Friday, July 30, 2010

The right to work (less) posted by Richard Seymour

Nina Power applies the scalpel of socialist feminist critique to the Right to Work campaign in today's Guardian. This is most welcome, because the campaign against the cuts, and against unemployment, should be the topic of urgent debate in the press - which otherwise shows little interest in the concerns of the working class. (Ask yourself this: all newspapers have a 'business' section, overwhelmingly concerned with the doings of chief executives, financiers and multinationals, so why is there no labour section?) Power's basic point is that the slogan 'Right to Work' is problematic because of the way in which it suggests that access to waged labour is itself a sufficient solution, and secondly because of certain connotations that it may have in participating in a discourse that elevates work to "the ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a woman too."

Indeed, while I don't completely agree with Power's analysis, there's a real problem here. We have a Tory government that is determined to cut the welfare state, slashing benefits, driving more and more of the disabled off benefits. (On this latter, see Christopher Read's disturbing article for the New Left Project). One of the ways in which this is justified is by means of a moralistic, coercive appeal to work as the alternative to poverty and 'dependency culture'. Work, in this reactionary trope, confers dignity and respectability. Indeed, it is put to us that if we truly respect our elders, we have to find a way to 'allow' older people to stay on in work for a few more years before claiming their pension entitlement, even as youth unemployment soars, and even if this means millions of people die before seeing a single penny of their deferred wages.

To the extent that asserting a 'right to work' could be seen as colluding in this idea, I can see the virtue of Power's alternative 'refusal to work': the right to be lazy, as Lafargue put it. A central component of socialism in its marxist variant is the drive to reduce the burden of compulsory labour on people, using productivity gains to shorten people's working lives and elongate their living hours. Concretely, in the context of a recession with mass unemployment, we can see how this might translate into a real demand: share the work around more equitably, give us a shorter working week with no loss of pay.

So, here's where Power's argument becomes problematic. A central campaigning demand of 'Right to Work' is a 35 hour week with no loss of pay, as affirmed at the 2010 conference. This is not especially radical. The New Economic Foundation goes farther, demanding a 21 hour working week, spread over four days. But given that the average working week in the UK is the longest in Europe at some 41.4 hours, and given that the average worker in the UK performs two months of unpaid overtime each year, a compulsory 35 hour week would be a good start, and constitute a relief for millions of workers. It would, in the marxist lexicon, reduce the rate of exploitation, as well as giving people more leisure time and reducing the demonstrably adverse effects of over-work - the physiological effects described by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level, and the psychological effects described by Oliver James in Affluenza.

The Federation of European Employers, of course, sees things differently. They believe that regulations and social benefits, giving people the right to holidays and sick leave for example, is costing EU businesses too much, and they want to see such entitlements removed so that more time is spent at work and thus more surplus extracted. The CBI, for its part, is committed to maintaining high working hours and its successful lobbying to maintain Britain's opt out of the EU Working Time directive is one of the politico-legal bases for Britain's over-long working week and high rates of exploitation and inequality. So, the Right to Work campaign positions it against the employers, the government, and their moralising drive to force people to work more. We are for the right to work - for access to waged labour - but we are also for the right to work less for the same wage. That can't be accomplished unless the work is shared more equitably, and unless unemployment is systematically attacked.

The demand for the right to work is also a demand to end the ruling class policy of maintaining a certain rate of unemployment (typically 5% in growth periods) to weaken the bargaining power of labour, reduce wage claims and thus supposedly control inflation. It's a demand, tacitly, to increase the share of the social product going to labour. This is important because, as Power points out, the mass entry of women into the workforce in the last forty years or so has coincided with wage stagnation and attacks on welfare, such that the amount of work being done by men and women has increased while the share of the social product going to labour has diminished. New Labour's adaptation to neoliberalism meant that Gordon Brown embraced a definition of 'full employment' as the maximum employment that will place no upward pressure on inflation. That has actually involved consistently high rates of unemployment and is thus inconsistent with the right to work. This means that women in particular are suffering: with the dual burden of domestic and workplace labour increasing the total amount of work performed by women, both the social wage and the market wage have stagnated or declined for millions. Defending the right to work is therefore an important weapon in defending the income of workers, especially the most precariously employed, lowest paid women workers.

Now the Tories' attack on welfare will adversely effect women in two ways. It will drive up unemployment by relieving hundreds of thousands of public sector workers - disproportionately female - of their jobs. It will also reduce help for working mothers and children, further depress the social wage, and make it less easy for mothers to seek paid work. That's why they're pushing the 'family' agenda, as if restoring Victorian patriarchal values will sweep up the social mess created by these cuts. This is why a defence of the welfare state is an essential component of Right to Work's strategy, and is also a vital element of women's liberation.

Lastly, do we need a new slogan to escape the pharisaical connotations alluded to above? I don't know that we do. The right to work is not coextensive with the obligation to work. On the contrary, asserting the right to work is essential for the purpose of reducing the amount of work that people have to do, and increasing the share of the social product they receive for their labour. It is also synonymous with defending the welfare state, so that unwaged work is paid in some sense. It does not entail "working even harder for less so that those at the top can keep more" - quite the reverse. Most importantly, I think, the slogan cuts through the hypocrisy of the Tory cuts agenda. As much as they bluster about the redeeming powers of waged work, they are engaged in a programme that systematically attacks the right to work which we defiantly assert. What we need, I daresay, is not a new slogan, but a militant application of the current slogan. There lies the real basis for a movement to liberate ourselves from the burden of compulsory, soul-destroying, exploitative labour.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Working for Ford, fighting for equality posted by Richard Seymour

A milestone in labour struggles and women's liberation, a 1968 strike by machinists at Ford Dagenham, is to be turned into a film. The strike fed into the National Joint Action Campaign for Women’s Equal Rights, and resulted in a series of similar struggles across British industry, driving up womens' representation in trade unions. It also forced the Labour government to launch an investigation into Ford's practises by employment secretary Jack Scamp, ultimately resulting in the Equal Pay Act of 1970, one of the signal successes of British feminism. For all that the legislation failed to eradicate the yawning pay gap between male and female workers, it did provide the legal basis for a series of struggles that improved the situation of women. This should be a welcome addition to the spate of British films about working class struggle 'back then', from Brassed Off to the Full Monty - great as these films are, there's usually an antiquarian feel about them, as if class struggle is a sort of museum piece rather than an enduring reality. As Sheila Rowbotham and Huw Beynon write in Looking at Class, while films focused on working class issues in the Sixties were filled with anger and hope, emphasising the prospect of coming changes, even the more light-hearted films about the working class since the 1990s, as well as the grittier fare such as Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, are incredibly pessimistic, depicting a world of disintegration and individual survival against the odds through tenacity and humour.

I wonder, though, what manner of depiction it will be when the producer renders the subjects thus: "I was fascinated by their story, and what struck me in particular was how innocent and unpoliticised they were. All they wanted was a fair deal. It was common sense rather than any kind of axe to grind." This may be a tactical statement, intended to soften the film's edges, but it's also a commonplace form of revisionism of the kind that mainstream culture often performs on formerly untouchable subjects to render them safe - think of the folk myths about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. Think of how posterity condescends to them, erasing as much of their relevance for today's struggles as possible. Or worse, how they're held up as self-sufficient agents of change through moral persuasion, as if they did not operate in a milieu of communism, revolutionary movements, labour militancy, global anti-imperialist struggles, and so on, as if they were not themselves convoked by grass roots agencies that have all but been forgotten.

The women were not 'innocent', as this interview with strike committee leader Rose Boland confirms. They were class militants, and they were part of a labour movement that, through the involvement of socialist women, had started to take the issue of women's oppression seriously. The equal pay that the women were demanding had long been part of the TUC's agenda, and its 1963 congress had pushed for the next Labour government, which was elected the following year, to make equal pay a requirement in law. This was followed by an Industrial Charter for Women drawn up by the TUC's Women's Advisory Committee. This is not to say that the extant left and the labour movement was already totally PC and feminist, and that the women were pushing at an open door - far from it. The strike was also part of a rising wave of women's struggles, which had started to make an impact on the male-dominated labour movement, and was registering in some sections of the revolutionary left. It is appropriate to acknowledge that of the Trotskyist organisations the IS (forerunner of the SWP) did not respond to the women's movement as quickly as it might have done. Calls for involvement in the liberation movement were fiercely resisted at first, according to Martin Shaw, who was a prominent member at the time. (Ian Birchall's response to Shaw, disputing many of his claims, can be read here). It was IS women, coordinating among themselves, who effected a volte face that grew in pace as Seventies militancy escalated. In fact, it is fair to say that in the far left as a whole, women's liberation opened up a whole series of cultural battles on the family, homosexuality, children's rights, and so on. Struggles like the Dagenham machinists' strike, and the movement of which it was a part, had a profoundly civilising influence on the British left, and eventally on much of British society as a whole.

