Thursday, December 30, 2010

More than mutual, I should say.

The vapidity of a parliamentary political landscape where capitalism is not seriously in question on any quarter, despite its worst crisis in generations, can perhaps be gauged by the way parties rush to associate themselves and their project with some brand or other. While the Tories' preferred business model is Easyjet, Labour's pre-election campaigning touted the idea of a 'John Lewis state'. Labour likes the John Lewis partnership idea as it offers a half-way house to privatization. When postal workers defeated the government and Royal Mail management over efforts to introduce privatization in 2007, their response was to take steps toward turning the mail into a John Lewis-style business. The John Lewis model is not only loved by Labour, it is gushed over by centre-left think-tanks and journalists. Not that David Cameron has any problem with John Lewis, having appointed its managing director to a team of business advisers who will instruct the government on the changing needs of British capitalism. John Lewis-style businesses have sought to profit from the Tories' privatization drive in the health service. Take Circle Health, for example - a partnership, but more than 50% owned by city institutional investors.

Indeed, what some call 'shared capitalism', where employees have share options and thus get a cut of profits, is quite a normal phenomenon in advanced capitalist economies, and many businesses argue that it improves productivity. John Lewis was founded in 1929 as an experiment in "industrial democracy", though studies of the organisation have tended to find that its democratic organs are at best "efficient consultative mechanisms" rather than genuine decision-making bodies. Internal surveys have found, contrary to the gushing of bourgeois journalists, that staff satisfaction with the company's supposed democracy has been at rock bottom for years. A recent review within the organisation sought to address this dissatisfaction by means of some internal reforms, but it obviously didn't turn it into a radically democratic workers' cooperative. The pay structure within John Lewis sees workers get a share of profits. But, like any capitalist enterprise, profit sharing is not distributed equally. In the case of John Lewis, profit is distributed according to pay scale, so management and executives get a much larger share of profits than any individual staff member. Like any capitalist enterprise, John Lewis is a hierarchy with sharp pay differentials, with the lion's share going to those who run the organisation. Like any capitalist enterprise, John Lewis engages in ruthless business practises which see it engaged in conflict with workers. Yet, it also doesn't recognise independent trade unions.

It would be a shame if protest movements succumbed to this tendency. On which note, the next UK Uncut event, called 'The Feeling is Mutual', is a celebration of businesses like John Lewis and the Cooperative Bank. UK Uncut maintains that turning the Royal Mail into a John Lewis-style partnership would be a good alternative to privatization. [NOTE: See the comments below this post for clarification/disclaimer on this]. To explain, UK Uncut has been centrally involved in organising a number of high street retail occupations, raising the question of why the rich get away with tax avoidance while the poor suffer from cuts. I think these protests have been wonderful. I am, however, less convinced by this latest move. In fact, it's rather disappointing.

I wonder if the Daily Mail can help with this? Stupid question, you might think, but they identify one of the key spokespeople of UK Uncut as one very buff 'bodybuilding fanatic' named Aaron Peters. Who he? He has been interned at (not employed by, as his Facebook information misleadingly maintains) by the Blairite think-tank Demos, and the Young Foundation, currently directed by Tony Blair's former top advisor Geoff Mulgan. Peters is no longer a Labour Party member, having recently left the party ostensibly over Ed Miliband's decision to hire a Times journalist as a spin doctor, though more basically because he supported David Miliband as party leader, whom he describes as a "class act", a "first class politician" and so on. As a supporter of trade unionists, he believes that trade unions - the largest democratic institutions in Britain - are "irrelevant". As a supporter of the student movement, he is an opponent of free education. As an activist, he champions the "dissent entrepreneur" (vomit), and advocates 'networks' and leaderless resistance in opposition to hierarchical models of political action like, well, the Stop the War Coalition - there's an interesting commentary on such ideas from UCL occupiers here.

I don't know if Peters' curious brand of politics is typical of the leaderless leaders who organise UK Uncuts. But it would explain why UK Uncut is now attempting to corral anti-cuts activists into cheering on fairly mundane high street retail outlets as a plausible alternative to privatization and cuts. It would also explain how devotees of non-hierarchical, horizontal, leaderless networks became champions of traditionally hierarchical, coercive, profit-driven business enterprise. My advice to activists - don't go and abase yourself before the Coop and JLP. You have much better things to do with your time.