Monday, October 28, 2013
The workers filing back into the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, Ineos, had a look of victory, and relief. The BBC was triumphant; Alex Salmond was triumphant; the local Unite rep was triumphant; the company was triumphant. Everyone had won.
It was the most serious defeat of the British labour movement in years, and there was barely a shot fired.
Not a single concession from the owners; the union concedes everything from pay freezes, an end to final salary pensions, the end of full-time union convenors on site, and no strikes for three years. Employers across the country will be looking admiringly and enviously at what the boss of Ineos, the billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, has achieved, and looking to emulate it.
In principle, this plant was a bastion of union power. The company was at the heart of Scotland’s infrastructure, in a sensitive market position, with chains of suppliers and businesses dependent on its ongoing functioning. Unite workers were well-organised, and knew how to use their disruptive power. They tended to win their strikes. In 2008, they shut down Ratcliffe’s attack on their final salary pension scheme. Tanker drivers saw off an attack on their pay and conditions in March. There was no reason for Unite to think they couldn’t deal with this.
The problem was, the strike wasn’t about what they thought it was about. The provocation behind the strike was the victimisation of Unite rep Stephen Deans. The occasion for the attack on Deans was allegations about his role in the Falkirk selection controversy.
The Falkirk episode will merit further scrutiny in the coming weeks and months. Ed Miliband called in the cops on the basis of claims of vote-rigging. Implicated was not just the Unite-backed candidate, Karie Murphy, but the local constituency chairman and Unite member Stephen Deans. By early September, Labour was admitting ‘no wrongdoing’ on the part of Murphy and Deans. The police had declined to take any action. And Labour ended its internal investigation. By the account given in BBC Radio 4’s documentary, it was a candy floss controversy: mouth-watering but ultimately fuzzy, indistinct and lacking in substance.
But Miliband had used the panic to make an ultra-Blairite, union-baiting speech on ‘reforming’ the relationship with trade unions. Tony Blair and his allies in the party and the press were grossly, deliriously happy. Len McCluskey backed his proposed reforms, putting a left gloss on them. You might argue that McCluskey’s attitude was predictable, that he always says something approving every time Miliband makes a right-wing speech. You might argue, as I did, that Miliband’s reforms might weaken the Labour-link in one sense, but they strengthen the potential financial clout of the union bureaucracy on a clientelist basis. But I’m not totally sure that this is the end of the story.
At any rate, this was the context in which the company decided to suspend Stephen Deans, provoking the ballot for industrial action and strike action that would ultimately lead to the present debacle. I think the company management smelled weakness. They heard that many of the people signed up to the Labour Party in the weeks before the selection had actually been workers at Ineos. They wondered if Deans had not been using company time to engage in suspicious, potentially culpable behaviour. They launched an investigation. Initially, Unite maintains, the company cleared Deans and reinstated him. If that’s the case, however, they clearly quickly re-calculated.
Unite didn’t seem to panic. They held the ballot for a strike, within the usual ponderous procedures and time-frame of industrial action ballots in the UK. An overwhelming 81.4% voted to take action. They began with action short of striking, including work to rule, and an overtime ban. If it was about victimisation, they would stand solid and win.
However, Jim Ratcliffe had already started to leak a different narrative to the press. It was no longer about one union member. The company was ‘at a crossroads’. It was losing money, in dire financial straits. Something had to give. The strike that Unite was fighting as a victimisation case was increasingly a pretext for a far more serious fight.
By mid-October, management had struck hard. The company and the union went through a negotiations process with ACAS, lasting until Tuesday 15th October. Unite alleges that they were on the verge of a deal, before Ineos walked out. This would certainly be in character. At any rate, Unite responded to this by calling off proposed strike action, and the company responded with a further offensive.
On Wednesday 16th, the company locked out the workers whose strike had just been called off. They demanded that the workers agree to redundancies, reduced wages for new starters, cuts to holidays and redundancy pay, and an end to the final salary pensions scheme. They said the company was losing £10m a month, and couldn’t go on without union acquiescence to a ‘survival plan’. (Unite says that its research shows the company’s figures to be fanciful.) They were threatening to literally close the plant unless they got what they wanted. This was “union-busting and industrial blackmail”.
But the company did not neglect to include a material inducement in their threats, in the form of one-off compensation payments in exchange for the concessions. They addressed this proposal to workers individually, not via their union. This was smart. They were both dramatically displaying the irrelevance of the union for workers’ future living standards, and appealing to people’s short-term economic need, their worries about the near future in austerity Britain. Unite rightly urged members to turn it down, about half of whom did. But if half the workers were ready to accept this kind of deal, perhaps people were not as confident as they had been when the dispute began. With the employers on an offensive that gave no quarter, that only seemed to intensify, and with the union ineffectually trying to bargain even while it talked a good fight, perhaps the calculation was changing for many workers. It does not sound, at any rate, like a workforce ready to embark on a wave of occupations and flying pickets. And I would guess that the company bosses, noses ever attuned to prey, scented the weakness.
