Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Day X 2 posted by Richard Seymour
The set up as we got to Trafalgar Square was glaringly apparent. Police vans blocked off Whitehall, Pall Mall, and Charing Cross road, and a fleet of vehicles - including the aforementioned armoured vans - started to move in behind us. Row upon row of riot cops stood with a curious mixture of boredom and tension etched on their faces, expectantly fingering their riot helmets. They were waiting for something to happen, to justify the kettle, to start . But they had missed the point. The protesters had been marching across the capital for hours - cheerfully blocking roads, touring byways, bringing the message to workplaces and shops, and basically avoiding all attempts to shut down, kettle and freeze the protest into frightened timidity. There was nothing more for the police to do, as they had already been completely out-witted, out-paced and out-manouevred. And yet... well, wouldn't you know it? Hundreds of students are being kettled in Trafalgar Square even now in freezing temperatures. There's no reason for this. They haven't done anything illegal, hurt anyone or damaged anything. They certainly didn't 'riot'. But the police are exacting revenge, punishing the protesters. This is what kettling is for.
Across the country, though, the same combination of militancy and spontaneity has prevailed. In Cardiff, protesters occupied Lloyds TSB, then Vodafone, then staged a sit-down at a main junction. Thousands have marched through Brighton and Bristol, and school students occupied Oxford County hall. In Aberdeen, protesters took over the Conservative Association's headquarters. In Birmingham, they turned up at the council chamber and a number of students got in and occupied. In Belfast, Queen's University went into occupation. In Cambridge, school pupils and sixth formers staged a sit-down in the shopping centre. In Leeds, hundreds of students occupied again, although police have turned up to evict them again. In York, hundreds of protesters tried to storm the council chamber but, blocked by police, blockaded the main bridge instead. And so on, and on. More protests, more occupations, and the momentum behind this anti-cuts movement refuses to die down, even in the freezing cold and the miserable snow and sleet. And no one who has anything to do with these cuts can relax and think the movement won't bother them. If you're a town hall, a Vodafone outlet, a bank, a Tory HQ, a Lib Dem HQ, anywhere in the country, there's a protest, a sit-down strike, or an occupation with your name on it.
With the usual assortment of right-wing trolls below the main article...Hundreds of angry protesters besieged Lewisham town hall in Catford last night, as the council forced through cuts. They stood outside and demanded "Let us in!", as councillors voted behind closed doors. Before long, about a hundred of them got into the building, some letting off smoke bombs. Soon dozens of police vans loaded with riot squad had arrived, and were engaged in combat with some of the protesters.This was the furious response to Lewisham council's decision to implement half of the long-term projected cuts of £60m – or "efficiency savings", as the official euphemism has it – to local services. These cuts affect services for children and young people, libraries and support for schools. The immediate cost in jobs will be 446 redundancies. This is a microcosm of what is happening to local services across the country, with the total cuts package costing half a million jobs. And the protest comes amid a wave of student action, which some of the protesters said had inspired
Monday, November 29, 2010
ps: also see Socialist Worker's coverage.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Students lead, NUS follows posted by Richard Seymour
Don't underestimate this. When a Labour leader of the NUS, which is traditionally not given to militancy, comes out and endorses occupations (in however qualified a fashion), and feels compelled to support actions that it has previously 'distanced' itself from, and then apologises for being spineless, that means the most militant students are setting the pace. They are leading, and the official leadership is trying to catch up. Of course, there's no guarantee that the NUS will put resources behind Tuesday, but even their supporting it makes a difference. Aside from all this, I see that the Lib Dems are talking about 'abstaining' on the vote on tuition fees, thus remarkably finding a cowardly way to sell out. If Tuesday will be big, I'm confident. Maybe not as big as last week, maybe bigger, but it will show that the momentum is continuing. But because things are moving so fast, it now becomes imperative to act hastily.
There is an old saying on the left, about sudden upsurges of militancy - "up like the rocket, down like the stick". It's a warning not to assume that these explosions will sustain themselves indefinitely, and to work as fast as possible to build an infrastructure to keep the movement going. We have a profuse array of networks, we have anti-cuts coalitions (too goddam many of them), and we have political anger over the cuts that can generalise very quickly into a wider critique of society. But what is urgently needed is the material involvement of the organised labour movement. I know that there will be motions passed in union branches calling for support for the students, and the new leader of Britain's biggest union has declared his support for a wide campaign against cuts involving strikes. But really, the best chance this movement has is if the student strike becomes a general strike.
I know. That's asking an awful lot. But there could at least be a start in that direction. Think about what's happening to council workers, with section 188 notices being handed out everywhere. Think about the threat to teachers, with 40,000 jobs on the way out (meanwhile, Gove wants to bring bankers and ex-squaddies into the classroom). Think about the fate of lecturers under this hyper-neoliberalised higher education sector, with 80% of teaching funding cut. Think about the civil servants, whose jobs are already being shredded. The firefighters and rail workers are also facing cuts, which is one reason why the fights with Johnson and the Tories in London are so important. Even the supposedly protected NHS is shedding staff. There isn't actually any part of the public sector that isn't threatened by these cuts, and strike action isn't avoidable for most of them. They have an interest in finding and uniting with allies in this fight. If any one of these groups of workers were to step out with the students, they would get tremendous support. And the whole created by a combined student-worker campaign would be much greater than the sum of its parts.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
First of all, there's a near consensus in favour of pro-free market and pro-business policies across all political parties, bar Eamonn McCann's 'People Before Profit' alliance. For example, everyone from Sinn Fein to the DUP backed a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%. That was their only growth strategy, as far as I could tell. Secondly, sectarianism remains the basis for political mobilisation in Northern Ireland, but it's become a curiously convivial kind of sectarianism at official levels - it's almost an in-joke when the Unionist says that some policy is being blocked by the Sinn Feiners or something like that. Thirdly, there's a degree of openness and concord with the unions that is unthinkable in the mainland. Brian Coleman wants to "break the FBU", but at the moment it's difficult to imagine a politician in the six counties being that brash. The assembly is a small quasi-autonomous body, and I suspect the last thing it wants is the big fight with the public sector that it has coming up.
The first issue that was raised was who was responsible for the crisis. Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said it was the banks and the IMF, and the governments who empowered them, and he looked forward to seeing the government of Éire duly punished for this - which, after Sinn Fein's victory in the Donegal South-West bye-election, is straightforward tub-thumping for the coming general election in the south. Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP sounded a bit like a Labour politician in some respects. I later learned that the DUP voted 87% of the time with Labour in Westminster rather than the Tories, which tells you how they build a base - they're not, like the UUP, just an auxiliary of the Conservative Party. He said that the problem was that the Tories had let the financial sector run amok at the expense of a stable manufacturing sector, that this had created a foundation of sand, and that he was only sorry that ordinary people would pay the price while banks got off scot-free. He was quite charismatic and jocular, and you can see how he gets elected.
Stephen Farry of the Alliance maintained that some governments, like Australia, had avoided the worst by having different policies (he didn't mention that this actually involved an unprecedented stimulus). He said that the problem was with government policy as much as with the banks, for creating an imbalanced economy based too much on property. Then he repeated the hateful catechism that "we are all in this together". On that, a firefighter spoke up from the floor and told him off, pointing out that the pain was not being distributed equally or fairly, that it was mostly hitting those who didn't do anything to cause the crisis, and that to claim "we're all in it together" is patronising, condescending and not even true. Farry stuck to his guns, but said that he aspired to distribute the cuts as fairly as possible within the Assembly's limited fiscal powers. Alistair McDonnell of the SDLP cautioned against getting angry and emotional. Yes, the banks and the exchequer are to blame, but we have too look for a solution, he said. But he admitted that he didn't quite know what that solution would be. John McCallister, of the Ulster Unionists' Party, was the only one who sounded like a full-blown Tory, I suppose because that's what he is. He blamed people for borrowing too much, he blamed the banks for lending too much, he blamed Labour for taking its foot off the brakes on public spending after 2000, saying they "spent and spent and spent" so that the country is effectively broke. But he did acknowledge that we can't have an unfettered free market any more.
Eamonn McCann argued that to ask who is responsible for the crisis is to ask who has been in control of the economy. "It hasn't been the trade unions, and it hasn't been working class communities, and it has been none of the people facing the cutting edge of austerity". The people in charge are capital, specifically finance capital, who acknowledge now law but profits. The problem was not who, but what - the problem was the capitalist system. He agreed with other speakers that the problem was global, and that the Assembly's ability to deal with it was limited, but this meant there couldn't be any specifically local solution. There had to be a movement of resistance across borders. I have to say, the reactions of the other politicians to Eamonn was warily respectful. They tended to try and find common ground with rather than, as I would have expected if this were taking place in London, exhibit contempt for his arguments. I'm not sure if this is because of his own standing, or just because the argument for resistance to capitalism has become that much more like common sense after the crisis. But it's something to think about.
