Children of the Revolution we may have been, but for the grizzled soixante-huitards among us, it seems that for much of our political lives we have been fighting bitter rearguard actions. It was the late 1970s when the employers and the ruling class began in earnest their drive to weaken the UK working class through attacking the trade unions, using the freedom this gave to impose an ever freer market. For those on the revolutionary left, the hopes and excitement of 1968 turned, in the 80s and 90s, to a grim determination to hold things together in difficult circumstances.
Significant victories, like the toppling of Thatcher and, on an international level, the ending of apartheid, were the exception rather than the rule. And even when we managed to rid ourselves of the vile Tories we found ourselves saddled with the poisonous Thatcherite authoritarianism of New Labour, intensely relaxed about the filthy rich and eager to crawl even further up the arse of a newly active US imperialism.
Then from 2007 onwards economic crisis went into the mix...”The left has shot its bolt,” crowed rightwing commentators, pointing to the absence of struggle or of any alternative left programme, the timidity and feebleness of the traditional social democratic parties, and the rise of the corporate-funded deranged Tea Party movement in the US...
But then things started to change...
Those of us who are still here, still revolutionary socialist and still determined to forge a different sort of society were always sustained by an awareness of three things. First: the system is untenable and carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Second: the masses of people are eventually forced to fight back, whether they want to, particularly, or not. This is not to do with individual psychology or pathology: it is part of the dynamic of capitalism. Third: due to factors we still do not fully understand, when conditions are right, fightback goes global: 1848, 1919, 1968...And then things can really change...
What first convinced me of the absolute necessity of socialism was the realisation that not only was the system unjust and alienating, but that, to cap all that, it had a tendency to bloody destroy itself. Which, given its omnipresence, meant destroying everything else. The destruction was economic, political, environmental, and meant, at the last, the physical destruction of war.
But the contradictions of capitalism also undermine it. The very dynamic that pumps its lifeblood and causes its heart to beat causes it to self-destruct. The very inequality it loves creates a situation where, ultimately, the person down at the bottom of society, the worker/consumer, cannot afford to live. Or to consume, which to the capitalist amounts to the same thing.
Marx showed how, under capitalism, technology and rising levels of productivity increase the wealth in society while simultaneously diminishing the economic value of this wealth. This creates a permanent long-term tendency for a decline in the rate of profit. This firstly means that the capitalists are constantly driven to attack workers to sustain profit margins. It also means constant crises of overproduction in the midst of general underconsumption. In more forthright words, poverty is created in the midst of plenty. This was what the ‘sub-prime’ scandal of 2007 was all about.
The whole point of the neoliberal turn taken by capitalism in the late 1970s was to increase profits for the tiny layer of people that actually own and run the world. In this it was wonderfully successful. In fact, after neutralising the unions, neoliberal capitalism was so good at exerting downward pressure on wages and accumulating ever huger quantities of capital that increasing numbers of ordinary people were only able to bridge the gap between what they needed and what they earned by using credit. Getting into debt in other words. As this happened many basic things like access to a reasonable home and shelter slid out of the financial reach of many.
Capitalism is a dynamic system – it is driven by its need to always find new markets. So with the freeing up of credit and finance capital the financial institutions thought they’d try a new line: they’d start selling things to people with no money. Makes sense, right? The US subprime housing market concentrated on selling homes to people who would never be able to afford them. If this was not actually illegal it should surely have been. The mortgage companies basically targeted poor and financially vulnerable people who had bad credit ratings and looked as if they would default, then they saddled them with crippling loans, on initially enticing teaser rates that suddenly rocketed, so that they defaulted. The companies knew that when this happened they would repossess. Win-win. For the companies. For the customers, it was lose-lose. Homelessness beckoned. For millions...
This blatant exploitative confidence-trick was sustained by a web of arcane and incomprehensible financial instruments – derivatives, credit-default thingummies, etc etc – high-tech names for deliberately over-complex things all designed to obscure their real function which was to make obscene amounts of cash for the companies while financially screwing the customers into the ground. Let’s not get dewy-eyed and sentimental about this, friends. The system is not designed to meet human needs. It is there to make profits.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this sort of contempt and arrogance, which their present-day descendents are now also familiar with, and have recognised in the eyes of their government ministers and IMF officials– hubris. Hubris: a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of their own competence and capabilities by the rich and powerful.
This next bit we know. The implosion of the subprime market triggered the greatest recession since the 1930s which is the reason why, as I write, the second day of a Greek general strike is starting up, protestors have been fighting the police in Rome, even in Britain there have been riots and the biggest strike since 1926 is brewing while young people worldwide are occupying city squares in protest against capitalism.
