A red pipeline, upheld by a bridge of metal cables, fades into the white mist. Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

The Global Supply Chain

Neoliberalism’s Weak Link

April 24, 2020

The vulnerability of the global supply chain has been thrown into sharp relief amid the global pandemic. But earlier this year that vulnerability was also exposed by indigenous protests and solidarity actions across Canada. John Clarke, a longstanding anti-poverty activist in Toronto, draws some strategic lessons.

In the midst of this first wave of the pandemic, with a catastrophic global economic downturn developing rapidly, it is already clear that we are entering a greatly changed period of history. Conditions of life are being transformed, in sudden and highly adverse ways, for hundreds of millions of people. We may expect the period after the initial lockdown to be marked by considerable hardship, with mass unemployment and with working class populations expected to foot the bill for the measures that have been taken to stabilize capitalism. Employers will demand wage cuts, landlords who reluctantly delayed dealing with tenants in arrears will expect to be paid in full, and governments will impose brutal attacks on public services.

It is, of course, impossible to make firm predictions about the course of events but there is no doubt that the neoliberal assault of the last several decades will seem a relatively incremental one compared to the situation now unfolding. Past gains will be attacked and millions of people will face poverty, hunger, and the threat of destitution. Last year’s global wave of protests expressed a crisis of legitimacy for the neoliberal order. In the wake of the pandemic, that crisis is likely to intensify, opening a period in which radical, transformative solutions can resonate powerfully, laying the basis for a rapid growth of mass movements. However, in such a context, the question of effective resistance will be a vital one. It is hard to convince people that a better world is possible if those running this one seem invincible. The immediate way forward must be found by demonstrating that collective action and social resistance can make a real difference.

In confronting the regressive post-pandemic political agenda, with its measures of harsh austerity and social abandonment, the forms of struggle that are taken up will be vital. If the response is limited to protests that attempt to apply moral pressure on those in power, they will fall short. Effective resistance, especially in so dire a situation, will require forms of mobilization that are profoundly economically disruptive and that can generate political crises for governments. The strike weapon, used on a generalized basis and in support of broad political demands, is the most obvious example of this but it is not the only one. Community-based forms of struggle can also be disruptive and highly effective. In the first part of this year, an Indigenous-led struggle broke out across Canada that disrupted the country’s flow of goods and services to quite a serious degree. I want to take a look at that struggle and suggest, more broadly, how the global supply chain, fashioned during the neoliberal decades, offers huge possibilities for a struggle that can create serious economic pain for our class enemies and political opponents.

Those who profit from the supply chain are quite aware of the Achilles Heel that comes along with this mechanism to intensify exploitation.

Indigenous Resistance

Early 2020 saw an upsurge of resistance to “resource colonialism” in Canada. The decision to send in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police against an encampment of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in February, who were challenging the destructive Coastal GasLink pipeline project on their traditional territory, sparked a country-wide movement of solidarity. Clearly, the scale and intensity of that resistance shook the Canadian establishment. While straightforward protest actions abounded, tactics frequently involved a level of economic disruption and an effort to delay or disrupt the flow of goods and services.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the entrance to the Fairview Cove Container Terminal was blocked. Mohawks in Kahnawake, Quebec and in Tyendinaga, Ontario staged actions that massively disrupted rail transport. In the first case, the blockade was voluntarily taken down after almost a month, while the Tyendinaga protest was confronted by a major mobilization of the Ontario Provincial Police. In British Columbia, among many acts of solidarity, the Port of Vancouver was tenaciously blocked. At one of these actions, a spokesperson articulated a sentiment that was clearly on the minds of many: “We are back at the port because we know the only language these people understand is the language of money and capital. So we will communicate in the language that they understand at the Port of Vancouver.

The economic impacts of this upsurge of resistance were, indeed, very considerable. Rail networks, both passenger and freight, were massively disrupted. Pulp and paper producers reported huge financial losses. At one point, at least sixty-six cargo ships were unable to unload in British Columbia and the president of the province’s Chamber of Shipping stated, “Those line-ups are only going to increase . . . Eventually there will be no space and they’ll be waiting off the coast of Canada, which is a situation we’d like to avoid.”

The Justin Trudeau government, a wily and duplicitous servant of Big Business, worked frantically to contain the crisis. Its objectives were to avoid an escalation of the disruptive actions, maintain dialogue, and ensure that the Coastal GasLink project was able to proceed. They agreed to long-term negotiations with the traditional leadership of the Wet’suwet’en Nation while trying to guarantee the pipeline project could proceed with minimum delay. We may suppose that the intrusion into Wet’suwet’en land will spark further resistance and, in any case, the Coastal Gaslink is but the thin end of a much larger extractivist wedge. As Todd Gordon and Geoffrey McCormack have shown, the export of environmentally disastrous oil and gas to the Asian market is a strategic priority for Canadian capitalism, and an escalating confrontation with both Indigenous land defenders and the movement for climate justice is inevitable.

The Supply Chain

Indigenous people in Canada have a long history of targeting the flow of goods and services, and the Canadian reserve system has ensured that their communities are well placed to impede road and rail transportation. However, the possibilities of such disruptive forms of action extend to a wide range of working class struggle and movements of social resistance.

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has undertaken an incredibly informative study of how the iPhone is produced. Raw materials and component parts are drawn from a range of international sites of intense exploitation. The brutal restructuring of the global workforce, during the neoliberal years, along with innovations in science, technology and productive technique, allow for the creation of a marvellously fine-tuned operation that can ruthlessly extract blood and sweat from those who produce the product. This global supply chain draws from such a wide range of sources, and has so little patience for unprofitable stockpiling, that it finds itself haunted by the ghosts of delay and disruption. The online trade magazine Manufacturing Tomorrow tells us, with regard to the self-explanatory concept of “just in time inventory” (JIT) that, “Traditionally, raw materials and inventory of finished goods were considered assets. This notion has changed because of JIT and now inventory is considered as waste or dead investment, incurring additional costs.”

