Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The #NoMoreAusterity demonstration and the anti-austerity movement

NHS activists from north-east England marching on 21 June
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the generally very positive post-21 June No More Austerity demo aftermath is the appearance of this article offering 'reflections' on the demonstration. It struck me as odd when I first read it. Not because I disagreed with it - although I did - but because there was nothing in it to suggest the author had actually participated in the demonstration.
It occurred to me that there was a huge dislocation between his commentary on the demo and the demo I had actually been part of. Numerous errors indicated that if he had been there he certainly hadn't been paying attention.
So I looked at the author's twitter timeline and, sure enough, he wasn't there. In fact he spent Saturday attending the Sussex Phenomenology conference and watching World Cup football on TV. Is this a 'thing' now? Writing 'reflections' on events you didn't actually attend?
Now it might be considered an insult to the tens of thousands of people who did participate - especially to those of us who spent a great deal of time mobilising for it - for someone who wasn't there to pontificate about what they did wrong, and what they should do differently next time. It is certainly an intriguing stance for a phenomenologist.
Let's turn to the substance, such as it is. The author makes 4 points. I will briefly take them in turn.
1. 'It’s difficult to find anything special about the most recent march,' he claims. In fact the demo was very significant. It was a big, diverse and vibrant demo - with politically radical speeches in the rally - organised by a left-led coalition. It was organised and built independently of the TUC but with good participation from several unions. It was the biggest protest NOT organised primarily by the unions since the student protests in 2010.
It was therefore a serious breakthrough for anyone committed to building an effective broad anti-cuts coalition. It wasn't just a one-off demo, but is part of a process. It reflected the growth of the People's Assembly as a genuinely national movement. Banners included many local PA groups, and those groups put serious work into making it a success. Let's also remember that such mobilisations put pressure on the 'official' bodies, notably the TUC and some union leaderships, to deliver more action, whether demonstrations or strikes.

The involvement of unions like NUT, PCS, Unite and FBU is especially important ahead of the 10 July strikes. It holds out the possibility of the left shaping a more combative movement, with strong connections between trade unions and other social groups.
As for the demo itself, it is obvious from the article that the author wasn't there. The rally at the huge March 2011 TUC national demo was dominated by union general secretaries (and Ed Miliband spoke) but even Tony Benn - then the movement's most high-profile extra-parliamentary figure - wasn't invited on to the platform. Saturday's rally was a world away from that: a great range of campaigners, trade unionists and political figures speaking, with radical and militant speeches dominating.
2. 'Yes the BBC is biased, but ‘media blackout’ is self-indulgent.' The author argues that the BBC did in fact report on the demo and provides a link, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this meagre coverage followed a great many complaints from people who had marched. He also overlooks the fact that anger at BBC non-coverage - on this occasion and on others - is driven by the awareness that it is a public broadcaster funded by the people. It is therefore reasonable for protesters to expect a modicum of coverage. Going on a demonstration and finding that it isn't covered is, for first-time protesters, often something that feeds a more critical view of the media.
The author also argues: 'Unfortunately – and it is unfortunate – there was little about this demonstration or its message to offer anything new or provocative to either journalists or the public.' Anyone who actually participated in the demo is aware of at least one major 'news angle' here: the fact that it previews the likely mass co-ordinated strike action on 10 July.

That is something all the media are interested in and will report. The 10th July isn't mentioned once in the article, which perhaps says something about its author's own indifference to trade union struggle and indeed ignorance about what is actually happening in the anti-cuts movement.
3. 'The message needs to change and demands need to be made.' Here the author is suggesting that alternatives were not put forward in the demo. He wasn't there so he has no idea whether they were or not. I was there and I know that they were.
The People's Assembly links blanket opposition to austerity - see the No Cuts placards, for example - with the articulation of alternative demands. This is a radical stance, at least in relation to the Westminster mainstream, and there were countless examples of demands being made in the speeches on Saturday - from building social housing to implementing a living wage, from investing in green jobs to scrapping Trident in order to fund public services, from dealing properly with tax evasion to ending the erosion of pay, pensions and social security. 

A key theme of the day was opposition to the divide-and-rule scapegoating - of benefit claimants and immigrants - peddled by the main political parties and exploited by Ukip. Shouting back against this scapegoating - and instead targeting the rich - is a vital part of offering an alternative. There is something rather offensive about an online 'commentator' telling the people who are actually building a movement what alternatives they should be advocating, when they are already doing it.

4. 'There is no going back to the welfare state,' we are informed. As anyone on Saturday's demonstration could tell you, we need to mobilise to defend the welfare state we already have. It is under massive assault from this government. That assault is wrong and we are right to defend past gains in relation to the NHS, education, social security and public services.
It is not 'nostalgia' to defend the NHS, insist on a decent social security system, or call for investment to create jobs. It is about confronting the current austerity drive which is having a devastating impact on people's lives, and the fabric of our society, today. The author suggests that the impact of neoliberalism means that such struggles are futile and worthless. Those who marched for an alternative to austerity are right to disagree.
Building the movement
So, to conclude. There are really two issues in all this. One is the whole phenomenon of a layer of people on 'the left' retreating into lazy online commentary instead of contributing actively to the building of a movement. This is something I already find an irritant, but someone going so far as to write an entire piece critiquing something he didn't attend illustrates this phenomenon with brutal clarity.

The author offers no alternative suggestions - for what activists should actually be doing - whatsoever, and there's no evidence of the 'autonomist' milieu (from which he appears to come) providing anything that vaguely resembles an alternative approach. If you disagree with a strategy, stop moaning and instead outline an alternative and implement it in practice.
The second issue is to do with a) the significance of the demo (and the People's Assembly more generally) and b) the question of how we advance the movement. These two things are inextricably combined because the demo indicates a way forward for the movement, especially through building a bigger, (even) more locally-rooted and powerful People's Assembly.

In the coming months our movement will be participating in, and mobilising for, the following: joint strike action on 10 July, the Jarrow-to-Westminster March for the NHS, demonstrations at Nato's summit (30 Aug-5 Sept), Ukip conference (27 Sept) and Tory conference (28 Sept), a massive TUC demo in October, and possibly further national strikes in the autumn.
All of that, even taken together, isn't enough to defeat austerity. But it is what needs to be done in the months ahead, and it can take the movement forward. It can expand the movement and make it more radical and combative.
Everyone has a choice to make. They can either be part of it or they can moan from the sidelines, making ill-informed comments about what's being done already (and talking vaguely about an alternative approach but delivering nothing). It shouldn't be a difficult choice to make.


Sunday, 1 June 2014

Inequality and the working class today

Cartoon: Martin Rowson
Today I spoke at the Dangerous Times festival in London alongside Selina Todd, author of ‘The People: the rise and fall of the working class’. This article is based on the talk I gave.

There is a strange paradox in contemporary politics. On the one hand inequality has grown over the last three decades or so, with spiralling wealth for the very richest in stark contrast to the reality of unemployment, food banks, zero hour contracts, insecurity and low pay for millions of people.
On the other hand the subject of class is deeply unfashionable in mainstream politics and media, the working class rarely referred to in anything other than the past tense. Class is often seen as no longer relevant – a throwback to a lost era – but even when the concept is applied to contemporary society it is to suggest a declining or disappearing working class, perhaps replaced by a division between a burgeoning middle class and a smaller underclass.