The next issue, therefore, was what politicians proposed to do to solve the problem, and make sure it didn't happen again. Jeffrey Donaldson's argument was buck-passing. Essentially, he said, we get half of our budget from taxes, and half from the central government. The government has cut our budget, so either we cut public spending, or we raise taxes. Our only tax-raising powers are with the rates, or we can apply water charges. Both of these are unpopular, barring some hypothecated tax for health and education, so de facto people want us to cut spending. He also said to "our friends from England" that the English taxpayer pays much higher rates (council tax) than people in Northern Ireland, and that Northern Ireland is heavily subsidised by the central government in terms of public spending. Interesting to see how eager John McCallister said we need to have a pay freeze in the public sector, because there's already pay cuts in the private sector, and perhaps we could raise regional rates. Alistair McDonnell favoured cutting quangos, reducing senior civil servants' pay, further regulation, more restrictions on personal finance.
Mitchell McLaughlin argued that we're not going to prevent it from happening again, because the system is too global and Northern Ireland's ability to influence the global system is negligible. The best we can do, he said, is fight for more fiscal powers for the six counties. He's still working the nationalist angle, for all the good it'll do. He also argued that the cuts should be focused more on people with higher incomes, but said little specific in this regard. In general, three points of agreement among the bourgeois politicians, were that: 1) finance should be more regulated, with no more 110% mortgages and no more shady bank deals; 2) the "pain" should be shared as "fairly" as possible; and 3) "frontline services" should be protected as far as possible. None of them appeared to have thought through what that would involve - the system has relied on speculation and debt for the last thirty years or so, and no one suggested an alternative. They certainly aren't talking about boosting workers' wages or bargaining power to support consumption. When pushed about spreading the "pain" "fairly", Stephen Farry said that this was more of an aspiration than anything else. And as Eamonn McCann pointed out, frontline services aren't going to be protected because they aren't even being protected now, before Northern Ireland's austerity budget has been agreed.
A critic from the audience said he was "disappointed by the defeatist attitude of the panel. So far, no one is talking about creating employment, which would generate the revenue to support public spending". And that's where the old Tory argument came back in. Free up private enterprise, get the burden of the public sector off their backs, and they'll invest in jobs. Start by cutting corporation tax to 12.5% to match the south. Mitchell McLaughlin supports this because he wants "a level playing field" with the south. He said that he didn't favour the private sector, for his own ideological reasons which he didn't spell out, and added that if the south raises their rate, the north would "meet them on the way down". But he said "to have a strong public sector, you need to have a strong private sector generating the revenues to support that". This was more or less identical to the argument of those who were ideologically disposed to support the private sector. They all said much the same thing - cutting the corporate taxes worked in the south and, anyway, we now have to compete with Eastern Europe where the cost base is much lower. Eamonn McCann pointed out that this amounted to a redistribution of wealth from the public sector to private enterprise, on the basis of a prejudice that the private sector is more efficient. Indeed, there's an assumption that the public sector is somehow parasitic on the private sector, when the evidence is that at the moment the public sector is supporting the private sector. But, he argued, there is no evidence that more jobs will be created by cutting jobs in the public sector. The private sector only invests if it's profitable for them to do so, and only creates jobs if it suits them, so handing them a load of money won't necessarily make them more likely to employ more people. But above all, he argued, you can't begin to argue about creating jobs in the future if you can't first defend what you have.
Then it was pointed out, again by a firefighter, that the government is talking about cutting 25% from the Northern Ireland fire and rescue service, and that this will mean at best scrapping fire appliances all across the country. Another firefighter said: "you know that cutting the fire and rescue service won't be a soft option for you, because we won't let it be a soft option for you." This was a friendly, but authoritative, warning. There was not much that could be said on this point. All of the assembled politicians were aware of what cuts of that scale would mean, and there were some promises - to my mind, half-hearted and vague - that they would 'try' to see that they would do about that, citing the issue of public safety and the increased security threat as reasons to lessen the swinge of the axe. Eamonn McCann argued that the 'terrorist threat' was itself the result of the problems with capitalism - it is not an upsurge of Republicanism, but the fact that young people in deprived areas want to fight that is leading them to sympathise with the 'Real IRA'. He said he had spoken to supporters of the Reals, and they had told him, "Eamonn, at least they're still fuckin fightin." He said it has to do with the distribution of resources in society, and that if anything the public sector needed to be expanded not reduced, with more youth services and schools provided.
Mitchell McLaughlin said he didn't disagree with this, but argued that this only underlined further the need for the devolution of fiscal powers. McCann said that the problem could be solved by simply collecting existing tax. £123bn had gone uncollected every year, he said, allowing businesses like Vodafone to escape from the lion's share of their tax duty. If all the tax was collected, we wouldn't even be having a discussion about cuts. "People say you can never do that, these people are too powerful. But is that really so? Or does it depend on will?" He argued that it was necessary to build the social forces that could make them pay their taxes and make governments defend the public sector. Mitchell McLaughlin closed by agreeing that the Vodafone issue said it all, and that it would be necessary to build up the energies that could take this issue on. On the other hand, he said, "these people own the system"... And that, I think, is Mitchell McLaughlin and the Sinn Fein leadership. They are reluctant neoliberals. In fact, the only thing that seemed to distinguish the mainstream politicians was their degree of reluctance in implementing the same basic agenda of cutting spending, reducing taxes on businesses, talking up regulation (they don't have to do anything), and hoping for the best. The question, then, is whether the trade unions in Northern Ireland form part of a wider sweep of resistance, across the UK and Ireland and effectively across the continent.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Plus ça change posted by Richard Seymour
"The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened ... a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mother who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment." - Keith Joseph,1974
"We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible." - Howard Flight, 2010
Most of the basic work of making people aware and getting them there happened through social media sites, and across the country it is estimated that 130,000 people turned out. I also heard a statistic which suggested that one in ten students were actually participating in the protests, but I can't vouch for its accuracy, and I don't know what its implications would be. In addition, 18 universities went into occupation yesterday. The point is that it was an almost spontaneous eruption of anger against the government. Watch this video to get a sense of the vibrancy, the joyful energy, the sense of purpose - all those qualities that normally seem redundant or perhaps over-stated when ascribed to a protest, but which capture yesterday perfectly.
"But surely," you're saying, "the NUS supported this?" No, it didn't. I regret to say that the NUS played no part in yesterday's action. Indeed, I understand that they had 'distanced' themselves from it. Aaron Porter's response when asked for his view was apparently to reflexively denounce "violence", blaming a handful of "professional troublemakers", while saying absolutely nothing about the police's violence. This latter included, for example, kicking a fifteen year old girl - that was Officer UC2128's contribution to state-sponsored child abuse, if you want to complain - and kneeing a boy in the groin before dragging him along by his hair. The police repeatedly baton-charged the young people, showing little concern for their age and vulnerability. This sort of thing happened all over the country.
And the kettling, clearly planned by the Metropolitan Police in order to make nice to the Tory bosses after their little embarrassment last time, involved keeping thousands of people, mainly young people, in the freezing cold for hours and hours without food, without toilets and largely without water. In fairness to the Met's PR department, they did give out a few bottles of water at the perimeter toward Parliament Square, but most people didn't see a drop. Finally, in the late evening (I was released at close to 10pm), people were filtered out in ones and twos, very slowly, and with prolonged pauses in between. Every now and again, as the pauses built up, the temperature dropped another degree, and the music got just a little bit shitter, the chant went up again: "Let us out! Let us out! Let us out!" People tried to debate the rows of jutting jawlines holding back the crowd, tried to engage them, make them see how irrational and cruel they were being. No dice. The cops have their schtick worked out for situations like this. They calmly explain that you're being held to prevent a breach of the peace, and then they go back to sniggering with the other filth. There's really nothing to debate with such people. The police also arbitrarily switched the exit point several times, adding to the frustration. Two teenage blokes were talking next to me as this was going on. One said, "there'll be a lot of fucking hatred of the police after this." The other, "I've never had a reason to hate the police until now". Similar sentiments were expressed over and over. And there was a particular passion when people sang along with NWA's "Fuck the police", and Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the name". The chorus building up to "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" was vented with real gusto and vim.
So if people want to talk about 'violence', by which they mean vandalism, it's worth saying that most such small-scale acts took place inside a kettle, which the police controlled like an experiment with fucking lab rats. We expect the media to be hostile, but the NUS is supposed to represent students, present and future. Porter's crawlingly servile attitude doesn't reflect this mandate. It just shows that he's another careerist creep, probably the next Phil Woolas. But given the scale of what happened yesterday outwith the NUS' organisation, the latter now have to make themselves relevant to the fightback against the cuts. It's obvious that hacks like Aaron Porter have nothing sensible to say or do on this front.