The background of the struggle in Ford is that the company's accumulation strategy produced some of the sharpest industrial conflicts in British labour history, and galvanised a militant shop stewards movement that was at the centre of the most radicalised sectors of the organised labour movement. In its three big plants at Halewood, Dagenham and Swansea, the company acknowledged the trade unions, and it would negotiate over pay, but it was adamant that it would not negotiate over tasks and workload - the assertion of management's right to manage was a centrepiece of Ford's strategy. The trade union leadership, for its part, was happy to go along with the Ford management, agreeing that shop stewards should not interfere in matters liable to have an impact on any productivity deal. So, the struggles that took place were often over precisely the issue of the authority of line managers and bosses. The revolutionary left paid especial heed to such struggles because they were more than "DIY reformism", more than bread-and-butter fights. They seemed to point toward the emergence of an agency that challenged the owners' right to dispose of the means of production as they saw fit. The Ford bosses in Detroit were worried sick about what they saw as the "British disease" of constant industrial conflict such that, in 1972, the company announced plans to build a plant in Franco's Spain, where strikes were largely banned and labour costs systematically repressed.

At the same time, the company pursued a systematically discriminatory policy in pay. Gender management - like race management in Detroit - was an effective way of stratifying and dividing the workforce and extracting more surplus from them. This was accomplished through a grading system that ensured that while one in four male workers were on the slightly higher 'C' grade (for 'skilled' workers), only in four hundred women were. The vast majority of women workers, despite performing the same basic tasks as their male counterparts, were deemed by Ford to be 'unskilled'. Such gradings, as Jack Scamp's court of inquiry pointed out, were 'systematic' without being 'scientific'. They relied to a considerable extent on the subjective judgment of assessors who toured the plants interviewing workers and making on the spot assessments as to what grade women should be on. The women largely worked as sewing machinists, making the car seat covers. Largely because it was seen as a woman's job, it was automatically treated as unskilled. Most of the women were therefore on the lower 'B' grade of pay, but even here they were actually getting paid only 85% of the full 'B' grade wage.

This issue of pay 'grading' was not separate from the issue of managers' right to manage, but integral to it, since managers insisted on controlling and determining job profiles in every detail: the workload, the range of tasks, and the pay grade associated with it. While an overall pay settlement, based on a productivity agreement, was usually negotiated between trade union leaders and managers, this always included a clause that it was for managers to shift workers' around between posts and jobs as they saw fit, to allocate tasks, and introduce labour-saving devices where it would boost profitability. That invariably produced a clash between the common sense of workers, who knew their jobs inside out and who understood the rationale of their tasks better than management, and the impositions of the bosses whose systematic-but-not-scientific evaluations were increasingly segmenting tasks in a way that was discriminatory. In fact, alongside the standard use of gender management, the bosses were finding ways to re-grade old jobs, and to create new ones with less prestige and lower pay. Management sought to impose agreements that would divide workers in different plants and roles, so that Halewood workers would gain where Dagenham workers losts, while small part sprayers would lose where sprayers in other parts of the plant would gain. Some workers were experiencing lay-off and deliberate de-skilling while other workers appeared, if only temporarily, to have it easier. These divisions were encouraged to the maximum by bosses, the better to undermine collective militancy, increase productivity and drive down wage costs - to increase the rate of exploitation, in other words.

In the late 1960s, a series of strikes broke out led by women, first at Halewood and then in Dagenham. These were driven by the same issues that had provoked militancy in male-dominated sectors of the plants - workload, managerial infringement, and job grading, and discriminatory practises. But axis of womens' oppression intersecting with the class conflict added fire to the struggle, and gave a pulse of new energy to the rest of the workforce. Huw Beynon, whose Working for Ford is a classic of industrial sociology, reports that these strikes had a "cathartic" effect on the men in the factories. Though they spoke in a macho and often sexist idiom, and though they were socialised in a patriarchal society that wanted them to hate women, and patronise them, they were gaining respect for their female counterparts. At least the women were having a go, they said. "These women are the only men in the plant," they said. "These tarts have taught us a lesson," they said. "We ought to go down there and shout a big fucking 'thank you'." Subsequent militancy, including sophisticated campaigns for parity in pay among all workers in the industry, owed a huge debt to the women's struggles.

The women at Dagenham didn't win the 'C' grade that they were entitled to, however. The Labour government was determined to contain the rising arc of industrial militancy. Maintaining profitability and growth was central to their ability to deliver reforms, and they were determined to resituate the role of trade unions in British society so that workers could not so easily push up labour costs. The In Place of Strife bill introduced by Barbara Castle as secretary of state for employment and productivity, with the support of the Conservative opposition, had been promulgated to thwart sudden shop steward militancy by forcing secret ballots, a 'cooling off' period, and collective bargaining with legally binding results. The bill failed because of opposition from the trade unions, the Labour NEC, a significant chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and even Labour right-wingers like Jim Callaghan, who opposed state regulation of the unions on ideological grounds. This was an opening shot in the collapse of the post-war consensus, and ultimately the Thatcherites would succeed where the Wilson government failed.

In the meantime, the Dagenham machinists' three week dispute was a signal example of the kind of militancy that the government was determined to contain. Ford needed the workers they discriminated against - you can't sell cars without seat covers - but it was markedly bad at containing militancy. So, Castle intervened. The strike committee were invited to have tea in Whitehall, and they put their demands. The meeting ended with the women accepting 100% of the 'B' grade to be phased in over two years, with a promise of a court of inquiry and an Equal Pay bill that would criminalise separate pay grades for women. This ended an explicit gender bar in pay, but also left in place the most invidious form of discrimination in which womens' work was graded as 'unskilled'.

Note that no work, and no worker, is actually 'unskilled'. Skill in the sense used in industrial relations is a social category - it reflects more on the position of the worker within the labour system than it does on the workers' abilities or even necessarily her tasks. The process of 'de-skilling' labour that I mentioned earlier is a really a process of demotion within the labour system, intended to increase the extraction of surplus. The Scamp-led court of inquiry's verdict that pay grading was highly subjective is crucial here. The determination that womens' work was unskilled was driven by the company's need to contain pay claims, and buttressed by prejudicial assumptions about female labour. So it remains today. Job profiles are still highly gendered, and pay and prestige still attaches more to 'male' labour than it does to 'female' labour. Increasingly, as the service economy has grown, women have been pushed into roles where most of the work emphasises emotional labour, which is often a priori classified as 'unskilled' (though this is notably less true of the more macho 'sales' end of emotional labour). And so the same struggles go on, from a higher plateau.

The re-emergence of feminist agitation in the UK, the packed conventions of the London Feminist Network, the Reclaim the Night marches, a reviving feminist literature that is seeing liberals like Natasha Walter become radicalised, the campaigns against sexual objectification and violence against women with the Million Women Rise marches in the capital, thus forms a vanguard, an avant-garde, of the coming class confrontation. It will be disproportionately female workers in the public sector who will be out on the picket lines in the coming months and years. On the fortieth anniversary of the Equal Pay act, it is fitting that the beginnings of resistance to the long misogynist backlash should also be a frontline in the nascent resurgence of working class struggle.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

'Populism' and the mob posted by Richard Seymour

Interesting to see that Will Hutton regards the BBC as a paternalist safeguard against 'mob rule', or rather against "populist government by the mob". He really takes seriously the idea that advertising-driven broadcasters merely give people what they want, and that to do so is dangerous. To give people what they ask for is to invite a debasement of public life, a degeneration of culture and - ironically - a degradation of democracy.

I don't much care for Hutton's Eurocentric liberalism, and no more do I like his oligarchic conception of 'democracy'. It's more than apparent that, like most of his cohorts in the liberal commentariat, he doesn't at all like democracy in the sense of popular rule. To blame corporate reaction of the kind vended by Fox et al on this specious notion of the "mob" is to buy into one of the most culturally pervasive, and pernicious, conceptions of popular rule.