Social conditions cry out for class analysis, therefore, yet politicians deny the existence of a working class and instead talk of a ‘squeezed middle’, the media demonise the poor, and academics and researchers of every stripe search for alternative categories to those of traditional class-based analysis. The Occupy movement skilfully drew attention to the chasm between the rich and the rest, with popular slogans juxtaposing the 1% to 99%, yet an awareness of growing inequality has not been matched by an understanding of how class relationships continue to shape society.

Still less is there any discussion of class struggle, of the clash between classes, despite the massive inequality being a consequence of a largely successful ruling class offensive against the working class for the last 35 years. After decades of either defeats for the organised working class or low levels of workplace resistance, the notion of class struggle by the working class is derided as an irrelevant throwback to the 1970s – while class struggle by the rich and powerful is treated as entirely natural and in the ‘national interest’.

The rich and the rest

The Sunday Times’ annual Rich List – begun in the Thatcher era as a celebration of apparent prosperity, but now an index of truly obscene levels of wealth – indicates that there are now 104 billionaires in the UK. 72 of them live in London – more than any other city in the world.

In 1979 the top 1% took 6% of the national income, but now it takes 14%. In 2012 the 100 top chief executives were awarded £425 million between them. This is at the same time as the majority experience a squeeze on living standards, shaped by a period of economic crisis since 2008 and the current government’s project of austerity since 2010. A long-term process of neoliberalism, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, has been further accentuated by austerity policies that in the long term will impact disproportionately on the poorer sections of society.

Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed book ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ has focused attention on neoliberal capitalism’s trend of growing inequality, predicting a continuation of the trend. In ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated the disastrous social and human effects of inequality, showing that the most unequal societies are those with the most severe social problems, for example mental illness. Yet most people are actually quite unaware of how profoundly unequal our society is: surveys have shown a strong tendency to underestimate how massive the gulf is between the rich and the rest.

The growth in inequality is no accident, but a consequence of political choices imposed on us through an assertive ruling class offensive designed to increasingly concentrate wealth and power among those who already possess lots of those very things.
This has been accompanied by an ideological struggle to marginalise and ridicule the very concept of class - and certainly the concept of a working class and of class struggle between the classes. The working class is tied, in many mainstream accounts, to particular workplaces or groups of workers – miners, factory workers, shipyard workers, etc – which have suffered sharp decline. It is frequently , in such accounts, limited exclusively to manual work.

Class: myth and reality

A common myth is that of a growing, and affluent (if now somewhat squeezed), middle class, with a smaller underclass, or rump working class, left behind. This underclass may be feral and feared or it may be weak and pitied; it may consist of ‘scroungers’ or the deserving poor. But it is invariably characterised as a minority and as something quite distinct from any traditional notion of the working class. Channel 4’s controversial ‘Benefits Street’ captures the stigmatisation of the modern poor, who are increasingly blamed for their own predicament and viewed as separate from the vast majority of society.

The truth about class remains the same as it has long been: it is a social relationship based on power. The working class consists of those who have to work in exchange for pay, subordinate to the power of employers (private or public), dependent on their own labour to survive. 
Class is about exploitation – the exploitation of the vast majority by a tiny, wealthy and powerful elite. Workers under capitalism are inherently exploited. Class is not a matter of lifestyle or identity; it is not limited to particular occupations or types of work.

Globally the working class has in fact got bigger and bigger, a process of class formation closely connected to urbanisation. In this country there continues to be little social mobility, with class background largely determining a whole set of experiences and outcomes for people. For all the academic, media or political attempts to reconceptualise thinking about class – from the ‘multitude’ to the ‘squeezed middle’ to the ‘precariat’ – the reality of a working class, constituted of the great majority of people, is unmistakeable.

This is not to say that nothing has changed. The economy has changed and the composition of the working class has changed with it. As well as the decline of some sectors and the growth of others, we can note the centrality of women workers to the economy more than ever before, the role of migrant workers, and the spread of casualization and precarity. In the last few years there has been a marked deterioration in pay and conditions for many groups of workers, with unemployment or the threat of unemployment often used as a method for disciplining those in work.

It is sometimes suggested that the working class has declined because working class identity and consciousness have largely disappeared. The reality is more complex. In fact surveys suggest large numbers of people still identifying themselves as working class, however unfashionable and supposedly irrelevant and outmoded this might be. And working class consciousness has always been mixed and contradictory, a constant tussle between identifying as part of a social collective and conservative ideas like racism and nationalism.

Class struggle

In the current context, the left urgently needs to reinstate class to political discourse and to articulate a set of class-based arguments, slogans and demands. We need to express powerful, class-based arguments against austerity. We face a government in thrall to bankers and the City of London, headed by a cabinet of millionaires led by an Old Etonian, reeking of privilege and the arrogance of those ‘born to rule’. The Tories and their media relentlessly stigmatise and attack those who require social security to keep their head above water, while allowing tax dodgers to evade serious scrutiny, ripping us off to the tune of tens of billions of pounds.

Trade unions have suffered a historic decline: shackled by anti-union laws, demoralised by defeats in the 1980s, weakened by successive periods of unemployment and the decline of old industries, shaped by a long period of low levels of strike action. Yet they retain millions of members and a capacity for action; we have had glimpses of the potential in mass mobilisations on street protests and in national strikes, sometimes co-ordinated across unions, in response to cuts.
The more far-sighted union leaders and activists realise that ‘social movement unionism’ – forging links with communities and campaigning groups, fighting over a range of political issues, using protests and campaigning methods alongside strike action -  while striving to recruit to the unions and develop new layers of activists can reinvigorate the movement. A number of disputes have indicated that groups previously unorganised, or viewed as precarious, can be active in trade union struggle.

At the same time, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity illustrates the scope for co-ordination and coalition-building to oppose cuts, while creating a space for left-wing renewal. A new class-based politics, reflecting and involving the contemporary working class in its diversity, can be developed through renewing the trade unions, building a more powerful People’s Assembly movement, and shaping a new left that is rooted in the various struggles and movements of the class.



Saturday, 24 May 2014

Dangerous Times festival - a weekend of subversive ideas

I will be at the Dangerous Times festival in London next weekend. Speakers at the political festival, organised primarily by Counterfire and now in its third year, will include Carole Duggan (justice campaigner and aunt of Mark Duggan), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lindsey German, Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright and Tariq Ali.

Also speaking will be Tansy Hoskins (author of 'Stitched Up: the anti-capitalist book of fashion'), playwright David Edgar, radical historian Louise Raw, Left Unity national secretary Kate Hudson and feminist blogger Jess McCabe.

Dangerous Times takes place at an excellent venue, the Rich Mix centre in east London, over two days. The timetable ranges from a political undressing of the fashion industry to the resistible rise of Ukip. Danielle Obono is coming from France and Boris Kagarlitsky is visiting from Russia; Kagarlitsky should be fascinating on what's happening in Ukraine. 

