Follow by Email

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

ON THE WRONG SIDE OF CAPITALISM


Every morning I wake up
On the wrong side
Of capitalism

A vast toad, like Larkin’s
It has embedded itself deep
In my life

So that if its slimy legs
Merely spasm
Huge fissures appear in my days
My hours
My seconds

It saturates
My cells
With its imperatives
Seeps
Its toxic juices
Deep into the wrinkles of my mind

I have studied it
For a long time now
And feel that I understand
Its dynamic    
Its moods
Its changing shape
Its brutality
Its insanity
Its mendacity       
Its tenacity
Its ability to cling on
Limpetlike
To all that I say
And do

I understand its internal contradictions
Its inherent instabilities 
And what needs to be done
To supercede it

But still every morning
I wake up
On the wrong fucking side
Of capitalism 


Thursday, 15 November 2012

EUROPE RISE UP!


Watching protestors, strikers, trade unionists, students and young people taking part in the European-wide general strike on Wednesday 14 November gladdened my heart. This was, it seems, a ‘from-the-bottom-up’ initiative which seems so far to have been pretty successful. Of course it was patchy, looking across Europe as a whole, because different countries are at different stages in the global economic unravelling. However, despite this, it seems to have made a strong impact. Even the BBC covered it, presumably as a blessed relief from reporting its own problems.  

However, even in places like Portugal where public transport strikes brought everything to a stop, not all the trade union federations supported the strike. The UGT, the Uniao Geral de Trabalhadores or General Union of Workers, linked to the ‘moderate’ Portuguese Socialist Party, did not back the strikes. The same was true elsewhere, generally where social democratic parties that have completely capitulated to neoliberalism have control over sections of the trade unions.

And in the UK there was…hardly anything. Nothing percolated through the British trade union movement, its structures atrophied by decades of rotten bureaucratic politics and strangled by the death-grip of that most reactionary social-democratic party of all, the British Labour party. If the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) had called any action, the wretched Ed Miliband woiuld have spent hours on the TV saying “strikes are wrong” over and over again…

What action there was yesterday in the UK was either from workers who have a strong rank-and-file presence, and had recently taken action, like the electricians, or those parts of the public sector that are already under severe threat, like the Public and Commercial Services union. Otherwise, apart from small public displays of solidarity, nothing happened. Oh yes, apparently the TUC wrote a letter. So that’s all right then.  

The trade union bureaucracy is a special layer of British society. Their role is in managing discontent among British workers. They perform a balancing act between their members, whose subscriptions pay their salaries, and the bosses, who they negotiate with. Their politics are predominantly of the right of the Labour party, which has now become so right-wing that it is barely distinguishable from the Tories and the Lib Dems. Without pressure from below, union bureaucrats usually do the bare minimum to advance the interests of their members. Their role in society is to keep a lid on things rather like managing the steam from a pressure cooker. For this they are paid a pretty good salary: Unison’s Dave Prentis’s basic salary package for 2010 was £91,577 (this does not include other costs & benefits or his free car). Not a bad little earner for representing mainly low-paid workers. He and others like him do very well out of the system, thank you very much, and therefore cannot be relied on to rock the boat. They’re too busy getting ready for their seat in the House of Lords.

So we can’t look to them to lead a real fight. It is in the grassroots, the rank-and-file of the trade unions, where we need to organise to build resistance. We are the people who stand to lose everything. Difficult as it is (activists can face victimisation, as I found to my cost) we are the ones who ultimately must take responsibility for building and leading a fightback.

But this does not happen by itself. The trade union bureaucrats use the anti-union laws to bleat “There’s nothing we can do”. That’s what they’ve done since the 1980s. But that just won’t wash any more. For a start, there are global laws on human rights & industrial action that may well override UK laws. Plus where rank and file workers have taken unofficial action – construction and electricians – they have scored victories, and not been prosecuted. But, most importantly, we are suffering a massive ruling class attack which will tear apart the lives of British workers if we simply sit back. If the Con-Dems are allowed to win, the British trade union movement will be reduced to a shadow of its former self.

Fighting according to the UK trade union laws is like fighting with both hands and one leg tied behind your back. We have to break out of the shackles we’ve been put in. Solidarity is key here. If we all spit together we’ll drown the bastards. Ordinary people are hugely frustrated at the lack of a fightback from the official leaderships – this frustration can lead to anger and action or to passivity and inaction – keeping your head down as the shitstorm of job losses approaches in the hope that ‘maybe they won’t go for ME’. Not so – if we let them, they’ll go for everybody. Just watch them.  