Literal expressions of contempt for the masses tend to stick in the public throat. People don't like it. It works better as caricature and satire. In American pop culture, this is usually expressed in cartoon form. In The Simpsons, a constant mainstay is the hysterical, shrieking, irrational crowd, inflamed with murderous rage, galvanised by some moral panic or other. Pitchforks and flaming torches appear out of nowhere, looting begins spontaneously, anarchy in its basest form prevails. In South Park, they literally mutter "rabble, rabble, rabble" as they lead their charge, addressing hysterical demands to some political or corporate authority (who, however venal, comes across as a paragon of Enlightenment against the hateful mob).

In Futurama, the mob is, even more advantageously, a race of robots with hard-wired mechanisms. In one episode, 'Mom', the chief executive of 'Momcorp' that mass produces robots, has pre-programmed her product with a 'rebel' instruction. When she presses a button, they rise up and conquer earth, mimicking the lingua franca of protests and revolution while, as one character says, "making civilization collapse". The robots chant in binary: "Hey hey, ho ho, 100110...". A robot greetings card speaks in mutilated marxism to "comrade Bender", urging him to "take to the streets" and loot. (Later, as the "revolution" unfolds with the anti-human massacres and mayhem, and civilizational collapse, Bender is turned into a counter-revolutionary when he learns that "Liquor is the opiate of the human bourgeoisie ... In the glorious worker robot paradise, there will be no liquor. Only efficient synthetic fuels.") Thus, in what has to be considered the more critical, liberal end of mainstream American cultural production, the spectre of the "populist rule of the mob" is rendered as a chimerical mash-up of capitalist communism.

It's all the same. "Mom" is a Machiavellan power-maximiser, where in her guise as an arch-capitalist or a revolutionary demagogue. The masses are a stupid, baying insta-mob, incapable of rational, collective deliberation, whether they're spouting ignorant bigotry ("they took our jobs!") or snippets of de-sequentialised pseudo-marxist rhetoric. Populism in this sense is a political fable about the irrationality of crowds, and the impossibility of reasoned collective decision-making. That there are and have been mobs does not alter the fact that this cultural motif is a fabulation. It has nothing to do with the real historical processes in which murderous mobs - say, pogromists - have been galvanised. The 'mob' of popular culture is an Aunt Sally, and it is surely of some significance that this 'mob' is with few exceptions the only way in which masses appear as an agency in said culture. Contempt for the 'populist mob' really expresses hatred for democracy.

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Capitalist hauntology posted by Richard Seymour

Capital represents itself to us principally through its advertising. Its presence is rendered in strictly non-materialist terms. Idealist, magical, or even downright theological thinking is at the heart of capitalist ideology - Smith's 'hidden hand', the religious mandate for 'improvement' of the earth in Lockean property theory, the 'reward-for-abstinence' theory of profits, and the 'golden egg' theory of investments and savings. So when capital represents itself to us, it is not as a set of material processes but as a benign Geist, a bearer of anthropomorphically enlarged humane values, an atmosphere of well-being, etc.. This study of turn-of-the-century corporate advertising and the ideological landscapes created by capital, devised by the author of this marxist analysis of Mork & Mindy, describes the self-representation strategies of capital as follows:

Since AT&T ran its first campaign aimed at massaging public perceptions of itself away from the imagery of a greedy monopolistic bully some 85 years ago, Capital has devoted some part of advertising to constructing its own self-representations. These self-representations have, in one sense, remained amazingly static over the years. Even with the advent of the television era, Capital for the most part chose to stay relatively invisible -- representing itself as a benevolent, almost ghostly, aura that manifested itself in music and imagery. In the 1970s and 1980s, legitimation advertising painted corporate capital as gentle, kind and caring. In other words, Capital was presented as not really Capital. Even campaigns for the notorious junk bond firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, sought to disguise its nature as capital in order to justify its activities.

Perhaps the most famous tagline associated with this style of advertising has been GE's "we bring good things to life." The long-running GE campaign springs to mind as an exemplar of this kind of self-representation of Capital as benignly invisible. In those ads, GE only exists only in the festive form of the happiness its products bring into people's personal lives. Though they've gone multicultural, GE's ads still have this flavor.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Monopoly Capital Blocks Rational Policy of Wage-led Growth posted by Yoshie

What lesson might the working classes of the global North take from what's happening in China? Canadian journalist Paul Jay spells it out in plain English.

Paul Jay: So we've been talking about macroeconomic policy, the G-20, austerity. And there was one little line in the G-20 document I thought was interesting, and it's sort of buried in amongst everything. It said countries could facilitate wages going up proportional to productivity, which is rather interesting, 'cause it's the only time I've ever heard it even mentioned by these guys. There's quite a big section about how wages need to go up in China. There they understand the need for increasing demand. And we've heard President Obama say, we can't be the consumer engine of the world anymore, you guys have to do it, looking at China. And they talk about increasing the social safety net in China. They even talk about allowing strike struggles in China so wages can go up, but they sure don't talk about it when it comes to their own places. . . . So the problem is -- and this is where it becomes a political problem. I mean, it's not that difficult to sit down and kind of envision a rational solution to all of this -- you just can't pass it anywhere. The way that the politics is controlled and the small gang of people that actually own the commanding heights of the economy, starting with the banks, they don't allow any of this to actually get passed, so you get to an impasse. You can talk rational visions, but you can't execute on it.

The lesson given by Jay is a Kaleckian one, one of the most important lessons, especially today, as we struggle against the drive to austerity in the North. First of all, make clear what obstacle needs to be removed if the rational alternative is to be implemented.

To that Kaleckian lesson, however, we want to add a Gorzian one, especially in the United States: take productivity gains more in the form of gains in disposable time than in the form of more consumption. That's our socialist ticket out of crisis, economic and environmental.

Minimum transitional demands: retirement at 50 with full benefits; free education and social wages for students (all the way up to doctoral degrees for those who want them); paid parental leaves (six years for each new child); two months of paid vacations per year at minimum; indefinite unemployment benefits (to last till the ruling classes come up with worthy jobs at worthy wages for the unemployed).

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Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan posted by Richard Seymour

Research confirms the patently frigging obvious, namely that insurgent attacks in Afghanistan are motivated by NATO violence:

The authors of the report by the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research say they analysed 15 months of data on military clashes and incidents totalling more than 4,000 civilian deaths in a number of Afghan regions in the period ending on 1 April.

They say that in areas where two civilians were killed or injured by Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), there were on average an extra six violent incidents between insurgents and US-led troops in the following six weeks.

The report concludes that civilian deaths frequently motivate villagers to join the ranks of insurgents.

"In Afghanistan, when Isaf units kill civilians, this increases the number of willing combatants, leading to an increase in insurgent attacks."

"Local exposure to violence from Isaf appears to be the primary driver of this effect."

This is not an anti-occupation study. Rather, it supports McChrystal's counterinsurgency (COIN) policy of restraining military actions in order not to provoke resistance. (For background on this, see here.) This policy is intended to secure loyalty among the natives and enable the occupiers to build a client state structure, but its logic is to prepare the way for a plausible exit, one in which the US doesn't look like it just had its ass handed to it. The prevailing opinion in the military establishment seems to be that COIN didn't work. The strategy of outright high-octane aggression didn't pacify the insurgency either, however, and it's been guzzling revenue for few discernible rewards at a time when the Pentagon is under increasing pressure to reduce its expenditure - the empire is in no danger of going broke immediately, but its resources are seriously stretched. So Obama is sticking with COIN for the time being, while explicitly endorsing negotiations with segments of the Taliban. This is hitched to an ostensible initial withdrawal date of July 2011. There can, of course, be policy reversals. But the American economy is in a bad way, and the empire's global power is deteriorating. The more strategically-minded elements in the ruling class may consider it advisable to adapt to this situation rather than continue with the adventurist policies of Obama's predecessors.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

The class struggle in China posted by Richard Seymour

If the militant strike wave in China has succeeded in doing one thing, it is to have frightened the Chinese ruling class sufficiently that it is declaring its intention to tackle the shocking increase in inequality in the country (while avoiding measures that might increase the political clout and bargaining power of labour):

The People’s Daily recognizes the severity of this potentially explosive problem. According to the article, China’s Gini Coefficient, which is an index that measures inequality, clocks in at 0.47 – very close to the 0.5 marker, which often signals risk of instability. It also mentions that from 1997 to 2007 labour remuneration as a percentage of GDP went from 53.4 per cent to 39.74 per cent. Workers weren’t the only ones to lose ground. People living in rural areas have also fallen behind their urban countrymen. In 1978 urban per capita income was 2.78 times higher than rural income. By 2009 that gap had widened to 3.33. Also, in cities, the richest 10 per cent controlled 45 per cent of the wealth, while the poorest 10 per cent only had 1.4 per cent.