Panel discussions include 'Feminism yesterday and today', 'iRevolt: social movements and social media' and 'Brazil 2014: the end of the beautiful game?' A session on trade unions and the anti-cuts movement will discuss how the forthcoming No More Austerity demonstration can become a launchpad for sustained resistance to cuts.

There are talks by James Meadway, senior economist at new economics foundations, on prospects for the British economy, Sylvia Pankhurst biographer Kate Connelly on the women who campaigned against World War One, and Dave Randall providing a brief people's history of music. Meadway will also be joined by fellow nef researcher Faiza Shaheen to discuss the topic 'London v the rest: regions, inequality and resistance'.

There will be a number of special sessions linked to newly-published books, including Chris Bambery's 'The Second World War: a Marxist history', John Rees introducing his reissued 'The ABC of Socialism', Owen Jones previewing his forthcoming book on the British establishment, and a discussion of Selina Todd's acclaimed 'The People: the rise and fall of the working class' for which I will be joining the author on the platform.

There will be discussion forums on the future of the left, women and austerity, organising in precarious Britain, and the police, power and racism. There is also some comedy, spoken word and film alongside the talks, debates and discussions, including Jeremy Hardy performing on Saturday night.

Check out the Dangerous Times website, have a look at the full timetable, and register your place at the event.


Sunday, 18 May 2014

Registering Class: neoliberalism and the working class

Chicago teachers strike back
This was written for the Counterfire website.

This year’s Socialist Register, marking fifty years of the intellectual journal, is about class. Part One of this review essay focused on two contributions to Registering Class that concern the nature and composition of today’s ruling class. This is Part Two of the review. Here I examine a number of essays which look at the working class: its changing composition and conditions, its forms of organisation, and debates about such issues as whether there is now a distinct ‘precariat’.

Precariousness as proletarianization

Bryan D. Palmer’s ‘Reconsiderations of class: precariousness as proletarianization’ is a highly effective rebuttal of claims, by Guy Standing and others, that there is now a distinct precariat which has increasingly come to supplant an older proletariat. However, this is not achieved by downplaying the tendencies to precarity and insecurity in neoliberal capitalism. These are acknowledged by Palmer as all-too-real. Rather, these tendencies are viewed as an integral part of an ongoing process in the composition of the working class, which is never static but always evolving and being re-made.

Palmer demonstrates that precarity has in fact historically been a core component of the making and re-making of the working class, not a novel or distinctive phenomenon, and is indeed one of the things that has defined and characterised what it means to be proletarian for two centuries. In the age of neoliberal capitalism this is a more global phenomenon than ever, and in the advanced capitalist countries there are neoliberal stresses and strains that mean a revival of those features, broadly termed precarity, associated with an earlier phase of capitalist development. The job security (‘a job for life’) and full employment of post-war Britain, as in most other major capitalist countries during the same period, was more the exception than the rule in capitalist society.

Since the mid-1970s the return of capitalist crisis, and the neoliberal offensive, has restructured the economy and recomposed the working class. Palmer writes that the consequences in the advanced West are ‘declining material standards of the working class as a whole; the domestication of a once combative trade unionism to a machinery of concession bargaining; a generation of young workers robbed of a sense of class place, its future marked by insecurity, with employment prospects understood to be precarious’ (p.41).

Precariousness is a global phenomenon. One point four billion workers are ‘totally dependent on waged labour for their subsistence’ but the International Labour Organization designates a larger number – 1.7 billion people – as ‘vulnerably employed’ (p.42). That is today’s global army of reserve labour. It is, as Palmer argues, part of the proletariat, not separate from it.

Palmer interrogates the fashionable arguments of Guy Standing, the latest commentator to posit an alternative force for social change to the working class. The precariat, asserts Standing, has ‘a distinctive bundle of insecurities and will have an equally distinctive set of demands’ (p.42). This separate youth-led precariat – the ‘new dangerous class’ – will be responsible for the social struggles of the coming age. Palmer responds that ‘the end result of being drawn into this ideology will be to fragment the potential power of an amalgamation of the dispossessed by hiving off a sector of this class from all other components with whom this contingent might ally, thereby weakening the forces of anti-capitalism’ (p.44).

Palmer traces the theorisation of a new ‘precariat’ as emerging from the postmodernism of the 1980s and beyond, which revelled in the fragmented and the marginal, repudiating any attempts to either understand the world as a totality or to change it through collective class struggle. He also restores a sense of broad historical perspective by reminding us that precarity has historically been a core feature of working-class experience. It is not the basis for some new class formation, but part of what characterises the current working class as a whole, after forty years of recurring capitalist crises and neoliberal policies, and as the working class expands globally along with capitalism.

The working class of western Europe was originally formed out of dispossession and characterised by insecurity of work. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was ‘a torrential river of class formation, fed by underground currents of enclosures, wars, technological displacements of handicraft labours and other forces of expropriation and displacement’ (p.47). This is the huge historical process charted by the great Marxist historian EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Thompson’s writings, including The Making of the English Working Class, provide a key reference point in the penultimate essay in the volume, ‘Rethinking class: the lineage of Socialist Register’, in which Madeleine Davis traces Socialist Register’s theorising about class over half a century. Thompson’s masterpiece is still a touchstone for understanding the emergence of capitalism and the working class in this country, but it is also an exemplar of a way of conceptualising class formation as a contested and active process; an approach that has previously been a subject of debate in the journal’s pages, stretching back to the 1960s.

Palmer observes: ‘Class has always embodied differentiation, insecurity and precariousness’ (p.49). Thompson argued that, however stratified and differentiated the resulting working class might have been, it was nonetheless a single class with an identity of interests and the capacity to be, in Marx’s phrase, the gravedigger of capitalism. In analysing today’s working class (and its prospects for resistance and self-emancipation), it is necessary to understand its diversity and breadth: much of it, especially when we take a global perspective, is vulnerably employed, not in secure, full-time employment.

What about the prospects for class struggle and organisation in a stratified working class characterised by fragmentation and insecurity? Palmer cites what Engels wrote about the New Unionism in east London, around 1889-90, to indicate the potential for working-class layers once dismissed as precarious and unorganisable to become a collective social force. In a new 1892 Preface to his classic The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels wrote of London’s East End:

‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool of misery that it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism” … that is to say the great mass of “unskilled” workers’ (p.54)

At times in history it has been unskilled, precarious or unorganised workers who have taken the lead in struggle; or even, as with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 1930s, the out-of-work. It may well be so again. Palmer concludes by stating that ‘it is indeed class struggle – rooted in expropriation and forged in the increasingly agitated crises of capitalism – that remains the ultimate basis for changing the world through a transformative politics’ (p.57).

Unions and the city

In many countries (nowhere more than in the US, but to a great extent in the UK too) trade unions have been severely weakened by over three decades of neoliberal offensive. Two essays in Registering Class engage with the question of how working-class organisation can be reconstituted in the wake of the largely successful neo-liberal counter-revolution. One of these, by Ian Macdonald, concerns efforts at union building in the US. The other, by Andrew Murray, examines Britain, not just for the prospects for trade union organisation but for the Left and, in the widest sense, the movement.

