Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tory lead collapsing? posted by Richard Seymour

The Sunday Times' latest poll has the Tory lead down to 2% which, even if not reproduced uniformly in a general election, would produce a Labour minority government. The change is produced by a drop in the Tories' support from 39% to 37%, and a rise for Labour from 33% to 35%, thus cutting a six point lead to a 2 point lead. The change in each party's standing is in the margin of error (this is how it works, right?), so this probably an outlier. But it does fit into a broader trend of Labour recovery, and it does add to the indications that the Tories' lead was always fragile, and their support reluctant. Polls have shown that 82% of voters want 'change' in the government, but just over a third of voters think the Tories are that change. Some commentators had wondered if the entertaining pseudo-revelations of Blairite gossip columnist Andrew Rawnsley would land a fatal blow on the Brown government. This is possibly because of a natural tendency to overestimate the prestige in which the public hold their profession. But Brown's alleged personality defects probably only register in the public mind as the first vaguely interesting thing that has ever been known about him. And I can't help thinking that it helps Brown to remind people of his long overdue coup against his emetic predecessor.

Another thing to bear in mind is that Yougov has consistently given Labour a better rating than other polls such as Angus Reid and ICM in the recent period. On the other hand, Yougov also has a reputation for accuracy as a result of more closely predicting election results than other agencies, so my suspicion is that the Tory leads have been exaggerated in other polls. Also of interest is the fact that on several important indicators, particularly the economy, the Tories have lost a hard-won advantage. The attacks on Tories as spending slashers, upper class scum, millionaires out to reduce taxes on the rich, etc., is working. 'Class war', though denounced by the Tories, some Blairites, and every respectable newspaper columnist and leader-writer in the land, is an effective electoral strategy.

Interestingly, the Tories may have been following the advice of MigrationWatch in pushing some dog-whistling about immigration, despite strenuous denials that the issue is a central theme of theirs. Essentially, they want to allow the grass-roots to use the issue as much as possible, without tarnishing the national campaign with racism in the way that the disastrous 2005 campaign was. Previous polling shows that this is the one issue on which a plurality trusts the Tories to do what the majority want. They don't trust them to fix schools, look after the NHS or represent all groups in society equitably (whatever that would mean). But they trust them to smack black people around. All these years, all those Cameronite cries of 'change', all the soft focus touchy-feely hug-a-hoody compassionate conservatism sales pitches, and the Tories are still the nasty party. That's not just their Unique Selling Point, it's their only selling point, and they just can't seem to shake it off.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Left Forum 2010 posted by Richard Seymour

I will be speaking at the Left Forum again this year, talking about Obama's wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Not sure of the exact schedule as yet, but I'll keep you posted. I will also be speaking at the Oxford Radical Forum at Wadham College on the cheering subject of David Cameron on Saturday 6th March, 4.45pm. I will also be participating in one of LSE's workshops on 'Kelsen, Schmitt, Arendt, and the possibilities of international law' next Friday, from 9am to 6pm. There are other talks coming up, which I will keep you posted on.

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On ruling class anti-racism posted by Richard Seymour

Occasionally, if you open the Economist or the FT, you'll read an argument that runs something like this: people shouldn't be bigoted toward immigrants, because by they do jobs that British workers won't do for pay that British workers won't accept. In a similar way, you often hear members of the Institute of Directors or the CBI explain that 'globalisation' and international outsourcing is an excellent thing because it gives jobs to hard-working people in Third World countries who work much harder, and are much less demanding, than spoilt, recalcitrant Western workers. This is the zenith of ruling class anti-racism, and it's just another argument for exploitation. And it is, of course, deeply racist toward the recipients of its supposed benediction.

I mention this by way of introducing a popular BBC programme that aired the other day, called The Day The Immigrants Left. Featuring the economics commentator from Newsnight:

This programme begins with a series of vox pops involving working class, usually unemployed, white people regurgitating scaremongering headlines. The explicit remit of the programme is to challenge the racism of those workers by proving to them that they couldn't do the jobs that immigrant workers do. It essentially shares the purview of the employers of migrant labour, who explain that they would be out of business if they had to recruit from the local unemployed. Of course there's a heavy selection bias in the programme, because it can only feature those employers of migrant labour who are happy to have their workplaces filmed and have their practises discussed on air. And the programme backs up their claim that the reason they have turned to migrant labour is because, somehow and at some point, local workers just stopped being interested in such jobs and opted for the dole instead. Unemployment, in this light, is voluntary, and arises from some sort of psychic shift in the workforce. The truth behind this convoluted tale is much more simple: the politico-legal oppression of migrant workers makes the cost of their labour (ie, the cost of reproducing their labour) much less expensive, and it usually works to render those workers much more submissive. Employers like that.

Historically, systems of migrant and segregated labour work very similarly in that the costs of reproducing their labour power are reduced by the conditions of oppression. In pre-apartheid South Africa, for example, segregated and migratory labour were combined. African workers were imported from the rural economy, housed in cramped, collective living quarters, fed a standardised diet purchased in bulk, and transported collectively to the mineral mines (where they were admitted only to the most menial jobs on account of 'colour bar' policies). They may have had a family to support, but not in the city centre, and thus the remittance they needed to provide their family with was not elevated by city prices. All of this was much less expensive than the process of feeding, housing and transporting the white workers who lived in individual houses in the Witwatersrand core with high rents, ate in individualised units, had families to support and travelled individually. Hence, the politico-legal oppression of African workers meant that the cost of reproducing their labour was reduced, thus increasing profits.

In today's migration economy, similar principles apply. Migrants often have shaky legal status, even if they have documentation. The TUC points out that even where the legal status of migrant workers is insuperable, they are made unaware of their rights and are usually unable to enforce them short of high-risk militancy. This is a situation that is maintained on purpose as it provides low cost labour to both private and public sector institutions. Most migrants live in cramped, collective accomodation, are transported collectively, eat collectively, and any families they support are based in poorer countries where average incomes and prices are lower, thus reducing the amount of any remittance that needs to be sent. Hence, the cost of their labour is reduced. This means that more jobs are created that otherwise could not possibly have been created. The effect of the last big wave of labour migration in the UK, consistent with this outline, was to increase total employment without decreasing unemployment or job vacancies. New jobs were created because employers could afford the cheaper labour, but the old jobs were not filled because they weren't available to migrant workers and because a set of geographical and skill factors excluded local workers from taking those jobs.

What this means is that British workers could not, even if they were masochistic enough to want to, work in the same conditions that most migrant workers have to accept. To attempt it would be to attempt a perverse hoax in which one abandoned one's status as a British citizen, fled with one's family to a relatively poor country and gained citizenship there, accepted lower living standards, and then left one's family behind to try to get into the UK, legally or otherwise. Oh, and one would have to forget almost everything one had ever learned, because the first sign that one was socialised in the UK might alert any handler or employer that there's something awry. And the only thing that one would learn from such zaniness is that a worker's position in the global labour market is socially produced, maintained by politico-legal institutions and social forces much larger than any individual worker. The cost of labour is determined by all of these factors, and unemployment is not voluntary. The BBC's programme is an argument for exploitation.

One last point. Ruling class ideology on this subject oscillates between two mutually reinforcing poles. On the one hand, there is a patronising concern for the 'white working class', which scapegoats migrants, black people and 'politically correct' policies for the supposed alienation of white workers from politics. On the other hand, there is a condescending endorsement of the 'work ethic' of immigrants, as if their oppression and exploitation was a fact about their personalities or culture. From a different perspective, this attitude also blames immigrants, in this case for being more available for undignified, hyper-exploitative, low-paid labour than their local counterparts. What neither attitude can admit, what the ruling dogma can never allow, is that workers of whatever status have more in common with one another than with their bosses.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Proletarianization praxis posted by Richard Seymour

IT workers: de-skilled, de-professionalised, subject to intensifying supervision and lower wages:

The image of work in the IT industry is dominated by the clever nerd lacking social skills and the highly paid consultant.

Yet recent months have seen Unite members in Fujitsu staging the first ever national strikes in IT, over jobs, pay and pensions. A group of Unite members in Hewlett-Packard (HP) have won union recognition and, after a one-day strike, a 2.5 percent pay rise. PCS members in HP also struck over pay and jobs. Union organisation has now increased across IT.