The paper also outlines the main ways the government intends to tackle the problem. Implementing a wages increase mechanism, perfecting the minimum wage system, and ensuring wages are paid in a timely manner are all main priorities. The collective consultation system will be promoted. Farmers salaries will be increased. The social insurance system will be improved to cover those in the cities and countryside.

Although the article outlines other plans to create a more progressive tax system, the focus of redistributive efforts seems to be on the points mentioned above, and conspicuous by its absence, is the role of collective bargaining and reform of the ACFTU. Ironically, even the ACFTU sees the need for reform in order for collective consultation and collective contracts to play a major part in the government’s efforts to more equitably redistribute wealth. On 9 July 2010 the ACFTU announced that collective contracts would be a key ingredient in improving workers rights. In the China Daily, Li Shouzhen, spokesperson from the ACFTU noted that collective contracts will be promoted and but that, “…legislation will be needed first to make it mandatory for enterprises to set up such a mechanism, which is still lacking at most small and medium-sized enterprises…. if we made it mandatory (having employers sign collective contracts with their employees) and stepped up punishment for violators, I think workers would be placed in a much stronger position”.

That a powerful, organised labour movement might come out of the current struggles over the distribution of the social product, and even produce a space for a labour-based political opposition, is undoubtedly a more threatening prospect than temporary remuneration concessions. The lessons in organisation and tactics that workers can learn from pick up from such militancy are the greater danger than a temporary redistribution of wealth to prevent militant outbreaks. These strikes are not only winning much of the time, and winning big when they do, they are showing workers how to deal with both employers and the state, facing down police repression as well as employers' economic power. This is why, in addition to the government's commitments (which it can certainly afford with 10.3% growth) local governments are increasing the minimum wage to forestall strikes. As the world system shifts to a more obviously multipolar one, with US hegemony in slow but perceptible decline, the outcome of the struggles of the emerging Chinese labour movement will be increasingly important for the international working class as a whole. Solidarity with the Chinese working class is in the interests of workers in Britain, but I should say that learning from the Chinese working class as it experiments with ways to deal with far more difficult struggles than we face, is also paramount.

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Lynching posted by Richard Seymour

Ramifications of the criminal conspiracy discussed below:

'Arab man attacked for talking to Jewish girl'

Twenty-three year old rushed to hospital unconscious after being beaten with heavy metal object at Tiberias gas station, sustaining serious injuries. Suspect yet to be apprehended.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Racist patriarchy in Israel posted by Richard Seymour

This is an example of racist patriarchy. A man, Sabbar Kashur, has been imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex with a woman, whose name has not been disclosed. Both parties were of age, and no one alleges that the transaction took place without consent. Initially, this was not clear, as the original complaint suggested that there had been some coercion. But as the woman's testimony in the course of the trial made clear, the only crime that Kashur, now convicted of rape, committed was to have allowed the woman to believe that he was Jewish, when in fact he was an Arab. He did not even actively perpetrate a deceit, merely chatted the woman up and didn't say "by the way, I am an Arab". And that has earned him 18 months in prison, on the basis of a plea bargain. Judge Tzvi Segal explained:

"The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price – the sanctity of their bodies and souls."

Are you getting it yet? Sex with an Arab constitutes a violation of the sanctity of body and soul - an "unbearable price". This is not a freakish opinion in Israeli society. For example, half of Israeli Jews believe intermarriage between Arabs and Jews is equivalent to national treason (that demographic 'timebomb', you see). Some are determined to enforce this sexual separation through violence or policy. Gangs of men in a Jerusalem neighbourhood roam around, behaving as a de facto vice and virtue squad, to 'protect' young Jewish girls from Arabs. One local authority has set up a squad of counsellors and psychiatrists to 'rescue' Jewish girls who are dating Arabs.

Hostility to inter-marriage and cross-ethnic dating pervades Zionist culture, and is reproduced at structural and institutional levels from the cradle to the grave. There has been a raft of legislative measures since 1948 that are designed to frustrate socialisation between Jews and Arabs, and the existing structures of segregation in education and housing ensure that intermarriage is already very rare. Jonathan Cook, quoting the Israeli sociologist Dr Yuval Yonay, points out that Israel's education system, designed to inculcate Zionist principles in Israeli Jews, largely succeeds in foreclosing Jewish-Arab relationships. The Israeli far right has long wished to enforce the stigma on such relationships with legislation. Meir Kahane, before he was thrown out of the Knesset in the 1980s, attempted to do just that. The current political climate in Israel, with the most racist Knesset of all time and a host of discriminatory measures in the pipeline, will tend to compound this trend.

The woman who filed the charge can hardly be burdened with most of the responsibility. Who knows what pressures she was under? Perhaps no pressures other than the racist ideology that she will have internalised if she is a normal product of the Israeli education system. But perhaps it was put to her that her honour as an Israeli Jewish woman, and that of her family, had been sullied by her treasonous intercourse with an Arab from East Jerusalem and that, if she wished to expiate her crime, she should say that she had been raped. Whatever the case, without the backing of the forces of racist patriarchy her complaint would not have resulted in a conviction. It's not as if it's easy for women to get their complaint heard and a conviction obtained when a rape really has occurred. It's not as if the criminal justice system throws its weight behind women every time they experience domestic violence, harrassment, or sexual violation. This was a complaint that, with its obvious paucity of evidence of any kind of violation or assault, could easily have been dealt with outside of the courts. Instead, they devoted their considerable resources to keeping this man in lockdown - he was under house arrest for almost two years while the case was brought to trial - and so loading the scales against him that even when no evidence of rape emerged, he still ended up 'guilty'.

The court has therefore come down on the side of racist patriarchy, effectively joining those vice and virtue squads in 'protecting' Jewish women from any desire they may have to have sex and romance with Arab men, conserving the sanctity of the Jewish body and soul, and ensuring that the female body is strictly harnessed to the urgent task of perpetually regenerating the race. The criminal justice system itself, from the police to the prosecution and the judges, conspired to deliberately frame a consensual sex act as a violation. The fact that the verdict was secured with a plea bargain suggests that the defence also participated in this charade, intimidating and gaslighting Kashur so thoroughly that he ultimately 'confessed' to having committed a 'crime' and officially expressed a desire to be reformed. This is a calculated deterrence of inter-racial love, sex and solidarity. Perhaps it was seen as a necessary move due to the disproportionate presence of women among the Israeli peace movement, and the fear that their fraternising with the enemy is undermining militarist-nationalist morale. More likely, I think, such judgments are a logical corollary of founding a polity on the creation and maintenance of a demographically preponderant oppressor group through sheer military violence. A militarised colonial state, even one with a thin liberal democratic veneer, is necessarily a racially supremacist patriarchy, and would be so even without outlandish stunts like this conviction.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Of baboons and racists posted by Richard Seymour

Recently, the London Review of Books contracted the South African writer and Rhodes scholar R W Johnson to write a series of blog posts on the World Cup. Johnson, an Anglophone liberal, was once the authoritative source for the centre-left press in the UK on apartheid. He has long since moved to the right, disappointed by post-apartheid South Africa and almost comically paranoid about Marxist racist black nationalist conspirators having taken control of the ANC and driven the country into the dirt. South Africa, he bewails, has degenerated every single year since the overthrow of apartheid (which wasn't really an overthrow, but rather an act of staggering generosity and political maturity by F W de Klerk). If he was ever a reliable source, it is fair to say that he has long since ceased to be. Still, if the LRB wants to trade on his reputation, that is the LRB's business. Unfortunately, Johnson has embarrassed his employers with a rather peculiar racist outburst in an article entitled 'After the World Cup' (or rather that appears to have been the title finally chosen - the URL of the now vanished post suggests that it was originally called 'The Coming of the Baboons'). Allow me to excerpt:

We are being besieged by baboons again. This happens quite often here on the Constantiaberg mountains (an extension of the Table Mountain range). Baboons are common in the Cape and they are a great deal larger than the vervet monkeys I was used to dealing with in KwaZulu-Natal. They jump onto roofs, overturn dustbins and generally make a nuisance of themselves; since their teeth are very dirty, their bite can be poisonous. They seem to have lots of baby baboons – it’s been a very mild winter and so spring is coming early – and they’re looking for food. The local dogs don’t like them but appear to have learned their lesson from the last baboon visit: then, a large rottweiler attacked the apes, who calmly tore it limb from limb.