So if we can’t rely on the trade union and Labour party leadership, who can we rely on? Who can we rely on to lead resistance on the ground, build rank and file groups etc? This is where a revolutionary socialist party is needed, one that is embedded in the working class and whose politics are built out of struggle and the necessity for revolution. That is why I am in the Socialist Workers Party, and why, if you agree with the above, you should be too!

Check out our website:
http://www.socialistworker.co.uk


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT?


This piece is a commentary on the impact of austerity and capitalism on mental health, and was first posted on the the HullRePublic website, which can be found on Twitter @HullRePublic…



“Depression,” says Mark Fisher,”is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magic voluntarism confronts limited opportunities.” In the rest of his Guardian article, in response to the news that suicides among older men are rising, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/16/mental-health-political-issue, he argues for a deeper understanding of the political dimensions of mental health.  He cites the Calum’s List website, which lists suicides in which welfare cuts have played a part http://calumslist.org/ and which has been savagely attacked by right-wingers as ‘politicising’ mental health on the grounds that “welfare suicides don’t exist. Suicide is a mental health issue.” However, what has been clearly illustrated in places where the economic crisis is particularly acute is that economic insecurity impacts powerfully on mental health. Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe at 2.8 out of 100,000 when the crisis began 3 years ago. Now it has double that figure: figures show a 40% rise over a 12-month period, an appallingly steep increase.

However, I would argue that capitalism itself, even when it is not in crisis, has profoundly negative effects upon mental health, in particular, although not exclusively, upon that of the working class. This is related to lack of control and the distortion of creativity in the process of what Marx called ‘alienated labour.’ Even before the economic crisis began, the treatment of mental illness was often based on incorrect assumptions and incomplete analysis. But with the rise of neoliberal capitalism, its marginalisation of alternative models of society and of cultural and political dissent, the increased manipulation of popular consciousness and the rise politically of what Tariq Ali refers to as the ‘extreme centre,’ radical social critiques, including those of psychiatry, have diminished. The ‘anti-psychiatry’ of such practitioners as David Cooper and R.D.Laing , which related many kinds of mental distress to the way society operated, in particular through the institution of the family, have disappeared. In particular, the Marxist theory of alienation has ceased to inform models of psychological thinking.

A general sense of how human beings experience their life activity as something external, alien and hostile to them has evolved over several centuries, developing out of the writings of Rousseau, and later Hegel and Feuerbach. The special understanding of it developed by Marx, however, saw it not as an inevitable part of the human condition but as connected to particular ways of organising human activity. Dan Swain, in his excellent book on the subject, http://resolutereader.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/dan-swain-alienation-introduction-to.html, quotes Bertell Ollman: ”Alienation is the intellectual construct in which Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social processes of which they are a part.” The absence of workers’ control over their own creativity in a system where they simply create commodities, and are themselves commodified, has a huge impact. Any theory of psychology which does not contain some sense of this, and of the ways in which the politics of production adversely affect mental health, is not addressing reality. 

Rather than locating psychological suffering in a society which placed impossible and contradictory demands upon people, healthcare in the 1990s increasingly located it deep within the neurochemical transactions and DNA of the individual. This model, of course, hugely benefitted the big pharmaceutical companies, whose PR people heavily promoted the drugs to GPs. The philosophical model used was related less and less to the dialectic of social and economic relations and focussed more and more, in a modern version of ‘balancing the four humours’ of ancient Hippocratic medicine, on chemical deficiencies, excesses, imbalances: things that could be cured, or at least treated, with chemicals. Psychiatric treatment for psychological and emotional disturbances of all kinds became essentially extended drug therapy, with short bursts of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Patch ‘em up and send ‘em back to work, which was in many cases the very thing which was driving them crazy in the first place, although, paradoxically, unemployment and lack of money does the same thing, often more quickly.

But the profit motive, especially in conditions of free market capitalism, distorts our attempts to understand, and cure, ourselves. For example, Darian Leader in the Guardian points out how the huge increase in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder over the last 15 years coincided with the patents running out on the big-selling tricyclic antidepressants in the mid-1990s. This meant that bipolar products became the recipient of the big pharmaceutical companies’ marketing budgets, and the drugs involved began to be aggressively promoted.  The World Health Organisation now regards bipolar disorder as the 6th main cause of disability for people aged 15-44. In children, the diagnosis has increased by over 400%. A similar process occurred in the early 1990s with the increase in diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) especially among troublesome or disruptive schoolchildren. This apparent shift in diagnosis, which was actually a shift in patterns of capital accumulation in the pharmaceutical industry, exposes how capitalism commodifies everything, even human suffering. The most subjective dimensions of life become part of the cash nexus. This ‘medicalisation’ of human experience can similarly be seen in the treatment of depression and anxiety, and in the widepread use of antidepressant drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem, Fontex) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluoxetine. Millions of people are now routinely treated with a range of these selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In 2010, over 24.4 million prescriptions for fluoxetine were filled in the USA alone. Under conditions of deregulation and rudimentary public scrutiny it is hardly surprising that, like the banks, the pharmaceutical companies often indulge in behaviour which is unprofessional or downright illegal. At the time of writing the British pharmaceutical giant GlakoSmithKline has pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay £3 billion to settle the largest case of healthcare fraud in US history, relating to the mis-selling and mis-marketing of antidepressants. This involved distributing a misleading medical journal article, and inducements to GPs included free meals, spa treatments, European hunting trips and even tickets to a Madonna concert!