Speaking of 'violence', the Daily Mail is leading the chorus of execration (I think they'll know the phrase and like it) regarding young girls being the new face of 'violent' protest. Now, of course there were loads and loads of young girls out there yesterday. They make up at least half the population of school students after all - the smarter half according to those tests the Mail is so fond of. But they weren't remotely 'violent', and the majority were too clued up to attack the 'bait van' - the police van left unattended in the middle of the crowd, apparently to get people to attack it and provide a pretext for the police's kettling operation. Most people knew perfectly well why the van was left there. And among these secondary school and higher education students, there was a serious, open air debate about how to handle situations like this. There were arguments about strategy, and most people concluded that the police had deliberately created a situation designed to provoke petty vandalism and then cite that as justification for kettling. The impromptu speeches, the small debating circles, the gathered crowds, all more or less repeated this verbatim.
I mention this because the news has focused on one young student who they say 'fearlessly' faced down the 'angry mob' and protected police property from vandalism. I suppose this sort of thing feeds their fantasy of good breeding facing down the oiks, and in fairness I don't suppose the student in question will be happy to have been used that way. What they don't say is that the vast majority of students were making similar arguments. The majority of people therefore deliberately neglected to break glass or even spray paint buildings. They sat down and strummed out songs by The Libertines, or danced to Rage Against the Machine, or argued politics, or rationed out rolling tobacco and bottles of water. Some couples engaged in longing embraces and snogged. Some kids had apparently heated arguments, shoved one another. Some were a bit silly. And since the media is depicting these kids as mindless hooligans, it's worth saying that the political arguments were wide-ranging and sophisticated. It wasn't just about fees, it was about the future - war, global warming, everything that concerns us as a species. It's not that everyone sounded off like a right-on socialist. No such thing. Some of the arguments were baffling, some naive, some perverse, but most of it was thoughtful, sensible, and streets ahead of what is offered as serious discussion in the news.
And that's what yesterday was mostly about - thoughtful, intelligent people, pushed to the brink, forced to take some sort of militant action, and by doing so providing an example to the rest of us. It's obviously time to make haste with the student-worker coalition that was vaunted at the last protest. The energy behind this will be squandered if the protesters are left alone to the tender mercies of the police.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Pictures from Day X posted by Richard Seymour
This scene and dozens like it have been repeated across the country. I hear that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has been on television, putting the 'blame' for these protests on the SWP. The SWP doesn't have this much of a following, but it's nice of Gove to do our advertising for us. In truth, tens of thousands of people who have never been political before are suddenly getting an education in how the system works, and they're deeply angry about what they're learning. Many of the young people I can see here won't have been born the last time there was a Tory government, and most certainly won't remember much about it. It's an incredible shock to the system to see what a Tory government is like, how brazen these upper class spivs and criminals are.
I know the media will go on about petty vandalism - inevitably dubbed 'violence' - but the odd window broken or cone burned doesn't even come close to expressing the palpable fury and sense of injustice that people feel. The government is flushing millions of young lives down the toilet, and next to that some shattered glass is small beer. This is the beginning, an opening shot. The Tories had no idea what they were doing when they started this. They might have expected unpopularity and protests. But what they're doing is raising a whole generation of militants.
Day X posted by Richard Seymour
ps: students at South Bank university are also now in occupation.
What the New York Times doesn't explain is that the struggles of the "nation's workers" bear a direct relationship to high corporate profits. Strong productivity growth here basically means an increase in the rate of exploitation. As the Daily Finance explains: "That productivity boost came as workers spent more hours working, and getting paid less to do it. Specifically, between the third quarter of 2009 and the same period on 2010, productivity was up 2.5% as output rose 4.1%, hours worked increased 1.6%, and unit labor costs fell 1.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profits of U.S. corporations are growing much faster than their revenues. S&P's Howard Silverblatt estimated that corporate profits in 2010's third quarter would rise 18% from 2009, while sales would be up a mere 5.5%. "
Since domestic demand remains relatively weak in the US, despite some boost from the stimulus and despite some weak wages recovery, corporate investors are also using the cheap money made available by quantitative easing to invest in their overseas operations. And as the NYT acknowledges, much of the increase in profits is coming from abroad. Thus, US capital has used two key advantages to revive profitability. First, it has used its overwhelming strength - political, economic, institutional - over workers to extract more labour from a smaller workforce. The flip-side of high profits are more gruelling work, tighter work discipline, more people unemployed, lower wages, longer lines at the soup kitchens, and so on. Second, it has used its overwhelming international dominance, which we might call imperialism, to extract more value from emerging markets, which remain dependent on and subordinate to the US. The obverse of this increased yield is, of course, violent territorial struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as violent subversion in Honduras and Haiti.
These, aspects of an increasingly brutal, exploitative and repressive capitalist system, are among the reasons why Obamamania has bitten the dust. Obama's electoral coalition was built around the promise of amelioration, a better deal for workers and peace abroad, and neither has been delivered. Obama has been far more completely Wall Street's president than anyone expected. This also helps explain why the corporate media has felt it necessary to act as a mouthpiece and booster for a layer of corporate-funded middle class Poujadists. It is to pre-emptively colonise a political space that might otherwise be filled by the millions of working class Americans who are angry over wages, unemployment, the banks, repossessions, and the endless war. It is to drown out the rational concerns of more popular political constituencies with pageantry, noise and fury, irrational howling, and home-made bigotry. It is to stage the fight that capital wants to see - between ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan, internationally-oriented, capital-intensive industry, and a parochial, nationalist, bigoted populace, often small business owners working in labour-intensive industries. And the viewer's role is to pick a side, and forget that neither represents their interests.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
More student occupations posted by Richard SeymourAs preparations are underway for tomorrow's walk-out by school pupils and higher education students, a number of institutions have gone into occupation. Students are occupying at the Royal Holloway in protest over cuts. Check out their web page. And students at SOAS and Manchester Metropolitan have in occupation since the weekend. I don't know how big tomorrow's event will be, but there is a real media buzz about it. If it's at all indicative, the 'national walk-out' page on Facebook has close to 25,000 supporters. I'll be with the protesters in central London tomorrow, so I'll try and get you some decent pictures and words, to go with the acres of piccage and wordage that will already have become abundantly available by the time I've posted my two cents.
Criticism within the labour movement is fine. But using the bourgeois press to attack a union is quite another. Yet Richard Seymour, a well-known SWP member used the Guardian’s Comment is Free website (5 November) to slate the FBU. He wrote: “Suspending the strike now will give the fire bosses time to regroup, get better organised and perhaps return to its previous belligerent form with a stronger hand.”  We don’t know whether Seymour is a trade unionist, but he certainly never bothered to speak to the FBU before launching his attack.
Secondly, I don't accept that I need to have direct communication with "the FBU" (by which is presumably meant the FBU's press office) before making such criticism. This was an opinion piece, not reportage. But as it happens, I have been in contact with FBU members throughout the dispute, and I did speak to FBU members about the decision. Some of my conclusions drew from that direct contact. I also received feedback about my article from FBU members. On the basis of that feedback, mainly positive, I believe that Sprung is misleading himself if he thinks that the decision to call off the strike was not a serious disappointment to many FBU members.
Just to put this letter in context, it comes as the arbitration process has resulted in two offers to firefighters which will now be voted on. I won't go intodetail here, but two things stand out in these offers. The first is that the employers have shifted a little bit from their previous stance. For example, on the hated practise of 'direct standbys' (where firefighters have to be ready to attend a nearby station, from their own home and at short notice, in order to make up for inadequate staffing), the employers have moved from demanding that firefighters attend stations within 10 miles to demanding that they attend stations within 7.5 miles. Secondly, both offers involve a degradation of working conditions for firefighters, compared to present conditions. If either of these offers is accepted, firefighters will now be working either 10.5 hour day shifts, or 11 hour day shifts. It's a hell of a long working day either way, and no firefighter would accept this if it weren't for the threat of the section 188 hanging over their heads. The obnoxious fire authority chief Brian Coleman is understandably delighted with these offers - gauging correctly that the arbitration service hasn't exactly been neutral in this dispute. And he's not alone. Brigade chiefs were reportedly ecstatic about the arbitration body's decision, one official telling shock commentator Rod Liddle that this meant the FBU was "fucked".
