Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Resisting the recession

Amid the slaughter in Gaza, and the opposition to it, this may seem like an odd issue to raise. Fantastic mobilisations have occurred in response to Operation Cast Lead. But how on earth can one 'resist' a recession? Surely it is a force over which we have precious little control, almost a force of nature? There is a tendency to be paralysed by the incessant haemhorraging of jobs, and the lack of confidence in one's ability to do anything about it leads to the hope for the state to intervene in such a way as to counter the slump. Moreover, Gordon Brown's vaguely left feint and sudden rediscovery of the Keynesian lessons of his youth has bolstered this tendency and improved the standing of trade union leaders who don't want to do anything to weaken a Labour government. Unions, instead of demanding reforms to redistribute wealth and nationalisation to protect jobs are looking to protectionism to save the economy - despite the fact that protectionist measures are, on the whole, unlikely to work. The soft left hail the death of New Labour, despite the ascendancy of the Blairites, without sufficiently taking the point that the government is continuing with its punitive roll-back of the welfare state, which will have the effect of increasing the reserve army of labour and thus lowering the cost of labour to capital: a classic neoliberal measure. The government, in a bid to create 100,000 jobs, now offers employers a £2,500 'golden hello' if they take on the long-term unemployed. But similar deals (the 'New Deal' after 1997, for example) have failed to work. Brown's Lazarus-like revival since the Lehman Brothers collapse still leaves the Tories ahead in the polls, but it does reflect the fact the fact that voters have far less confidence in Cameron's ideas than in New Labour.

In this context, the prospects for resistance can look bleaker than they are. Yet, we have had the sudden re-emergence of the Italian left from the doldrums after its defeat last year and the horrifying rise of the far right. We have seen Greece explode in angry protests and mass strikes - nominally over the murder of a young protester by cops, but involving all sorts of issues from low pay to cut-backs in education and pensions. We have seen a rising tide of strikes in Ireland, as the government has been under extraordinary pressure from business to slash public spending and reduce the public sector wage bill by up to 17bn euros. The finance minister Brian Lenihan is planning huge cuts in public sector employment, but this has provoked the unions into taking a tougher stance. In the UK, some of this has been forestalled by the government's pledge to bring forward public sector spending plans, but the plan is to follow this up with an aggressive attack on such spending, far larger than anything accomplished under Thatcher. But as the recession bites, there is no reason to believe that people can't resist here.

The obstacles to this are obviously not just 'union bureaucrats', or even the left-wing of the union bureaucracy which helped stifle the public sector pay revolt over the last year. They could only get away with this, against the votes of members, because those members don't have the confidence to resist. This surely has its origins in the effects of the Thatcherite attacks on organised labour in the 1980s. The argument that keeping Labour in will hold back the tide somewhat and ensure a minimally socially just response to the crisis has some temporary pull. And then there is the ever-present threat of the far right. As the crisis deepens, the appeal of arguments blaming 'economic migrants' is likely to increase and, if history is any guide, the government will be the most craven in capitulating to such arguments. Brown may revisit his 'British jobs for British workers' spiel. To the extent that this gives the far right any traction at all, it will weaken the chances of resisting job losses and pay cuts.

Though the record of economic augury is marked with embarrassing failure, there is a general acceptance that this is not going to be the short-lived crisis that the government is betting on. It doesn't do to second-guess such a complex system, but the fact is that the main means by which capital has restored its profitability and overcome its difficulties since the Seventies - that being debt, and often mortgage-backed debt - has just collapsed. This could be a U-shaped recession, or an L-shaped one, but the V-for-victory slump that the Brownites hope for looks more unlikely by the day. The polarising effects of such a crisis increase the unpredictability of its political effects, but it also increases the likelihood of some sudden explosion, whether that takes the form of riots, factory occupations, resistance to home repossessions or something else. The examples I raised above, from Greece, Italy and Ireland, show how quickly this can spread.

From the above, slightly perambulatory, discussion, I draw a few conclusions. First of all, there is no strict opposition between antiwar activity and resistance to job losses. I don't just mean that the confidence and anger from one can feed into the other. It is also the case that a self-confident antiwar movement that brings Muslims into confident political militancy also diminishes the prospects of the far right and improves the general terrain in which the radical and far left operates. Secondly, resisting the recession means opposing the fascists. They are good at misrepresenting their position, pretending to be economic populists when in fact they are ideologically opposed to trade unions and public services. Their attempt to usurp any anticapitalist dynamic has to be broken. And since the BNP are now aggressively championing Israel's assault on Gaza, I should point out that I don't respect their 'right to exist'. (A minor side-point here: the fascists have been very clever at using the internet and online media to disseminate their talking points. The antifascist movement has been less good at this, and we need to up our game. When the next Love Music Hate Racism carnival hits Stoke, right at the centre of the BNP's current 'stronghold' (for want of a better word), you can be sure that there will be glorious photographs and updates posted on the day to Flickr and on the LMHR website, but that pattern has to be repeated when UAF hits the ground. Just a thought.) Thirdly, the more that New Labour's remedies show themselves to be bankrupt, the more likely it is that the union leaders will be under pressure to back some sort of militancy. But to the extent that we cannot depend on this, we are going to need to find a generalised political expression of those demands that can unite a broad coalition. This isn't going to come by diktat, but by experimentation both locally and nationally. We also need to be attentive to the initiative of those who aren't organised in official labour movement forums. When those Woolworths workers in Liverpool did the conga line out of their livelihood and into unemployment, it was one of the most depressing spectacles of the recession. Don't get me wrong: there is something life-affirming and defiant about meeting doom in that way, but how much more so it would have been if they had said "we are not going to let you do this to us", and just bloody occupied the place. And that can, and probably will, happen in the future.

As you were.