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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

"...the aim was to rub out the working class as a political and economic force in society..",

Why doesn’t Britain make things any more? Aditya Chakrabortty has written an article for the Guardian on what he calls the “de-industrial revolution.” The article can be read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/nov/16/why-britain-doesnt-make-things-manufacturing.

De-industrialisation is an issue which most of the mainstream media has decided it is impolite to discuss, so I was interested to read what he had to say. I was particularly interested since I live in south-west Wales, a region which has been repeatedly visited by the de-industrial wrecking ball. My hometown of Llanelli was involved in iron production since the late eighteenth century, then tinplate and steel, and the surrounding area was the edge of the anthracite coalfield, with coal being dug from the seventeenth century onwards. That is, until 1989 when the last local pit, Cynheidre, closed. Shipping had already gone, as had metal production, with the closure of the last steelworks in 1981. The steelworkers were the first to feel the impact of Thatcherism: they lost a 13-week strike in 1980 and paid the price with thousands of jobs.

Llanelli, like Swansea to the east, displays all the symptoms of de-industrialisation: high unemployment, collapse of infrastructure, visible evidence of homelessness, widespread social problems with alcohol and hard drugs (the council is currently applying for an order to make street drinking illegal), low-level crime, a general air of decay and collapse exacerbated by the relocation of the big chain stores to a nearby retail park away from an increasingly crumbling, boarded-up town centre. Yet, surprisingly for a town which used to have both a strong work ethic and a powerful Nonconformist presence, public discourse about the impact of deindustrialisation has been non-existent.

The town has seemed to all intents and purposes to be in denial about what happened to it. Like an abused child, it has internalised the trauma, blaming itself. When last year a series of TV fly-on-the wall documentaries, although flawed, at least attempted to describe in public the town’s serious heroin problem, there was an outcry in the local paper the Llanelli Star and elsewhere. “Did these people want to drive away investors or something?” was the cry. So all serious attempts to describe the ripple effects of deindustrialisation and to identify the problems are themselves closed off before they even get started.

Carmarthenshire county council talk as if the tokenism of building a Travel Lodge and a multiplex in the town centre are major steps towards correcting the decline. Previously regeneration was to be effected through the ‘Marina development’ down the old North Dock – still empty years after finish. Yet while there will be some welcome construction work, and while shops will provide a tiny number of jobs, what it will mainly do is provide profits for the multinationals that run the wretched places. A Travel Lodge and a Multiplex? Has this been costed and thought through? People have to have some spare cash to go to the cinema, especially with what they charge for popcorn these days, and increasing numbers of young people watch films on the internet. And who the hell is going to come to stay in a hotel in boarded-up downtown Llanelli when Swansea and the Gower are a few miles away? Since when did ‘build some shops’ become ‘regeneration’?

But to be honest, this doesn’t demonstrate any great originality by Carmarthenshire county council. It is of a piece with the ‘dominant narrative’ across the board politically and culturally. As councils and local authorities lost more and more of their powers, and as their ability to raise revenues directly declined, so their rhetoric about ‘regeneration’ became, paradoxically, ever more fulsome. In reality, as local councils lost whatever ability they once had to respond to local needs, so councillors were more and more relegated to the level of functionaries doing the bidding of central government, entirely tied to its purse-strings and faithfully reflecting its priorities and its protection of corporate interests. This feeling of powerlessness led to a decline in involvement with local politics, part of the ‘democratic deficit’ which is now feeding the Occupy movement.

The great con-trick which Tory and then Labour governments perpetrated was the illusion of decentralisation and ‘giving power back to the people.’ The reality of this was increased concentration of the important powers, tax, revenue, police etc and the selling-off of the rest. ‘Decentralisation’ was really a front for privatisation. Why should you have local councils looking after the interests of commercial enterprises when you can just cut out the middleman? Why have properly funded services, whether in health or education, when you can let market forces do it all?

Of course, these were the same market forces that were supposed to fill the gap caused by the closing down of mining, steel and manufacturing industry. This was at best a pious hope and at worst a callous lie. Thatcherism unleashed what Owen Jones, author of ‘Chavs’ called a “tsunami of de-industrialisation” which decimated communities and caused manufacturing to collapse. When Thatcher came to power in 1979 over 7 million UK workers earned a living in manufacturing: 30 years later this had fallen to 2.83 million. Jones traces the cultural and political demonisation of the working class, and the media campaign to portray working-class people as chavs and scroungers, in tandem with the return of endemic high levels of unemployment from the 1980s onwards. Blame the victim: after all, as Jones says, “...to admit that some people are poorer than others because of the social injustice inherent in our society would require government action.”

The lived day-to-day reality for people living in the economically devastated areas of the UK which were previously the industrial centres is a permanent reminder of the social destruction wrought by Thatcher in the 1980s. It is, by the way, why many of us older trade unionists feel such rage at so-called ‘Thatcher chic’ which is now laughably being promulgated with the Meryl Streep movie, and which shows how highly-paid media hacks have become totally detached from the lives of ordinary people (another theme of Owen’s). Any notion that this wife of a millionaire (I mean Thatcher, not Streep) represented any sort of progress for women, when the effects of her attacks on the lives, livelihoods and culture of working class women and men still scar our lives, is in extremely poor taste.