So, the issue here is whether a better deal could have been obtained. I maintain that the FBU would have been in a much better bargaining position if it had gone ahead with the strike on the weekend of 5th November. Management, as leaked e-mails disclosed, were not in a good position to handle 48 hours without the firefighters. Assetco simply weren't up to the job, as they repeatedly proved, and the fire authority bosses were panicking - this is why they resorted to character assassination in the media. Sprung maintains that the union would have lost public support if firefighters had let people die on bonfire night when the management had moved on the key issues. But the firefighters had already proven that they were not about to let people die due to Assetco's incompetence - they left picket lines during previous action to deal with situations that Assetco were not equipped to deal with. That was never what was at issue. What was and is at issue is whether London's property owners, businesses and insurance companies are going to be happy with the London Fire Brigade for forcing a strike over completely unnecessary changes to the shift patterns, whose sole purpose is to facilitate cuts.
ps: if you want a laugh, you absolutely must listen to this interview between James O'Brien and Brian Coleman - forward to about 92 mins for the interview. Coleman storms off after being repeatedly tripped up by his smarter interlocutor.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Here's why. Ireland's capitalist system, dubbed a 'tiger' after the 'Asian Tigers' that were also driven by financialised neoliberal growth, has been through three phases of neoliberalism. First, growth driven by overseas (especially US) investment in a relatively low wage, recently liberalised economy. Secondly, once overseas capital started to desert Ireland for the even cheaper waged economies of Eastern Europe, growth driven by a property boom created through the rationing of social housing. The latter produced a sudden upsurge in construction, such that it eventually accounted for a fifth of all economic activity. Of course, the employers and the state didn't give up on attacking wages. You may recall that prior to the credit crunch, the employers were complaining that obscenely high wages were eating into their profits.
Throughout both these phases, a labyrinthine financial sector has provided the capital for investment, as well as lavish, out-sized rewards to shareholders. It has acted as an auxiliary to the City of London and sucked in a huge amount of American capital, providing ample opportunity for people to line their pockets. The capital coming in from Wall Street was attracted by the de facto duty-free policy that the Irish government applied, and a lax regulatory regime which permitted the banks such as the Anglo Irish to cover their losses and give investors a more sanguine picture of their finances than actually obtained. The eye-popping brazenness of the Irish ruling class was such at that Charlie McCreevy of the Fianna Fail - essentially a party for the property developers and construction industry in recent years - and more recently the EU's internal markets commissioner, suggested that the collapse of Northern Rock just proved that the banking system was too transparent.
The third stage has been the collapse of that system. Ireland, as one of the 'PIIGS' countries, was grossly over-exposed to all of the weaknesses of the neoliberal system. When Wall Street hit the fan, Dublin got sprayed in the face. Despite the sometimes heroic resistance of the working class, the government and the ruling class has succeeded in getting its way a lot of the time. The re-run of the EU Treaty ballot was a victory for Intel and Ryanair, and for the blackmail of the EU which threatened that Ireland would be cut out of future financial assistance if it didn't vote 'yes' - considerable leverage to bring to bear in the middle of a recession. The truth is that, just as in the UK and most of the advanced capitalist world, labour was mostly put on the back foot by the scale of the crisis and the ruling class offensive.
The Irish government was thus able to impose its solution. And its answer to the crisis of neoliberalism was to re-up neoliberalism, cut wages under pressure from the employers, and cut spending. Spending cuts were deep, seeking to reduce total government expenditure by a quarter. On that basis, it hoped to eventually stimulate a new round of neoliberal accumulation. The line was that this would enable the government to pay off the deficit, prove Ireland's mettle as a fiscally solvent financial redoubt, and get the investment flowing again. But the effect of the cuts was, as most people expected, to reduce growth, deflate the economy and produce a fiscal crisis. The government has found itself much less able to pay off its debts, and the banks are in a worse state than before. This is why the government has had to go running to the EU.
The mutating crisis of capitalism is such that what started as a financial crisis exposed all the weaknesses in the global capitalist system, becoming a crisis of the 'real' economy, before becoming a crisis of the state as capital seeks to solve its problems through a process of accumulation-by-dispossession. Of course, 'austerity' shouldn't just be seen as a process dictated by the needs of 'the economy'. It's also a political process, a defensive measure to foreclose any more democratic or socialist economic agendas from emerging in response to the crisis. It is designed to pre-empt anything that smacks of redistribution and nationalisation, to dictate the lines of the new post-crisis settlement and have it set in stone before anyone else gets a look in. It's also intended to shatter the forces of the grassroots opposition, of organised labour and community resistance, and to engineer a more divided, frightened, conservative society that will accept a greatly reduced standard of living in the long-term.
That's why the political crisis in Ireland is significant in so many ways. Fianna Fail, now down to 17% in the polls, has traditionally operated as a hegemonic right-wing populist party which could integrated some sections of the working class into the system through nationalism and protectionism. The neoliberal turn and the subsequent crisis has resulted in a profound break with Fianna Fail. (When Luke Kelly, a founder of The Dubliners, asked "For what died the Sons Of Róisín?", I wonder if he was thinking of the hypocritical capitalist spivs, the reactionaries of the Fianna Fail ilk who appeal to patriotism and the republican tradition, but are comfortable bedfellows of multinational capitalism.)
This breakdown of Fianna Fail's support hasn't yet benefited the Left in a big way, but it can do so. Labour is the main centre-left opposition party, and has made serious gains in the polls as a result of Fianna Fail's difficulties, rising to 27%, an increase of 10% since last year. The radical left has previously demonstrated its ability to make surprising break-throughs, and is probably represented in the 8% support that 'independents' get. The Greens are worried about their own position, and they're right to be worried. They gambled on collusion with the government's austerity measures, justifying every betrayal on similar grounds to those offered by the Liberals - because we're in government, we can implement some of the beneficial policies that we want to see. But they now know they face the wrath of the voters and are trying to limit the damage. They certainly have no ability to channel any protest, as they've made themselves the objects of protest: they garner a miserable 3% in the polls. As yet, it still looks like the right-wing Fine Gael will be the main beneficiary of the protest vote, with 33% support.
The long-term result of this crisis of legitimacy, though, might be to galvanise precisely those social forces that can really sustain a left-wing alternative. As the scale of the crisis and the ruling class attack becomes manifest, the opposition is certainly becoming more militant. If you thought our students were radical, think of the Irish protesters who broke into Brian Cowen's offices last week. The immediate impact of recession and ruling class attack stunned the left and the labour movements, but now at last we might be starting to see the kinds of militancy that will be proportionate to the scale of the problem that we face.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Unite election results posted by Richard Seymour
Len McCluskey - 101,000
Jerry Hicks - 52,000
Les Bayliss - 46,000
Gail Cartmail - 39,000
This is, on the whole, a quite satisfactory result. I think it was understood from the nominations that McCluskey would succeed by a wide margin, and he does represent of the union bureaucracy that wants to resist the cuts, so this is a good outcome in Britain's biggest trade union - albeit with what looks like a low turnout. Better still is the fact that the socialist Jerry Hicks, wholly based in the rank and file, came a good second and beat the right-winger Les Bayliss. That's a good sized minority vote for the most uncompromising militancy. It's far better than I expected Jerry Hicks to do - not because I underestimate his qualities, but because of the difficulties any candidate outside the union bureaucracy would have in building a campaign. To defeat Les Bayliss, who does come from the bureaucracy, and was supported by former Amicus leader Derek Simpson, is not bad at all. If I had to guess, I'd say Bayliss' 46,000 votes came from some of the more conservative layers of craft workers from the old AEEU, one of the components that made up Amicus, now itself one half of Unite. Bear in mind that the AEEU once had the old reactionary Sir Ken Jackson - Tony Blair's "favourite union leader" - as its general secretary. Still, there's a clear majority here for a left-wing agenda of resistance to the cuts, which is a good omen.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Comments policy posted by Richard SeymourOkay, there's only one way to settle this. To decide which comments system to use, I will rely on a poll of readers. You've got until the end of the month to vote.
So, that's Dan Hodges. Now he's in the New Statesman, prophesying civil war - ironically, this article is itself a shot in the civil war that the Labour Right launched as soon as the leadership election was decided. And his argument is that the "Brownites" - that's Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, two cabinet members known for wanting to take a harder line against the cuts - are out for Ed Miliband's head. It will be Ed out, and Yvette in, if they get their way.
Now I know what you're thinking. Why do I care about these petty personality-base debacles? And if that was all that was at issue, I'd agree. I'm not a member of the Labour Party, so I don't have an immediate stake in such matters. But look at what the Blairites have been doing lately. Alan Johnson, whom Miliband installed as Chancellor on the basis of an old saw about tents and pissing, has been publicly going against the leadership on the 50% higher tax rate, saying that he would like to drop it in a few years, and that it's only a tactical response to the deficit. In truth, he is among those who thinks it was a mistake to ever introduce this popular measure.