Meanwhile in the squatter camps, there is rising tension as the threat mounts of murderous violence against foreign migrants once the World Cup finishes on 11 July. These migrants – Zimbabweans, Malawians, Congolese, Angolans, Somalis and others – are often refugees and they too are here essentially searching for food. The Somalis are the most enterprising and have set up successful little shops in the townships and squatter camps, but several dozen Somali shopkeepers have already been murdered, clearly at the instigation of local black shopkeepers who don’t appreciate the competition. The ANC is embarrassed by it all and has roundly declared that there will be no such violence. The truth is that no one knows. The place worst hit by violence in the last xenophobic riots here was De Doorns and the army moved into that settlement last week, clearly anticipating trouble. The tension is ominous and makes for a rather schizoid atmosphere as the Cup itself mounts towards its climax.

I trust you follow the juxtaposition. African migrants are "baboons", while "local black shopkeepers" are "rottweilers". This is neither subtle nor reticent. For thirteen days, this edit of Johnson's post was allowed to stand, despite complaints from readers. A letter was composed, protesting about the LRB's decision to publish this racist screed, which received the signatures of 73 concerned writers, academics, activists, etc*. In the meantime, the editors received a rather terse e-mail urging them to remove the article. Failure to do so within 48 hours, they were told, would result in a complaint to the EHRC and the PCC. This finally persuaded the editors to act. They removed the post. So, when the letter was sent, a response from the editors stated that "We had already taken this post down before we received your letter. Thank you for your concern."

There was no acknowledgment of the reason why the post had been taken down, or of the fact that it was racist. So, the letter was re-drafted to take note of the decision to remove the post, and sent again in the hope that LRB would publish it and acknowledge that something had gone very badly wrong. The editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, declined to do so on the grounds that the letter made explicit a series of connections that Johnson had not made explicit. "This isn't a comparison that should be in anyone's mind," she argued, "and we aren't willing to be the cause of its appearing in print." There would of course be no way to address the racist nature of Johnson's article without making the meaning of his racist juxtaposition explicit, but while Wilmers acnowledged that it was "possible" to interpret it in the way that the letter suggested, she nevertheless implied that the comparison between African migrants and baboons, and between black shopkeepers and rottweilers, had not in fact already been made under the impress of the London Review of Books.

Now, it seems to me that the story here is in part one of moral cowardice. The LRB has withdrawn the article, not because it recognised that it was disgusting and offensive, but because it was placed under pressure. They have left no explanation as to why the post was withdrawn, merely citing "complaints". And they decline to have the objections to the article aired in their publication. They are attempting, having only belatedly reacted to the problem, and having then only buried it, and under pressure, to keep it buried.

Quite coincidentally, I've recently been reading a collection of Harold Pinter's writings. In one piece, originally written for the Index on Censorship, he describes the fate of his poem 'American Football', a reflection on the Gulf War composed in 1991. He submitted it firstly to the London Review of Books, which is a magazine I occasionally enjoy reading. Pinter explains: "I received a very odd letter, which said, in sum, that the poem had considerable force, but it was for that very reason that they were not able to publish it. But the letter went on to make the extraordinary assertion that the paper shared my views about the USA's role in the world. So I wrote back. 'The paper shares my views, does it? I'd keep that to myself if I were you, chum,' I said. And I was very pleased with the use of the word 'chum'." I suppose the point of citing this anecdote is to demonstrate that a stroke of the publisher's yellow-streak is nothing new; that, whatever advantages appear to derive from such cowardice generally tend to diminish in time; and that the resultant cop out never looks anything other than absurd, petty and grubby in retrospect. Which perspective I hope the LRB's editors might take on board, and adjust their present stance accordingly.

Update: Gary Younge reports...

Further update: LRB editors apologise.

*This is the letter as it appeared on its second edit, acknowledging the fact that the post was deleted:

20th July 2010

To the Editor,

With its stress on its own 'depth and scholarship and good writing' and its 'unmatched international reputation', the LRB has a responsibility to maintain high standards if it is to retain its enviable position of having the 'largest circulation of any literary magazine in Europe'.

We find it baffling therefore that you continue to publish work by RW Johnson that, in our opinion, is often stacked with the superficial and the racist. In a particularly egregious recent post on the LRB blog, 'After the World Cup', 6 July 2010, Johnson, astonishingly, made a comparison between African migrants and invading baboons. He followed this with another between 'local black shopkeepers' and rottweilers. He concluded with what he presumably thinks is a joke about throwing bananas to the baboons.

In the particular arena of football, some fans do not need to be encouraged to produce racist abuse. Across Europe for many years, black players have been spat at, subjected to racist chants often including references to monkeys or apes, and have been the focus of monkey chanting noises during matches. Neo-Nazi groups have also been known to use football matches as target areas for recruiting new members and promoting their racist practice. (How ironic that when Johnson does decide to write about ‘Football and Fascism’, 11 July 2010, he produces a piece about Italy that reveals the dearth of his knowledge.)

While South Africa has made great strides, overturning the racist politics of the National Party, it still has a long way to go in combating the racism that thrives among certain communities and individuals. Elsewhere, in the UK for example, this is no time for complacency about attitudes to race. Although British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, may have been humiliated at the recent General Elections, his party now has two MEPs. Let’s not forget that young black men in this country are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than young white men, and they comprise a disproportionate number of the prison population.

Whilst it might be unfair to pick on a man for his inability to be funny, we believe that it would be wholly wrong to stay silent when he resorts to peddling highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes that the LRB editorial team deems fit to publish. (Indeed, we note from the comments that at some point the post was edited – and yet, in our opinion, it remained an appalling and racist piece of writing.)

We were relieved on Monday 19 July when, finally, the post was taken down. However, we remain appalled that it was published in the first place and appalled that it remained up for 13 days. Several of the comments beneath the post pointed out some time ago that the piece was clearly racist and yet the LRB still chose to leave it online. It is not good enough to remove the post – apart from its URL which, we note, ends ‘coming-of-the-baboons’ – and expect this nasty episode to be forgotten. We would like to know why it was published in the first place and we would like to read a public apology.

It is of deep concern to all of us that the LRB could be so impressed by RW Johnson that his racist and reactionary opinion continues to be published in the magazine and now, in the blog too. And there we all were thinking the LRB was progressive.

Yours sincerely,

Diran Adebayo, writer & academic, Lancaster University
Patience Agbabi, poet
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist & writer
Candace Allen, writer, journalist & broadcaster
Cristel Amiss, coordinator, Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Baffour Ankomah, editor, New African
Nana Ayebia Clarke, publisher, Ayebia
Pete Ayrton, publisher, Serpent’s Tail
Sharmilla Beezmohun, deputy editor, Wasafiri
Benedict Birnberg
Professor Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford
Professor Patrick Bond, University of Kwazulu-Natal
Victoria Brittain, writer & journalist
Dr Margaret Busby OBE, publisher & writer
Teju Cole, writer
Eleanor Crook, sculptor & academic, University of the Arts
Fred D’Aguiar, writer
Dr David Dibosa, academic
Kodwo Eshun, The Otolith Group
Gareth Evans, writer, editor, curator
Katy Evans-Bush, poet
Bernardine Evaristo MBE, writer
Nuruddin Farah, writer
Professor Maureen Freely, writer & academic, University of Warwick
Kadija George, publisher, Sable LitMag
Professor Paul Gilroy, London School of Economics
Professor Peter Hallward, Kingston University London
M John Harrison, writer
Stewart Home, writer
Michael Horovitz, poet
Professor Aamer Hussein, writer & academic, University of Southampton
Professor John Hutnyk, Goldsmiths
Dr Sean Jacobs, The New School
Selma James, coordinator, Global Women’s Strike
Gus John, associate professor, Institute of Education, University of London
Anthony Joseph, poet & novelist
Kwame Kwei-Armah, playwright & broadcaster
Candida Lacey, publisher, Myriad Editions
Alexis Lykiard, writer
Firoze Manji, editor in chief, Pambazuka News
Shula Marks, emeritus professor, School of Oriental & African Studies
Professor Achille Mbembe, University of the Witwatersrand & Duke University
Dr China Miéville, writer & academic,
Professor David Morley, University of Warwick
Professor Susheila Nasta, editor, Wasafiri
Courttia Newland, writer
Dr Alastair Niven OBE, principal, Cumberland Lodge
Dr Zoe Norridge, University of Oxford
Dr Deirdre Osborne, Goldsmiths
Lara Pawson, journalist & writer
Pascale Petit, poet
Caryl Phillips, writer
Dr Nina Power, Roehampton University
Jeremy Poynting, managing editor, Peepal Tree Press
Gary Pulsifer, publisher, Arcadia Books
Michael Rosen, poet
Anjalika Sagar, The Otolith Group
Richard Seymour, writer & activist
Dr George Shire, reviews editor, Soundings
Professor David Simon, Royal Holloway
Lemn Sissay MBE, writer
Keith Somerville, Brunel University
Colin Stoneman, editorial coordinator, Journal of Southern African Studies
George Szirtes, poet & translator
Dr Alberto Toscano, Goldsmiths
Professor Megan Vaughan, University of Cambridge
Patrick Vernon, chief executive, The Afiya Trust
Professor Dennis Walder, Open University
Verna Wilkins, writer & publisher, Tamarind Books
Dr Patrick Wilmot, writer & journalist
Adele Winston
Professor Brian Winston, University of Lincoln
Dr Leo Zeilig, University of the Witwatersrand