Still, it is profoundly strange that Unite caved to the extent that they did, in the way that they did, at the time that they did. It’s quite possible that Ratcliffe was ready to walk, but right then? True, past investments are no reason to hang around: capitalists know what the term ’sunk investment’ means. But if Unite had any faith in its own figures, they must have believed Ineos had a profitable future that a capitalist could not just walk away from. And would the Scottish government have let Grangemouth sink and devastate a chunk of Scottish industry? It’s possible that Salmond and Swinney told McCluskey that the only buyers they would consider would be anti-union buyers. It’s possible they said that they would be more than justified, if the plant was abandoned, in selling it off to the lowest bidder and allowing them to shred the workforce under the guise of ‘Saving Grangemouth’. It is possible they said that Unite was being irresponsible with Scotland’s future, and that Ratcliffe’s deal was the best they were going to get, and the union had better learn the reality of the modern world - who has final salary pensions these days? Maybe Labour’s leadership doubled down on this, and added more. It’s possible there was all sorts of pressure, all sorts of threats. But such threats must have been extremely acute, and mortally threatening to the Unite bureaucracy, to force it to conduct such a swift, comprehensive and humiliating reversal, and accept a defeat of historic proportions.
For there was, let us be clear, a real potential for political solidarity in this strike. As it went on, even front-bench Labour MSPs felt compelled to demonstrate support, instigating squeals of disgust from the party’s Blairites who demanded that Johann Lamont stamp her authority on the rogue MSPs. The workers themselves were not unpopular in Scotland, and Unite has never really suffered from any stigma that actually sticks in the public mind - unlike, say, the RMT.
Ratcliffe, by contrast, rules Ineos from a £6m estate in Hampshire. He has wealth that most people cannot fathom. He is a tax dodger, who has moved his company’s headquarters to Switzerland to avoid paying taxes, a move prompted by the refusal of the UK government to allow him a one-year delay in payment of a VAT bill. He is litigious. Ineos has threatened defamation action “with the abandon of the powerful who wish to silence those less powerful”. He was insolent enough to demand a personal apology from the unions for one of their alleged defamatory remarks as a ‘deal-breaker’. He is the clear, unyielding aggressor in this fight. His rhetoric is cold and ruthless. He is what people mean by the term ‘ruling class’. He is what people mean when they contemptuously spit, ‘the rich’.
Not only that, but Ineos had shut down the refinery, impacting on a big sector of the economy that was dependent on the plant. This was a huge deal. The biggest economic impact of this dispute was caused not by the workers’ strike, but by the employers’ strike. And in Scotland, at this time, when the debate about independence rages, to have an English capitalist clearly holding an essential part of the infrastructure to ransom - well, if that doesn’t induce a yearning for Brumaire, Year I, what would?
And this would have helped keep pressure on the union leadership not to relent in the tempo of its counter-attacks, and not to wilt under pressure from management.
In this vein, there were some laudable sentiments. The unions called for the Scottish government to take Ineos into public ownership if Ratcliffe ran off with his billions. Some on the Left concurred, and the idea seemed to resonate. This was really prime material for a 'Save Grangemouth - Nationalise Now’ campaign. I think it still might be. Who says Grangemouth is safe in Ratcliffe’s sticky little fingers? But there does not appear to have been a campaign to capitalise on it. It was treated very much as an industrial dispute, with at best a passive, cheerleading role for supporters. Who saw it coming? Hardly anyone. The bosses played a blinder.
As a coda to its successful attack on the union, the company has decided to leak the emails which they had collected from Deans account to the Murdoch press. The Sunday Times has published a story based on some of them today. And if the leak has its intended effect, the Falkirk inquiry will be re-opened. Perhaps if that happens it will shed more light on this dispute and its conclusion. There seems to have been a curious constellation of forces producing and shaping this defeat from the beginning - right-wing Labourism, tabloid red-baiting, ruling class union-busting in a general climate of austerity, and somewhere in it all a complicitous Scottish nationalism. About this, I suspect, we don’t know half the truth yet.
Ratcliffe is lying flat on his back on his yacht, Hampshire II, in the south of France. Ineos, as everyone has quickly learned to say, has a bright future ahead of it.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
This is a document I submitted for the bulletin of the last IS Network conference. It is partially based on a post I wrote a few months ago.