Now, the Blairites are in The Times, calling for an end to the union link. Alan Johnson is involved again, attacking the legitimacy of Ed Miliband's leadership by attacking the way he was elected. He claims to favour the extension of "one member one vote", neglecting to note that if the principle was applied seriously in the Labour Party, Ed Miliband would have come a clear first in the first round, and Diane Abbott would have come third. Alan Milburn is making the logic explicit, however, in demanding that union affiliates don't get a vote, and that the structural relationship with the unions is abolished. Margaret Hodge, who owes everything to the unions behind the anti-fascist campaigns that worked their fingers to the bone in Barking, is also calling for Labour to cut "the umbilical cord". There's gratitude for you.
If the Blairites were to get their way, Labourism would be dead. That's what they appear to want, and why it doesn't seem to overly perturb them that in going along so slavishly with the cuts agenda they will destroy the constituencies that keep Labourism alive. Ed Miliband, with few radical ideas and a deficit of guts, was nonetheless the candidate for those who wanted to oppose the Blairite mission. He was the candidate who promised to rebuild the Labour base, to defend trade unionism and strengthen the link. That's why his victory left Blairites reeling, fuming, plotting a coup from the off. That's why rich donors like Lord Sainsbury went off in a huff.
Ed Miliband's supporters on both the soft and hard left have called more than once for him to hammer the Blairites. Crack the whip, said Seumas Milne, and make the Right toe the line. Now, there's some faint hope that his decision to 'retire' Ray Collins as general secretary signals a determination to get tough, and purge the ruthless right-wing fixers and allow a real debate in the Labour Party. Collins was known, says Left Futures, for ensuring that any policy proposal discussed at any but the lowest levels of the Labour Party was in tune with what the leadership was thinking. He was certainly part of the disastrous witch hunt that threw Lutfur Rahman out of Labour, causing the party to lose an election for Tower Hamlets mayor that they would otherwise have easily won. And it's hard to believe that the subsequent manoeuvering to get Ken Livingstone booted out for having supported Rahman, and blockade the new East End mayor by refusing to cooperate with him at either a local or London-wide level, would have taken place without Collins' express consent. But while a different general secretary might avoid such obvious embarrassments for Labour, there's little prospect of anything fundamentally changing. The Labour Left is kidding itself if it thinks it's key strengths will flow from any processes inside the Labour Party, where they have been disenfranchised, bullied, witch-hunted and demoralised for a generation now.
John McDonnell is far more realistic. The real social forces that will provide a base for the Left, and thus potentially revitalise Labourism, will not come from the clapped out media-savvy think-tanks of the centre and soft left. They certainly won't come from the small clique of supporters around Ed Miliband. They will come from the very people that Labour's right-wing old guard least understands, and most dislikes - trade unionists, protesters, climate campaigners, and so on. The students whom Ed Balls denounced, and the strikers whom Ed Miliband has preemptively warned will not receive his support. They are the only real power that is capable of taking on the Blairites, whose legitimacy and authority is built on defeat, on acquiescence and conformity, and on deference to the media and public relations flacks.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Tories fall back in the polls posted by Richard Seymour
Perhaps this illustrates a point which the late Paul Foot used to insist on: Labour generally does better when 'our side' is stronger. It is not an iron law, but it is a trend that when the working class is more organised, more cohesive, and more combative, it gives even the most degenerate, bland, conformist Labour Party a new lease of life, because its organised base in the organised labour movement is full of fight. I believe he made this point just as the poll tax riots had driven Labour's support above 50% for the first time in decades. You may find this regrettable. Labour's leadership may find it embarrassing, but it is unavoidably the case, and it means that the coming insurgency will do more for Labour's standing than Ed Miliband's doe-eyed moderation.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Labour's nearly cataclysmic slide in the polls between the credit crunch and the election was matched by a complete knock out for the employers in the class struggle. They shed jobs, they cut wages, and the degraded conditions more or less with impunity. New Labour governance had a lot to do with this, of course. The working class was disoriented and dazed by the recession, not immediately spurred to militancy except in a few enclaves. The labour movement was timid, fatalistic, and conservative. The right set the narrative on the deficit, and Brown and Mandelson, following the logic of their neoliberal commitments, acquiesced. Labour's base was shattered, disoriented, and largely disinclined to vote. Out of sheer urgency, a core vote mobilised that was bigger than anticipated. But Labour's base was still, as the famous Mister Ed has acknowledged, 5 million working class people short of what it could have been.
Gradually, there has been a sense of an urgent need to pull the finger out, a campaign emerging, the first sign in a long time of union assertiveness within the Labour Party itself, the flicker of grassroots dissidence forcing union bosses to retreat on having Cameron at conference and forcing the issue of joint industrial action onto the agenda, the local anti-cuts groups forming, the marches, some small, but some very big, and now the opening shot of a potentially powerful students movement. Even as Miliband goes to extravagant lengths to distance himself from the trade unions, to oppose militancy, to denounce this and condemn that, if an anti-cuts movement really takes off in this country, then he will be the ungrateful beneficiary of the revival and reconstitution of the very social forces that keep Labourism on the life support. However, if such a movement does not take off, or if it goes down to historic defeat, then Labourism may well disappear as a distinctive political formation. Its organised base would be shattered, and the remaining shreds of the party would be easy meat for a further round of Whig 'reform' that would basically turn it into a vulgar, populist adjunct of the Liberals.
So, I'm just saying, this poll result illustrates the perversity of Labourism, its dependence on social forces that it routinely attacks, and its inability to act in the interests of its own perseverance as a political force. That's all, like.
Noddy and Big Ears posted by Richard SeymourVia Socialist Unity:
And in colour.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Note on a wedding posted by Richard Seymour
It is a theoretical possibility, but in my opinion an extreme improbability, that Britain would be rid of its monarchy short of a social convulsion on a par with, or close to, revolution. The British capitalist state has been defined by its successes as an imperialist state. It was the world's first capitalist empire, and it is as an imperialist state that it has most tightly embraced the monarchical principle - in victory against republican France, for example, and in its colonial conquests, from the Opium Wars, to the Raj, to the Mandates. It was as Empress of India that Victoria re-invented a previously ramshackle and endangered monarchy in the face of a rising mass democracy. It was flush with the wealth of the colonies that the British royal family, itself always a very successful family of capitalist entrepreneurs and not just rentiers, regained its lost exuberance and vitality.
Even if our biscuit tin monarchy (as Will Self has called it) is no longer riding a wave of colonial success, it remains at the apex of an imperial matrix whose 'role in world affairs' (as our professional euphemisers would have it) relies heavily on the accumulated cultural capital embodied in the Commonwealth. Windsor has also entrenched itself as a domestic power. It has assiduously courted a popular base, which perforce requires it to act as a silent partner in the class struggle - a source of legitimacy for the bourgeoisie, by dint of its apparent (only apparent) disentanglement from the daily grind of capital accumulation. And British capitalism has not run out of uses for these sojourners from the German low-lands. That this is so can be easily checked: no significant pro-capitalist political force in the UK is interested in republicanism. The bourgeois modernisers of Blair's court, for all their initial constitutional radicalism, never had any desire to challenge monarchical power, least of all its residues in parliament which guaranteed Number Ten such strong executive powers. Blair, who went weak at the knees in the presence of the rich, is said to have been genuine in his sentimental, star-struck adoration of the royals.
The monarchy still functions as the guarantor of a caste within the ruling class, which any good bourgeois wants admittance to - give an old chief executive an OBE, and he will consider himself to have truly lived. It still bestows social distinction - more than that, it upholds and perpetuates the superstitious belief in distinction, in meritorious 'honour' as well as 'honour' by birthright. Its systems of ranking still structure hierarchies within the state, notably the police, the navy, the air force, and the army. It is still the major patron of 'Britishness', the myth of a temporally continuous and organically whole national culture, which every legislator in search of an authoritarian mandate invokes. It is the sponsor of martial discourse, inviting us to believe that the British ruling class and its stately authorities, notably its armed forces, cleave to 'values' other than those of egoistic calculation. Its festivals of supremacy still mediate our experience of capitalism, suggesting that beneath the daily experience of conflict and confrontation, there is a more essential, eternal unity in the British polity. They still summon deference, in an era of political secularism. Windsor is susceptible to secular decline in that respect but this decline is, if I may say so, taking an awfully long time. Longer than is reasonable. And its adaptibility, its resilience in the face of the prevailing weltanschauung winds, suggests that it has successfully woven itself into the fabric of British capitalism, particularly the British state, such that to be an effective republican one must first be a socialist.