Many organisations now outsource IT work. Mergers mean services are dominated by a few multinationals, like BT, HP, Capita, IBM, Fujitsu, Cap Gemini, Accenture, CSC, Atos Origin and Steria.

As the industry has matured there are fewer products and services built specifically by one company or for just one customer. Competition is based more on price than functionality. Likewise, the job skills in the industry are increasingly standardised. Many IT workers are periodically transferred between companies as part of outsourcing contracts - staff are bought and sold like equipment and orders.

Greater price competition leads to relentless cost-cutting drives and working staff harder for less pay and benefits. Standardisation of skills is reducing workers' ability to resist this individually. As jobs become less individual, less creative, less rewarding and increasingly routine, supervision intensifies. Clocking in and out of work was scrapped decades ago, but many now have to complete "timesheets" to account for what they've been doing. Failure to submit timesheets leads to disciplinary action. Many mobile engineers have tracking devices fitted in their cars and call centre staff are often monitored by the second. Pressure on productivity and cost often leads to bullying...

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Narrowing Tory poll lead doesn't mean a 'hung parliament' is likely posted by Richard Seymour

Polls are now consistently showing a reduction in the poll lead enjoyed by the Tories from double digits to single digits, now at about 7%. That's still a big lead, but the assumption of the newspaper headline writers is that the Tories need a bigger swing to win an outright majority. Thus, the spectre of a 'hung parliament' has been raised. Martin Wolf of the FT would be happy to see a coalition government, perhaps styled on Germany's recent experience with the 'Grand Alliance'. One can certainly see why: it would enable the political class to consolidate their minority consensus in favour of some form of fiscal contraction, thus edging out all signs of popular dissensus on the question. But it isn't going to happen, and here's why.

Labour's recovery is based substantially on the germinal economic recovery, which is the number one issue concerning voters - 56% say it's one of their top three issues (see figures). But issue number two is - disgracefully, and entirely New Labour's fault - asylum and immigration, with 43% saying it's a top three issue. That issue will almost certaily be prominently pushed in the marginals, where it might actually trump the economy with some middle class voters. And the marginal constituencies are where the Tories need to make gains, not in Labour 'heartlands' where its support is slightly hardening in response to the naked class aggression in Tory policies. The reactionary think-tank MigrationWatch UK got Yougov to carry out a push-poll in the key marginals for Labour and Liberals in the coming election, and it basically found that most of those voters are hysterical over the issue of immigration, trust the Tories most to handle the issue, and would be more likely to vote for any party that promised severe crackdowns. We will undoubtedly see cack-handed attempts by Liberals and Labour to pander to such bigotry, but only the right-wing parties can benefit from this game, and in the marginals the beneficiaries will be the Tories.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and election day. The Greek general strikes may presage a broader European labour insurgency against austerity measures being pushed through by mainstream parties, as the Indie claims today. Anything that pushes the economy and public opposition to spending cuts to the top of the agenda can damage the Tories - unless, of course, that 'thing' is a speculative attack or a new lurch into negative growth. But at the moment, the figures still point to a Tory majority come 6 May.

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News of the screwed posted by Richard Seymour

It's good to see News of the World get a bit of a leathering over its phone tapping from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. It's also good to see that some MPs are being a little bit less slavish toward the Murdoch oligopoly than is usually the case. The Sun is suitably outraged. There is presumably an element of New Labour hitting back after Rupert shifted his support to the Tories. Previously, the government would have gone to all lengths to protect this newspaper. This is a marginally healthy development, since New Labour's snug relationship with the Murdoch press has been one of the more repellent symptoms of its political degeneration. And I do take a small measure of personal satisfaction in this, since News International once threatened to sic the corporation's legal dogs on me.

However, the report also implicates the Metropolitan Police and PCC in a refusal to investigate the evidence. The PCC was predictably receptive to the Murdoch paper's official version of events. It is a body run by establishment figures and dominated by the newspaper industry, and even though its rulings have no legal power, it generally interprets its codes to accomodate the interests of big publishers (as per the case of Jan Moir's inaccurate homophobic tirade). Meanwhile the police simply refused to pursue the evidence on unsatisfactory grounds (a desire to protect politicians implicated from unwelcome public scrutiny, and a wish to pursue the most substantive charges), the effect of which was to support NotW's "rotten apple" story. This looks very much like parts of the establishment looking after one of its own. The remit of the report is also much broader than issues to do with the phone tapping scandal. The problem of vexatious injunctions being sought, and delaying appeals processes being engaged, to protect powerful entities such as Trafigura from scrutiny, is raised. There is also the issue of how papers conducted themselves during the crusade over a missing white girl (Marilyn, was it? Maudie? Maudlin? Something like that), especially in light of the papers repeatedly losing libel suits to the parents of the missing munchkin. Various recommendations, bearing on the interpretation of privacy laws, the avoidance of illegitimate injunctions, the strengthening of the PCC, and the upholding of 'standards' are made, some of them positive, most of them actually deferring the issue to parliament.

One hesitates to endorse any process that might give apear to give credibility to Britain's onerous libel laws. Any strengthening of privacy laws will undoubtedly be used to silence legitimate criticism, or engage in vexatious law suits against minor publications, bloggers, etc. And any power that the PCC accumulates as a result of these findings is unlikely to be used to the disadvantage of the major publishers, since the PCC a) only responds to a very limited number of cases, b) usually refuses to pursue complaints by members of the public unless some principals involved in the story support the complaint, and c) usually finds in favour of the papers it represents and supposedly regulates. But a number of real problems with the rabid conduct of the scum British press are at least identified, and the present situation in which newspapers can break the law often with impunity, bully usually powerless members of the public, defame victims, harrass minorities and print fanciful and scaremongering lies about them (consider the recent Glen Jenvey scandal, which was exposed by Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads) is patently indefensible.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Sleazy bastards posted by Richard Seymour

I couldn't give a toss about the problems of Gordon Brown. He might be a socially dysfunctional and psychologically impaired bully, as the socially dysfunctional psychologically impaired sociopathic Tory scumbags would like us to think, and he might not be. I can't be more even-handed than that. But I am interested in the fact that an entity that is supposedly an anti-bullying charity has popped up to capitalise on claims that Brown is a bully, claiming to have received phone calls from Number 10 staff, and now turns out on closer inspection to be quite a dodgy enterprise.

The Tory Troll believes that the 'charity' may in fact be run by sympathisers with the Conservative Party, which seems likely, but far more interesting is the information he digs up at this link. The gist of it is that the co-founders of the National Bullying Helpline 'charity', Christine and David Pratt, also run a company called HR & Diversity Management. The two entities appear to be in some way connected. The 'charity' protests that it is in no way a profit-generating enterprise for HR & Diversity Management, arguing that the company in fact funds the charity. The trouble is that the charity promises to help employees who are bullied by arranging for an independent investigation of their claim. Since the charity cannot itself carry out such an independent investigation, it has to direct people to seek the services of HR & Diversity Management. Its "FREE" (mark the bold capitals) step-by-step guide instructs employees to approach management and request that a third party (can you tell who it is yet?) be brought in to conduct an independent investigation, assuring them that a positive approach that avoids employment tribunals will be welcomed by managers.

Punchline: once you've approached this 'charity' with your problem, and been referred to HR & Diversity Management, the company won't even necessarily take your side. You see, they have a pitch for employers, which is to the effect that they can spot a vexatious complaint, know how to bolster a company's legal defence, and can get employees to accept an inexpensive third party agreement. They're being employed by the company, you see. It's their interests they're ultimately looking after. So, is it just possible that these people, who some might characterise as grasping cut-throat bastards, (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not), have contrived to take advantage of 'revelations' about Brown being a bad-tempered weirdo by claiming (perhaps falsely, perhaps not), that staff at Number 10 called them up, in order to get more people to foolishly trust the Pratts' 'charity' and thus the Pratts' business with their problems? I wouldn't dream of declaring my opinion on this matter out loud, but I'm certainly thinking it loudly.

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Wipe out the untermenschen posted by Richard Seymour

Harvard fellow Martin Kramer has a few ideas about how to deal with those pesky Palestinians:

A fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Martin Kramer, has called for "the West" to take measures to curb the births of Palestinians, a proposal that appears to meet the international legal definition of a call for genocide.

Kramer, who is also a fellow at the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), made the call early this month in a speech at Israel's Herzliya conference, a video of which is posted on his blog ("Superfluous young men," 7 February 2010).