This is not to say that all these drugs have no use value. For millions they alleviate psychological suffering and enable people to cope when otherwise they could not. But while it would be facile to argue that the roots of all mental illness and distress are economic and political, it is equally the case that the economic restructuring of society, over the decades of free-market ‘reforms,’ treats people more and more either as consumers, or as workers with few rights, and less and less as human beings. The economic changes in society that governments are attempting to enforce in the wake of the banking crisis are producing widespread and profound human suffering, which is duly creating social unrest but also an increase in mental distress which will not be solved by the development of some new SSRI.

Mark Fisher believes that most psychiatrists today assume that mental illnesses like depression are caused by chemical imbalances that can be treated with drugs. But it’s also the case that, even when it’s available, psychotherapy today does not address the social causation of mental illness. The radical therapist David Smail argues that Thatcher’s infamous utterance that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ finds an ‘unacknowledged echo’ in almost all approaches to therapy. Today, as societies go through the economic shock therapy which the banks and the International Monetary Fund prescribe, we need to reclaim our own lives and, in the process, the very notion of therapy. The struggles which are coming will be political, but they will also be about exactly what it means to be human. True empowerment, not the managerial travesty of that word, occurs when, in the process of effecting social change, we change ourselves.

There is a lovely story, set, I think, in Poland during the period of the Solidarnosc independent trade union, a time of immense social upheaval and popular resistance. It describes a psychiatric hospital where, during this period of ‘people power’, patients suddenly began to discharge themselves, saying they no longer felt ill. There was a time when the wards were deserted. Then they slowly began to fill again. But this time it was with a different social layer: this time it was not workers, but managers.        



Tuesday, 7 August 2012

VICTORY TO THE ASTURIAN MINERS!

(Much of the detail of the history of the Asturian miners is taken from Andy Durgan's piece in Socialist Worker)
For somebody of my generation, writing, especially in Wales, about a miners’ strike has a certain shiver to it. Certain associations. Certain memories. I am old enough to remember the successful British miners’ strike of 1972, with its flying pickets, mass picketing and in particular the battle of Saltley gates, (40 yrs ago this yr)  in which the engineering workers of Birmingham joined with miners to close down the coke depot and win the strike. And of course, there was the 1974 strike, which toppled the government of Tory PM Edward Heath.

But I also remember the heroic battles of 1984-85, in which miners battled the Thatcher government but could not get the solidarity from other workers (indeed, from all miners) that they needed to win.

What much of the left did not fully understand then was the extent to which Thatcher’s attacks were a response to the re-onset of economic crisis in the 1970s and were the start of the process of establishing an unregulated, globalised free market economy, preferably with minimal, ineffective trade unions  – what we now call neoliberalism. This was an attempt to overcome the fall in profits which had reasserted itself after the postwar boom of the 50s and 60s .  It was a process which now lies in ruins in the collapse of the banking & economic crisis, but zombie-like, continues to destroy workers’ lives. And it is a process which is now being resisted by the miners of Asturia.

Before I look at the Asturian miners and their history, I want to say one thing: traditions and history have to be built.  There is nothing ready-made about traditions of militancy. I say this because it is possible, especially when looking at the history of the Asturian miners, to stand in awe of them. The miners of South Wales had a similar reputation. It is worth reminding ourselves that in the late 19th century Welsh miners were regarded as the most backward in Britain from the standpoint of class consciousness and labour organisation.  For two decades they had no effective coalfield trade union presence. The shift towards militancy came in the first decade of the 20th century. There is nothing automatic about the development of political consciousness. This has to be built by socialists in the process of struggle and resistance.

Having said that, the Asturian miners’ history of struggle and resistance are pretty good. There is a tradition in these communities not only of industrial militancy but of guerrilla activism, partially originating from the struggle against Franco. People may have seen on YouTube the battles with the police which became a daily occurrence for the Asturian strikers this year, with a home-made rocket-launcher used to fire projectiles at the police lines. Many miners are trained in the use of explosives. In the strike of 1934 local unions gathered small arms and launched attacks on the barracks, seizing many of them.