Today, a ruling class offensive is once more accompanied by the promise of a royal wedding spectacle, this time between a balding first-born prince - who has already sought to prove his fitness to rule in the frontiers of Afghanistan - and a high street fashion clerk. One must not expect that this will have any bearing on making the cuts, or the government, any more popular. It will not do that, any more than 1981's connubials rescued Thatcher from the doldrums. Its message is more subtle than that. Yes, capitalism may be in crisis. Yes, the ruling ideology may be in crisis. Yes, there may be strikes, protests and conflagrations. There may be tumultuous, rising democracy. But for all that, the message states, the firm continues. It reproduces itself, through birth (bloodline), and through marriage (property), each spawning a proliferation of imperial bunting as the media pipes patriotism into the mainline. As long as British capitalism continues, as long as the empire state continues, as long as the butcher's apron flies, so long lives Britannia and its personified fleshers.
Monday, November 15, 2010
Sussex students in occupation posted by Richard SeymourStudents have just gone into occupation in the University of Sussex over the planned cuts and attacks on higher education. The occupiers, having taken over the Fulton building on the initiative of 170 students, are calling for other students across the country to join a national wave of occupations in resistance to the cuts. After last week's occupation of Tory HQ, it's important to keep up the momentum, and I hope they are joined by others.
Comments policy posted by Richard Seymour
Some background. Initially, Haloscan was a free service. But it allowed you to pay a one-off fee to upgrade to their 'premium' service. Despite some occasional complaints, it was a clean, fast system. Then it was taken over by JS-Kit in 2009, and the new owners demanded an annual payment of $10 to continue the service. The upgrade came with some improvements, and some problems - the latter including people finding their comments disappearing, log-in not working, repeated periods of down-time. Some functionality for admins has also been lost. Still, it's reasonably user-friendly, and the 'promo' version appears to still be available for $12 a year for the time being - after which, it'll be $10 a month. But if there's a functional system that will work as well or better for free, and which will allow us to import all previous comments, then it would only be sensible to test it out and make the move. Your feedback below, please.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
The argument traced the development of retail charity from the salvage shops in poorer districts in the 1800s, through the launch of Oxfam, to the professionalised and 'profit-maximising' organisations of today. They have become very marketing conscious, and the proliferation of high street branches - increasingly in wealthy areas, where most volunteers can be attracted to work, and most revenues raised - is an aspect of this development, as retail shops are an efficient way of raising funds. Charity itself becomes commodified, as it is in the consumption of retail goods that one expresses social solidarity.
Based on voluntary labour, the organisations work - so it is argued - not by extracting value from the volunteers, but by using the volunteers to realise the exchange value in the merchandise itself. The volunteers themselves are typically not in employment. Only 5% of volunteers are in full-time employment, with the bulk either retired or unemployed. They also tend to be on lower incomes, with most on under £15,000 per year. There are antagonistic relations between managers and workers, the former under enormous pressure to get the most out of the volunteers with few resources. The workers have more leverage than in the typical capitalist firm, in that they are compelled neither by economics or direct coercion to be there.
When asked why they volunteer, a typical answer involves "giving something back to society", though it is never clear what exactly is being given. Another common phrase is "conscience salving". There is no particular attachment to any one charity. Most volunteers choose the retail charity outlet nearest to them. There is little questioning of the framework in which the charitable act takes place, how effective it is, what might be better than charity... certainly, there is little questioning of the capitalist social relations that make it necessary that some should give up their free time. These are organisations that, one would gather, are ill-equipped to run public services. Voluntary labour is no replacement for waged labour, and commodified "conscience-salving" is no substitute for social solidarity.
Marina Kaneti (I didn't get what institution she was from, but I think this is her), then gave a talk completely in contrast to the above, arguing that social entrepreneurs are not necessarily co-opted by capitalism, and can act as an oppositional force, challenging the structure in some ways. Arguing from Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, Kaneti argued that there were large parts of the world that were 'radically excluded' from the capitalist economy, where the activities of big populations do not feed into capital accumulation or generate profit. Among these would be the slum-dwellers who numbered 921 millon in 2001, and will number 2 billion by 2030.
It is in these areas that social entrepreneurs can build, channelling people's creativity, changing social patterns, impacting the structures of the system - and this, she maintained, does not have to be coopted by capitalism. To back up this point, she cited the patron of social entrepreneurs (and old Reaganite arch-capitalist), William Draper, pointing out that social entrepreneurs solve social problems, not economic problems. They engage in non-market activities to improve lives. They allow for local empowerment, and capability-development that may be able to elude capitalist enclosure. A short video clip from one of those TED talks was shown to illustrate the point. The 'Blackberry' logo appeared on screen, then a rather lively host with a headset spoke from a vast stage, inviting a guest to join him from the floor. The man, William Kambwamba, was from Malawi, and he had become a 'social entrepreneur' by building a windmill from instructions in a book found in a nearby library run by USAID. The story is, he just had this idea of building a windmill to electrify his home, so went looking for the information, found it, and built it with the materials available to him. He was eventually able to power his local community with the assistance of overseas investors.
I didn't agree with the talk, and I was squirming at the video. I thought it was patronising, racist rubbish. It was like an Israeli foundation getting a Palestinian to talk about social activism without mentioning the occupation. There was no mention of the famine which drove his father's farming business into the ground, the Washington Consensus which contributed to the famine, or the privatised secondary and tertiary education system which meant that Kambwamba could not afford to continue school. The whole semiotics of the clip was appalling, with the presenter smarmily gushing, and the audience whooping and hollering, and no mention of the social context in which this 'entrepreneurialism' took place - just this atomised individual, devoid of political views or any relationship to Malawi's trade unions or socialist left, which would be challenging capitalism in different ways. (And, by the way, Kambwamba does have a view on imperialism, the IMF, neoliberalism, exploitation, and so on.) I really disliked it. I think it's fair to say most of the audience did as well, as someone complained to me afterward that people were rather unfairly aggressive toward Marina.
On the other hand, John Holloway, speaking from the floor, loved the presentation. He was very enthusiastic about it, seeing it as an excellent antidote to the idea of marxism as a 'theory of domination', which I suppose he saw reflected in the presentations by Nicola Livingstone and myself. He argued that marxism had to be a theory of antagonism, and the key antagonism in capitalism is between use value and exchange value, between abstract and concrete labour. The key antagonism of capitalism, then, centres on despair, frustration and alienation, and social entrepreneurs by unleashing our capabilities can help overcome this. I was neither surprised nor particularly moved by this, considering...
Anyway, here's my talk:
Thoroughly Modern Tories? From 'One Nation' to 'The Big Society'
In search of tradition
The Tories have a habit of justifying whatever they’re doing in terms of an ancestral tradition, of which they are the legatees. Some examples. When Sir Robert Peel, in effectively founding the modern Conservative Party, embraced industrial capitalism and the Great Reform Act of 1832, he signalled his acceptance of the new order with the ‘Tamworth Manifesto’. It is a rather dull document to read, written for a bye-election. But it acknowledged the reform as both “a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question” and at the same time as nothing more than a “careful review” of existing institutions to root out “abuses”, the better to preserve “ancients rights” and “deference to prescriptive authority”.
When Benjamin Disraeli led the Tories toward the Second Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised a section of the working class, he asserted that the 1832 Act had “abolished all the franchises of the working class” which were “as ancient as those of the Baronage of England”. Thus, adapting to mass democracy was not a reluctant last-ditch embrace of reform to mitigate its effects and claim its benefits, but the restoration of a tradition which the Tories had, mysteriously, forgotten about. Embracing the ideology of social reform, Disraeli asserted that raising up the condition of the people was one of the three pillars of the Tories’ historic mission. Stanley Baldwin, in turn, embracing certain fledgling forms of welfare and palliation, grounded his appeal in a ‘One Nation’ tradition going back all the way to Disraeli. Harold Macmillan, embracing social democracy, asserted that Toryism is nothing other than “paternal socialism”. He harked back to Disraeli. The New Right, whose rise coincided with some fresh thinking on Disraeli found that they were able to claim him as an ancestor too. And of course, David Cameron, positioning himself as a quasi-egalitarian, a social reformer concerned with poverty, considers himself an advocate of Tory radicalism in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli.
There is in fact no coherent tradition here, no unbroken lineage that resolves the many turbulent shifts of official Tory doctrine and practise into a solid body of accumulated wisdom. There are constant commitments – but these are not to tradition, and the familiar, as so many Tory apologists vouch. Whether opposing mass democracy or acquiescing to it, whether red-baiting social democrats or mimicking them, whether raising spending or cutting it, the enduring ideological commitment of the Conservative Party is to inequality, hierarchy and domination.
Or, to put it in less abstract terms, the capitalist mode of production, the system of Burke’s veneration, the system that made the Tory landowning class rich (for it was still largely an agrarian system when the Conservative Party first emerged in its modern form), and the system whose technological expansion made the Peel family rich, as they were original investors behind the spread of the ‘Spinning Jenny’. In the marxist idiom, the Conservative Party is a bourgeois party, a party that exists to wage political struggles on behalf of the capitalist class into which it is integrated. And if this is right, then the shifting orthodoxies of official Conservatism will not merely express the changing interests, composition and cohesion of the ruling class, but also its relations with the rest of society, its relative power with respect to the working class, and so on.