In the speech Kramer rejected common views that Islamist "radicalization" is caused by US policies such as support for Israel, or propping up despotic dictatorships, and stated that it was inherent in the demography of Muslim societies such as Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. Too many children, he argued, leads to too many "superfluous young men" who then become violent radicals.

Kramer proposed that the number of Palestinian children born in the Gaza Strip should be deliberately curbed, and alleged that this would "happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies to Palestinians with refugee status."

Due to the Israeli blockade, the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza are now dependent on UN food aid. Neither the UN, nor any other agencies, provide Palestinians with specifically "pro-natal subsidies." Kramer appeared to be equating any humanitarian assistance at all with inducement for Palestinians to reproduce.

He added, "Israel's present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim -- undermine the Hamas regime -- but if they also break Gaza's runaway population growth, and there is some evidence that they have, that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men." This, he claimed, would be treating the issue of Islamic radicalization "at its root."

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Reformism and the working class posted by Richard Seymour

In a previous post, I gave a terse, tart account of some of the Eurocommunist arguments against left-wing challenges to Labour. You might ask why anyone would take electoral advice from Eurocommunists, since their movement saw two of Europe's largest communist parties in the post-war period, the Italian and French parties, suffer precipitous declines. But these arguments were made when the Socialist Alliance was launched, and repeated when Respect was set up. They continue to have some traction in parts of the Left. I was drawing mainly on the arguments of Eric Hobsbawm against the Communist Party left in the 1980s. Hobsbawm was more nuanced than most of his co-ideologues in that he rejected accounts of the 'new middle class' which claimed that the working class was in a minority. These arguments, as E M Wood has suggested, involved "nothing less than a redefinition of class itself", and thus a revision of the whole marxist conceptual apparatus.

Nonetheless, though Hobsbawm was careful not to entertain this wholesale revision, he did share with the Eurocommunists the contention that the working class alone was not a sufficient social basis for socialism to advance, and that an alliance with progressive sectors of the middle class was necessary. This was because that sector of the working class which was ready to support socialism was too small. The working class, even if it formed a majority, was too conservative in the main to swing behind a more radical alternative, so any attempt to create one amounted to dangerous adventurism. All sorts of left-wing theories have been devised to account for the supposed conservatism of the British working class, but it has been assumed to be real enough. Thus, for example, Perry Anderson maintains that the conservatism of British workers has to do with the mediocrity of its bourgeois revolution, which failed to destroy many of the lineaments of feudalism, the emergence of a proletariat before mature socialist theory emerged to guide its practise, which left it vulnerable to combined aristocratic and bourgeois reaction, and the impact of imperialism on the organised left. Without wishing to demur entirely from the latter point, I wish to establish that two sorts of arguments used to bolster reformism - 'middle class majority' and 'conservative working class' - are in error. The former, I maintain, rests on a conflation of class with status, while the latter makes illegitimate inferences from the outcomes of class struggles to establish the supposed conservatism of workers.

First of all, attempts to establish the contours of class in Britain today are obscured by an over-reliance on income data, life-style indicators, and status indicators. Measurements of class tend to treat classes as objects that can be arithmetically counted if enough appropriate indicators are taken into consideration. For example, the government's annual Labour Force Survey (LFS) breaks down occupation by 'employment status'. This is one of the measurements occasionally cited in the press to discuss class. But employment status does not correspond to class. For example, nurses enjoy 'associate professional' status in the government's classification scheme. This is a compliment to nurses and the prestige in which they are held. However, it is not a class designation. Most nurses exercise no power over other workers, and are themselves subordinate to their employers without sharing in any of their supervisory or coordinating functons, and without exercising mental labour in a way that gives them any control over other workers. They are therefore workers, with only a minority being properly middle class.

Increasingly, this can be said of the teaching profession, also listed under 'associate professional' status. Teachers have in the past had a certain amount of autonomy, a space for creative mental labour, and a real level of social power in socializing children for their coming engagement with the labour market. All of these advantages have been under attack as governments try to routinize what happens in the class room, de-skill and de-professionalise teaching, and subject it to increasing surveillance the better to discipline it. Scheduling is no longer controlled by individual teachers, and the curriculum is centrally dictated. Meanwhile, important school functions are being delegated to casualised teaching assistants. Of course, this varies - teachers in upper crust institutions are less subject to proletarianization, as they are entrusted with the delicate task of socializing the children of the rich. But the majority of teaching staff can't realistically be called middle class these days. And while a number of old professions are being proletarianized, new occupations classed as 'white collar' were de-skilled and subject to more or less intrusive surveillance and supervision from the start. Thus, the temptation to read class categories into 'employment status' categories must be resisted. However, the detailed data on occupations will, with some hefty caveats, be used later to get a rough idea of the relative proportions of the working and middle classes.

NRS social grades are even more frequently used as an index of class in the newspapers, but these are actually even less to do with class than 'employment status'. Category C1, which is taken as a measurement of the 'lower middle class', places clerical workers with no power over other workers alongside junior managers and supervisors, who act as the surveillance and disciplinary limbs of capital. Using this measurement, a middle class majority is usually obtained. Moreover, the data-gathering for such categories is often biased toward the higher end of the 'social class' and income scale, because they gather data only for the 'chief income earner' in each household. If this method is used, then a household which contains more than one adult will only be questioned about its highest income earner. For example, see this breakdown by Ipsos-Mori. By its estimate, the total number of people people aged over 15 years belonging to social grade 'E' (on the lowest salaries and least skilled jobs, on unemployment benefit, on disability benefit, on the state pension, etc.), would be approximately 4m (8% of approx. 50m = 4m). In the year that this breakdown was taken, close to 5m people relied on job-seekers and disability benefit alone. The government had a further 3.25m working in 'elementary' (unskilled) occupations. And a further 1.3m people lived on the state pension alone. In short, in Ipsos-Mori's breakdown, less than half of these who would be classified as social grade 'E' (approx. 9m) were actually detected.

If we treat class as a relationship, not a thing, we won't proceed on the basis of lifestyle or prestige indicators. The starting point for understanding class has to be production, and the relations we enter into when we become part of the labour process. Certainly, the first place you encounter class directly is usually in the workplace. To say 'direct' is not to say 'up close and personal'. One rarely meets a personal entity called 'the boss' these days. Authority is delegated through supervisors, human resources departments, ergonomics experts, IT managers, etc. It is, notwithstanding the occasional run-in with a particularly inept or annoying supervisor, highly impersonal. Most of the people who have some control over your labour, whether in devising your tasks, arranging your working day, or organising the space you work in and the equipment used in it, will never meet you. But nonetheless, the experience of capitalist power is unmistakeable. The people who exert direct power over you, though not themselves owners of capital, share in and exert power on behalf of capital, and their role - as they know very well - is to extract the most from you in order to boost the firm's profits. They identify with capitalist interests.

This layer of supervisors, junior and middle managers, and other overseers of the work process, has grown quite dramatically through the 20th century, and is a direct consequence of efforts by capital to discipline labour and contain militancy. Some have tried to account for their role by revising marxist notions of exploitation, so that - as per E O Wright - supervisors and managers, while not possessing alienable assets, in some sense exploit workers by means of their control over skills and the organisational assets of the firm. This means that exploitation is no longer rooted in the control of productive resources. I see no need to take this step. Supervisors do not directly exploit workers, but they do coerce workers and they have an interest in enhancing the exploitative process for their bosses. For this, they may receive a small share of the surplus, but in that case the exploitation they are engaging in is simply a subsidiary form of classical economic exploitation. This group, which Wright says occupy 'contradictory' class positions, form the greater part of the 'new' middle class, as distinct from the 'old' middle class of independent traders, farmers, smallholding producers etc, which has shrunk considerably over the years and would appear to constitute less than 10% of the working labour force based on LFS data.

What distinguishes the 'new middle class' from the working class is their power over other workers, their ability to exercise mental labour that gives them either direct control of the labour of others or important social power, and their role in enhancing surplus extraction. As a result of the foregoing, they have interests opposed to those of workers and thus can be said to belong to a different class, even though they are employed by capital. My very rough and ready estimate based on the LFS's employment data, bearing in mind we can't subject these to independent scrutiny, suggests that the 'new middle class' constitutes about 30% of the working labour force. Note that I say 'working labour force'. This doesn't include the unemployed, or state pensioners, or those who rely on disability benefits. Of those actually working, a clear majority, certainly more than half and probably close to two thirds, must be counted among the working class. Of the total adult population, including the reserve army of labour, the figure would obviously be higher.