I. The EDL may be finished, its method of street demonstrations having run out of steam according to its former orange eminence, Tommy Robinson. The scattered forces of the far right may be declining - if still resourceful, still too numerous, still dangerous. However sanguine our assumptions on this point may be, though, the wider situation is as toxic as it has ever been, fertile ground for a more effective populist-racist formation. The strong performance of UKIP demonstrates this potential. This new organisation Robinson intends to form with his wooden double act, Kevin Carroll, backed by his comprador allies, the state-sponsored ex-Islamist Qilliam Foundation, will surely seek to plough the same terrain.
II. The EDL was formed in 2009, fusing a number of heterogeneous energies. In one sense, it was a belated expression of a certain type of ‘war on terror’ politics, defending good old British boys against Anjem Choudary’s coffin-botherers. In another, it represented a perverse reanimation of Ulster Loyalism in the English context - the slogan ‘no surrender’ being taken straight from the death squads of the dear six counties. But it also represented the failure of New Labour’s ‘Britishness’ project. Having English, Scottish and Welsh defence leagues was not merely a function of basing the organisation on football casuals and thus deferring to the national division of teams. It underlined just how the axis of xenophobic nationalism had shifted. It also very effectively drew upon and organised the popular mytheme of ‘the white working class’ - supposedly ignored by liberal elites, abused by multicultural politicians, and oppressed by political correctness. This ideology initially began to be articulated under New Labour, and represented a right-ward shift within the Blairite section of the ideological-state apparatuses. But as with so much material that begins life as part of a neoliberal triangulation strategy, it was far more potent in the hands of bovver boys. At the core of it, of course, is the EDL’s contention that Islam is ‘extremist’, that it wages a genocidal war on all Christians, and as such represents an enemy within ‘Christian’ or ‘Western civilisation’. The spread of this style of thinking, conspiracism, is linked to the rise of political paranoia in an increasingly competitive, dog-eat-dog social world. At any rate, this interpellation of ‘culture’ - or a racialised conception of culture - into the political terrain of post-credit crunch Britain achieved one very salient effect. It articulated the concrete experiences of decline - relative national, imperialist decline; economic decline; the declining living standards of workers and a section of the middle class - within a single narrative of resentment structured by Islamophobia. The EDL’s narrative obliquely ‘mentioned’ real social facts, and provided a schema through which supporters could live their relationship to those facts. And of course, it mobilised those supporters to address the ostensible ‘cause’ of those facts in what was at first a highly effective strategy of street mobilisations with football casuals at their core.
III. This immediately posed a unique kind of challenge to traditional anti-fascist strategy in the UK, as the pivot on which a wider anti-racist politics turned. The logic went something like this: fascists are both the most dangerous spearhead of racist reaction and potentially its weakest point. We can and should mobilise the broadest possible unity against the far right; in doing so we have to challenge their racism and we can force our allies in this fight to adopt a more consistently anti-racist position. Of course, even where we do not succeed in this wider objective, a conjunctural defeat for fascism is no small thing. However, the EDL, for all that it knowingly drew in significant strata of the old far right, never became a fascist organisation. This is why the formulations from the SWP and UAF were, some slips notwithstanding, generally very careful: for example, the EDL was “a racist organisation with Nazis at its core”. It resembled a fascist organisation in some respects. For example, its emphasis on control of the streets. Or, its forms of alcohol-greased, macho solidarity, its rabble-paramilitarism. Or, its focus on visual communication and symbolism invoking a cod national mythology (the crusades). Or, finally, the fitful tendencies of the EDL leadership to try to broaden its range of targets (to include students, for example) so that its counter-subversive activities begin to vaguely resemble traditional fascist anticommunism. Yet, it did not become a fascist organisation dedicated to the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the smashing of workers organisations. In its overall make-up, its strategy, its ideological orientation, it was closer to Geert Wilders, a populist-rightist on the far right of liberal democracy, than to Nick Griffin. And the existence of such an ambiguous, ‘contradictory’, hybrid formation posed, as I say, a challenge to the anti-fascist strategy. The tactical response of antifascists, sensible in its way, was to treat the EDL as a kind of fascism-in-becoming. Since fascism was its telos, it had to be dealt with as would any fascist organisation operating in the same way: broad antifascist coalitions harnessed, where possible, to a strategy of militant confrontation led by the radical wing of the antifascist movement. This usefully limited the EDL’s physical advances, in part by forcing the police to adopt different containment strategies, and among other factors it helped prevent their demonstrations from acquiring a certain critical mass. However, this was only ever useful as a holding response. The underlying problem was that the EDL were building on ideologies that were profoundly mainstream. This is why the media, and certain politicians, can often be found treating the EDL as if they were merely misguided and pursuing counterproductive strategies. And a strategy of harassing the EDL without also doing work on the underlying political and ideological ground could only ever yield short term results.