So, it is on that basis that I want to outline the patterns of the shift, from the post-war consensus to Thatcherism, and now the post-Thatcherite neoliberal consensus that has a near monopoly on our parliamentary system.
The Tories’ acceptance of the social democratic state, which Labour constructed out of the materials of the war state, was at first reluctant. Lord Hailsham’s famous warning to parliament at the height of war in 1943 urged that: “If you do not give the people social reform they are going to give you a social revolution.” This was a recognition that the war-making state had mobilised millions of workers in a collective effort, under the direction of a state that had showed that it could engage in planning. It was also a recognition of the radicalism that was sweeping the country during the war, something that Paul Foot describes in his posthumously published book, The Vote. But while social reform was on the agenda, it was no part of the Tories’ agenda in 1945 to deliver social democracy.
There was bipartisan agreement, coming out of the war, that there should be some form of social safety net. Capitalism would be re-organised to integrate a labour movement with a specifically reformist, anti-communist orientation into the institutions of government – a process that really began in the 1840s in response to the challenge of Chartism. Importantly, there is nothing inherent in the welfare state that ‘free market’ Tories should oppose. Its basis is liberal, rather than socialist. The Beveridge report, composed in 1942, out of the work of an obscure reconstruction committee, builds on the Liberal reforms of 1906. Welfare was not conceived of as an obligation of a society to its members, but a commodity, traded between contracting parties. It was intended to provide a subsistence-level minimum income rather than to fundamentally redistribute the balance of wealth and power. But the idea of economic planning, of a corporatist state with a set of nationalised industries at its core enabling the government to orchestrate demand, and integrating the demands of the working class through the absorption of the trade union bureaucracy, was fiercely opposed at first.
Nor did their subsequent experiences automatically change their opinions. If the scale of the defeat in 1945, halving the Tories’ parliamentary representation, reducing their share of the vote from 53.7% to 39.8%, briefly empowered those in the Conservative Party who wanted to move in the direction of some moderate industrial planning, by the time the Cold War was being launched in 1947, the Tories, led by Winston Churchill, had lapsed into a red-baiting crusade for capitalist freedom. Churchill vituperated that social democracy was a half-way house to communism. His allies and advisors, such as Oliver Lyttelton, argued –in ways that foreshadowed the ‘New Right’ – that planning of the economy must involve planning the lives of individuals, not just in Britain, but in all those countries that Britain traded with (or possessed as colonies). According to such early neo-liberal thought, planning was absurd, tyrannical and unworkable. The 1951 election was fought on the basis of opposing government intervention, denationalisation, restoring capitalist freedom. “Set the people free”, ran the slogan. And had the distribution of seats been proportionate to the vote, the Tories would have lost the election, as Labour consolidated its support with 48.8% of the vote – proving itself to have a durable electoral basis.
In office, very little was done to reverse Labour’s reforms. Planning was maintained, unemployment remained minimal, below half a million for 8 of 13 years of Tory rule, public spending was kept up, a few abridgments notwithstanding. Working class wages kept up with productivity – in fact, when it comes to incomes policies, workers tended to do slightly better under Tory than Labour administrations. The reasons for the Tories’ acquiescence are varied. Such planning as had been institutionalised was not planning in any strong, radical Keynesian sense, but in the weak sense of evening out imbalances in the economy and manipulating proportions of activity in accordance with an overall strategy. Such industries as had been nationalised had been handsomely recompensed, were important to the UK’s industrial performance, and it was not obvious that they would survive in the private sector. Above all, the Tories did not want to risk being turfed out again in 1955. It’s important to recall how terrified they were of losing their hegemonic position. They were very well aware of the urgent need to consolidate a mass base – a problem the Tories had faced since 1867, and which manifested itself after 1945 with a poll-driven strategy to win over the lower middle class and the ‘skilled’ working class. So the modernisers around Harold Macmillan were able to win the argument for social democracy.
This did not, to repeat an earlier point, signal the accession of some ‘One Nation’ tradition to the leadership. The ‘One Nation’ faction in the Tory party has never been identical with its paternalist ‘left-wing’. Its early members included reactionaries such as Enoch Powell and, later, Keith Joseph. Its recent advocates have included Thatcherites like Ian Duncan Smith. Acquiescence in the social democratic state was a conscious adaptation to the strength and cohesion of the working class as a political force, the challenge of socialism, the relative weakness of the British ruling class, and the new needs of British capitalism in an era of global decline and bipolar international competition. Accepting the social democratic state enabled the Tories to continue to act as a hegemonic party of capital. Studies of working class support for the Tories carried out in the Sixties tended to interpret it as deferential, but an important component of that elusive phenomenon was the belief that the Tories ‘looked after’ the working classes.
However, the corporatist instruments refined under Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home were unable to protect British capitalism from a number of endemic problems. First of all, the relative decline of Britain could not be overcome by corporatist modernisation projects adopted by both Wilson and Heath. The public spending projects embraced in the Sixties and early Seventies actually tended to produce lame ducks. Capital was also finding it increasingly possible to sidestep social democratic constraints, partly because of increased international mobility – this problem was one of the reasons for the reformist Left’s attempt to produce a new settlement, the Alternative Economic Strategy which formed the basis of Labour’s 1974 general election strategy. Secondly, social democracy could not overcome the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and that tendency did begin to manifest itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Reduced profit rates meant lower private sector investment, slower growth, higher unemployment, and the beginnings of a crisis of the system. Lastly, corporatist institutions such as incomes policies, and repeated attempts at curbing the right to strike by both Labour and Tory administrations, could not contain labour militancy and wage claims. The explosion of radicalism, and the shop stewards movement, led to the second major crisis of the Tories’ ability to act as a hegemonic party, which the Heath administration crippled and ultimately broken by mass strikes. Out of this humiliating defeat, a combative new Right, eschewing the integument of social democracy, arose.
The restoration of capitalist freedom
Mrs Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party was seen by many big business advocates as a scandalous ideological deviation, a short sharp route to the dead end of being a middle class protest party, much as UKIP is today. There is an element of truth in this. There had been a growing revolt by the middle classes against high taxes since the Fifties. The ‘new Right’ that consolidated first around Powell and then Thatcher had its roots in the Freedom League and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and in the reactionary, petit-bourgeois rightist bedrock. Throughout the 1980s, moreover, the most solid Tories were the petit-bourgeoisie, 70% of whom consistently backed Thatcher – the only class to back Thatcher by a majority.
But the Hayekian doctrines guiding the Conservative leadership were not just the cri de coeur of the middle class. They contained a serious analysis of, and remedy for, the ‘British disease’. Powell had shown that it was possible for the Tories to build a mass base without accepting social democracy, by espousing an authoritarian politics of ‘the nation’ allied with economic liberalism –protecting national identity, restoring national competitiveness, asserting British national interests in Ireland and elsewhere, etc. But it would be no good doing so if the Tories could not by these self-same means effectively restore British capitalism and continue to act as a hegemonic party of capital. Since this ability was already in question, the Tory leadership was prepared to take a gamble on a radical new policy mix.
Thatcher knew that the corporatist state depended on healthy revenue streams, but that its ability to intervene and generate those revenue streams was by then seriously weakened. Higher public spending did not reduce unemployment. It just added to inflation. Price controls were ineffectual, and the ‘winter of discontent’ would later show that wage controls were just as ineffectual. Notably, it was during that period in 1978 that big business first rallied behind Thatcher in a major way. In their place, capitalist freedom would be restored. Collective bargaining was out, incomes policies and price controls were out, demand management and job-creation was out.
In the new neoliberal statecraft, the government would spend less, and such money as was spent would be channelled through market-based delivery mechanisms, and undemocratic bodies such as quangos. The boss of Sainsburys was brought in to write a report which led to the introduction of internal markets in the NHS, inflating administrative overheads dramatically. The major macroeconomic objective of government would be to control inflation, which meant controlling wages. That was to be achieved primarily through high unemployment, and a co-ordinated attack on the bargaining power of labour. Defeating the unions achieved this objective, of course, but it also had the intended effect of devastating the social forces best placed to resist Thatcher’s agenda and obstruct social democracy’s adaptation to the new order.