What of the reputed conservatism of the British working class which, even at its most militant peaks in the 20th Century, did not break with Labourism? Does this betoken an abiding faith in Britain's parliamentary democracy? Does it suggest a class more at ease with gradual reform and class bargaining than with direct conflict with capitalism? Certainly today's working class does not look like a revolutionary subject, even as Labourism seems at its lowest ebb, parliament is in poor regard, and the gains of social democracy are being rapidly eroded. But the facts of Labour's long hegemony, the failure to establish a viable socialist alternative, and the relative timidity of the working class today, are outcomes that themselves require explanation. Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Cannon's classic study, The American Perception of Class, makes this point with respect to the apparent lack of class consciousness of American workers. The authors point out, based on an examination of past studies, oral labour histories by Terkel et al, and their own data, that American workers are highly conscious that classes exist and are acutely aware of the content of class distinctions. They show that while polls can be devised so that the majority identify themselves as 'middle class', not all polls will show this, and even where they do, people are still far more likely to self-identify as middle class if their position in the labour process does in fact give them authority, autonomy and an interest in enhancing profit accumulation. They also point out that a great deal of the funding and effort that went into creating the doctrinal basis for the 'middle class majority' so beloved of capitalist ideology, viz. a continuous ladder of occupational status and prestige suggestive of constant social mobility, came directly from the American state. Moreover, they indicate that a simple and logically sufficient reason for the failure of socialism to take hold in the American working class is the cohesion and power of the American ruling class. It has the ability to physically overwhelm radical challenges to the existing property order, as demonstrated in its history of violent suppression of the labour movement. It has the ability, which follows from being a ruling class, to organisationally overwhelm political challenges that lack money, ideological clout (newspapers, think-tanks, etc), and political and legal expertise, as most radical and revolutionary challengers do. Quite rationally, therefore, workers responded by putting their weight behind the less radical and more collaborationist unions, and supporting liberal rather than radical political candidates.

The specificities of UK history are obviously different. Britain's working class made its advances much later than US workers did - on the franchise, on union rights, and on the 8-hour working day. On the other hand, Britain's history of labour struggles is not as violent as that of the US. Its ruling class did not stand confident and united after the Second World War as the US ruling class did. Its levels of Cold War repression didn't ever reach the pitch of McCarthyism. Nevertheless, the appeal of Labourism, firsts as a means to socialism and then as a means of attaining social democratic reforms, is fundamentally based on the position of workers with respect to the ruling class. As Vanneman and Cannon have suggested, its is peculiar that the attributes of the ruling class, especially its relative cohesion and power, are rarely factored into explanations of outcomes in class battles. The efforts of British capital to break radical opposition and accomodate limited reforms produced a calculus in which parliamentary pressure and moderate trade unionism stood a better chance of yielding results than outright confrontation. Internationally, the readiness of squabbling ruling classes to unite in opposition to the Russian revolution and crush its exports, contributing to the ultimate corruption and strangling of the revolution at the hands of a new ruling bureaucracy further operated to shut off revolutionary alternatives. This more readily explains the successes of Labourism than does any peculiarity in the development of the British working class and its social psychological expressions.

Alasdair Macintyre, writing in the Sixties, described the basis for reformist socialism, and its eclipse. The conditions necessary for its rise included: a relatively homogenous working class with widespread unemployment and poverty, in which socialist propaganda offered a credible explanation of, and response to, the problems of workers; a credible belief in the independence of the state from class struggle and; a ruling class sufficiently worried about challenges to its control of financial and economic power that it was willing to include the working class in parliamentary processes, the better to limit and contain its demands. In short, reformist socialism was appropriate to a particular phase of class struggle in which enough of the working class was confident enough to pursue socialist transformation, and the ruling class scared enough to offer some reforms. And the evidence is that the ruling class was right to be scared. Paul Mason's Live Working or Die Fighting describes the richness and depth of communist, syndicalist and revolutionary anarchist politics in the British working class movement prior to WWII. Because these were not usually expressed as serious electoral alternatives does not mean they were not a threat to the ruling class. True to form, the ruling class most readily offered reforms following periods of radicalisation and labour organisation, such as had taken place during WWII, during which the ruling class found it necessary to accomodate the left and permit the spread of union organisation, and after which the ruling class was severely weakened.

By the Sixties, the ruling class had recuperated much of its lost power. The working class was far more stratified, and the ruling class had ceased to see it as a potential revolutionary challenger. It had elaborated a set of institutions such as arbitration bodies to manage its transactions with workers outside of parliament. Labour had ceased to express a meaningful socialist commitment and its leadership had attempted, if unsuccessfully, to remove clause 4 from its constitution. Nationalisation, rather than being a baby-step toward sovietisation, had proved to be amenable to capitalist interests. Nationalised firms still operated on the basis of profitability, maintained the same labour discipline and often the same personnel in charge. Even so, Labourism continued to contain (in both senses) a militant socialist component that appeared to offer better chances to the working class than any of the revolutionary parties that emerged and grew during the militancy of the early 1970s. Trade union struggles and left-wing campaigns gained results. Labour proved able to move radically to the Left, and still win elections, even if the state and the ruling class was more than capable of frustrating its most radical promises. The revolutionary left could attract some of the most radicalised workers, but for the majority of workers reform and accomodation rather than outright class conflict was the better bet. And again, it was the proven strength of the ruling class in its ability to deal with workers' insurrections, that led to the Labour Left's ultimate eclipse, as well as the decreased space for revolutionaries. The milestone, or millstone, of the 1984-5 miners' strike and contemporaneous struggles and their outcome undoubtedly made the working class more submissive and timid than it would otherwise have been. The subsequent out-manoeuvering of the left both inside and outside the Labour Party left workers with little choice but to vie for reforms from a right-wing leadership more inspired by Victorian liberalism than by social democracy.

Reformism is not therefore the result of a failure of class consciousness, or an inbuilt conservatism, which would mistakenly infer social psychological attitudes from class outcomes. Nor does it result from the conservative influence of a middle class majority or even a 'labour aristocracy', neither of which entities appear to exist. The overriding factor is class struggle, and the relative strength of the working and ruling classes in a given interval. And the enduring strength of Labourism in its neoliberal phase reflects just such an unfavourable balance of power as to make radical challenges extremely difficult to sustain over a long period. This does not, I might add, entail that such challenges are useless - actually, for reasons I mentioned previously, they seem to be more urgently necessary precisely because New Labour has reached a crisis point in its relationship with the working class. But it does warn against adventurism, and it does direct our attention to the structural limitations within which we operate.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

EDL humiliated in Edinburgh posted by Richard Seymour

Following a series of violent protests in which the EDL not only outnumbered anti-fascist opponents, but went on the rampage attacking bypassers and property, the EDL hit a very large brick wall today. Word came earlier today that they were thoroughly smashed, and this SW report confirms the details:

More than 1,500 anti racists and anti fascists united in Edinburgh today, Saturday 20 February, to stop the Scottish Defence League (SDL) from marching.

“They did not pass”, Luke Henderson proudly told Socialist Worker, as the last SDL member was forced onto a bus to chants and shouts from protesters.

Police had to escort SDL onto buses to be driven out of the city.

Protesters had gathered from early in the morning, determined to stop the SDL from marching. Students at Edinburgh University assembled with home made banners and placards and marched down to join the main demonstration.


The SDL could not gather more than 100 thugs. They arrived on trains and gathered in pubs. Wherever they tried to assemble together to march, they were confronted by protesters.

“We stopped them assembling in one place”, said Luke, “they were unable to march–it was a real humiliation for them.”