IV. The fight against racism is a long-term fight that has to be conducted on many different levels. It is not just a question of winning immediate political battles - a glorious victory in Walthamstow or whatever. The tempo of political struggles is extremely rapid, and the half-life of a particular struggle can be very brief indeed. But these struggles are fought on a terrain formed by years of cultural and ideological work, between forces shaped by that same work over a long duration. The tempo of cultural and ideological battles is, compared to political fights, glacial. But just because there are no immediate successes in these fronts doesn't mean they are of no value - they are absolutely central. The intense racist backlash around the English riots, or that following the Woolwich killing, was not inevitable. Such episodes take place on the basis of efforts by diverse forces to elaborate new racist ideologies over a long period.
V. We cannot fight the EDL without also combatting the other major forces of racism in society. The EDL would be nothing without the tabloids, the police, the neoliberal parties in parliament, and so on. The ideologies which legitimise the EDL's actions or at least render them as explicable reactions to extreme provocation, originate in Whitehall, the BBC, the press, parliament and the business funders of reaction. And to defeat those forces we need a different range of tactics. The EDL is primarily based on street violence, so the onus is on counter-mobilisation and self-defence. The same tactics could not be deployed against UKIP, the Murdoch press, or the Home Office. I don't propose a smorgasbord of alternative tactics here; I merely highlight the need for something more than counter-mobilisations.
VI. There is no future in attempting to collapse anti-racism into anti-austerity struggles. Such attempts represent a strain of workerism, and have emerged from some surprising quarters - including Alexis Tsipras. Racism does not simply emerge as a displaced form of despair over deprivation or insecurity. Its development and spread may be accelerated by profound political crisis, the breakdown of authority, crises of overproduction, financial collapses, and so on. As I have suggested, one of the things that EDL racism organises is the experience of certain social classes in the context of crisis and decline. And certainly, as a consequence, the struggles over the capitalist crisis and its resolution have a relationship to the struggle against racism: this means that initiatives such as Left Unity and the People's Assembly should take anti-racism seriously as a semi-autonomous component of their broader strategy. But to understand the relationship between racism, economic crisis and emerging political subjectivities requires an analysis light years ahead of the lingering 'capitalist crisis = hard times = racism' model.
VII. There can likewise be no attempt to collapse anti-racism into the antiwar movement, such as it is. That is no less reductive. For example, the analyses of the Woolwich killing that attempt to ascribe it to the 'war on terror', and therefore to orient analysis primarily toward antiwar activism, strike me as unconvincing. Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale certainly seem to have responded to the context of the 'war on terror', and to have explained their actions in that context. But the processes through which they decided to join the most marginal and militant of Islamist sects in the first place are likely to be rooted in the daily processes of British capitalism. We need to fight and win that argument: that Britain is a profoundly racist and unjust society in which black people are humiliated and deprived in all sorts of highly visible ways. More generally, the forces of racist reaction in our society are not monomaniacally obsessed with the categories of the ‘war on terror’. UKIP, for example, is Islamophopic, but just as importantly it is anti-immigrant and xenophobically anti-European. There is a rich brew of bigotries fusing together in provincial, parochial England, and their specific relationship to the daily workings of capitalism must be grasped as well as their imbrication with imperialist violence.
VIII. It's been obvious for a while, and it is more obvious now. One cannot segment off different types of racism as if they are completely separate; they are mutually reinforcing. The rise in Islamophobia, as we saw during the riots, and as is becoming clear from the intriguing raciologies arising from the Woolwich killing - the EDL speaker in Newcastle urged his audience to "send the black cunts back" - is not exclusive of a long-term regeneration of other types of racism. Indeed, Islamophobia's role as the dominant form of culturalist racism permits the rehabilitation of the discredited elements of racial essentialism, while at the same time articulating them in a new form. What this means is not simply that Islamophobia is simply a cover for 'traditional' types of racism. It used to be argued that it was merely a way of being racist toward Pakistanis. No, current forms of racism do not simply reanimate older forms. As Stuart Hall put it, "Racism is always historically specific. Though it may draw on the cultural traces deposited by previous historical phases, it always takes on specific forms. It arises out of present - not past - conditions, its effects are specific to the present organisation of society, to the present unfolding of its dynamic political and cultural processes - not simply to its repressed past." The current forms of racism refer to and organise current antagonisms, expressed in complex political struggles, from the 2001 riots to the 2012 riots. And there is something very specific about Islamophobia and its content - the obsession with religious identities, with the amateurish hermeneutics of the Quran, and so on - something very current. The point is not that Islamophobia is a cover, but rather that there is a convergence in the techniques of racialisation, the political forces involved, and the ideational content involved in the types of racism in Britain today. I think this means that it would a political mistake to try to identify one type of racism as the 'respectable racism' and simply campaign against that - the tendency is for racism in general to be made 'more respectable', and therefore we need a multi-pronged assault on racism in general.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
This was submitted as a ‘perspective’ document for the bulletin of the last IS Network conference.