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Bromides of the "Big Society" posted by Richard Seymour

So Cameron relaunched his "Big Society" propaganda campaign today. The Prime Minister did not so much spell out his proposed changes as semaphore them with a series of nauseating platitudes. We are told, for instance, that he wants "communities with oomph", sounding for all the world as if he's a fucking daytime television motivational guru. He also favours widespread "voluntarism" though sadly not so much in the metaphysical sense as in the sense of people doing for free what public sector workers used to do for a wage. And, of course, he has set his canon against "centralised bureaucracy" in the public services. Eric Pickles MP suggests that the basic aim of the "Big Society" is to "get more for less", a telling turn of phrase that I will allow you to parse for yourselves - but only after you've juxtaposed it with David Cameron's claim that it is "not about trying to save money".

The "Big Society" is an emetic name for an emetic project. It is, above all, a class project, a war with labour over the share of the social product. The contest is being launched on multiple fronts simultaneously. On the one hand, there is the project of accumulation-by-dispossession, an attempt to raid the public sector in a very audacious way and turn its assets into highly profitable enterprises at just the point when most sectors of industry are showing very lacklustre returns, and when companies are reluctant to invest elsewhere. On the other, there is the very naked effort to increase the rate of exploitation, and restore profitability in that fashion, which involves weakening the bargaining power of labour through legislative means but also by weakening the still sizeable public sector unions. Thirdly, there is an attempt to still further reverse the political gains made by the working class, rolling back democracy within the state under the rubric of 'empowerment' and similar new-age managerial bollocks. This is not just a project of the capitalist class with respect to the working class.

It also a programme for the continued hegemony of the financial fraction within the ruling class. Whatever regulations and stabilizing measures emerge to (try to) prevent the financial sector from completely sinking the capitalist system with its next crisis, there is every sign that the ConDems want to maintain the authority of the City as the main driver of growth and consumption. The 'free schools' and 'GP-led' NHS trusts will provide the financiers with an excellent source of raw material for further financial 'innovation', since these costly entities will have to borrow private capital, which borrowing can be repeatedly refinanced, and the debt itself sliced, diced, tranched and repackaged into bundles of debt parcels that can be speculated on - a blue chip investment since the schools and hospitals, though administered for private profit, will be owned by the public and finally maintained at public expense. The construction, manufacturing and service industries will also make a mint out of these, just as their profit margins will continue to be bumped up by their financial investments.

There are grave risks associated with this "Big Society" project, about which more in a later post. Suffice to say, however: the capitalist class is not stupid, and neither are the Tories. They are not merely engaged in an unintelligent or rigidly doctrinal ploy. This is unlikely to restore dynamism to capitalist industry, but there will be rewards from successfully pulling off this project even if it doesn't restore growth, and there is little else coming down the pipeline. The ruling class is not stupid - it is desperate.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

On meritocracy posted by Richard Seymour

China quotes this, so I may as well:

"To imply that those currently at the top - the Warren Buffets and Roman Abramoviches of this world - are the very best, the nec plus ultra of humanity, is a kind of hate speech toward the species. Dignity demands that we refute it."

Richard Seymour, The Meaning of David Cameron, Zero Books, 2010

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Friday, July 16, 2010

The imperialism of market "reason" posted by Richard Seymour

Harvey says that the academics are refusing to learn from the capitalist crisis, that they are still retailing the same vulgarising neoclassical theories that they have been for a century, and especially since the Seventies. The theories don't work, don't explain anything, reduce complex historical processes to dicta of vicious circularity, but they continue to be orthodox. Proof, surely, that the purpose of higher education is to indoctrinate more than it is to educate, encouraging intelligent people to believe that in studiously internalising capitalist ideology, they have been inducted into a caste of rational beings from which the great unwashed are excluded. If you've had a read of Dan Hind's book The Threat To Reason, you'll remember that it is his argument that a primary threat to reason arises from the corporate annexation of Enlightenment. This takes place in two ways: first, in the sense that the tools made available by the scientific revolution are hoarded and deployed solely in order to accumulate capital, in strict secrecy (this is Occult Enlightenment); secondly, in the sense that capitalists denounce their opponents - be they environmentalists, opponents of nuclear energy, peaceniks, or anticapitalists - as counter-Enlightenment forces. In this Folk Enlightenment view, as Hind calls it, the forces of reason are on the side of markets, big business and - let us not forget - war. I mentioned the recent example of BA boss Willie Walsh describing BASSA workers as "reactionaries" opposing the rationalisation of the airline industry.

One aspect of this specious conception of "reason" is the encroachment of a set of analytical principles established by marginalist economics into other fields of social science. Though specifically concerned with the workings of markets, it is assumed by their advocates that these could apply universally. And, as Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis argue (From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics, Routledge, 2009), the 20th Century saw a growing tendency for various authors, including the writers of such ordure as Freakonomics, to extend them as universally as possible. Freakonomics (and its Super- sequel) discovers a market logic behind a bewildering variety of social phenomena. Gary Becker finds that market logic explains a wide range of phenomena including crime and punishment. For Robert H Frank, "economics explains everything", and he encourages his students to find ways to apply market laws to all manner of questions. Everything up to and including romantic relationships can be understood in terms of utility maximization. Thus, the search for a partner can be interpreted as a petty entrepreurial activity in a competitive market, in which - acting on information and incentives - couples form property-based relational contracts as a means for effectively utilizing resources, and the relationship is only sustained for as long as each maximises the utility that the other receives.

Underpinning this approach is three basic analytical principles. The first is individualism. The individual is taken to be the self-sufficient unit of all forms of behaviour, the real basis of all fictitious corporate entities. The second is rational self-interest. The individual behaves in ways that will maximise utility to herself, on the basis of a rational assessment of the information available in the market. Here, utility is purely subjective - whatever is useful to an individual is whatever she thinks is useful, while there is an assumption of an "implicit market" in all walks of life, even where there are no commodities, no price signals, and no currency. The third principle is exchange. Utility maximisation optimally takes place through the act of exchange, and that exchange can take place between the drug dealer and the addict as much as the lover and the pursued. This kookiness, where it is not merely circular and vulgar, descends into absurdity when the suitability of the theory can only be established through an ad hoc proliferation of conceptual innovations, as when - for example - Becker explains criminal recidivism in terms of a "preference for risk". This naturalises and universalises the cut-throat self-advancement of career-minded bourgois WASPs, distilling it into a set of puerile anthropological axioms. Middle market books such as The Economic Naturalist probably aggrandise the narcissism of the bourgeois, allowing them to read about themselves and their conduct in flattering terms, giving it a metaphysical twist, endowing it with transcendent validity. And small wonder that such people like to hear that everyone else has exactly the same petty, criminal mentality that they do - it is not capital that is self-maximising, it is humanity itself! - and that they have merely been more successful utility-maximisers than the majority of humankind.

This imperialism of "reason" ("economic imperialism", as Fine and Milonakis dub it), has policy consequences. 'Public choice' economics, for example, has acquired a prized position in the academia, in think-tanks, and among policy 'wonks'. Its apostles have usually found a place in policymaking institutions. William Niskanen, for example, had worked in the Kennedy administration, was appointed to Reagan's 'Council of Economic Advisors', and his Bureaucracy and Representative Government was required reading material for higher civil servants during the Thatcher era. This tendency has been very useful for ruling class neoliberal praxis. The principles of 'public choice' economics were first outlined by James Buchanan, and later refined by Gordon Tullock and Anthony Downs, and then Niskanen. Essentially it involved the idea that public sector bureaucratic workers are, like marketplace actors, utility maximisers. Buchanan allowed that there were other motivations, "unexplained residues" that weren't covered by the principles of market rationality - ethical considerations, for instance - though such exiguous constraints on the applicability of the theory have tended to be lost in its subsequent development. This model of the individual as a 'utility function' is obviously circular - it is simply assumed that everything human beings do is maximizing. It is not a falsifiable assertion, but more in the way of an articulation of faith, a capitalist theology.