The EDL message board is filled with angry little psychos thundering about their civil liberties and rights under the UNDHR being violated. The complaint has to do with a number of their supporters being arrested for incitement to breach of peace and detained at the police station, which they maintain, in a hilariously melodramatic diatribe, breaches several articles of the UNDHR. One only has to look at their leading personnel (Nazis and thugs), the content of their online communications (boggle-eyed bewilderment that we haven't deported all the Muslims from Europe as yet), and the statements of founders like Paul Ray (who looks forward to "acts of war" against the Muslim community), to see what contempt these morons have for human rights. The UK is not alone in producing dangerously stupid white men who imagine that any inconvenience to them, even an abridgement on their capacity to beat or intimidate others, actually amounts to a violation of their rights. But I remind you that this is the land of the 'metric martyr'. Think on it. Incidentally, perhaps the EDL would have had an easier time of things if they hadn't advertised that their protest was likely to result in a bit of GBH. And quite possibly their record of engaging in violent mayhem, such as their rampage in Stoke, counted against them. And it may count against them in Bolton, whose council has written to the Home Secretary to request that the EDL's scheduled protest should be banned. Now, I'm all for free speech and that (oh, who heckled just then?), but street gangs beating up passing Asians on the off-chance that they might be of the Muslim faith isn't actually included in the category of 'free speech'. So, I won't lose any sleep if they're banned. And if they're not, I will be glad to see UAF members outnumber them, block their march, repel every attempt they make to assemble, and prevent them from doing what they've done everywhere else they've had the chance.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

In defence of the SWP posted by Richard Seymour

My brief reply to an unpleasant tirade by Laurie Penny over at Liberal Conspiracy.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mainstreaming fascism again posted by Richard Seymour


Last week, on Friday evening (Feb 12) at prime time, Channel 4 broadcast a programme that was little more than a half-hour party political broadcast for the National Front.

Young, Angry and White” purported to give insight into the political ideas of a disaffected young man, let down by the established political parties, who was considering joining the BNP.

Yet the programme failed to reveal that “Kieren” – the subject of the documentary – is the national organiser for the youth wing of the extreme right National Front.

“Young, Angry and White” showed the trained and experienced young racist Kieren in an extraordinarily positive light, allowing him unchallenged to insist on the “racial purity” of his girlfriend, accuse his friend of “genocide” because he had a black girlfriend and was therefore guilty of “racial mixing”, and to introduce his masked, far-right associates, who spoke about the “filth flooding through our streets” – non-white people.

The programme failed to inform viewers about the political nature of the National Front, its history of racial motivated violence, and the criminal convictions of its past and present leaders, and its close links to the BNP.

It failed to confront Kieren with any of these facts about either the National Front or the BNP. It failed to investigate Kieren’s activity as a leading National Front member.

ps: Come to the first Expose the BNP rally next Tuesday in Shoreditch. Several leading media commentators have committed to exposing what the BNP stand for, as opposed to allowing this soft-sell to continue unchallenged. This campaign will be crucial for organising against the media's mainstreaming of fascism.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Robin Hood Tax posted by Richard Seymour

I've been following this developing campaign, uniting charities, NGOs and trade unions, with interest. Politically, it taps into a very good instinct. The bankers got rich pursuing speculative profits through various intricate schemes that placed national economies in tremendous danger (example of which), and have been rewarded with bail-outs. If there is going to be a shortfall in funding for public services, they should pay for it. This isn't the only justification for imposing such a tax. A letter signed by 320 economists addressed to the G20 argued that the tax would "calm excessive speculation". Joseph Stiglitz maintains that it is an excellent idea to tax what is a socially useless and sometimes harmful activity.

The proposed level of taxation, at 0.05% on all speculative financial transactions, seems to be very small. (Though it seems it is larger than the micro-tax [pdf] proposed by the TUC and the Tax Justice Movement). Perhaps that extreme modesty of ambition is one reason why the basic idea has been able to get the support of right-wing governments in France and Germany, by New Labour, by former CBI head Lord Adair Turner, by Nancy Pelosi, Jeffrey Sachs and Warren Buffet. Then there's the pay-off. Supposedly, the tax would raise £250bn each year, with "tens of billions" of that available for public services in the UK. If that could be counted on, and if the measure was likely to be passed over the objections of the Obama-Geithner treasury (not a chance in hell), then there's an extremely seductive riposte to those who say we have no choice but to make deep and painful cuts in the public sector. Nonsense - it's easy! We can raise tens of billions for public services with a minute tax on, not to put too fine a point upon it, a wunch of bankers. That would more than cover the cuts proposed by both New Labour and the Tories.

There are some objections to the tax that are superficially appealling, but don't appear to withstand scrutiny. For example, the banks will only pass on the costs to consumers, some say, thus vitiating the distributive argument for the tax. Well, aside from the fact the consumers of such services are disproportionately wealthy, any form of corporate taxation can potentially be passed on to consumers, assuming that consumers are able and willing to bear the cost. That isn't a case against taxing corporate profits. Put simply, the wages of workers which enables them to be consumers are substantially determined by market forces: higher prices tend to drive up wage claims. Hence, the aggregate effect would be the same: the tax would impact on profits, not consumers. Of course, there's the aspect of class struggle that it seems vulgar to even notice, and it is true that in general companies will try to take every opportunity to externalise their costs onto workers and consumers, but that applies with any cost, not just taxes. That's not an argument against taxes, it's an argument - at the minumum - for having an organised and combative labour force which can use its bargaining power to resist such efforts.

Another objection I have seen, from a liberal economist, is that the tax is actually not as small as it appears to be. He maintains that a 0.05% tax on currency speculations would be about six times the current broker's fee. "No industry survives that," he suggests, comparing it to a sudden increase in the cost of a cinema ticket to about £50. But this is a ridiculous, illogical comparison. The booking fee isn't the cost of the product to be consumed in this case. The product is currency, for which you pay with your own commensurate currency. And when you trade in currency, you expect to both consume the purchased product and gain a premium - the profit. A cinema ticket, in contrast to a booking fee for currency transactions, just is the cost of the product. And no cinema-goer expects to both consume the product and get a cash bonus at the end of it. (Unless they stick the place up, which might make the comparison slightly more apt). Currency transactions levied at 0.05% are thus expected to pay a fee that is proportionate to an expected return, so they would still have a motive for engaging in speculation.

He goes on to add, however, that it could wipe out all transactions where the anticipated profit is smaller than the transaction tax, thus eradicating the proposed income that would be gained from it. It's a very intimidating argument, with graphs and talk of pips and spread and so on. This is difficult for those with no specialist knowledge to assess, but let us not succumb to our natural phobia of numbers and argot. We are mere autodidacts, but we have a duty to struggle on, you and I, and try to understand what is at stake here. Perhaps one way to approach this is to consider known examples of similar practises already taking place. It has been noted that the UK already imposes a 0.5% stamp duty on share trading, which gathers £7bn in revenues and could be extended to other transactions. It doesn't seem to have had a catastrophic effect. A number of countries have already imposed a financial transaction tax. Brazil has imposed it since 1993, at an initial rate of 0.38% (this was reduced in 2008), much higher than the proposed rate of the 'Robin Hood' tax. It didn't result in a collapse in currency trading or speculation, but it did result in significant additional revenue to cover the costs of maintaining the country's healthcare system. Moreover, the information gleaned from imposing it enabled the government to prevent other forms of tax evasion. There are also a number of financial transaction taxes already imposed in Australia, India, South Korea and elsewhere. These examples don't appear to bear out the idea that a financial transaction tax would be a sufficient, sudden shock to the system to wipe out most speculative activity. The burden of evidence suggests that such taxes are actually very bad at constraining speculative activity, but quite good at raising money.

There is a problem, though. The aims of the tax are apparently contradictory. One is to throw a bit of grit in the wheels of speculation, thus reducing the chances of harmful high-risk transactions taking place. The other is to raise a lot of money with a relatively insignificant tax that wouldn't really make any difference to the scale of speculation. If it does affect the scale of speculation, then the anticipated revenue would have to be revised down in precise proportion to its effifacy in doing so. If, on the other hand, the main aim is to raise and redistribute money, then the idea of damping down speculation can be dispensed with. But that would leave an apparently progressive tax complicit in what we are agreed is an often dangerous speculative system, and one that we ought to be discouraging or dismantling. But this comes back to the objection that the tax lacks ambition. It does. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good start, and there's no reason why the government could not extend existing taxes on financial transactions to help fund public services.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

What is progressive about David Cameron? posted by Richard Seymour

Serious question. Will Hutton likes Cameron's ideas. The current editor of the New Statesman says he takes Cameron's claim to progressivism seriously. The centre-left Prospect magazine has been carrying puff-pieces for Philip Blond's 'Red Toryism', the bland mood music for Cameron's leadership. Some liberals really want to believe the best about Cameron's conservatives.

