheese is from plants’, ‘pasta’s made of meat’, ‘fish fingers come from chicken’, etc. Despite the ambiguity that would have arisen over a kid hesitating an answer of ‘horse beef’ (as per another scandal of the day), we should perhaps look to certain of the tropes by which not only teachers, but the media too, explain things (both of whom being educationalists. Indeed, as is John Reith’s motto that the BBC was built on: ‘educate, inform, and entertain’). So, whereas it might seempreposterous to a certain generation to have to explain where cheese comes from, so it might to have to explain what a strike is.

The rhetorical buzzwords of ‘mass disruption’ and ‘financial cost to the country’ that media institutions such as the BBC report such events with, however, display the tendency of presenting a strike as a bizarre aberration of some kind of ‘natural order’ – which is, to be blunt, the capitalist order – recklessly implemented by irresponsible whingers, to purposefully impair real people’s important lives and business in the city. One would perhaps feel just as ridiculous and pedantic in elucidating the concept of a strike as one would that of the origin of fish fingers, but it might just be necessary in reaction to the ways in which strikes (such as the recent ones on the Tube) are being presented, and going by some of the reactions to them seen of late.

A strike is meant to disrupt things and incur unnecessary costs to those to whom the strike is opposed (i.e., employers in a position of power, who exploit that power, or have been in some way oppressive, or unfair); it is not simply the unhappy by-product of events that have taken a wrong-turn through irresponsibility, or just the selfish action of the (imaginary) ‘few’ (the workers) which affects the (imaginary) ‘many’ (the ‘country as a whole’)… In this respect – to restrike a balance in its reportage – a strike should have returned to its presentation the aspect which can demonstrate its utilisation as a plea of workers to be recognised as integral to a country as a whole, and to be treated accordingly; for themto unite as a whole, as workers; and not simply to be shown as an act of sabotage, as it often comes across.

We must be wary – in a time in which workers are becoming Turkers – of too quickly surrendering our rights as workers, pandering to the policy-makers who want to ban the right to strike, in the wake of rhetoric that tries to subtly co-opt its audience through presenting no alternative to the view that privileges the capitalist (or, rather, capitalism itself) over the worker; the bourgeoisie – to brutally reuse the language of Marx for full effect – over the proletariat. Indeed, we must be on guard against the fundamental misrecognition – the symbolic poverty – that can lead to such an occurrence as Warwick University students organising their own student-led classes as their lecturers striked (an event championed by none other than Katie Hopkin) back in 2013. Again today, media attempts to represent the devastating inconvenience caused by strikers need to be demystified: these are events caused by the ongoing failure of capitalism to recognise the integral role of its workers a decade later.

As Félix Guattari put it: ‘it is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity.’ Indeed, it appears we might now have to defend against the risk of losing with the word the very concept of solidarity itself.

A version of ‘What is a Strike?’ first appeared in Everyday Analysis, Turking to Twerking (Zero Books, 2015).