Niskanen's account says that bureaucrats are budget maximisers. But this is only a proxy for the maximisation of other utilities, such as "salary, perquisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage, output of the bureau, ease of making changes and ease of managing the bureau”. Bureaucrats act on incentives to maximise their budget. If they do not, their tenure will be brief, their reputation diminished, their power limited, and their income reduced. This behaviour takes place in circumstances like those of a private sector monopoly: a "bilateral monopoly" as Niskanen has it. The politician requires services that only bureaucrats can provide, and the bureaucrats require funding that only politicians can allocate. As monopolists, bureaucrats have considerable ability to control the information pertaining to the production processes, and thus to inflate the costs of their product. Without competition, they drive up spending and over-supply services. Meanwhile politicians act on incentives to service clients and special interests, thus increasing their clout, consolidating votes, and sometimes getting hefty back-handers. Niskanen's solution was to introduce competition among public sector bureaus, and between public sector bureaus and the private sector; cap taxes and spending to the lowest sustainable levels; change the incentive structure within bureaucracies so that they become more transparent; and severely restrict the scope for legislators to increase taxes, insisting that such increases could only be passed if approved by two-thirds of legislators, thus reducing the potential for politicians to service interest groups.

The technocratic cadences of this school only partially obscure the rightist political animus driving it, and particularly its roots in radical right-wing political theory and pro-capitalist economics. The theory has little predictive value, and there has been little evidence that public sector bureaucrats are in fact 'budget maximisers'. The reforms introduced into the public sector under the influence of such theories, have usually been part of an attack on organised labour. The Tories, for example, introduced something called Compulsory Competitive Tendering in various aspects of service delivery throughout the 1980s. It meant that public authorities were compelled to introduce competition between public sector service providers and private sector contractors. This was supposed to introduce a new era of streamlined administration, but it was also intended to weaken public sector unions as part of the Tories' project of shifting the balance of power from organised labour to employers - if the public sector protected unionised employees from 'market forces', this had to be stopped. Wages should be cut and jobs shed, if necessary. Nicholas Ridley argued at the time that poor quality services was the result of a grip exerted by trade unions, who ensured that services costs mere and delivered less for "the consumer". In local government, this meant reduced wages and lost jobs across the board - part of the overall downsizing of the state that has been a continuous project since the Thatcher era - even where private bidders didn't win the contract. It often meant that the quality of such services was run down, but even more gravely it was an assault on democracy. The Thatcherites didn't object to local administration as such, but they did object to the idea of a local authority exercising the full range of devolved powers under democratic scrutiny and control. In place of such authorities, they introduced a network of single-function or area-specific bodies that were not democratic, or democratically accountable, to administer local services. It was through such reforms that undemocratic quangos were propagated, of which there are now 1200, controlling a vast budget and thus a great deal of public life in the UK.

Such reforms have also opened up new avenues for capital accumulation, and this has tended to increase bureaucratic costs rather than - as should theoretically be the case - diminish them. Bureaucracy has proliferated, as has rent-seeking, as corporate interests became interwoven with public service delivery. For a paradigmatic example of private rent-extraction from the public sector, you might consider SERCO. This private enterprise has built a vast empire in public service delivery in the UK. It runs schools, trains, prisons, hospitals, immigration detention centres, the Docklands Light Railway, the Woolwich Ferry, speed cameras, nuclear weapons, local education authorities - the works. SERCO holds 40% of contracts for the Home Office, making a mint out of 'control orders' and 'anti-terrorist' legislation, has run some of the most abusive and repressive detention centres, and will certainly be bidding for the control of the new "GP-led" health authorities. It is already bidding to run Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire. The Tories 'free schools' programme, in which parents can set up state-funded schools independently run, and free of local education authority oversight, has already provided SERCO with its first whiff of profits, as the Birkenshaw, Birstall and Gomersal Parent Alliance has procured the firm to run a new 900-place secondary school. Its activities in the Private Finance Initiative Industry are almost three times as profitable as its other private sector activities. But what does SERCO actually do? By itself, nothing. It is a parasitic entity that accumulates immense profits by telling other people what to do, or rather by contracting other suppliers to tell other people what to do. And, as Private Eye revealed a while back, its chief executive is sponsored in his hobby of Ferrari driving by three companies who have been suppliers to SERCO. This is just one, albeit one very large and typical, example. Of course, SERCO works hard to reproduce the doctrines legitimising its extraction of rent from the public sector, through its research sector, the SERCO Institute, and its publications are widely distributed among local and national government officials.

Now that the Tories are back in power, they are promising to democratise and devolve power in the public sector - down with Big Government, up with the Big Society. But their rationale and means have not altered. They are taking crucial public service functions in the NHS and education out of democratic oversight and 'devolve' them to non-elected bodies and private sector firms, under the pretext of a spurious market rationality. What I'm describing as the imperialism of market "reason" is nothing other than the ability of the ruling class to naturalise and universalise its accumulation activities, to express it as an ideology, a pseudo-sociology with pseudo-explanations for social phenomena, and to use that ideology as a justification for advancing on and enclosing all areas of public life that are not commodified, not subject to the laws of accumulation. It's an ideology of primitive accumulation, or accumulation-by-dispossession, and the fact that its intellectual product is so impoverished, vulgar and circular will not reduce its appeal for as long as there is capitalism, and for as long there is some human activity that is not making someone a profit.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Belfast burning posted by Richard Seymour

Come on, you all know the words: #It was on the twelfth when the Pope shite himself/It was on the Shankill road...# No? You haven't heard that? My, you have lived a sheltered life, haven't you? How about this one?: #We shall be mastered by no fenian bastard/For we are the boys of the POTV [Pride of the Village - an exuberantly violent flute band from Templepatrick]...# You're joking me? You've not heard tell of that one either? Well, these are popular folk songs where I come from. I don't know about the songs on the other side. There were some Catholics in our estate, but they didn't exactly go around the place singing - or, rather, they did, but it was more likely to be 'Hey Frankie' by Sisters Sledge than the 'Soldier's Song'. I suppose I just felt like mentioning this because I caused some minor offence when, at my Marxism talk, I jokingly suggested that I have a privileged position from which to view the 'culture' wars, as Northern Ireland doesn't really have a culture. Let me tell you this, boy: Northern Ireland has culture coming out of its arse. (Or is that kultur?) Why, look, just look at it. Culture, curling out in magnificent, glossy segments. It's like cross between a bakery and a Canadian logging camp.

Of course, this is rather unfair and, if I was being entirely serious, would place me right alongside the ridiculous handwringing unionist and nationalist politicians and reverends bleating about how violence has no place in a civilized society. Next, I'd be saying how disgawsted ay awm with the oitrayt vayilence n thawggery awn display. These rictus-mouthed, pious officials and holy-holy sooks look and sound ridiculous, and powerless, because in a way they are. The British state rules round these parts, and the British state has already determined what the contours of the settlement are to be. If you doubt this, ask the DUP. They were shit full of opposition to the institutions of Good Friday, and led hundreds of thousands of Protestant bigots constituents to believe that it was possible to overthrow this arrangement - now they're it's guardians. So, if everyone is happy, and if the settlement is so wonderful for both sides (because there are only two sides of any argument in Northern Ireland), how could it possibly be that there are protests, sit-down strikes, and now riots, hijackings and bomb scares, with police being shot at and injured? It must be the Republican dissidents. Or, as you English put it, the three Bs: bog-trotting bastards in balaclavas. That's the line from Martin McGuinness, Peter Robinson, and the Chief Constable. It's always the same story: a small minority ruining it for everyone else.

Aye, as they say, right. No such thing. There has been constant sectarianism and violence since the peace accords, not to mention racist pogroms, and while one doesn't discount the existence of a minority of Republicans who can't let go of the dream, they can't be blamed for every sign of social distress and dissent. The short background is that the Orange Order, (whose role in the origins of racial supremacy was recently the subject of heated debate here), have yet to abandon their hobby of marching on nationalist communities during the bonfire season around 12th July each year. There's nothing intimidating about this, you understand: it's just a friendly hello, and an invitation to experience Orange culture up close. Most peaceful Catholic residents enjoy the opportunity to gawp at the gallons of Harp lager consumed, the tattoos, the pot bellies, the stanley knives, and the young man twirling a baton made from a stick, two tennis balls and red-white-and-blue sticky tape.