Theses on austerity, and how to fight it
I. Austerity is a class strategy for installing (or conserving) a capitalist growth strategy under the dominance of finance capital. Whether it has been implemented in New York City in 1975, or in Greece in 2013, it is the financial institutions and their materially connected state apparatuses (treasuries, central banks, finance ministries, etc) which have been at the forefront of driving this policy.
II. Austerity is a crisis response. Gramsci warned that in any situation of structural crisis, “the traditional ruling class” was at a considerable advantage over opponents because of its control over the dominant institutions, its loyal cadres of supporters in the ideological apparatuses, and its overwhelming economic and political strength. Its ideological interpretations of the crises would prevail, and it was in a better position to impose its preferred solutions. Austerity was first floated immediately around the time of the bank ‘bail-outs‘. The Right began to blame government over-spending for the accumulating deficits, and treated these as the major political element of the capitalist crisis. In so doing, they engaged in an adept prophylactic move against the Left. Knowing that there could be a powerful political and cultural reaction against neoliberalism and the banks, and a popular demand for nationalisations, they began to displace anger onto the government. A ‘common sense‘ developed according to which there was just not enough money, and the government was going to have to begin tightening its belt just like everyone else.
III. Austerity does not just mean ‘cuts’. Nor is it a deficit-repayment strategy. Many of the measures implemented as part of austerity - tax cuts for corporations, privatizations, creating business opportunities in public utilities - are either of no use to reducing deficits, or they make it worse by sapping revenue or inflating costs. There are rational reasons why capitalist states want to minimise deficits, not least of which is the disciplinary effect such goals exert on public spending and thus on democratic demands. But in the case of austerity programmes, deficits are a pretext for far more fundamental transformations. The complex of policies labelled ‘austerity’ add up to a seismic shift in the political economy, the class structure and the culture of the capitalist states implementing such policies. The end results will be: a) a more polarised class system, with greater stratification within classes, a weaker working class, and the greater dependency of all classes on financial systems; b) a further penetration of capital, particularly but not exclusively financial capital, into the state, and the weakening of democratic institutions; c) the further spread of competitive, ‘entrepreneurial’ values, and the further mediation of human relations by markets.
IV. Austerity is not simply stupid and ineffectual, as Keynesian critics argue. Of course, they are right to say that cutting state spending at a time of economic weakness will reduce aggregate demand and thus weaken growth further. But this is an intended effect. It was exactly the predictable effect of implementing austerity in Britain from 1979-82, and it was the predictable effect of the ‘Volcker shock’ in the United States. It not only disciplined labour but it helped institutionalise economic priorities that fit the needs of the leading sectors of capital: militant counterinflation, balanced budgets and strict market discipline for everyone except the banks. That it succeeded owes much to the discovery of new vectors of growth in south-east Asia, permitted a global economic recovery to begin in 1982. This allowed the austerity discipline to be relaxed, allowed the austerians to claim victory, and ensured future electoral successes for neoliberal governments in the US and UK. And indeed, some form of sustained recovery for the global economy in the next few years cannot be ruled out. It is far from impossible that George Osborne will be able to go into the 2015 general election claiming some sort of victory - he is already bragging about green shoots of recovery, and promising a further sustained attack on welfare. And if the Tories can prove to their voters that they can implement austerity against all political opponents, and cruise to a general election on the back of growth, they will have at least temporarily rebuilt their base, which was in decline. Austerity is, far from being stupid, a form of intelligent ruling class praxis, which applies lessons from past class struggles and previous crises to resolve this crisis of capitalism in ways that are in the interests of the dominant sectors of capital.
V. Austerity does not involve the withdrawal of the state from the economy, as per the ‘free market’ myth, but rather the further penetration of capital into the state, and the re-organisation of state apparatuses to better accommodate the accumulation imperatives of specific sectors of capital, above all finance. In general, the state supplies not just the social reproduction necessary for capitalist growth, but also, as Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated, the primary investments that make capitalist enterprise work from start-up capital to research and development. The state is integral to the production process and will continue to be so. But its current reorganisation is about bringing capital more and more into the material spaces of the state itself, on terms which leave capital’s autonomy intact. The way this works can be seen in the ‘bail-outs’. The government created a public company, UKFI, to organise the ‘bail-outs‘ at arms length from any government control, such that state funding was pumped into the banks in exchange for no public influence over the banks‘ decisions, even on something as basic as interest rates. In theory, the government owned large chunks of these banks. In practice, this was a partial privatization of the Treasury. We see a similar pattern in the UK with policies like ‘free schools’ and with the de facto privatization of the NHS, where public services are re-organised to resemble ‘markets’, with competitive structures built in, and opportunities for private sector investment. The idea in the case of ‘free schools’ is that businesses will take over and run state-funded private schools that will compete against state schools. All of these processes undermine Britain’s already weak democratic institutions, from parliament to local authorities, and they particularly limit the extent to which popular, working class interests can assert themselves. They register within the materiality of the state the changing balance of class forces in society.