Yet we have a man who is an ardent royalist, an opponent of multiculturalism and immigration, a supporter of war and an Atlanticist, a supporter of cutting taxes on the rich (he is particularly moved by government impingement on the unearned inheritance of rich kids), a friend of Murdoch, an ally of the most ferociously reactionary forces in Europe, a supporter of increased restrictions on abortions, a fairly traditionalist proponent of marriage (married couples will get tax breaks), and the current high priest of the small state. His shadow chancellor is an unreformed Thatcherite and union-basher. His closest allies in the Conservative Party are neoconservatives. He has, when opportunity arose, engaged in some fairly obnoxious baiting of ethnic minorities, specifically Muslims. Himself a descendant of royalty and child of a City stockbroker who got his first job with the Tories on the recommendation of someone at Buckingham Palace, his front bench is stuffed with venal millionaires. And he's basing his campaign on a line about a "broken Britain" which channels the most socially authoritarian Victorian moralising.

This has involved, among other things, disingenuously talking up the violent crime rate and massively exaggerating the rate of pregnancies among disadvantaged minors by a factor of 10. This article at the Economist systematically demolishes, with some detailed statistical analysis, Cameron's arguments about "broken Britain". But the Tories won't fret too much if their claims are shown to be fraudulent. After all, crime is an issue very akin to immigration in the sense that you can talk it up, bluster, lie, bully, and create a general sensation of crisis and deluge, with the assistance of the scum British press. Then you can deflect criticism by contending that you are merely articulating popular concerns that have so far eluded politicians living in the Westminster bubble. So, they won't mind if the liberal papers point out their little fibs. What is important to note is the ideological basis of the Tories' arguments. This is how Blair Gibbs, a senior Tory analyst and Chief of Staff for Nick Herbert's shadow environment office, explains the problem [pdf]:

The problem is cultural. The root cause is a combination of changing philosophical ideas . . and the long-term fundamental decay of conservative ideas and institutions in Britain. This includes an historically unprecedented collapse of belief in marriage and a consequent epidemic of illegitimacy and unsocialised offspring who, contra the expectations of our post-war intelligentsia, have not justified the age-old hope of Rousseau (that the absence of restrictions on humans produces happy peace) but have instead illustrated the truth of Hobbes (that the absence of restrictions on humans produces violence and despair.) The consequence of this collapse is welfare dependency, a rise in violent crime . . . .
There exists a large and increasingly violent underclass, because Britain suffers from a vicious circle: the collapse of belief in values (of family, marriage, self-responsibility) has now spread from the elites (where it has done philosophical and political damage) to the working classes (where it has done real physical harm). This is what has bred the underclass and the welfare system sustains it. Through the benefits system the welfare state pays the underclass to grow; poor state schooling cannot compensate for the harm caused by broken homes and absent fathers; inadequate policing cannot suppress the symptoms of crime and disorder.

This does exactly what it appears to do. It blames the poor for their situation because they have abandoned conservative values. By becoming liberal, by having abortions and the pill and free love, by not marrying or marrying less frequently, by having "illegitimate" children - illegitimate, mark you - they have caused their own downfall, and are now suckling at the welfare teat when they're not robbing, stabbing and raping their way through Broken Brittania. And it is precisely this kind of ideology, couched in more carefully selected terms no doubt, that were being invited to believe is progressive.

When David Cameron speaks of progress, he is consistent in equating it with attacks on the welfare state, support for 'stronger families', support for 'enterprise', etc. Asked by his would-be hagiographer-cum-amanuensis Dylan Jones about his position on Thatcherism, he ejaculates the following keyword-laden discourse: "[T]here were still big questions. Are we going to have a progressive amount of freedom and responsibility and independence and choice, or are we going to have a state knows best, know your place, rigid, class system? I thought that in all the big arguments, Thatcher and Major were on the right side, and Labour was on the wrong side." It's an idea that comes up a lot. Thatcherism is "progressive". To attack unions, cut welfare and bait immigrants is to mount an assault on the "rigid, class system". A high-handed social authoritarianism under the rubric of integration and cohesion is also progressive. And so on, and on.

The question is how did such claims even become vaguely intelligible? How did 'progress' as a discourse become a byword for reaction? The obvious answer is that New Labour made this possible. On every theme I've mentioned above, every objectionable facet of Tory policy, there is a New Labour counterpart - not exact, and not necessarily as extreme, but very real nonetheless. You want a party that baits immigrants, cuts taxes for the rich, allies itself with European reactionaries, trucks with neoconservatives, and calls all this progressive? It's been the ruling government for thirteen years. You want a party that prefers free markets and 'meritocracy' to 'the old structures', 'the old class systems', etc? You want a party whose matey populism abets an elitist agenda that adulates the rich and the unelected, pampered, scum royals? You want a party whose approach to crime is to sensationalise, and blame the poor, and ethnic minorities? You want a party of moralising and social authoritarianism, hedged with a modest concession to gay rights? And calls all that progressive too? Yeah, well, I think you've got the point by now. Tony Blair and New Labour systematically marketed every crackpot Tory idea they could lay their hands on as "progressive". And now David Cameron is a "progressive".

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

UAF conference posted by Richard Seymour

Today's Unite Against Fascism conference was excellent, strategically useful, analytically incisive, and just the right side of argumentative. It did admittedly have some most peculiar moments. For example, Margaret Hodge MP pleading for support and solidarity from a room full of anti-racists angry about her recent Daily Mail article. I have little time for Hodge, as previous posts on this blog make abundantly clear. However, there is no question that the main issue in Barking this coming election is to stop the fascists. The BNP have gained some of their strongest votes in Barking and Dagenham. In the 2009 European elections, during which the fasicsts gained almost a million votes, their highest number of first preference votes were attained in Barking and Dagenham, almost 20% of the total. Boundary changes and disaffection with Labour could be enough to give the BNP control of the council in the local elections and possibly even give Griffin a parliamentary seat. As Martin Smith pointed out, this is part of the BNP's explicit strategy, and we cannot afford to be as complacent as some anti-fascists were before the Euro elections. So, while I'm not going to go out asking people to vote for Labour, or advocate for Hodge, I am going to do what I can to make sure the BNP are driven out of that borough.

Another oddity was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown swerving suddenly from excellent points to, in my opinion, very poor ones. She fumed about condescending middle class liberals urging her to 'understand' racism and fascism, and somehow come to terms with and deem acceptable the fact that growing numbers of people would like to get rid of her. Quite right. But then, seemingly contradicting herself, she made some appalling arguments about Muslims not sorting out the "hotheads" within their own ranks, and stated that they shared some of the blame for the rise of the far right (thus rendering it more 'understandable', you see?). She rightly argued for unity among the oppressed, recalling the great anti-fascist mobilisations against the NF in the Seventies, but allowed this to segue into a rant against the term 'Islamophobia'. Still, she was not among those liberals vacantly defending the promotion of the BNP on Question Time or pretending that there was anything to 'debate' with fascists. She rightly pointed out that many on the right hate the BNP because of some idea of 'Britishness' they have, but then made the bizarre further inference that perhaps the right hated fascists even more because of their identification with Britain's role in WWII. Oh, I think not. I think all the evidence shows that it is right-wing voters who are most susceptible to the BNP's message. And I think Yasmin is torn between some very decent anti-racist politics, and the very dubious conclusions that her liberalism leads her toward.

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the whole event was near the end when someone tapped my shoulder to inform me that members of the English Defence League were outside. It transpired that 25 of the scum had gathered outside in the hope of kicking some heads in. They were massively outnumbered and eventually the police arrived and they didn't manage to batter anyone. So it was a quixotic bid on their part - but it does show how confident and arrogant some of these filth are becoming.

The conference also had some extraordinarily inspiring moments. I found Leroy Rosenior, the ex-footballer who runs Show Racism the Red Card, very personable and moving. Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the NUS Black Students Officer, stood in for NUS president Wes Streeting and made a fantastic and incisive speech, tearing into mainstream politicians who made excuses for racism and conceded territory to the BNP. And one could not but admire Assed Baig who has just faced down an extremely nasty, vitriolic, racist campaign against him in Staffordshire University instigated by BNP activists. That campaign centred on an attempted vote of no confidence in him as Student Union president, and though the opposition attempted to pretend it was about something other than racism, it quickly degenerated into accusations that Baig was the first step toward Sharia law, etc.. In the last days of the campaign, racist graffiti and swastikas appeared on the university exterior, with "Fuck off N*****r", "No P*kis" and other similarly improving sentiments spraypainted on the walls and pavement. The opposition leader, contacted about this, claimed that the signs weren't swastikas, but actually Hindu love symbols. Baig won the vote, but it was clear that the atmosphere of intimidation and racism had been a horrible ordeal.