Those of us who stood on miners’ and printers’ picket lines to be charged by horses and battered by riot police were in no doubt about the Tories’ desire to extract vengeance for the successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, the second of which brought down the Heath government. Workers got revenge, of sorts: the mass campaign against the poll tax, culminating in the 1990 poll tax riot ‘day of rage,’ was what toppled Thatcher at the last. But the changes her governments forced through had profound consequences, extended and confirmed by subsequent Labour administrations, which by then had completely ideologically de-camped to free market economics.

It is this sense of class warfare that is the central omission in Chakrabortty’s article. He talks about the various narratives which have been spun to justify deindustrialisation, and how Labour, under Blair and Brown, were guilty of what he calls ‘techno-utopianism,’ apparently believing that

“Once the British had sold cars and ships to the rest of the world; now they could flog culture and tourism and Laura Croft.” He quite correctly exposes the fallacies and downright lies peddled in this process, and shows how the free market and the ‘smaller state’ (big society?) have contributed to the disintegration of the UK economy. But the dominant tone of his article is a sort of sense of puzzlement at how such economic self-harm could have been wrought.

And to be honest it is rather puzzling if you just leave it at that. Why, after all, should our rulers have deliberately introduced weaknesses into the economy that would become deadly faultlines, making the crash, when it came, so catastrophic? How can a serious strategy have been devised to destroy the UK’s industrial base, and then to replace it with finance, which produces nothing, and debt? Was it just wishful thinking? Were they just stupid? Well no, not all of them. For some of them there was another overriding concern, nay, obsession, which made the future wealth of the society an irrelevant consideration.

Chakrabortty talks about the onset of a Tory ‘austerity programme’ as if it were a change in the weather. He ignores the most important prerequisite of deindustrialisation – destroy the effectiveness of workers’ organisations to resist. We forget what a fright the workers’ struggles of the 1970s gave the British ruling classes. They were determined to crush the unions forever.

There is no mention in the article of the set piece battles that Thatcher fought in her assaults on the trade unions, especially the miners. This is the clue to understanding a political and economic trajectory which otherwise makes no sense. The crucial factor in the equation was that the changes, it was hoped, would deal fundamental damage to the trade union movement. That overrode all other considerations. For that Thatcher was prepared to risk destroying the economic foundations of the society and, ultimately, weakening its competitive edge on world markets.

There is always a sense in which our rulers cannot see what is in front of their noses because, unlike Marxists, they do not see the creative act of labour as being central to the creation of value. It is always the ‘animal dynamism’ of entrepreneurs or some such self-justifying bollocks that animates things for them. So, in the logic of capitalism, why not create a fantasy land where you let the markets rip, relying on debt to power your economy? If you see value as lying in the power of money, then why not break the laws of gravity of your own economics? Why not build castles in the air from derivatives, collateralised debt obligations and credit exchange swaps? Who not destroy the ability of the British economy to manufacture goods?

Entering the fantasy-land of the free market, of globalised neoliberal capitalism, has consequences. The workers of Pinochet’s Chile, where the free market experiment was first tested out in 1973, know that. We did not have to suffer what our Chilean comrades did, but what was done to British workers was no small thing. As Jones puts it: “There has been no greater assault on working-class Britain than Thatcher’s two-pronged attack on industry and trade unions. It was not just that the systematic trashing of the country’s manufacturing industries devastated communities – though it certainly did, leaving them ravaged by unemployment, poverty and all the crippling social problems that accompany them, for which they would later be blamed. Working –class identity itself was under fire. The old industries were the beating hearts of the communities they sustained...the unions, whatever their faults and limitations, had given the workers in these communities strength, solidarity and a sense of power. All of this had sustained a feeling of belonging, of pride in a shared working-class experience...the aim (of the Tory offensive) was to rub out the working class as a political and economic force in society, replacing it with a collection of individuals, or entrepreneurs, competing with each other for their own interests.”

Thatcher aimed to get rid of trade unions which had a strong rank-and-file, and radical traditions of direct, unofficial action, replacing them with shrunken, over-bureaucratised shells, over-controlled from the top down, more interested in selling their members credit cards and car insurance than in organising for a fight. Actually, it is resistance, not credit cards, that builds unions, it is exercising the power which workers have which gives them confidence in their ability to collectively fight back. We are still in the process of rebuilding this from the bottom up. New, young people, unscarred by the defeats of the past, come in, and new waves of resistance begin, triggered now by the accelerating breakdown of capitalism.

What Thatcher and the others did not understand is that all this is done because we have no other choice. Things like trade unions are basic defensive organisations. We resist through trade unions when we can. If not we resist in other ways. In class society it is the struggle between the classes that drives history forward. If that sounds ‘grand narrative’ that’s because it’s meant to, and as I look around the world, at the street battles in Athens, the general strike in Oakland, California, the revolutionary struggles in Tahrir Square, I make absolutely no apologies for that.

As we prepare for the strikes on November 30, we should remember that the pauperisation of some places – Llanelli, Merthyr, Moss Side - ran in parallel with the obscene enrichment of other places - the City of London, the Stock Exchange. This is why the OccupyLSX movement and the N30 strikes are an integral part of each other.

We are entering a period of uprisings and revolutions.

The Nov 30 strikes herald a new phase of the struggle.

Comrades come rally...

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