Thursday, June 30, 2011
Listen to Mark Serwotka mauling Francis Maude on the BBC this morning.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
After 13 years of exile the Conservative Party has returned to office, but weaker than ever and dependent on a coalition with the Liberals. Amid a global crisis, with a weak incumbent and against a widely disliked government, the Tories only managed to add 3 percentage points to their 2005 share of the vote, bringing them up to 36 percent. This took place amid the ongoing boycott of elections by millions of disappointed Labour voters. As Ed Miliband has acknowledged, most of the five million voters lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010 didn’t switch to other parties, but stayed at home. Still the Tories, under a “modernising” leadership which styled itself as socially liberal and distanced itself from the Thatcherite past, barely exceeded a third of the vote. What explains the Tories’ weakness?
Part of the answer, perhaps, is that the Tories “turned nasty” again following the 2008 recession, talking spending cuts and targeting welfare recipients in their election propaganda. But this raises further questions. Why did it take the Tories so long to adapt to the new terrain, adopt a “moderate” leadership and attempt to carve out a conservatism occupying much the same ground as New Labour had staked out since 1994? And why would it squander the fruits of this effort, which had seen the Tories restored to over 40 percent of popular support in polls for the first time since the early 1990s? Why are they determined now, governing with weak legitimacy, to impose widely unpopular policies such as privatisation in healthcare and tuition fee rises, which hurt parts of their electoral base? The answers must be sought in the Tories’ relationship to capitalism, its crisis, and their long-term decline...
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
...What is happening? The short answer is "austerity". Mass dissatisfaction with the major parties is tied to pessimism about the economy, and a view that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Living standards are sliding in all of the core capitalist economies, but most of all in those countries where austerity has been most advanced – Greece and Ireland. There is a bipartisan consensus in most of these nations' parliaments in favour of some form of austerity politics, despite its unpopularity.
One might expect social democratic parties to take a different approach, to mobilise their constituencies around a defence of public services and social security. But their long years of complicity in managing neoliberalism means they are unable to think of an alternative to spending cuts. In opposition, they offer gradual and responsible austerity, but they still mean to cut, and cut deep. In government, the emphasis shifts from gradual to deep. This inability to pose the alternative is what leaves Miliband and his shadow cabinet floundering....
Friday, June 17, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011
You public sector workers always have your hand out. You get better pay than the rest of us, and you have generous gold-plated pensions. When anyone tries to take the slightest of your privileges away, you throw your toys out of the pram and go on strike. But I am not prepared to pay for your perky lifestyle any more. What we can't afford, you can't have. The taxpayer subsidises you to 100%, and the taxpayer isn't going to go on supporting your selfish, I'm-alright-jack lifestyles. A bit of hardship would do you lazy jobsworths some good. Market discipline. Let's see you and your red friends get by like the rest of us, uncoddled by the state and your friends in the meeja-hideen... (etc etc).
You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? Well, the point is how "the taxpayer" is invoked here as a relevant political category. You'll notice that, implicit in this is a suggestion that there are people who aren't taxpayers. But public sector workers pay taxes, not only on their income but on consumption. In fact, there is no one who doesn't pay taxes. The unemployed pay tax. Children pay tax. Prisoners pay tax. Even the homeless pay tax. To speak of "the taxpayer" is in this sense meaningless, since it includes everyone. And self-evidently, not everyone shares the political attitudes expressed by "the taxpayer" above. The question of what "the taxpayer" is willing to pay for is a political question, depending on who the taxpayer is, and what other social categories and classes s/he identifies as. But implicit in this is the idea that the taxpayer is supporting a public sector which is purely parasitic. Public sector workers are "subsidised" by "the taxpayer"; as if, in addition to not paying taxes, they add no value to the economy. "The taxpayer" is thus, by definition, always over-taxed (even if there are quite a few who are under-taxed). The subject-position expressed in this figure of "the taxpayer" is that of a lower middle class trader, shopkeeper or white van man, anxious to hold on to his wad and not pay for anything he isn't getting.
ps: It occurs to me that I've missed the most obvious point here. It's not just the penny-pinching petty bourgeoisie that "the taxpayer" identifies with. The whole point is that you're supposed to think of yourself as the employer in this situation. You're being asked to identify with the bosses.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Today, parliament was due to vote on the latest cuts package. A 24 hour general strike was called, and hundreds of thousands of striking workers converged on parliament to cordon it off. Throughout today, the workers, together with the aganaktismenoi (outraged), have been periodically engaged in direct combat with riot police who are trying to disperse the protests (there's a live feed of the protests here, footage here). Signals from comrades, rumours from Twitter, feedback from mailing lists, etc., suggest that this is a significant departure from previous demonstrations in which the police like to finish off a protest by isolating factions of it and meting out a punishment beating. Instead, thousands of riot cops with batons, tear gas and water cannons have been fighting with the mainstream of the protest in Syntagma Square in an effort to break it up. And the protesters have held their ground. This could be seen as analogous to the way in which the Papandreou government has desperately sought to time and pitch their cuts and sell-offs to isolate specific sectors of resistance and beat them one by one - yet the scale of the cuts has necessarily produced a generalised response that has a real chance of defeating the government.