Essentially, it works like this. In the weeks before the big parades day, the 12th, loyalists in Protestant estates construct a make-shift mountain in some grassy area of the estate, from pallets, tires, furniture, planks, and consumer durables, all stolen from back yards, living rooms and industrial estates. At the top of this mountain, they pin an effigy which they invite people to believe is the Pope or some lesser papist. Then on the evening of the 11th July, they get a wee bit pissed, go round bricking Catholic windows, maybe find a 'fenian' out after curfew and give him something to think about, then head back to the mountain to set it on fire. Beholding this blazing sacrificial behemoth, like little Orange druids, they drink more lager to the sound of loyalist songs not a kick in the arse away from the childish ditties I recounted at the top of this post. Having spent all night getting sozzled in twenty-four packs and bigotry, anyone in a flute band hastily throws on a uniform and heads off with his musical implement, more lager, plenty of fags, and some mates, to march through some fortunate town centre or village. And, if tradition is duly revered, someone identified as a 'taig' will likely get his ballicks booted in, or cut off. I myself have a rather special memory of the Murray Memorial Flute Band's antics in my own home town. They got a bit lathered and apparently staggered on to an Ulsterbus where - would you believe it? - the driver was a Catholic. In a fit of inspiration, they dragged him outside and stabbed him so many times that when an old dear tried to staunch the bleeding by wrapping him in ten towels, she ended up with a mass of blood-soaked cloth and a dead man in her arms. Ah, blessed culture.

Where was I? Oh yes. A minority of recalcitrant Catholics do sometimes try to obstruct these harmless cultural festivals with their petty, resentful protests. They stage sit-down protests and block the roads, absurdly claiming that residents have rights. This being in flagrant defiance of the decisions of the Parades Commission, the residents are all too often setting themselves up against the police, who have the werewithal to remove them. And then you get 'trouble'. This year, Catholic residents of Ardoyne did just that: they staged a sit-down strike. They insisted to anyone who would listen, that they were not Republican dissidents, but residents protecting their area. Now, as Splintered Sunrise suggests, there's a lot of young unemployed men who are always up for a fight with the cops in Northern Ireland. This made up a fairly hefty proportion of loyalist rioters when I was still living there. For many of my young peers, it was recreation. In a social landscape with fuck all to do unless you've got money, the opportunity to take on the forces of authority for a few nights, and even end up in the news, is not to be missed. The more adventurous elements even found the time to hijack cars, break into factories and set up road blocks. And if the same police have been part of a machinery that is oppressing you, and has been since you were born, there's probably an added frisson in causing injury to a few of them.

The trouble is, of course, that after a few days and nights in which a slightly other-worldly atmosphere descends on the six counties, everything goes back to normal. Young people go back to being unemployed, poverty remains poverty, and the working class still gets battered by the extreme neoliberalism of a sectarian proto-state that reduces every important political question to whether it is Protestants or Catholics who are predominantly getting shafted. Sectarianism remains the life-blood of Northern Ireland politics, loyalist gangs still extort, rob and apply vigilante 'justice', and the political leadership ventilates about peace while also regularly exhaling bigotry about ethnic minorities and gays. Nothing changes. They let out a bit of steam, and it goes back to the way it was. And that's the crisis: that things stay exactly as they are.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tory shock therapy for the NHS is an attack on democracy posted by Richard Seymour

This is the shock doctrine in action. What with the recession and the barrage of propaganda misdirection, and with relatively little militancy in response to job losses and pay cuts so far, the Tories are hoping that people are too busy worrying about their jobs and houses to notice most of what they're doing - such as the latest example redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and the neoliberal reforms of the NHS, which are tantamount to a massive privatization drive. Last year, when the NHS was under attack by the American right, David Cameron had to defend it. Now, the government is on the attack:

Announcing his plans, Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley this week said that he wants 80 percent of the NHS budget to be allocated to businesses run by groups of local GPs.

Local primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, which currently buy services for patients, would be abolished.

“These proposals have nothing at all to do with patient care, and everything to do with the needs of big business,” says Gill George, a health worker and member of the Unite union executive.

Lansley claims that his changes would benefit ordinary people by removing key decisions from “faceless bureaucrats” and decentralise power.

But far from making the NHS more democratic, the Tory plans are a ruse for handing yet more of the health service to private firms.

Indeed. The manner in which the ConDem government is attempting to sell neoliberal measures - which are profoundly anti-democratic in taking more and more of the public sector out of the sphere of democratic accountability - as progressive, empowering and democratising, is one of the most insolent and absurd aspects of modern political communication. Privatization, and the neoliberal praxis in which it is embedded, is an attack on democracy. As I have argued elsewhere, this adaptation of the language of progress for regressive ends has a prehistory in the origins of conservative thought, and particularly in the roots of neoliberal ideology.

In this case, the Tories argue that doctors know better than bureaucrats how to run healthcare, and that they intend to entrust decisions over treatment to healthcare professionals. Leaving aside the fact that it will be private firms rather than GPs that take over the running of health trusts - most doctors aren't actually specialists in procurement and health management - this defer-to-the-experts line is in fact a technocratic, rather than democratic, argument, and it runs counter to what makes the NHS a relatively democratic institution. It is because the National Health Service is one of the great achievements of socialism that it has been one of the more democratic aspects of the British state since its inception. This is because democracy is inherently collectivist and egalitarian. Everyone from whatever background has access to treatment when they need it. Relatively impartial information about medical choices is freely available. There is no bill at the end of treatment that would dissuade anyone from seeking treatment just because they're poor, and the tax system that pays for it is modestly progressive. And the NHS is a public good subject to the oversight of elected officials - that's democracy, and it means that 'bureaucratic' oversight is a good thing. In all, for all its flaws, and for all that it has been run down by mismanagement and under-funding, the NHS probably represents the zenith of democratic collectivism in Britain. This is why the NHS is arguably Britain's most popular institution.

The introduction of various charges and, more significantly, various market-based mechanisms has undermined the democratic element of socialised healthcare a bit. The market-based mechanisms contributed to the creation of a 'postcode lottery', for example. But this only marginally undermines the NHS and not nearly enough for the Tories and their Liberal allies. Luckily for them, New Labour began to lay the ground for a new way of running things when they published their plans to break-up and privatize NHS delivery back in 2008. The New Labour argument was always that as long as the treatment was high quality, and as long as it remained free at the point of delivery (well, they did dabble with the idea of charges for appointments with GPs), then there was nothing to worry about. So, they introduced Private Finance Initiatives, using private capital to build new hospital projects, and allowed private firms to compete for cleaning contracts etc. PFIs massively increased costs and ultimately caused the fiscal crisis of 2006, while the privatization of cleaning services led to MRSA. Not to be deterred, Lord Darzi signalled New Labour's determination to continue with privatizing, allowing the funding base to be administered by private firms, and by abandoning the principle of universal coverage set out to entrench legislative principles that would allow them to introduce charges and levies, and restrict care - a freedom which the NHS does not presently have. The basis for restrictions was provided by the disaggregation of NHS service provision into three levels of care: core, additional, and enhanced services. There would be nothing to stop a commercial provider restricting access to care classified as 'additional' or 'enhanced', or charging for it.

Now, radicalising New Labour's proposals, the Tories are going to allow commercial enterprises to administer up to 80% of the NHS budget. They can't very well sell their policy on the grounds of efficiency. Market-based reforms previously introduced have already created new layers of bureaucracy, resulting in - as I pointed out previously - a rise in administrative costs from about 5% of overall budget to 12%. In the private hospitals, administrative costs account for 34% of their total budget. The more the NHS is forced to imitate the private sector, the more administrative costs will rack up. This means less and less funding available for patient care. This is 'efficient' in the sense that Nick Clegg is Noam Chomsky. Coming alongside cuts (don't be fooled by the claims of 'ringfencing' - all local trusts know that cuts are coming and are preparing for it), these reforms mean that the NHS as a service free at the point of delivery, providing quality all-round care for all, is under serious attack. This is being promulgated alongside Michael Gove's attempt to roll back a public, comprehensive, democratically accountable education system. This isn't happening because of the deficit, it isn't happening because people want it, least of all is it happening because of the result of the 2010 general election - please let us be spared that insult. It's an attack on the welfare state, it's an attack on the working class, and it's an attack on democracy. It's time for a democratic revolution.

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