There are a few key points to come out of the conference. The BNP are organising electorally, and they are shipping in all their activists to areas of local strength, especially to Barking and Dagenham. Experience shows that the BNP are adept at toning down their message and softening their racism in pre-election periods. They use low-key forms of racism to mobilise the broadest possible layers of voters before the election, then afterward harden their position. With members in the European parliament, they now have a lot of money to invest in this propaganda facelift. And their activists are known to mobilise by the dozens, and do have a go at their opponents if they get the chance. So, it is necessary to outnumber the BNP's activists. It is necessary, through doorstepping and leafletting, to challenge their racist lies and also undermine their attempted dissimulation about who they really are and what they represent. They want to mainstream fascism, and take it upmarket, but they're never that far from their neo-Nazi roots, or their street-fighting milieu. And hammering that message home is a very effective first step in attacking and breaking up the BNP's voting base. It isn't enough, though, for reasons I will come to in a moment.

At the same time, the EDL are organising another challenge. The EDL works something like this: organised Nazis provide the funds and the ideological and organisational spine; right-wing football casuals and sadistic thugs provide the footsoldiers to attack and terrorise Muslims, Asian communities, and - as today's abortive siege demonstrates - antifascists. They are rehabilitating a tradition of racist street violence that hasn't been seen on any scale since the 1970s. As Ken Livingstone pointed out, they have repeatedly engaged in riots and organised racist violence that would result in screams of bloody murder if the culprits were Muslims - but they are largely ignored. And the same media which has been puffing the BNP has a way of dismissing opponents of these thugs, claiming that antifascists are 'just as bad' and that it would be best just to stay away. Events don't bear this out, as the EDL tend to be only more violent when they aren't out-numbered - a point that Dawn Butler MP underlined. At any rate, the old 'just as bad' chestnut won't be available now. Because as a result of today's conference, several Labour MPs including ministers, and a number of trade union leaders, have given their backing to the important anti-EDL mobilisation in Bolton on 20th March. Butler also committed to seeking to ban EDL events on account of their repeated and demonstrated propensity to end in waves of ultra-violence - and if she couldn't achieve that, she would support the largest possible mobilisations against the EDL. Not an insignificant statement, I thought, from a cabinet minister.

The size of the combined electoral challenge and street mobilisations amounts to the largest fascist threat that the UK has ever seen. In the short run, this will be met by mobilising the broadest possible coalition against the fascists on whatever terrain they organise. But it isn't enough. There is a broader climate of racism that New Labour has been encouraging since it took office in 1997, beginning with Jack Straw's attack on Roma gypsies. That slow drip of poison into the national political atmosphere, encouraged by the government and whipped into a frenzy by the press, has seen concerns over immigration and race shoot to the top of polls as an important concern of voters, whereas before it wasn't even an issue. The constant stream of invective against asylum seekers, Eastern European migrants, gypsies, and Muslims, has resulted in the kind of climate that fascism can grow in. And these different forms of racism are mutually reinforcing, not competing. A speaker from the Jewish anti-racism group, JCORE, pointed out that while antisemitism is not at the same level of intensity as Islamophobia, it is shown in research by Pew that those who one of the biggest predictors of anti-Muslim racism is anti-Jewish racism. Those who are most hostile to Muslims are also the most likely to be antisemitic. That's true right across the board. So, a sustained ideological attack on the kinds of officially mandated racism that are providing the fascists with their alibi is long overdue.

This climate of racism, though, catches on the way it does because at some level it helps explain people's experiences of the world. Far right voters are disproportionately lower middle class rather than poor, but that doesn't mean they are not frightened of poverty, unaffected by economic insecurity, and not stressed out by harder working conditions and a more competitive labour market. They interpret these problems in a racist fashion, by blaming immigrants for taking jobs and driving down wages, and by blaming Muslims and ethnic minorities for making Britain a less pleasant place to live. Their dream of petit-bourgeois respectability and upward class mobility is threatened by economic insecurity, and their ideological preconceptions makes racism an attractive response. Neoliberalism is thus the practise that produces conditions which make racism a more comprehensible point of view for many people. It is also the stultifying neoliberal consensus that turns people off politics, causes them to stop voting, and gives fascist votes increased weight as a result. So, it is necessary - as one speaker said - to fight fascism with the sword as well as the shield. Yes, fend off the immediate challenge, but also provide a hopeful alternative that can provide a real answer to the failures of the system.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Gone postal posted by Richard Seymour

'Roy Mayall', the pseudonymous postie who has been justly laying into an atrocious C4 Dispatches documentary, has a very interesting article in this week's Socialist Worker. You might recall him for some of his acuminous prose during the recent strikes, and he now runs a blog called - well, you could guess couldn't you? - Going Postal. He has been a wonderful guide to the machinations of Royal Mail management, and the consequent breakdown of industrial relations within the postal system. The article concerns his popular new book, Dear Granny Smith, which is an attack on the 'modernisation' procedures being driven through by management, and by the government, and the ensuing culture of overwork, bullying, stress, casualisation and poorer performance that results. I think the issue is something that every working person is confronted with. Consider this passage, for example:

Thirty years ago being a postman was one of the best jobs in the world. You were up at the crack of dawn, out in the fresh air, someone that everyone knew and recognised, serving a responsible role within the community, not only as the carrier of mail, but as a kind of watchman for the health of the community too. Someone who always knew what was going on.

These days the job is all relentless pressure, to work harder and faster, to do more duties, to carry more weight. No one has time for community values any more.

A new breed of bullying manager has entered the workplace, arbitrary and aggressive, imposing the new work rates with sadistic pleasure.

All of the joy has gone out of the job.

Though most workers are probably unable to look back to such Halcyon days, the trend of increasing regimentation, bullying, bigger workloads and absolutely despicable, overbearing managers is something everyone faces. A few years ago, I worked for a call centre that was suffering from low returns that was in large part due to poor equipment. Poor equipment meant fewer successful calls, and more chances of failing to deliver on a contract. It meant losing business. The company attempted to get to grips with the situation not by investing in equipment, which would have been costly, but by regimenting work more thoroughly, which promised to raise more money by - in the marxist lexicon - intensifying the rate of exploitation. The company put in place a number of managers at various levels to do this. They did their best to come up with things that workers commonly did that they believed hindered productivity, and drew up a list of rules, including the following:

If you are more than five minutes late for your shift without calling then you will be sent home ... [Employees] who are constantly late as well as those who cancel and no show regularly will no longer be booked for work ... [Employees] should not be leaving their station unless it is break time. If for any reason you do need to get up from your terminal please let your Supervisor know the reason you need to leave your desk [note - this meant you had to ask to go the toilet] ... Mobile Phones must be switched off while you are working. If your phone rings while you are working you will be sent home and not paid for the rest of the shift ... eating is not permitted while you are working, if you are caught eating then you will be sent home and not paid for the rest of the shift.... Please make sure you sit in the seat that has been allocated to you. This is on the shift plan. If you need to move for any reason please check this with your Supervisor first.... You must not chat to other Interviewers between calls. You should be concentrating on the next call you make and not distracting yourself and others talking to other people....

And so, predictably, on. I have seen similar documents in almost every company I've worked in, though in most cases the new dispensation was successfully resisted. The people who actually came up with this shit, I should point out, were largely self-important supervisors who earned only slightly more than those making calls, but whose relative autonomy and authority gave them an exaggerated sense of their importance. They were selected for such qualities, because management systematically weeded out those they regarded as being too 'soft' from managerial roles. At any rate, this sort of thing was possible because call centres are like most private sector companies in being unorganised, and like many service sector companies in relying disproportionately on young, temporary and casual staff. Ideally, such companies would seek the discipline and performance of a full-time crew, with the flexibility and pay structure of a temp crew. This is a model of working that has spread through substantial sectors of private sector employment, and it is taking hold in parts of the public sector, as the instance of the Royal Mail demonstrates, and it is being accomplished through a series of set-piece battles with organised labour.