Macdonald’s essay is called ‘Beyond the labour of Sisyphus: unions and the city’. Intriguingly, Murray also deploys the Sisyphus analogy, which reminds us of the reversible nature of trade-union victories and the limits of union organisation. Macdonald’s concern is with labour organisation renewal in the United States, a country with private-sector union density at the shockingly low level of 6.9%.

Macdonald’s starting point is the nature of the resistance that already takes place:

‘A great many of the social struggles we see today – and are sure to see more of in the future – do not arise from the workplace or from the wage relation narrowly conceived. They are sparked by the destruction of a park, a rise in transit fares, racist policing strategies, and the dismantling of public education’ (p.247).

I take this to be a global observation as well as one that applies to the US – his four examples of triggers for revolt might be linked, in the last few years, to particular cases in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, London and Chicago respectively.

This is nothing new. It was Rosa Luxemburg, in The Mass Strike (1906), who first cited the labours of Sisyphus as trade union metaphor. A key theme of her classic text was the fusing of political and economic issues in workers’ struggles. She noted that positive reforms won by trade-union struggles had often been counter-balanced by setbacks in spheres of working-class experience beyond the sectional focus of the unions. She bemoaned how ‘the simultaneous and immense reduction of the proletarian standard of life by land usury, by the whole tax and customs policy, by landlord rapacity which has increased house rents to such an exorbitant extent, in short, by all the objective tendencies of bourgeois policy which have largely neutralised the advantages of the fifteen years of trade-union struggle’ (p.248).

Luxemburg was commenting on a time of frequent trade-union victories. We now live in an age characterised by a sustained ruling-class offensive in the world of work, and of weak trade unions, as well as the kind of ‘bourgeois policy’ Luxemburg refers to in other aspects of working-class life. Macdonald urges a broad social and political trade unionism as the means to rebuild union power:

‘In order to shift the struggle from the economic to the political level – and to be at the political level – unions must mobilize their members and the broader working class around issues that link demands from the workplace to the nature of what is being produced and to social reproduction’ (p.249).

A political trade unionism is especially suited to a context characterised by weakness at the level of individual workplaces, and a lack of confidence among workers to take strike action. It can go a long way to compensating for such weaknesses and, in the process, begin to rebuild workplace confidence. In Britain it is worth recalling that the powerful and combative unions of the 1970s had been built on the back of full employment, boom conditions and sectional union strength in the post-war period. These conditions no longer apply, so the shape of trade unions is very different. A fresh strategy for trade-union renewal is needed.

Macdonald comments on community struggles over issues like social housing and public education, for example in Chicago, where there has been a neoliberal agenda of entrenching class and racial divisions and privileges. In Chicago it has been overwhelmingly schools attended almost entirely by African Americans that have been subjected to closure or ‘consolidation’. Urban space is often a battleground: ‘State-led gentrification constantly redistributes wealth upwards and expels workers outwards, only to then selectively reintegrate them ‘depending on the needs of production and consumption’ (p.252). Macdonald points out a number of campaigns, from Occupy Wall Street to Stop School Closings that address such issues as these, remarking that this is ‘where the real movement is’: in militant community campaigns, sometimes involving the occupation of public space, over day care, housing, libraries and education programmes.

Trade unions can play a part in these struggles, though they often do not. Such participation requires grasping that the issues affecting working-class people, including union members, are often outside the workplace. Unions are more effective when building coalitions and taking action in communities, and such campaigns outside the workplaces are frequently more fertile territory than inside the workplaces, precisely because of problems of low union density, insecurity of working conditions and a lack of recent militant traditions among workers. Trade unions can play a substantial role because, notwithstanding low density, they are still sizeable organisations with membership and finance, and they are organised.

Two concrete examples, noted by Macdonald, are worth mentioning here. Chicago teachers in 2012 had a successful city-wide strike, which rested upon building coalitions against school closures with parents, and on articulating a set of political arguments around class, race and inequality. Teachers and their allies repeatedly took to the streets as well as taking strike action. I am active in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in Britain and I am aware that the Chicago example is a source of inspiration for some left activists in my union. The other example, again a source of inspiration for some socialist activists here, is that of fast-food workers’ unionisation campaigns in many American cities. These campaigns have involved community organising and street actions, feeding into greater workplace organisation.

Macdonald remarks that the unions are at their most successful and relevant when they assume ‘the mantle of popular tribune’. He concludes with these words:

‘The memberships of urban-based unions do not respect a separation between workplace and social needs when they look to union staff for help with landlords, accessing public assistance or any number of personal or family crises. The most active and conscious layers of the union membership do not respect these separations when they choose to direct their political activism as workers towards community struggles, rather than union politics. A labour left can be rebuilt by drawing these elements behind a clear strategic vision’ (p.261).

The future of the British labour movement

Andrew Murray’s essay, ‘Left unity or class unity? Working class politics in Britain’, is particularly excellent and, certainly from a British perspective, an invaluable part of the volume. An earlier version of it caused some considerable online debate and controversy due to its polemical critique of the nascent Left Unity organisational project. Although I share most of Murray’s criticisms of Left Unity, this is not in fact the most important feature of his essay.

Murray is justifiably gloomy about electoral politics for the British left, noting that ‘the post-Blair/Brown Labour Party is taking only the most timorous steps away from its luridly neoliberal past’ while ‘the left-of-Labour scene is a wilderness of wrecked or aborted initiatives’ (p.266). The medium-term alternative, in Murray’s view, is a focus on developing broad unity on major political and social issues, especially opposition to austerity. This is the ‘class unity’ he refers to in his title: essentially a project of re-building the trade unions, but on a rather different model to previous eras, and linking that project to the power of social movements.

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity – broad, combative and backed by major unions - is a signal case here. Indeed both the People’s Assembly and Unite Community, a major initiative by the union in which Murray is a senior national official, can be regarded as efforts to broaden the social and political reach of unions and link them to community campaigns, as advocated by Macdonald in the American context, in the process reinvigorating workers’ struggles and developing a stronger left labour (with a small ‘l’) politics.

Murray observes that on-going disenchantment with Labour co-exists with the Labour Party’s continuing domination of left-wing space in electoral politics: ‘Electorally, the space to the left of Labour is filled by … the Labour Party. That is, many people whose views are to the left of the Labour leadership still vote for the Labour Party’ (p.269).

A number of further factors militate against the growth of effective left-of-Labour electoral vehicles: the first-past-the-post system for many elections, which is hostile to smaller parties; the continuing allegiance of many trade unions to Labour (including Unite); the divisions on the Left among a range of competing initiatives; and, perhaps most importantly, the difficulties of mounting a challenge to Labour this side of the 2015 general election. As the official Opposition, Labour is a repository for anti-austerity sentiment, however feeble its own policies may be. Of course some of these conditions will change after the next election – and I think Murray may somewhat under-estimate this – but the essay is undoubtedly correct in its extremely sober assessment of the current prospects for ‘left unity’ in electoral politics.