VI. Austerity is not necessarily unpopular. Ideology is incomplete and ‘contradictory’, and therefore no government could expect to achieve total acquiescence in its goals. But it is a matter of what underlying precepts are accepted, what people think is the dominant issue at stake. In the UK, almost all austerity measures aimed at the poorest have proven to be popular in opinion polls. Even more contentious measures such as ‘free schools’ have gained majority approval in some polls. It is worth examining why this is. Ipsos Mori’s ‘Generations’ poll provides some of the answers. There is been a long-term, generational collapse in support for the welfare state. Ironically, the voting demographic most supportive of welfare are otherwise most likely to be right-wing - the elderly population. Why should this be? Two factors are likely to be key. The first is that more and more of the welfare state is experienced not as a collective provision but either as a bureaucratic nightmare (the job centre), or as a vicious competition for scarce resources (this is how even state school placements are treated). The second is that while Thatcher was only able to exploit those antagonisms to a degree, inserting neoliberal ideas where social democracy had retreated, New Labour was able to actively sell neoliberal ideas about welfare to its working class base. It was notably in the New Labour period that social resentment against ‘chavs’, ‘feral children’, ‘nightmare neighbours’, and ‘ASBO kids’ was effectively aroused and channelled into an authoritarian anti-welfare politics. Or take the case of ‘free schools’. Of course, state schools and the national curriculum bore kids to tears. They are often lamentably under-funded and the pupils over-tested. So, ‘free schools’ offer a chance for some parents, generally middle class parents, to free their kids from the national curriculum and gain a bit of control over their education. Underpinning this, ironically, is one of the same ideological thematics that makes tuition fees and the abolition of Education Maintenance Allowance so unpopular: meritocracy. Insofar as people believe in meritocracy and competition, they buy the ‘free schools’ idea; but they also find it scandalous that ‘opportunity’ is denied so many young people once they turn sixteen. The basic problem is that much of the ideological ground-work for neoliberalism has already been done over almost forty years and, despite the resilience of certain collectivist values such as support for the NHS, and despite a sizeable minority contesting even the more popular elements of austerity, the Left is at a clear disadvantage in the ideological terrain.
VII. Thus far, there have been three basic responses to austerity, together forming what the sociologist Charles Tilly would have called a ‘repertoire of contention’: a) trade union action ranging from strikes to national demonstrations; b) radical left party agitation, generally emerging from long-term splits in the social democratic parties; and c) Occupy and ‘indignado’ style direct democracy, movements based on taking over key public spaces in protest against cuts and financial dominance. None of these tactics has been adequate in itself, and in the UK they have been retarded in their development:
a) Trade union struggle in Britain has been too limited and narrow in its goals. For all the ‘red hot autumns’, ‘boiling summers of rage’, ‘winters of discontent’ and even ‘UK springs’ that were predicted, 2011 witnessed a temporary spike in strike activity produced by two large one day actions. The total number of working days lost to strike action then was 1.4m. In comparison, the number of days lost to strike action in the actual winter of discontent was 39m, for two years running. In 2012, the days lost to strike action fell to 250,000, an historic low. Moreover, the way the strikes had been resolved indicated that the union leadership was far more interested in conserving some of the relative advantages enjoyed by their members than leading any kind of broader fightback against austerity. But this dispiriting conclusion wasn’t just the result of a ‘betrayal’ by the bureaucracy. Rather, workers accepted and voted for a bad deal for a number of reasons: accumulated political defeats for the unions, declining density, withering grassroots organisation and bureaucratisation, and the long-term political de-radicalisation of the working class. The majority of the working class is unorganised, and union membership is undergoing a long-term decline. Worst of all, it seems the union leaderships have no strategy for rebuilding their organisations.
