In Britain, there has been a months-long dispute between rail workers and the government. The rail workers’ unions are trying to secure a raise for workers that would help them deal with the rising cost of living in the country. The government has been resisting, offering raises that don’t match inflation (and are thus effectively pay cuts) or demanding new conditions in exchange for raises (such as making people work on Sundays). Holding out for better terms, workers have engaged in repeated strike actions, resulting in serious disruption to British rail service—this past Saturday, the majority of trains in the country were out of operation.
The British government has, of course, tried to turn the public against the rail workers, by blaming them for the disruption to services. Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said before Christmas: “The unions are causing misery for millions, with transport strikes in particular cruelly timed to hit outings at Christmas.” Politico reported last month that Sunak was trying to “make union barons the bogeymen” and demanding that unions “reduce some of the misery” that the strikes inflict on members of the public who find themselves unable to travel.
Many in the British media repeat the framing. In an interview with Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT rail workers’ union, a Good Morning Britain host told the union leader: “Your strikes have cost hospitality in this country 1.5 billion pounds in December alone and [that] a huge swathe of businesses and jobs are now being lost.” (The same host previously told Lynch: “If you are a Marxist, you are into revolution and bringing down capitalism. So are you or aren’t you?”) Good Morning Britain also told Lynch that according to an oncologist: “This strike is going to cost lives. People with cancer are going to die, and they wouldn’t have done if they’d been able to get their treatment.” Another pundit said that the leader of the striking workers should “be apologizing to doctors and nurses that can’t get to hospital, patients who can’t get their operation, kids who miss out on their education.” (The most ridiculous line of questioning came from Piers Morgan, who wanted to know why Lynch has the supervillain from 1960s children’s TV show Thunderbirds as his Facebook profile picture.) A common question put to the unions is whether they expect to “lose public support” because of their strikes. (Lynch, fortunately, is a brilliant communicator who is excellent at swatting down these silly questions.)
The “you’re a Marxist revolutionary” and “you’re the villain from Thunderbirds stuff” is just silly, but something a little more sly is going on in other parts of the questioning. The framing is the strikes are causing disruption to important services, with the striking workers being asked to justify why they feel their own interests should be put above those of service workers who must use the rail network. But of course, there is an entirely valid alternate way to frame this: the government’s refusal to offer rail workers a decent standard of living is what’s causing the disruption. The strikes are a result of intolerable conditions being imposed. If no intolerable conditions had been imposed, there would be no strikes, and no disruptions. Every consequence of “the strikes,” then, should actually be seen as a consequence of government anti-worker policies that have driven people to the step of striking.
I have written before about what we might call selective agency, the idea that certain social actors are the ones who have responsibility for an outcome, even if their actions were clearly triggered by a condition created by others. For instance, there’s a contentious debate over whether Black Lives Matter protests “caused” the rise in crime in 2020. Here’s one commentator arguing that there’s “clear evidence that the current murder spike was caused primarily by the 2020 BLM protests.” The argument marshals statistics to show that following the protests, violent crime spiked in ways unlikely to be the result of anything else. The theory advanced is that “the protests caused police to do less policing in predominantly Black areas,” meaning violent crimes went unpunished and thus escalated.
We can argue endlessly about the empirical findings, and whether the role of the pandemic in driving everyone nuts is being underestimated. But let us assume for the moment that the causal sequence is accurate (I don’t think it is): the protests led to less policing which led to more violence. It is still the case that saying “the protests caused violence” is propagandistic and biased. This is because it selectively identifies certain agents as the responsible ones and ignores the contributions of others. Here’s what I mean: the protests were a response to police brutality and racism. Why aren’t the police who killed people and thus sparked protests the ones responsible? And if police stop solving violent crime in response to protests, why is that the protesters’ fault? The above-cited proponent of the “BLM caused violence” theory says that one possible explanation was that “police felt angry and disrespected after the protests, and decided to police less in order to show everybody how much they needed them.” If that theory was true, it would mean that police deliberately let people be killed in violent crimes that could have been prevented. Yet the theory is still somehow BLM caused violence, with the agency of the police undiscussed.
I have also previously discussed this ideologically-driven selective blame in the context of research into the political consequences of “violent” protests. When a scholar published an article arguing that violent uprisings in Black neighborhoods caused Richard Nixon to win the 1968 presidential election, I argued that this was a biased conclusion. Why was it the uprisings that were singled out as the cause? Why not Hubert Humphrey’s embrace of segregationists, which pissed off Black voters? Why not Lyndon Johnson’s catastrophic Vietnam war, which destroyed his presidency? Even on the assumption that the researcher has identified an accurate causal sequence—violent protests turned off white voters who switched to Nixon—why are those who were reacting to intolerable racist conditions the ones who are identified as history’s agents, with nobody else bearing any blame? Why don’t we blame the white people who reacted to the protests by calling for responding with a “law and order” crackdown rather than provision of a decent standard of living in the Black communities that boiled over with rage? Martin Luther King, Jr., famously called riots the “language of the unheard.” Riots happen when people’s demands are not being met through existing democratic processes. Surely those who are failing to hear the demands are just as responsible as those whose discontent erupts in violence.
Returning to the British labor dispute: If the government denies workers decent working conditions and fair pay, and the workers go on strike, and the strikes mean people can’t get to work or to the doctor’s office, and then someone dies because they couldn’t take a train when they really needed to, it is a biased conclusion to say that the rail workers are the cause of the death. Surely the one responsible is the party who was making the unreasonable demand (the government) and thereby sparking a strike.
Efforts to delegitimize protests, and to turn the public against them, are often very crafty. One way this is done is to get people to focus on negative effects of the protests rather than the factors that caused them, so that protesters can be blamed for something that is ultimately the fault of those who created the intolerable conditions to which protests are a response. Learn to spot this tendency so that whenever you see it, you can point the finger at those who actually deserve blame. The questions for the British government right now, for instance, are: why are you causing these disruptions and don’t you expect to lose the support of the public?