The weight of Labourism in the British movement means that socialists outside Labour must, if they are to build a successful anti-cuts movement, work with the more left-wing elements of Labour and appeal to many of the party’s members and supporters. The other vital constituency for any anti-cuts movement is the trade unions: Murray acknowledges the profound long-term decay in union strength, but also highlights their continuing potential as mass organisations of the working class with around seven million members between them.

The unions’ response to austerity has been uneven and ultimately inadequate, but they have still provided the bulk of numbers for mass mobilisations like the huge national demonstrations in March 2011 and October 2012, and the co-ordinated national strikes of 2011 indicated of what they are capable.

Murray was Chair of the Stop the War Coalition for a decade and he, with much justification, draws on the record of the anti-war movement to suggest how the left can make itself relevant, and be renewed, through a focus on building a mass movement. He contrasts a Left which has been passive and abstentionist in response to a far-reaching economic crisis, and subsequently the imposition of austerity, with those elements of the Left that have proved non-sectarian and outward-looking, dedicated to broad unity and the reconstitution of a broad left-wing culture through meaningful joint activity. The experience of Stop the War suggests that the left can indeed play a dynamic leading role – politically, strategically, and organisationally – in a mass movement.

Murray regrets the marginalisation of the Left: the separation between most of the existing Left and ‘the working class it seeks to speak for’. He argues: ‘What left politics today lacks is that union of socialism with the mass movement which can be the only real foundation of social transformation’ (p.279). The People’s Assembly is one part of the solution; re-building the trade unions on a ‘social movement’ model, reflecting the working class as it really is, with a broad campaigning reach beyond the workplaces, is the other vital ingredient. He writes:

‘Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of the working class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, needs to be seen as the main task for socialists to address’ (p.280).

This question of working-class agency is a minor theme of the volume and could perhaps have been given greater prominence, although it may be developed in next year’s volume, but Murray provides a stimulating starting point by insisting that discussion of agency must be shaped by analysis of developments in the economy and the recomposition of the working class under the impact of neoliberalism. In mainstream political and academic discourses class remains unfashionable, but class struggle is positively taboo.

The potential, and the challenge, for the working class to become a serious collective actor in shaping the next stage of history seems an appropriate note on which to end. If class, however much the classes may be re-structured, remains as relevant as ever, as demonstrated by many of this volume’s essays, then class struggle, too, must remain a live subject.


Friday, 25 April 2014

Registering Class: neoliberalism and the ruling class

This is part 1 of my 2-part review of 'Registering Class'. It is re-posted from Counterfire.

This year’s Socialist Register, marking fifty years of the intellectual journal, is about class. Overall its mission is to restate the relevance of class – in an intellectual and political climate that rejects class as reductionist, antiquated or irrelevant – and to creatively apply class analysis to contemporary reality.

It is a big, ambitious project. This is the first half, and the second half will follow in the form of the 2015 Socialist Register (every issue since the mid-1980s has been themed, but it is unusual for a topic to be deemed so monumental that it has to be spread over two annual volumes).

The fourteen essays in this volume consider class structure, class consciousness and class struggle; some focus particularly on the contemporary ruling class, others on changes in the composition of the working class, but there is a sense of class relationships running throughout the volume. A key strength is the close attention to developments in class composition, with a sharp sense in many contributions of both the continuities and the changes. The majority of the essays are by US, Canadian and British-based academics.

The whole topic of class is seen as not merely an objective set of economic and social conditions, but as a question of agency and action. How today’s ruling classes effectively impose their will, in the wake of an economic crisis that has shaken their legitimacy, is an important consideration, but so is the deeply unfashionable topic of working-class agency and organisation. As with last year’s volume, The Question of Strategy, Registering Class is shaped by the post-2008 crisis of capitalism and the intellectual and political challenges it has posed.

It can serve as a useful framework for discussing the forces that shape prospects for class struggle in an era of crisis; it is therefore a theoretical resource for those who want, after over thirty years of ruling-class neoliberal offensive, to change the balance of class forces in favour of the working class.

Almost all the essays are, in my view, stimulating and insightful, but I will focus, over two instalments, on five of these contributions which I find particularly fruitful for both grasping the changes in class structure and struggle, and providing guidance for the way ahead. These cover a wide territory and also serve as broadly representative of the volume as a whole, though with something of a North Atlantic bias in the selection (the volume also includes two extremely interesting essays on Brazil).

This article (Part One of this review essay) focuses on two contributions to Registering Class that concern the nature and composition of today’s ruling class. Part Two of this review, to follow next week, examines a number of essays which look at the working class: its changing composition and conditions, its forms of organisation, and debates about such issues as whether there is now a distinct ‘precariat’.

The European capitalist class

Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn’s essay, ‘The European capitalist class and the crisis of its hegemonic project’, starts by noting that, more than anywhere else, Europe has in recent decades experienced a process of ‘transnational capitalist class formation’. A set of institutions and primarily economic relationships has strengthened links between ruling and business elites in different countries. This does not mean that national boundaries no longer matter, but at the highest levels of transnational corporations there has been a development of closer relationships across borders, with more powerful transnational bodies. These elements in European ruling classes have been instrumental in driving through neoliberalism.

Van Apeldoorn argues that in Western Europe there is now ‘a transnational capitalist class – consisting of those who own and control Europe’s largest transnational corporations (TNCs) – that takes the European region as its primary frame of reference and organizes itself to influence the (socio-economic) governance of that region, in particular through the institutions of the European Union (EU)’ (p.190).

I think it is necessary to be careful here. What Van Apeldoorn describes is certainly a core section of the ruling classes of Western Europe, increasingly integrated through the EU, but is far from being the sum total of the ruling classes, which are differentiated and still retain a strong national character.

Nevertheless, the account of this section of Europe’s ruling classes is perceptive and useful, tracing its emergence and growth in influence during the neoliberal era. Leading TNCs have liaised together in order to make European capitalism competitive in relation to US and Japanese firms, and to bend European governments’ policy-making to their interests.

Van Apeldoorn describes this elite group as ‘in the vanguard of the European capitalist class, providing it with internal cohesion, arbitrating rival outlooks and welding them into a coherent project and long-term strategy to advance the general interests of European transnational capital’ (p.191). They have organised themselves in the little-known but influential European Round Table of Industrialists, formed in 1983 and today consisting of around 45 CEOs and chairmen of major corporations centred mainly in the ‘core’ western European states. EU institutions and policies have been the primary focus of this group’s attentions.

This elite group has largely fused the interests of industrial capital and finance capital, with access to global financial markets having ‘increasingly become essential to the globalizing strategies of industrial TNCs’ (p.193). This element of the ruling class has long been in the forefront of establishing neoliberal hegemony in Europe; a largely successful, if uneven, project. Since the Eurozone crisis developed it has played its part in encouraging the entrenchment of divisions between the stronger core states (notably Germany) and the ‘periphery’ countries of southern Europe like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Van Apeldoorn is aware, however, that there is no entirely cohesive capitalist bloc at the European level, even specifically among the TNC elites. He writes:

‘Even though transnational capitalists have more in common with each other than with their more domestically oriented compatriots, they do not form a fully homogenous group either; the capitalist class generally remains potentially divided along structural lines’ (p.199).