b) In the UK, no radical-left party has emerged to enjoy the same sort of success as the Left Bloc, Syriza, or Die Linke. This is not just because of the SWP’s crashing the Respect project once it could no longer control it. It is more fundamentally because there is neither a significant remaining ‘communist’ tradition, as there is in Portugal, Greece or France, and no split in social democracy, as there was in Germany and France. In the continent, the acquiescence of social democracy in neoliberal politics was often a shock to the supporters of these parties, and produced a rebellion in their left-wing. This was the basis for splits led by significant figures of the ‘ilk’ of Jean-Luc Melenchon and Oskar Lafontaine. In the UK, however, the hard defeats of the unions, the militant Left, and even ‘municipal socialism’, meant that Labour could begin swerving to the Right a lot farther, faster. Blair’s neoliberal revolution within the Labour Party was completed before he took office, and those remaining knew what to expect. And while individual policies such as the Private Finance Initiative disappointed and shocked supporters, there was neither an infrastructure nor an underlying ideological basis for a weak Labour Left to split. The closest Britain came to such an experience was as a result of the Iraq war, and even there George Galloway MP had to be pushed out of Labour: he did not want to leave. Left Unity is a positive and necessary initiative. We should support it. But we have to recognise that in doing so we are starting much later than continental equivalents, and with much sparser materials.
c) Just as the anticapitalist movement was far less developed in Britain than in Italy or France, so its Occupy movement was relatively small compared to the US or Spain - notable mainly for its innovative tactics, its experimentation with direct democracy, and its publicity successes. This is not to underestimate the numbers of people, especially young people, available for action against austerity. We have seen Millbank, Sussex, the Lewisham hospital campaign, and mass demonstrations against austerity as well as smaller targeted campaigns such as UK Uncut. But of course, the big struggles have been driven by specific issues and grievances. There are many people who are unhappy with the Tories; but there just aren’t that many anticapitalists. (Indeed, in light of the SWP crisis, we have to estimate that a significant number of UK anticapitalists will have retired from political activity altogether.) Ideally, the small minority of anticapitalists and militants who do exist would be able to coordinate their forces and act within a wider social movement which federated the diverse struggles that are happening. But the problem is that no such social movement presently exists, and until recently all attempts at forming some sort of ‘united front’ as an institutional focus through which such a movement might be galvanised have been sectarian failures - from the National Shop Stewards Network, to Coalition of Resistance, to Unite the Resistance. Currently, the People’s Assembly is an attempt to fill that gap and, insofar as it does so, is a positive development. But it is also problematic in the top-down way in which it is organised. For instance, the national People’s Assembly at the Central Hall in Westminster in June was clearly a large and enthusiastic gathering. It assembled exactly the sort of motley forces that are needed for a fightback. Thanks to a degree of pressure from would-be participants, it was not simply a day of being magnificently bellowed at by lionised leaders: there was a degree of participation and discussion. But it was all organised around a declaration, a ‘draft statement’, that represented ‘the views of all those who initially called for the People’s Assembly’ as to what the organisation should be doing. No other statements were accepted or invited, and no amendments will be discussed until the next national People’s Assembly in 2014. Either this means nothing happens between now and then, or actions are taken on the basis of an agenda agreed by a small, enlightened minority. This sort of top-down approach will necessarily impact on the ability of the People’s Assembly to draw in wider forces and make the kind of impact it needs to.
In hitherto the only case of an outstanding success against austerity, Quebec students used a combination of these tactics to great effect: combining forms of direct democracy on campuses with militancy on the streets, direct actions in support of striking workers, and tactical support for the left party Quebec solidaire in the federal elections. Notably they did so without deference to bureaucracy, or to ‘law and order‘, or to what the bourgeois media would say, or to parliamentarism. They opted for a militant, class-based strategy, and won. Yet the material basis for all this was a tradition of social democratic left-nationalism in Quebec, combined with patterns of grassroots student organising inherited from the ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the Sixties. In the UK, we do not have those advantages. We are starting from a much more backward position, and our strategy as socialists must recognise this.
VIII. As revolutionary socialists, we would like to ‘smash the state’ and say ‘all power to the soviets’. Alas, there are no soviets and the state is more likely to smash us than us it. But we can identify some intelligent mediations:
a) We can be absolutely sure that there will be outbreaks of struggle. These are not necessarily going to appear mainly in the public sector where the labour movement is concentrated. Rather, it is the unorganised, the unemployed, the marginal and the precarious who are experiencing the worst attacks under austerity. People are often experiencing the attacks less in their capacity as workers than as consumers of local services, as tenants, as welfare claimants, and as taxpayers. They are experiencing them disproportionately as black people and women. As a result, the struggles that emerge will be utterly heterogeneous, organised around a variety of political identities, and linked to a range of political issues not directly to do with austerity. Those fighting these struggles are stronger if they are united in a common cause, but it has to be a complex unity: a ‘unity in difference’. We need to help create ‘systems of alliances’, as Gramsci put it, that can connect ‘the 99%’ in their diverse social movements, whether trade unionist, feminist, gay, anti-racist, disabled people’s action, anti-Bedroom Tax campaigners, or anything else. Given the forces currently available to us, we need to argue for the People’s Assembly to be the forum where that unity can be forged - but that can only be done on the basis of authentic grassroots democracy. We should call for People’s Assemblies to be fully democratic, participatory events where policy is worked on and decided by those who are actually engaged in various struggles; rather than events at which nice people sit quietly and get spoken at for an hour and a half. We should call for statements and strategies to be accepted for debate at a national People’s Assembly at the earliest convenience. We should call for groups such as Sussex ‘pop-up‘ unionists, Lewisham hospital campaigners, student activists and others to be represented in any steering committee or leadership body. And within that work, we as socialists need to find and try to cohere the most militant forces who are able to argue for a strategy that is not parliamentarist, not based on deference to leadership, and not bound by ‘law and order’. Of course, those forces will be small and will probably lose most of the time. But the stronger they are, the harder the position of the wider anti-austerity movement can be.