The rentier would be revived, and sound money would replace cheap money. The City’s speculative activities would drive capitalist investment by increasing the rewards of such investment, while integrating a section of the working class by allowing them to borrow against their property - which, owing to rationing in the provision of housing, would perpetually increase in value. Enough people would feel wealthy enough to form a viable political constituency in favour of the new settlement. Until about 1989, the politics of ‘the nation’ thus configured could command between 42 and 44% of the vote, a slight recovery from Ted Heath’s 1974 low of 35%, but still well below the post-war performance – in fact, votes of the Thatcher scale would have resulted in defeats in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the time of the poll tax riots, however, it was clear that Thatcherism could no longer command an electoral plurality. Not only that, but Thatcherite combativeness was exhausted as an option after the poll tax riots. The last major confrontation that the Tories risked with the labour movement, for example, was with the signal workers in 1993. The capitalist class threw hundreds of millions into supporting British rail in that dispute. The Institute of Directors and the CBI mucked in. But the strike was fairly solid, and the employers were defeated. This suggested that the militancy and cohesion had not been completely knocked out of the working class, and that the ruling class now had to turn to other means to get its way. Swinging behind New Labour was the main way it sought to do this. Some Tories lived in denial about this for years. They blamed John Major, and his pro-European allies for their difficulties. If he hadn’t joined the ERM, and been such a wet, the locomotive of the Thatcher revolution would still be charging through the polity today, they maintained. It took three successive election defeats, twice with hard right leaderships pandering to the petit-bourgeois base, saving the pound and stopping immigration, and all leaving the Tories with just over thirty percent of a shrinking vote, to disabuse them of this idea. The Tories had kept the petit-bourgeois base, but they had lost many of the skilled workers Cameron belongs to a faction of the Conservative Party that is loyal to Thatcher’s accomplishments, and has repeatedly paid verbal tribute to her legacy, but is realistic about the need to detoxify the Tory brand of those associations. And that’s how we get to the ‘Big Society’.
The Big Society
No one knows exactly what the ‘Big Society’ is. It is a childishly sunny locution, the sort of thing a children’s television presenter in dungarees and a stripy rainbow sweater might gush about. Before its emergence as an electoral talking point, though, Cameron was given to lachrymose jeremiads about the ‘broken society’. And if we look at the background to the ‘broken society’, it might disclose some of the contours of the ‘big society’. The first signs of the attempt to fashion a more ‘compassionate conservatism’ were evident under Ian Duncan Smith’s watch between 2001 and 2003. It was during this period, you’ll recall, that Theresa May warned Tories that they were seen as the “nasty party”.
The Tories believed that they had won the fight over the fundamentals of the free market economy, but now stood accused of being callous with it, of not having a compassionate social policy to complement their emphasis on capitalist efficiency. If anything, free market economics seemed most compatible with shameless elitism and social Darwinism. Keith Joseph’s bid for the Tory leadership against Ted Heath had floundered when he argued that “the balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened” by high birth rates among the underclass; and that greater birth control was needed to contain it. Post-Thatcherite social policy would have to obliterate all traces of such ideology in the public mind.
The trouble for the Conservatives was that despite their attacks on the welfare state while in office, despite under-funding the public sector, and despite various reforms intended to make the public sector more like the market, they had not succeeded in keeping overall spending down. One reason for this was that the high unemployment resulting from their economic policies drove up the cost of social security. The other plank of their policy designed to cope with just this problem was workfare. This involved changing the benefits structure to ‘reward work’ and introducing welfare-to-work schemes designed to change individuals’ capacity to find work in the labour market. Such policies made no lasting impact on employment, and thus did not reduce the social security bill. As far as the Tories were concerned, the tax bill that paid for public spending was still a drain on capitalist dynamism, and the further erosion of the welfare state was essential: it was just not politically popular.
Fortunately for the Tories, New Labour’s acceptance of the neoliberal policy mix extended to accepting workfare, privatization and fiscal austerity. This automatically drew the sting out of any attack on such policies from the centre-left, leaving only the question of how to define the Tory brand, creating the perception of ‘clear blue water’ between themselves and New Labour. Staking out a traditionalist stance on homosexuality, the family, drugs, and race was not an option – though in truth, Cameron did try in his early days as an MP to do just this, his latter day reinvention as a social liberal notwithstanding. It wasn’t popular, and it divided the Tories - beyond the old Tory ‘left-wing’, there were a section of Thatcherite ‘mods’ (as distinct from the ‘rockers’), who later became known as the Notting Hill set, who believed that market liberalism should lead logically to social liberalism on drugs, race, sexuality and so on. So, it transpired that the best strategy for the Tories was to become cloyingly touchy-feely in public, lock the old hard-nosed self-made Thatcherite bruisers in the coffin, and hug a hoody.
Under Ian Duncan Smith, the new dispensation declared that society did exist. The centrist Tory intellectual David Willets was put in charge of welfare policy, with a remit of discussing how amid general prosperity there was such terrible deprivation in parts of the country. But IDS could not carry his party over support for gay adoption, and was unceremoniously chucked in favour of the charismatic old hawk, Michael Howard, who stuck to an old hard right script. After the glorious Howard interregnum, Cameron took over the process of liberalisation. He was instructed to do so by Lord Ashcroft, whose money it was he was playing with. He talked up the party’s green credentials, and promised to stick to Labour’s spending commitments if elected. IDS’s think-tank, the ‘Centre for Social Justice’ set up in 2004, provided the soundtrack on social policy.
The ‘broken Britain’ spiel, developed in successive reports by the CSJ, argued that the problems of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, ill health, and economic inactivity, were the result of cultural habits that needed to be broken with. These cultural habits made the society more unequal by creating an environment that deprived the ‘underclass’ of opportunity. To overcome these habits, and thus distribute opportunity more equally, it would be necessary to undertake a number of reforms that would boost social virtue: improve school discipline and expand school places by allowing charities, parents and voluntary organisations to set up new schools (that’s ‘free schools’); workfare, with a new set of incentives and penalties to make the benefits system less attractive and thus erode ‘welfare dependency’; tougher policing of anti-social behaviour, with higher sentencing for knife-crimes and such, to attack an important environmental obstacle to opportunity; and give more support to families through the welfare system in order to boost social cohesion. All of this would be accompanied by official encouragement of charities, social enterprises and NGOs, whose flourishing would help restore a lost social solidarity. That’s the ‘Big Society’.
I think it’s plain from this list that very little distinctive in the way of policy is being offered here. Almost all of it is continuous with New Labour, who in turn were faithfully following Thatcher. The state would continue to be rationalised and downsized at roughly the same pace as under New Labour, and the reforms to welfare and the public sector would be roughly as New Labour intended. What is distinctive is the branding, and the problem it was supposed to remedy. Cameron sought to situate himself as a ‘progressive’, interested in equality, someone who could be trusted not to utterly savage the public sector, and someone who was open to trade unions as a potential partner rather than a punching bag. And in fact, his leadership saw bye-elections where the Tory candidate outflanked New Labour to the left on Post Office closures. This effort was very costly, and the results were ideologically incoherent and diffuse. But it did contribute soften the Tories’ image and, for the first time since ERM and the 1992 miners’ strike, the Tories found themselves with a sustained lead over Labour, their support hovering around 40%.
The Tories’ decision to ‘turn nasty’ again, using the issue of the deficit and New Labour’s compliance with City demands that fiscal rectitude be restored at the earliest convenience, cost them electorally. That they could still only get just over a third of the vote with a weak incumbency amid the deepest crisis since the Depression says a great deal. Only a fraction of the skilled working class and professionals returned to them. They did not get a mandate, even in the terms of this gerrymandered electoral system. Nevertheless, the decision of Nick Clegg’s Liberals to ally with the Tories, helped along by an ad hoc set of ‘rules’ contrived by senior civil servants, helped overcome this problem and has probably done more to detoxify the Tory brand than all the ‘Big Society’ stuff. But all this raises an important point, which I’ll finish on.
Cameron’s leadership is operating in a situation in which two key difficulties beset the party’s ability to act as, as I say, a hegemonic party of capital. First is the secular tendency for its electoral base to decline, which is actually obscured a bit by the declining turnout, which is concentrated mainly among former Labour voters. The actual share of Tories among the total electorate may be closer to a quarter than a third. To overcome this, Cameron has had to triangulate, pacifying the core vote while appearing to offer something to the centre and centre-left. The second problem is the growing gap between the interests of the hard right base, the lower middle class, and those of the capitalist class, particularly the dominant financial fraction. This demands a second triangulation, though where there is a conflict, capital tends to win. If it did not, big business would withdraw its support and its funding. Cameron’s position on Europe – allying with the parties of the far right, while implementing the policy of big business – is typical of this strategy.
These two difficulties are combining to produce a long-term crisis for the Tories, notwithstanding their present lead in the polls (which isn’t usually greater than 5%). Thus, the reinvention of the ‘Big Society’ as a mantra for spending cuts, welfare cuts, and faster privatization, is part and parcel of a gamble by the Tory leadership that a repetition and further entrenchment of the Thatcher revolution will revive British capitalism and restore their position in it, as the dominant party of business. It is, as the students have shown, a gamble that has the potential to backfire horribly on them.