Europe’s ruling classes face serious problems. The whole neoliberal, finance-led accumulation strategy has run aground. There are profound imbalances within the Eurozone. Austerity policies have accentuated some of the problems by cutting demand. Democracy has been further hollowed out, as people have been faced with policies seemingly handed down from distant, anonymous and unaccountable institutions. The state has consequently become more coercive and authoritarian.

Political elites, in this context, pander to widespread insecurity and fear, fostering Islamophobia, nationalism and the scapegoating of immigrants. But this encourages the growth, in many European countries, of populist right-wing and far-right forces which are deeply hostile to the whole European integration project, or in some cases a sort of cynical anti-politics (these are sometimes, but not always, the same thing). The working class, meanwhile, bears the brunt of austerity. In this wider context of European neoliberalism, Britain has, since Thatcher, been firmly in the vanguard. Since the crisis of 2008 it has been among the most dedicated champions of austerity. It is the British situation to which we now turn.

Britain: neoliberalism and crisis

Colin Leys writes specifically about the British ruling class. This is no general or abstract summary of what is meant by a ruling class, but a concrete examination of the distinctive features of today’s British ruling class. Leys writes about its close relationship, and elements of crossover, with a wider European ruling class, but nonetheless insists it is possible to discuss a particular national ruling class. It is differentiated in that some elements have an international outlook and are concerned with global markets (exemplified by the ruling-class elements discussed by Van Apeldoorn), while other elements possess a more nationalist outlook.

This class has, like any ruling class, a tiny core and a somewhat larger periphery which is connected to the core. Leys suggests that between one million and two million people can be regarded as part of this ruling class, so even when broadly defined it is a tiny minority of the population. It has, as a whole, enriched itself throughout the neoliberal period, and its own wealth has remained untouched by the economic crisis.

Leys begins by observing that the British ruling class faces the same basic problem as many other ruling classes: how to ‘resolve the tension between the requirements of global capital and the interests of the population whose votes they need to stay in power’ (p.108). The unelected business chiefs require, after all, a stable elected political wing of the ruling class with a degree of democratic and popular legitimacy.

This dilemma is especially pertinent in Britain because the country is more than usually vulnerable to two kinds of external pressure. US pressure as a result of having since 1945 been effectively a sub-imperial protectorate of America. Secondly, vulnerability to the fluctuations of the global financial markets because the City of London is the world’s leading financial centre: 2010 figures indicated that ‘London handled 18% of the world’s interbank activity, 37% of foreign exchange turnover and 46% of interests rate derivatives turnover’ (p.131).

Leys comments on the intersection between British finance capital and the global economy that:
‘Many British capitalists, and certainly the country’s 2000-plus multi-millionaires and all the shareholders in UK-based transnational companies, own capital in other countries. Conversely, a large part of the capital invested in Britain is owned by foreigners’ (p.109).

Neoliberal policymaking is encouraged – to say the least – by corporate lobbying and threats, credit-rating agencies and international institutions like the IMF, WTO and EU. The British political elite has found it increasingly difficult to retain popular legitimacy as well as enforce corporate and finance-capital interests.

There is, too, a distinctive problem for the British ruling class is the shape of underlying weaknesses in the economy. Manufacturing was massively eroded in the 1980s, while the economy became increasingly dependent on the financial sector. During the 1990s and up to 2008, gross domestic product (GDP) rose significantly, although a rise in inequality meant the benefits were, to put it politely, unevenly distributed. The rise in working-class living standards had much to do with tax credits, a steep increase in household debt and a growth in the number of women working full-time.

In 2008 a banking collapse, with terrible consequences for the economy as a whole, was only averted through massive bank bailouts: ‘the rescue was to be paid for by the British working class in the form of unemployment and the loss of social services and social security’ (p.111). One effect of austerity has been falling consumption, ensuring that the economy flatlines, and the deficit grows. The financial sector has remained unregulated and unreformed, while any serious action on tax evasion, or any other measures to make the rich pay for the crisis, has been emphatically ruled out.

The British ruling class and the power of finance

At a general level Leys defines the ruling class by citing Marx’s point that the class which owns and controls the means of production is also the ruling class politically. This ruling class is not limited to the owners of capital themselves, but includes ‘the monarchy and its functionaries, the judiciary, the police, the military, the security services, the established church hierarchy, the senior civil service, senior doctors and lawyers, etc’ (p.116). Senior figures in such state institutions as police, military and civil service are an integral part of the ruling class, which requires a strong national state that has the appearance of ‘neutrality’, of embodying the ‘national interest’ and hovering above rival class interests, while in fact reflecting and enforcing class rule.

This ruling class has a strong sense of class solidarity and class consciousness, reinforced by ‘public schools’ (i.e. the elite private schools), Oxbridge colleges, gentlemen’s clubs, elite sports (shooting, polo, horse racing etc) and so on. It is geographically concentrated mainly in London – or particular, highly exclusive, parts of it - with strong social ties between its different elements. Leys writes:

‘To be accepted [in the ruling class] you must be seen to be committed to the ruling class’s interests and values, and the indicators of commitment are, precisely, connections, established through private schools, clubs, marriage, social links and spending patterns’ (p.117).

The core of this ruling class is unimaginably rich:

‘in 2013 the thousand richest people in Britain between them owned assets worth £450 billion. In 2012 there were 6,015 High Net Worth Individuals – for which the criterion is having at least 30 million dollars – living in London. These people are the super-rich. A high proportion of them are foreign-born: in 2012-13 foreigners, led by the Russians, bought over half of London’s properties costing more than £2 million’ (p.118).

Leys quotes a Spectator article from 2012:

‘London has effectively left the UK; it belongs instead to a loose international federation of global cities united by their economic dynamism and cosmopolitanism and the people who flit between them … The politicians, civil servants and journalists who make up Britain’s governing class have had their world view shaped by living in the capital in its wealthy satellites. They run the country, but effectively live in another’ (p.118).

This refers to the London (and parts of the commuter-belt home counties) inhabited by a tiny minority of the population, not the working-class London in which millions live. It also evades the question of London’s economic relationship with the wider UK. Nonetheless, it is a perceptive point which highlights the London ruling class’s inter-relationship with  global capital and its distance from the mass of British people, a source of a whole set of tensions.

Extremely conspicuous consumption is an important marker of social status and belonging (to the ruling class) for this elite. The Financial Times caters to this with its weekly ‘How to Spend It’ supplement, which contains almost nothing that could be regarded as affordable to most people. Education is another vital means of establishing ruling-class belonging, and furthering its solidarity of interests, with astronomical fees for the elite private schools.

The City of London, despite being more global than British, is lodged firmly in the heart of government. There are tight ties binding many leading Tory politicians and representatives of the financial elite. In a grotesque mockery of democracy, the City even has a permanent official in the House of Commons – the ‘Remembrancer’ – who has a staff of fifty people scrutinising all parliamentary business and lobbying MPs and government on behalf of the financial sector.

The financial lobby has of course influenced Westminster policy-making for many years, in particular by supporting a regressive tax policy and blocking any moves towards tax reform, or closing loopholes that allow massive tax evasion and avoidance. Donors from this section of the ruling class provide the Tory Party with a high proportion of its funding; it is fair to describe the current Cabinet as a bankers’ government.