Those who profit from the supply chain are quite aware of the Achilles Heel that comes along with this mechanism to intensify exploitation. There is even a publication called Supply Chain Management Review that pays close attention to the risk of “disruptive events,” real and potential, of the most varied kind. It informs us that 2018 saw “a 370% increase in Protest/Riot events” that stood in the way of finely balanced corporate enrichment.

In the very early 2000s, I had a conversation with a veteran of the great 1945 Ford Strike in Windsor, Ontario. This pivotal Canadian trade union battle culminated in a massive vehicle blockade to prevent the police from forcing a way through the picket lines. This man’s direct experience of uncompromising class struggle had made a life-long impression on him. Our conversation took place sometime after union leaders had called off the strikes and mass protests known as the Ontario Days of Action, which powerfully challenged a hard-right Ontario government during the late 1990s. We discussed how, with the use of the political strike weapon diminished for the time being, community-based forms of mobilization might still be seriously economically disruptive. He had done some research into the road link between Montreal and Mexico City, known popularly as the “NAFTA Highway.” According to him, a truck travelling the length of this route would negotiate twenty-one traffic lights—and nineteen of them were in Windsor. Whether he was correct or not, this border town remains an obvious bottleneck along a vital road link that is used to transport just in time inventory to key manufacturing hubs.

If the recent upsurge of Wet’suwet’en solidarity in Canada had confined itself to rallies and speeches, its impact would have been greatly reduced. The fact that the captains of industry saw their profits threatened made all the difference in the world.

Building Resistance

If the recent upsurge of Wet’suwet’en solidarity in Canada had confined itself to rallies and speeches, its impact would have been greatly reduced. The fact that the captains of industry saw their profits threatened made all the difference in the world. The vulnerability of their supply chains is an ironic gift of the neoliberal era that needs to be considered much more closely. In this regard, I suggest some significant considerations.

First of all, economic disruption, as a form of social action, has almost limitless possibilities. It can be taken up to win a partial struggle or adopted on a mass scale for much larger stakes. In one of the actions I was involved in during my years as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), we challenged a government cutback by taking carts full of groceries to the checkouts of a major retailer and demanding a corresponding reduction in food prices. On the scale we were able to do it, I confess it was a gesture. But a movement that could carry out hundreds of such actions could potentially win a victory.

Secondly, especially if a broad campaign is taken up, careful planning and consideration are necessary. The objective is to have the greatest possible economic impact in ways that can be sustained and intensified. It may be important to set up at a particular location and try to hold it for a sustained period, but perhaps a series of actions of shorter duration might have a similar impact without giving the state the opportunity to concentrate its forces. That means understanding the supply chain at least as well as those who have set it up and profit from it.

Thirdly, I am not suggesting for a moment such actions should replace the strike weapon. However, they could be a vital way to both inspire and augment strike action. Taken up together, the impact on the supply chain would overwhelming, since both supply and production would be blocked.

Finally, the results of effectively severing the supply chain are serious enough that those in economic and political power must respond rapidly with either concession or repression. If you are going after their vital interests, as the resistance of the Wet’suwet’en and their allies has done, the question of the political orientation of the movement, and those in positions of trust and leadership within it, is decisive. Very much like a general strike, a sustained and serious disruption of the supply chain poses questions that conservative trade union and social movement leaders are not ready for.

 

Clearly, the pandemic and the global slump make the need for effective forms of resistance all the more vital. We go into an explosive situation that cries out for uncompromising mass struggle.

Lessons from Past Struggles

In 1919, with an international working class upsurge underway that included the Russian Revolution, the leaders of the British Triple Alliance of unions, on the verge of calling a massive strike, were invited to meet with the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. The cunning “Welsh Wizard” clearly had a well-developed understanding of the nature of the trade union bureaucracy because he played his three guests like violins. According to an account of the conversation provided by the miner’s leader, Robert Smillie, the PM told them, “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. . . if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us.” However, Lloyd George went on, “if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. . . have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” “From that moment on,” Smillie related, “we were beaten and we knew we were.”

Last year, I spoke at a public meeting where I referred to this 1919 meeting. An auto worker interjected that he had been party to a conversation with several trade union leaders during the above-mentioned Ontario Days of Action who were enormously worried that the movement they had reluctantly set in motion might be reaching the point where it could actually defeat the government. This, they felt, was something they simply couldn’t countenance.

Clearly, the pandemic and the global slump make the need for effective forms of resistance all the more vital. We go into an explosive situation that cries out for uncompromising mass struggle and a political orientation that would have given Lloyd George an answer he wouldn’t have liked. It is painfully obvious that trade unions are weakened and heavily bureaucratized, that social movements are not as strong as they need to be, and that left political organizations are far too weak. However, there are times when the thinking and practice of millions of people can undergo rapid change and this could well be one of them.

I’m far from suggesting that militant action alone will be enough. The combined biomedical and economic crises, over which hang an even greater ecological crisis, speak to the need for the socialist transformation of society. This, moreover, is a time when such political thinking can resonate to a greatly increased degree. However, the starting point for mass struggle must be a hope that collective action can be effective, can turn back attacks, win victories, and ensure needs are met. There are many options and possibilities, in terms of the forms of resistance that are adopted. However, in any serious struggle against capitalism and its political agents, the cash registers are always going to be a prime target. The vulnerability of the global supply chain is just the kind of strategic consideration we must focus on if we are to fight them decisively in the battles that lie ahead.

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