1960s >> 1969 >> no-774-february-1969

The Shrike is a Smallish Bird

The Shrike,
or Butcher-Bird, is a smallish bird of fairly wide distribution throughout the world. Its main colouration is black, white and red. It lives on a varied diet of large insects, small lizards, mammals and birds. Having little holding power in its weak feet these birds impale their living victims upon nearby thorns: then at leisure they tear to pieces their victims in order to feed themselves and their young. So much for a little bit of nature study.

In social life we find something of a parallel. The social shrike is the master class and is also coloured black, white, red, and, in addition, yellow. And its victims? Well during December 1968 one of these, the Melbourne Tramway employees’ union, found itself impaled upon the spike of $1,000 a day fine for every twenty-four hours, or part thereof, of the strike continuation. And bit by bit the union principles, strength and dignity is bitten off while thus impaled. The case upon which we are commenting arises from a dispute over a tram driver who is accused by the Union of scabbing during a stop-work meeting. Male and female conductors refuse to work with him and request that he either be transferred or dismissed. With this request the Tramway Board (another “socialist” institution) refuses to comply. As each conductor thus refuses duty he or she is stood down without pay. Also each one is liable to $100 a day fine for indiscipline. The union, impaled as it is, is quite helpless to organise their undoubtedly superior numbers to aid their individual members subjected to victimisation and isolation.

Here, however, ends the similarity between the Capitalist Shrike and the one of nature. The living victims of nature’s Butcher-bird are presumably unwilling to be impaled and then helpless to prevent themselves being torn apart piece meal. Those victims of the Shrike of modern society however, clearly reveal they are willing to allow themselves first to be impaled and then rendered member from member. For in election after election. Federal, State and Council, these workers in their immense superiority of numbers vote for the continuation of the Shrike Victim System—for the capitalist wage labour system. Thus declaring their willingness to continue as the victims of this social drama.

Another difference too, is that the natural Shrike feeds directly off its immediate victims; the social shrike feeds off surplus or unpaid labour of the victim class. This surplus or unpaid labour when suitably transformed into sociably acceptable terms becomes rent, interest, profit, dividends.

Nor is it only the Melbourne Tramways’ Union that is impaled upon a $1,000 a day fine for each day of strike action. All Australian Labour unions are similarly threatened and many have experienced this impalement. Some of them so often have been fined this full amount that they are hopelessly indebted to the Commonwealth Government for many thousands of dollars. The Tramway Union itself is financially bankrupt on this account; and this perhaps. is the reason why it is inhibited, apparently disheartened and apathetic. But then of course this goes for all unionism, aggressive or otherwise, which commits itself to maintaining an economic policy where wealth is produced in commodity form, and remains indifferent or antagonistic to the class call of common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of wealth production and distribution.

The idea of a wagelcss, moneyless society terrifies the victims, up till now at any rate, as much as it does the Shrike. After all, how would the latter get his living without surplus labour to feast upon? We can understand his resistance to social revolution — even though he must speed it on — the Shrike is conscious of class interests. We also understand the resistance of the victims to this same change and this is due to his ignorance of his class position.

While unaltered the Shrike and its victims in nature continue, the social shrike will continue only as long as its social or class victim permit.

C. Peter Furey.
(Socialist Party of Australia).