Leys concludes his discussion of the City of London and its part in the British ruling class by commenting on the uncritical political acceptance of the City’s elite interests:

‘The class solidarity felt between the leaders of parties and the leaders of the City, reinforced by an inherited class culture of tradition and deference, tends to make any public questioning of the terms seem like vulgar bad manners. The problem of rule then becomes to a significant extent one of how to win elections while imposing on the electorate policies the City needs to maintain its position in the global economy’ (p.126).


Friday, 18 April 2014

Westminster's broken politics and the radical case for Scottish independence

Independence dominates, as you might expect, the Scottish political landscape. The referendum this September is potentially of huge consequence. It could break up the British state and establish an independent Scotland, opening up a new set of possibilities for Scottish politics but also impacting on politics south of the border.
Even if the 'Better Together' campaign (pro-Union alliance of Tories, Labour and Lib Dems) maintains its polling lead right up election day, the referendum has already framed just about all political debate in Scotland. This will continue to reverberate for years to come.

One consequence of the referendum campaign has been increased space for discussion of political directions and alternatives. While the official Yes Scotland campaign – with an agenda dictated by the Scottish National Party, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond - has tended to be moderate, and the mainstream debate has been shaped by the No camp’s scaremongering, there has been an opening up of the possibilities. Unsurprisingly, there is a marked increase in political engagement by many ordinary Scots.
Radical Independence Campaign
The left-wing case for independence has been articulated by a number of forces, most notably the grassroots Radical Independence Campaign which has breathed new life into the Scottish left. It has forged new relationships among those dedicated to linking independence to a broader social and political vision. Radical independence is the politics of ‘Yes, and…’ – it regards the prospect of an independent Scotland as a starting point, a platform for articulating and campaigning for an alternative set of policies aiming towards social justice, sustainability and greater equality.
James Foley and Pete Ramand - activists in the Radical Independence Campaign - provide a detailed critique of Westminster's broken politics in their new book, 'Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence'. They also offer a thorough case for the alternative - not merely for independence, but for a far-reaching social and economic alternative.

I hope the book finds an audience in England, where there has been a remarkable indifference, at least until recently, to the Scottish independence question. There continues to be a widespread failure to grasp what is at stake or what is driving political developments.
No doubt this has been influenced by a widespread, and complacent, assumption that it can’t really happen, that it will all blow over and Scotland will reject independence and we will continue with business as usual. Yet recent polls indicate that, while retaining the Union remains the more likely outcome in September, independence is a real possibility.
The English left is far from being immune from this sluggishness, ignorance and conservatism. Elements of the left, especially those in the Labour Party, are pro-Union, while others view it as mere constitutional matter or think it should simply be left to the Scots (despite the potentially profound opportunities independence would open up for the rest of us).

Beyond Westminster
For the radical independence activists, what drives the movement for a Yes vote is not ‘nationalism’ but opposition to Westminster politics and the suffocating neoliberal orthodoxy that Westminster represents. The book’s authors note that the Yes campaign is at its strongest when it focuses on Westminster’s failings and articulates the need for breaking from its political consensus: cuts, privatisation, pro-US foreign policy, immigrant bashing and a relaxed attitude to growing inequality. What’s wrong with contemporary Britain – and the potential for alternatives to that – is the starting point.

They also highlight the class and generational dimensions of the independence debate, with the poor and the young being most likely to back independence. Surveys have found near-unanimous opposition to independence among business elites.
The UK has an electoral system that entrenches the neoliberal orthodoxy and marginalises more progressive voices. There is a Tory-led government despite Scotland and some English regions returning very few Tory MPs to Westminster. Labour is constantly pulled to the right in a bid for supposed ‘Middle England’ votes, a process reinforced by the first past the post system, while neglecting its core support. Ukip, despite not having any MPs, possess a media profile that enables it to exert right-wing pressure on the mainstream, while the left is completely marginal.

Westminster is – however you look at it, whatever angle you take – broken and very unlikely to be repaired.  There is a gaping democratic deficit and the enforcement of precisely the neoliberal policies which have enabled inequality to grow. The authors are clear that an independent Scotland does not guarantee a substantially different future, but that it does open up space for a different direction.
Under devolution, Scotland has seen a handful of positive reforms – like scrapping university fees and prescription charges – that compare favourably with England. The SNP is politically diverse and contains a conservative right wing, but on most policy issues it is to the left of the Labour leadership. Scottish political debate is – with the Tories marginal and Ukip virtually non-existent - framed  differently to the UK level. The social democratic mainstream of Scottish politics is a great improvement on Westminster politics and, with far greater powers than at present, an independent Scotland could bring positive change.

Nationalism and the British state

Independence would have repercussions for politics in the rump UK as well as in Scotland. The foreign policy establishment has lined up to warn of the terrible dangers of independence precisely because it will weaken the British state and its alliance with the US. The end of Trident is the most immediate likely effect, but the book outlines the wider challenge it will pose to the status quo.
Foley and Ramand recall how disgust at Tony Blair’s government over the Iraq war was a driving force behind increased support for the SNP in the 2003 and 2007 Scottish parliament elections; without that, the SNP may not have been able to reach the stage where it could call a referendum on an independent Scotland.
This aspect of independence is of course closely connected to the not insignificant matter of British nationalism – its history and its continuing ideological import – which, the authors note, is near-invisible in the whole referendum debate: Scottish nationalism is the object of vast amounts of commentary, but British nationalism is an ideological ‘common sense’ and thus rarely articulated openly. The book contains a very thoughtful discussion of different types of nationalism, their significance, and how they have evolved.

A central argument is that independence is not, contrary to media myth, the same as Scottish nationalism or identity – interestingly, polls reveal a very weak correlation between strength of Scottish identity and voting intentions in the referendum. Foley and Ramand also demolish the myth of ‘anti-English racism’ as a driving force for independence supporters, reminding us that more traditional and familiar forms of racist bigotry – like that directed to the Asian community – remain the real problem in terms of racism. Anti-racism and internationalism are at the heart of radical independence.
A radical needs agenda

For Foley and Ramand, however, the campaign for independence is about much more than choosing Holyrood over Westminster, opting for a social democratic mainstream over right-wing orthodoxy, or breaking from the worst elements of neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad. The book, like the Radical Independence Campaign itself, is fuelled by a desire to move beyond those limits and champion a radically more progressive vision. This thread runs through the book, but is expressed most openly and forcefully towards the end, including an outline of a radical needs agenda for Scotland.

The radical needs agenda is a set of demands that, as the authors acknowledge, do not constitute a socialist society, but rather represent a radical alternative within the constraints of capitalism. All of them would need to be fought for, all would be resisted by powerful vested interests, and all would (in the process of fighting for them) raise fundamental questions about the society in which we live. It is a bold set of alternatives that has clearly been the subject of much research, thought and discussion; extremely well-informed and shaped by current conditions, rather than being a generic blueprint for a better society. 
Evidently one of the great advantages of the independence debate in Scottish society has been this opening up of space to discuss the future, allowing the Scottish left an opportunity to discuss and articulate alternatives instead of settling for opposition to the status quo. The authors are exceptionally good on the need for the campaign to link a critique of existing politics and an alternative vision. They explain and criticise the limits of the Yes Scotland campaign, and the SNP’s approach, which too often emphasises continuity over change, and is relentlessly ‘optimistic’ in a way  that lapses into the vague and vacuous. Voters need to be convinced that the present system is broken, but also that independence can lead to a genuine and far-reaching alternative.