This is part of a conjunctural process that needs to be understood. There used to reasonable amount of research done into the capitalist work cycle. We have a legacy of classic texts such as Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital, and Richard Pfeffer's Working for Capitalism, the latter building on the insights of the former. They investigated the rhythms of the working day; the de-skilling of workers and the way in which they are carefully denied an understanding of how their role fits into the broader production process; the narrow margin for controlling what one does and how one does it; the Sisyphean repetitiveness of the work; the minor moments of accomplishment puncuating the daily grind; the micro-aggressions of managers; the openly racist way in which jobs are allocated, etc.. I could be wrong, but I think all we've had lately is the anecdotal musings of a rich, middlebrow philosopher named Alain de Botton. We hear an awful lot about consumption, but next to nothing serious about labour. This is an accomplishment of neoliberal ideology, and it is perverse. We live in an era in which work has been intensified, and management are all the more arbitrary and abusive because those are the qualities that the bosses need. We have a situation where workers are constantly refusing to take sick leave because of the well-grounded fear that they will be penalised for it. We have management regularly driving staff to suicide - this happens quite a lot in Royal Mail, by the way. France Telecom isn't necessarily the outlier that people might assume it to be. The process of de-skilling labour, breaking it up into isolated and repetitive tasks, has been advanced into new terrains. We have young people working for free on government initiative, in the hope that this will lead to paid work. We surely need now more than ever to have detailed, reliable studies of working under capitalism, the activity that most of humanity spends most of its waking life doing.

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Gordon Brown had better call an election soon posted by Richard Seymour

Brown hasn't had a very easy time since moving into Number 10. It took a few months at most for the 'Iron Chancellor' to become a marshmallow Prime Minister. Tory leads have sometimes been in double figures, especially during the period since the credit crunch. There has, however, been a slight rebound in Labour's fortunes since it was announced that Britain was officially, but only slightly, out of recession. This is consistent through all the polls, and it would seem to be in part because of the unpopularity of the Conservatives' plans for cutbacks. Cameron was forced to make a rhetorical retreat on that issue when he protested that he wasn't planning 'swingeing' cuts. The swing may continue to favour Labour for a while, and though it is unlikely to be sufficient stop the Tories getting a plurality, it might be enough to result in a hung parliament. And I wouldn't hold out for better than that if I were the PM, which I obviously should be. Greece has been denied its bail-out, apparently on the initiative of Angela Merkel. That may have something to do with the fact that Germany's recovery has just come to an abrupt stop. The Eurozone has experienced almost zero growth, and the Euro is plummeting again. The EU is desperately trying to stop the currency from collapsing. Previously, the countries suffering from high deficits would have tried to stimulate demand for their products by devaluing the currency. This would have made imports more expensive, and exports less expensive. It would have helped bring the current account deficit under control. Now that they're in the Eurozone, they lack the mechanism to do so.

Now, the fact is that even right-wing commentators are astounded at the austerity measures being imposed on Greece, without any hint of support. It's not just the Krugmans and the Stiglitzs who are appalled. Martin Wolf of the FT, ordinarily a reliably conservative opinionator, advised that it would be insanity to force Greece to accept austerity measures, and urged European governments to bail out Greece and stimulate demand across the continent. Even Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the reactionary business and economics columnist for the Daily Telegraph, was scathing on the topic. Their case is simple, and persuasive: Greece and other southern European economies experienced private sector booms as a result of deceptively low interest rates in the Eurozone. Hence, consumers could borrow and spend way more than they had earned in income. The credit crunch threatened those economies with catastrophe unless governments intervened to sustain demand. But that has now led to huge deficits coupled with sky-high debt. To force them to cut state expenditures at this point would be to invite the same catastrophe that loomed when the credit crunch began - a devastating slump in demand, soaring unemployment rates, a possible default on loans, with a predictable continent-wide impact. Only a bail-out, with low interest loans extended to Greece and other countries in the same situation could help

The signs are that the Eurozone is in deep trouble, and the British economy is unlikely to be exempted from this process. The UK has a high debt to GDP ratio, Niall Ferguson, presently enjoying a concupiscence with the Dutch-Somali neoconservative Ayaan Hirsi Ali, goes further and opines that the debt crisis will befall America next, because of the high deficits run up to sustain demand. You don't have to accept his 'free market' perspective to understand that there's a real problem here. If the deficits remain high and investors "lose confidence" in the ability of European governments to repay their loans, then the interest rates soar, and governments end up spending a sizeable portion of new wealth produced on servicing the debt. Greece is already paying about 5% of its GDP per annum on interest charges. That means that productive wealth is being sucked out of the economy and poured into the coffers of bond and gilt traders, and over the medium term it threatens any recovery that might emerge. To pay off the debts with fiscal austerity, though, is also to threaten recovery. To the extent that these trends are replicated elsewhere, then they pose the same dilemmas. Of course, national governments outside the Eurozone can theoretically devalue their currency in the hope of making exports cheaper and imports more expensive, thus hopefully stimulating their economies and building up the tax base to balance the budget. But the UK would find it difficult to do this, since that would hurt the City, and it would drive up yields on government bonds. The manufacturing sector is fucked anyway, short of a national public works campaign. And America would like to do it, but it is now having to compete with China over currency devaluations, and China is winning.

Now consider that the small Brown bounce in the polls follows a GDP increase of just 0.1%. Consider all the tax cuts, the interest rate cuts, the quantitative easing, the brought forward public spending, the bank bailouts. This has been a hugely costly rescue plan, and the government has made it clear that it will be paid for mainly by the working class, and especially by public sector workers (notwithstanding small tax increases for the very well off). If the economy goes under now, then the government's last chance is blown. It doesn't matter that the Tories are worse, and that their strategy would hurt workers' living standards quite considerably. The anger will just overwhelm the government. So, if New Labour's line is going to be "our strategy has worked and the Tories' cuts will ruin it", then they need to cash in on it before the crisis resumes with force.

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Lindsey German's resignation from the SWP posted by Richard Seymour

I was busy working some other material (forthcoming), but this is all over the internet now, in glorious drool-spattered hypertext, so I might as well dip my oar in. As of yesterday, several blogs hosted the partial leak of an e-mail exchange between Lindsey German, former member of the SWP central committee and current convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, and Martin Smith, the national organiser of the SWP. The e-mails were leaked to the 'Military Families Against the War' mailing list by a member of the SWP. My view is that he would not have acted in such a way unless he was specifically asked to. The exchange culminated with Lindsey German resigning her membership of the SWP after some 37 years. The occasion for this was that she was asked, as a leading member of the SWP and an elected member of the National Council, not to speak at a meeting of a branch of the Stop the War Coalition in Tyneside.

I will not get bogged down in ephemera, but suffice to say I do not believe that this was a resigning matter. It was a local dispute that would have been easily resolved through further discussion, which was also made quite clear in the e-mail exchange. It would have done no damage to the StWC or its local branch for Lindsey to have withdrawn this once, until the matter was settled. And Lindsey, as a former central committee member, would be well used to the expectation that members accept the decisions of its elected bodies. I see no good reason for Lindsey to have declined to meet with members of the CC, and to have instead tendered her resignation. Of course I lack the psychic prowess of some of my online cohorts, but it is my view that the resignation was intended for some time.

It is no secret that differences in perspective opened up in the SWP last year between the majority and a minority faction called the Left Platform. This was a faction led by Lindsey German among others. Among its supporters was the SWP member who leaked a redacted version of the e-mail exchange containing Lindsey's resignation. The issues were debated at conference, and voted on. The Left Platform accepted that it was defeated, and agreed to wind up its faction and support the agreed strategy. Since then, a number of supporters of the Left Platform have resigned their membership of the SWP, and Lindsey is the latest of these. They evidently believe that their differences with the current agreed perspective of the party make it impossible for them to remain in the party. That is unfortunate. The party has been committed to including them in future discussions and decision-making. They have been fully represented in internal party bulletins, and at conference. Lindsey herself was elected to the National Council at conference, and indeed would have remained on the central committee had she not opted to withdraw last year. Whatever their ongoing disagreements, then, these members would have continued to have a voice within the SWP.

I am sorry to hear that it has come to this, and particularly that a comrade of such standing as Lindsey has left us, but I am cautiously optimistic that the current orientation of the SWP is the right one and that the loss of a relatively small number of members is unlikely to detract from that.

Update: No surprises here.

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