b) We are not parliamentarist, but nor do we dismiss capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracy is a ‘contradictory’ formation, but it is not a fraud. The democratic bodies which exist, from council chambers upward, are feeble at best, but their erosion under neoliberalism does not help our side. This is why, for example, part of our struggle is a defensive one to defend local authority control over education against privatization. But if the analysis above as to the importance of long-term ideological and political ground-work is correct, then electoral work is necessary. It might be different if social democracy was not experiencing a secular decline. If we could always defer to Labourism at the ballot box, if there was a Labour Left that we could work with while casually insulting their reformism, things would be easier. But there isn’t much of a Labour Left (no offence to Owen Jones, but there isn’t). Whatever short-term adaptations Ed Miliband makes - reducing union power here, sidelining some Blairites there - Labourism is ineluctably mutating in an ever more rightward direction, its base is fragmenting, and the major beneficiaries thus far have been the Right. We have to learn from the European Left. The radical left parties of Europe are significant because they maintain a space for anti-neoliberal politics, and even some currents of anticapitalist politics. They give confidence to workers where they are successful, and they occupy a space that other forces, such as the far right, would be quite happy to colonise in their absence. Moreover, they break significant layers of workers away from social democracy to the left, in an era where it is more common for workers to break either to the right or to nothing. Finally, they provide a nourishing milieu in which radicals and revolutionaries inter-mingle, learn from one another, and join one another in new struggles. In the UK, given the balance of forces, we would be fortunate to assemble a radical formation with a broadly ‘left reformist’ politics that was nonetheless hospitable to a significant anticapitalist minority. It could usefully deploy some simple demands that would gain widespread support and threaten significant institutional bases of ruling class power: ‘nationalise the banks’, for example. We ought to be directly involved in helping to build that. Recognising the true state of play, moreover, we would be utterly foolish to try to artificially impose a de facto revolutionary programme, of the sort advocated by the Socialist Platform, on such a formation without the real balance of forces having shifted in that direction.
In the long-term, we need a process of reconstruction-from-below: of unions, and of the left.
c) The labour movement is in parlous state and we are too small to make much difference to that; even if we weren’t, we’d need to make a difference sooner than would be likely. In this sense, speaking of a ‘rank and file‘ strategy today can seem terribly unworldly. There is no rank and file movement today, and the material basis for rank-and-fileism is non-existent. But we have seen unusual forms of organising emerge in the context of austerity. One such is the ‘pop-up union’. In Sussex University, a rebellion by students and non-academic staff against cuts led to pressure for strike action. The three unions on the campus dragged their feet. In response, a ‘pop-up union‘ developed to fight the struggle, and quickly recruited more members than the three established unions combined. It was both a rank and file initiative, and one that involved many previously unorganised workers. The ISN has a perspective of trying to organise the unorganised, and learning and disseminating the skills which make that possible. The ‘pop-up union‘ has shown a clear way in which this can be materialised where struggles kick off. Clearly, it is not a satisfactory long-term alternative to rebuilding a union movement. However, it does offer a means by which workers who are forced to fight and who have little to no experience of trade unions can legally and reasonably safely take industrial action. It is a beginning of a pedagogic and organising process, and if we really expect struggles to break out in surprising ways among unorganised groups, we should try to prepare the ground for our members being able to join in such struggles. The creation of a ‘pop-up’ union requires rank and file initiative, and that entails confidence and even expertise ‘on the ground’. It needs, among other things: i) practical knowledge about union laws and procedures; ii) knowledge of employment law and recourses that workers have available against employers over matters such as pay, breaks and holidays; iii) a general understanding of the extant trade unions, how they work, how one can effectively operate in them, and what their limits are. As a starting point, therefore we should coordinate with other groups - be they trade union militants, autonomists, wobblies or whomever - to host day schools in which this knowledge, and these skills, are shared with as many people as possible. Our ‘rank and file’ perspective should be about contributing, in however small a way, to the long process of reconstruction of rank and file confidence and initiative.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Cybersexism posted by Richard Seymour
Monday, October 07, 2013