This book – clearly written, coherently argued, wide-ranging in its concerns – is a must-read for anyone who supports independence for Scotland. It isn’t just for Scottish radicals, but of great relevance to those of us campaigning against Westminster’s bankrupt politics south of the border. It serves as a guide to the whole independence debate and a polemic for a radical alternative.


Thursday, 17 April 2014

Democracy and capitalism - an unstable compound

Paul Foot’s ‘The Vote’ is rightly regarded as the summation of its author’s life and work. Foot was a journalist, writer and campaigner with an unwavering commitment to revolutionary socialist politics for over four decades, who wrote about ‘The Vote’s key themes – democracy, the Labour Party, socialism, capitalist power – recurrently throughout his adult life.

I first read the book when it was published in 2005 (posthumously, as Foot had died the previous year, aged 66), but recently re-read large chunks of it. I thought I’d share some observations on the book and its key ideas.
‘The Vote’ is divided, as the subtitle ‘How it was won and how it was undermined’ suggests, into two parts. The first half is an inspiring account of the mass struggles of (predominantly) lower classes to win democratic rights, from the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 1640s to the suffragettes.

The second half is the less glorious (though complex) history of the Labour Party in the 20th century, and how it has failed in office to deliver on socialist - or in the eras of Wilson, Callaghan and Blair, even mildly social democratic - aspirations.
Democracy and capitalism
For many writers the Chartists would have been the obvious place to start, but Foot was astute in seeing that the story stretches back further than that. In fact the Putney Debates in 1647 marked the commencement of the long, on-going debate about democracy and its relationship to wealth. The notion that everyone – or at least every man – should have a say in political decisions, through the power of the vote, was profoundly revolutionary.
In the seventeenth century power belonged to those with money and property. Politics was a matter of discussion among that layer of society, while everyone else was firmly shut out. The bourgeois revolution of the 1640s secured the power and privileges of a rising capitalist class, but this did not extend to the great mass of people.  
And so it would continue until the 19th century, when movements for reform – above all Chartism – would win the vote for growing layers of society. The vote was seen, on all sides of the debate, as inextricably linked to all sorts of possible social, economic and political changes. Obtaining the vote would empower the masses – a prospect that inspired revolt while terrifying the ruling elites, who used ferocious violence when challenged. But this meant there was a glaring lack of legitimacy in the power of those who ruled: the rulers had no mandate, the ruled had little stake in the system.
The vote was not an end in itself, but a means to social change; the struggle for it was not, in the peaks of struggle at least, a single-issue campaign but part of a broader effort to transform society. This is seen most powerfully in Chartism, with a clear list of democratic demands but animated by the hope that they could be used to redress inequality and alleviate poverty and suffering. It was a movement of an emerging working class, increasingly forged in factories and other workplaces, congregating in the growing industrial cities. 
The struggle between democracy and the power of those with money and property – or, from the mid-19th century onwards, the struggle between democracy and capitalism – is the great theme of Foot’s book. It connects everything and provides a thread running through the numerous disparate tales of resistance and reform and, later, the series of Labour’s disappointments and betrayals.

The book’s first half reminds us that people taking collective political action can - against tremendous obstacles – achieve real social reforms. The power to achieve change lies in the actions of ordinary people.
The book’s second half is full of illustrations of how the vote alone has not proved sufficient. Labour politicians so often proved to be in office but not in power, impotent against ‘market forces’ and capitalism’s subordination of everything to the pursuit of profit.

Parliamentary democracy and the Labour Party, as the vehicle for the working class to make use of suffrage, have failed to challenge the power of capital. Consequently the vote, while a great leap forward, has turned out not be a guarantee of any sort of democracy worthy of the name.
Distinctive features
There are, I think, a number of particularly significant things about Foot’s book when it is placed in the context of other socialist literature about these issues. Three things stand out for me.
Firstly, the history of the Labour Party is illuminated in a special way by following 250 pages about the struggle for democracy.  It provides a specific context for Labour Party history that elevates it above parliamentary intrigue and trivia, while simultaneously making it more interesting than a straightforward tale of decline and betrayal.
We are reminded of the aspirations that have prompted people to look to the Labour Party, or indeed to devote an enormous amount of time to it, as a vehicle for social change. Its history – rooted in working people’s desire for political representation, and for that to lead to social reform - is located as part of a long, historic struggle for democracy as a means to social transformation. Foot captures the tensions between aspiration and reality, between progressive policies and the ways they are undermined in office.  
Secondly, Foot’s history of the Labour Party is richer and more nunaced than might be expected from a dedicated revolutionary. He traces the ups and downs, the debates, and the genuinely meaningful reforms – notably in 1945-51 – with a sort of critical sympathy. It doesn’t feel remotely like he is out to damn the Labour Party. Instead he is scrupulously fair.
It is the accumulation of evidence, and the trajectory of the Party’s development (especially with Blair’s ascendancy), that makes it so abundantly clear that it is, ultimately, a hopeless enterprise for socialists. But, along the way, there are many Labour figures who Foot praises, many moments which illustrate why some socialists might keep faith with Labour, and a solid grasp of Labour’s role in creating the post-war settlement which has been systematically under attack since the late 1970s. Foot concluded that the rot was so deep that Labour could not return to being a genuine social democratic party – never mind a socialist party, which it never had been – and that socialists must look instead to extra-parliamentary and trade union struggles.  
Thirdly, Foot gives the suffragettes – especially the more radical and socialist elements – the credit they deserve. Ian Birchall, in his excellent biography of Tony Cliff, commented in a footnote that the whole chapter called ‘Women’ in Foot’s book was a sustained polemic against Cliff’s dismissive approach to the suffragettes. Cliff’s own book, 'Class Struggle and Women's Liberation', has many merits, but on this particular topic Foot was certainly right. Kate Connelly’s marvellous book on Sylvia Pankhurst, published last year, extends Foot’s interpretation and I recommend it for its account of the left-wing elements in the suffragette movement (and for so much else).
Foot, in this chapter, articulates the complexity of the suffragettes’ politics, alert to the differences within the movement, and also how elements of the movement articulated – as the Chartists had done – a political vision that envisaged suffrage as interconnected with economic and social demands. It is the longest chapter, affirming the hugely important place the suffragettes have, or certainly should have, in the history of struggles for democracy in this country.
Finally, a brief word of recommendation. If you haven’t read ‘The Vote’, search it out and read it. It is an unashamedly 'grand narrative' history with lots of fascinating detail, a broad-sweep history of British politics over 350 years that somehow manages to be subtle and nuanced. It is a great document of radical and inspiring ‘history from below’ that also has some hard-hitting truths about modern politics, all in an immensely readable style.