Thursday, November 01, 2007
A route to sanity. posted by Richard Seymour
Whatever happens to Respect will be far from satisfactory, but the disorienting effect of this crisis leaves us with some important work to do, whatever side of the dispute one is on. (In this regard, the highly apolitical and slightly psychotic tone of discussion on some blogs, coupled with the total failure to integrate it into a broader conjunctural analysis, reflects serious political immaturity including from people who have every reason to know better). We have a number of tasks in the immediate term, which we can separate formally as long as we recognise their interdependence in practise. First of all, the struggle against the Royal Mail deal among postal workers is crucial. If the posties accept this deal, it is a serious defeat, because the deal rolls back fundamental conditions and entitlements and reclaiming the lost territory will be immensely more difficult in the future than it is now. The postal workers need to be convinced that a) they can beat management and their New Labour backers, and b) they are far better freeing their political fund than pouring it into the pockets of the government bullies. The more successful their struggle with Royal Mail management, the more confident they will feel about breaking with New Labour. A success for the postal workers would also resonate more broadly in the organised working class, since this argument about the political fund is crucial everywhere - the crisis of Labourism is a fact regardless of anything else that happens. New Labour's strategy for overcoming this is undoubtedly to break the resistance to Brown's pay cuts and instil a deep pessimism in the labour movement, which they hope will reconcile workers to paying for the Labour Party's election campaigns. In that way they can also push through further privatisation and neoliberalism. So, the postal workers dispute taps into a whole range of issues about pay, working conditions and public service provision in Britain - it taps into the fact that workers have a very different idea about how Britain should be than New Labour does.
Secondly, the antiwar movement is obliged to kick it up a gear. Recent polls suggest that 52% of Americans would back a strike on Iran: the hysterical propaganda about Iran's genocidal nuke threat (repeated by Blair recently) is having some successes. The American election campaign has been characterised by threats to Iran from both Hilary Clinton and Rudi Guiliani, the two front-runners, and the latter's campaign team is populated by neocon purveyors of sordid Islamaturgy such as Norman Podhoretz. The Bush team clearly want to discipline the Iranian president, and the recent intensification of sanctions was a clear message of this intent. There was much hilarity at Horowitz's "Islamofascism Awareness Week", but the fact is that every week is "Islamofascism Awareness Week", because there is hardly a day that goes by without a big, mainstream publication in Europe and America attacking Islam and outlining the clash-of-civilisations thesis, or 'exposing extremism' in mosques or something of that kind, and all for the purpose of providing a spurious consistency to a foreign policy determined by the exigencies of power. Yet, the American Left has its strengths. For example, Cindy Sheehan is effectively utilising the attempt by liberals to sentimentally coopt her for a domesticated antiwar critique to push a much more radical message. And in Britain, the StWC remains very strong and very broad. Though its members range well beyond the organised left, it is the organisational lynchpin for the Left. Its 'Troops Out' call is probably the most popular political slogan in Britain today, and the antiwar movement has been the root and cause of a profound crisis of legitimacy for the governing party. New Labour's third election victory was so hollow and so inauspicious and contained so many stunning reversals (yes, indeed, not least in Bethnal Green & Bow), that it didn't look like much of a victory at all. Brown has been forced to make some concessions on withdrawal, and a quiet mutiny is being reported among the troops. Yet, Brown is likely to go along with any American attack on Iran, and so we have to be prepared for sustained civil disobedience in the event of such an action.
The antiwar movement also intersects with the need to defend Muslims and, relatedly, immigrants. David Cameron's recent rightist lurch on this is probably produced by a structural impasse for the Conservatives - Tory England is dying on its arse, but the conservatives can't effectively take the 'centre ground', and nor can they really criticise the government on any of the points on which they are truly weak. Attacks on immigrants as a source of social breakdown are vicious, but also somewhat desperate, and don't reflect the confidence of possessing an attractive political programme. (This doesn't mean, of course, that they can't be effective). The strongest riposte to establishment racism has been grassroots solidarity in the antiwar movement, which threw all the suburban car-washing bastards into the streets with the multicultural urban working class, and produced forms of conviviality and, er, respect that has acted as a prophylactic against the 'populist' (racist) right. Were it not for the antiwar movement's sharp intervention after, say, 7/7, I'm convinced that gnashers like Melanie Phillips would have the run of things (well, maybe a slight overstatement, but only slight).
Electoral activity has to be part of this, but not electoral activity as an autonomous component, independent of the attempt to break the hold of New Labour on the organised working class or of sustained antiwar mobilisation. That would subordinate important struggles to the logic of electoralism, which is a sure route to political timidity and accomodation. If one thing characterises the current period of British politics, it is disillusionment with the same-old-same-old style of the main three parties who speak in the language of different policy flavours while proposing similar policy substance. Part of the reason they do this is because they treat politics as a multi-layered psephological operation - radical politics is not an appealing option if you're obsessed with key marginals, not pissing off important constituencies, getting the newspapers onside etc. It's not possible to conduct an electoral campaign with a Beautiful Soul and clean hands, but it is essential to ensure that the politics of the movement drive the electoral campaign, rather than the other way about. If you look at Respect's campaigns, there has always been an effort to infuse them with the politics, ethics and aesthetics of the movements of which it is a tributary. (Aesthetically, holding open space rallies, and putting up handmade banners of the red and green all over the place, have been a way of accentuating the fact that Respect is a movement coming from up from the streets.) Dave Allen used to say that the first response you'll hear if you ask someone for directions in the Republic of Ireland is "I wouldn't start from here". No one would start from here, but whatever emerges from the current bitter struggle, the route back to sanity is signposted by the antiwar movement and the labour movement.