The other great confidence-trick was, after the bank bailouts, the deflection of attention away from the financial institutions and the governments that allowed them to do the sort of thing I’ve just described. Suddenly, rather than decisions being made about disciplining and regulating the obscenely super-rich banks, making the scumbags at least accountable to some sort of democratic control to stop them fucking it all up all over again, instead there was a sudden focus on this big amount of money we’d handed over. Suddenly there was this problem of ‘the deficit.’ By that they meant “money you used to have but which we have now given to the bankers.”
But that only has consequences for us. It has no consequences for the bankers. For the bankers it means bigger bonuses and some more champagne at the wine bar, maybe a few more lines of coke, a new car, a new extension. For us it means the dismantling and destruction of the so-called ‘welfare state’ and the plunging of ordinary people deeper into poverty, indebtedness, homelessness and destitution.
It’s as if the dismantling and destruction of Dale Farm I’ve just been watching on BBC News 24 is a physical depiction – a premonition almost – of the future for all of us if we don’t fight now. What Basildon council, the police and bailiffs are doing to Dale Farm is what the Tories and their Lib-Dem patsies want to do to all our lives, to the NHS, to the benefits system, to education and all the rest of it.
First they came for the Travellers and I did not speak out for I was not a Traveller, and then when they came for me there was nobody there to speak out for me... And by the way, we can see writ large in places like Greece that if this bit doesn’t work there is no plan B. If pouring all your money into the pockets of the bankers doesn’t work, the only plan is to keep pouring.
How the media has continued to play down resistance! Even after the student revolt of November 2010 and the sacking of Millbank and the illegal kettling of thousands of school and college students, the Guardian ran a piece saying that everything had gone quiet after that. The political apathy of students and young people in general has been a constant trope in the media for years. You know the sort of thing: “Richard would rather go on his Xbox 360 or check his share options than go on a demo.” And even when teenagers riot, the Independent will moan that it’s not like the political riots of the old days.
The BBC, although you obviously defend a publicly-funded system, has been as appalling as you’d expect. It still continues to deny anything but the most cursory coverage to the Occupy the World movement, while putting on instead wall-to-wall re-runs of celebrity culture, anything to do with the royals, reality TV and quiz shows. I looked at al-Jazeera the other night and it was hosting an intelligent studio analysis of the uprisings breaking out across the world. I went to Russia Today for an interview about the economic crisis with an author and academic. Then I turned to BBC News 24 to find an apparently serious discussion about why more and more people are wearing amulets.
We should never underestimate the ability of events to go to the right as well as to the left. That was the message of the 1930s. Even in the 1970s, instead of going from strength to strength after the industrial victories of ‘72 and ’74, and really sticking it to the system, we got Thatcher, downturn and the defeat of the miners. 1973 in Chile was the starkest indication of how advances by the left can be reversed.
Can the resistance succeed? Yes. Will it succeed? It’s far too early to say. And anyway what do you mean by success? In a sense it’s the wrong question. At the moment, just the fact that anti-capitalist momentum appears to be building is a real cause for hope. To be honest, the very fact that it’s happening at all feels like a major victory. As Socialist Worker pointed out, the mass demonstrations of 15 October were the biggest globally co-ordinated action since the 15 February 2003 protests against the Iraq war. It’s really important that this is an international movement, given the danger that economic crisis and collapse can help build nationalistic movements of the far right.
The ruling class will use all its power to split us up, to divide us and to turn us against each other. Divide and rule is still a hugely effective tool. So, those in work are told that benefit cheats threaten them. Indigenous workers are told immigrants threaten them. Or Muslims are demonised. Or asylum seekers. Or Travellers. Or gays. Or old people. Or young people. Somebody like David Starkey will pop up and try to make new forms of racism respectable. The EDL will try to persuade people that their vile ideas are an answer their problems. And as well as fraud, there will be force. The ruling class will use its police and sometimes its army to enforce law and order. The return of the Greek junta? One solution for the Greek ruling class? Who knows?
But the fact that struggle seems to be generalising has to be good. In Britain the weaknesses are obvious, in terms of working-class organisation, especially in rebuilding a rank and file movement in the trade unions.
So the tasks for socialists are obvious. We need to bring the spirit of the Occupy protests into the organised working class in the process of building the 30 November strike into the biggest anti-government protest this country has seen for decades. A mass movement which demonstrates that there are forces moving which won’t wait for Labour and the pathetic Milliband to catch up, which are about more than who performs best in Prime Minister’s Question Time. There is something happening which is to do with much more than the question of which despised and pampered MPs get to misrepresent people for the next 5 years. This is a movement which is interested in something different...A movement that is interested in changing the world...
Whether we win or lose is in the balance but now at least it feels like we’re going in with a fighting chance...
When the rulers can’t go on ruling in the old way, and the people refuse to go on in the old way...
If not us, who?
If not now, when?