Notably, it is just workers who are involved in the struggle against the cuts. Not so long ago, an incoming PASOK government was able to carry the benefit of the doubt as it appealed to voters to support its cuts package. It could do so far more plausibly than their right-wing New Democracy predecessors. As a consequence, told that the alternative to cuts was bankruptcy, a majority acquiesced for a brief time in the cuts. In seemingly no time at all, the benefit of the doubt was frittered away, and now there is an extraordinarily broad coalition against the cuts, with some 80% opposing more austerity. Even small business owners are joining in over the near doubling of VAT. I don't know what implications this has for the Greek power bloc, which is probably extremely narrow, but the divisions at the level of the state suggest that there's a crisis of hegemony within the bloc, as well as over society as a whole. Mason describes the Greek state losing the functions of a state.
This doesn't necessarily have to benefit the left. The pitch of struggle is self-consciously militant, inspired by the Egyptian revolution and its shockwaves. The aim today would presumably be for the government to lose the vote and fall. But the government may not lose the vote, or if it does, the ruling class and the EU and IMF may find other means to force through austerity. The New Democracy would probably win any election in the short run, and - despite their opportunistic opposition - would attempt to do much the same. And if the working class response is not equal to the challenge, if the class begins to retreat, if repression gets the better of them, then there are some very dark possibilities. The Nazis are already mobilising in armed gangs, taking advantage of the despair and the rising street crime, and scapegoating immigrants. In fact, one of the features of this crisis is the asynchronicity between ideological, industrial and parliamentary effects. It is quite likely that the right will be able to benefit electorally from anti-austerity struggles in the short term, particularly where social democratic parties are the ones imposing austerity. That's certainly true of both Greece and Spain.
Nonetheless, the Greek struggle should be seen as part of a rising tide of class struggles globally, signposted by a series of mass strikes in Europe last year, the Middle East revolutions this year, and Spain's Tahrir moment. And their chances of success are increased by their tendency to generalise rather than remain sectional responses. This is why the UK government is threatening unions, warning them off coordinated strike action, especially after civil servants voted for strikes. The Greek example should tell us a lot. Greece is much further down the road of austerity than Britain is, and has a much more vibrant tradition of militancy. The entrenched, utterly inflexible position of the ruling class, backed of course by the US and EU ruling classes, shows the scale of mobilisation that is necessary to shift them, never mind defeat them. Yet, it may in the end also show how brittle the system is.
ps: As I write, there are rumours that Papandreou has offered to resign, and it's become clear that the administration can't govern. It is reported that Pasok is now in power-sharing talks with the New Democracy to form a grand cutters' coalition. If this is an example of Caesarism, then it is of a deeply reactionary kind that is likely to become more common in the present conjuncture. This would obviously raise the stakes for workers resistance. The ruling class would presumably rally behind any such coalition, determined to show its unity, and embark on a new round of offensives - politically, ideologically, and industrially. The media will reinforce again and again that there is no alternative; the state and the employers will go after the unions and left parties that back militancy, and parliamentarians will argue - as they have in the past - that strikes undermine the Greek economy and make the crisis worse. Pasok will bring pressure to bear within the labour movement, and the Communists (KKE) will be subject to a new round of red-baiting due to their influence in the unions. This makes it all the more important that none of the momentum that the working class has built up is squandered. But it also raises the obvious questions of political organisation. If traditional left-reformism leads to this cul de sac, then it's a certainty that alternative modes of organising the working class and its alliances will be hotly debated in the coming months. I doubt a single revolutionary party is yet in a position to offer that alternative, but the radical left and anticapitalist alliances such as ANT.AR.SY.A - which quadrupled its vote in the last regional election - can involve revolutionaries in productive relations with other political forces while sharply posing alternatives to the mainstream parties within the working class movement.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The NUT and ATL teaching unions have both voted to endorse strike action over the government's changes to pensions. In the NUT, the "yes" vote was overwhelming – some 92%. In the ATL, a traditionally conservative union, the vote was hardly less compelling, with 83% backing strike action. The government's plans involve teachers working longer, paying more and getting less at the end of their working lives. Teachers will be expected to work until they're 68, increase contributions by up to 50%, and will receive a lower pension based on a new "career average" index when they retire. Their rejection of this could not be clearer, and the teachers' yes vote opens the way to mass, co-ordinated strike action on 30 June and beyond...