Let’s look at the strike of 1934. By 1934, the Spanish workers’ movement was acutely aware of the threat of fascism. They saw what was happening elsewhere in Europe. It was widely believed that the main right wing party, the Catholic CEDA (Confederation of Rightist Groups), would try to introduce an authoritarian regime through parliament. This had happened in Austria and Germany.When the CEDA entered the government in early October 1934 a revolutionary general strike was called. This became a full-blown insurrection in Asturias.

The miners were at the centre of this movement. This was due to their traditions of struggle, a crisis in the mining industry and the unity of workers’ organisations in the Workers’ Alliances. With other workers, the miners took over the region. They organised militias, transport, the distribution of food and revolutionary justice.
A revolutionary committee based on delegates from the unions and workers’ parties declared that the region was now a Socialist Republic.
For two weeks the miners held out against the army in the mountain valleys and the provincial capital Oviedo. Lightly armed, their main weapon was dynamite thrown or shot from catapults.
The miners were finally defeated by overwhelming force. The failure of the strike meant they were isolated across Spain. They faced appalling repression.
The Army of Africa, under the command of future dictator Francisco Franco, wreaked a terrible revenge, especially in the pit villages.
Over two thousand workers were murdered, many more imprisoned and tortured. Miners’ wives were beaten and raped. But far from being cowed, the experience of the Asturian Commune inspired workers throughout Spain.
With the military coup in July 1936 the slogan of the Asturian miners echoed through the streets as workers resisted: ¡U.H.P! (Unite Proletarian Brothers!). The Civil War would rage on for another three years.
In Asturias the miners once more were at the forefront of this struggle. Badly armed, the Asturian working class held out for 15 months before being overwhelmed by the fascist forces in October 1937.
Once more the mining valleys flowed with blood. But even then the miners did not stop fighting—many fled into the mountains and guerrilla warfare raged well into the 1940s.
After Franco’s victory all trade unions and workers’ organisations were banned. The repression unleashed during the war continued until the late 1940s.
Working class activists were executed, imprisoned and sent to labour camps. The new regime aimed to eliminate all vestiges of a militant workers’ movement.
By the late 1950s a new generation of workers had entered the factories and the mines. Mining in Asturias had reached its peak with 52,000 miners by 1958, compared with barely 4,000 today.
Coal production would soon help fuel Spain’s economic boom after the Stabilisation Plan of 1959 opened the door to foreign investors and tourism.
Over the next 14 years Spain underwent unprecedented growth and was transformed both economically and socially.
Economic development meant that workers flooded into the cities and industries. A new working class emerged relatively unscathed by the horrors of the Civil War.
Throughout the 1960s there would be repeated clashes and strikes as this new working class strove to both improve its conditions and, increasingly, bring about democracy.
The Asturian miners were at the centre of this struggle. In 1962 they carried out one of the most dramatic strikes during the dictatorship.
The strike started on 7 April 1962, at the Nicolasa mine in protest at the sacking of seven miners. It soon spread to involve the rest of the mines. Demands to end a state-imposed wage freeze were also added to the strikers’ demands.
The regime responded with mass arrests, beatings and torture. Strikers were sent forcibly to live hundreds of miles away.
Solidarity was important in sustaining what was an illegal strike. Shopkeepers and small famers provided food. In the neighbouring Basque Country fishermen worked extra hours so they could provide the strikers with fish.
The miners’ struggle proved a spark for other workers for a general protest against the wage freeze. Over the coming weeks this involved 500,000 workers throughout Spain.
The Spanish government declared a state of siege on 4 May. Yet the miners held out. On 24 May the government agreed to the strikers’ demands. On 5 and 6 June the strikes ended with wage increases being granted across industry and agriculture.
The miners’ victory was the first mass workers’ movement to successfully take on Franco’s regime. The strike saw the birth of workers’ commissions elected directly by the workers which bypassed the state-run “unions”.
Such commissions became commonplace. They formed the basis of a new democratic trade union movement that went on to play a central role in the struggle against the dictatorship.

The 1962 strike was difficult to organise at first, because of the dictator’s formidable reputation as a repressor of all forms of protest.
When the Asturian miners began their strikes in April, Franco refused to recognise them. He claimed they were illegal.
The key to victory was how the dispute spread. Miners in the Nicolasa mine declared a strike on 7 April. Miners from Baltasara struck the next day. Then a strike was declared in Polio and a week later the whole Caudal Valley in Asturias was on strike.
On 16 April the strike spread to Turon and then to the Nalon Valley. At this point 60,000 workers were striking. The slogan the strikers chanted was, “General salary raises and solidarity with our comrades”.
Franco responded with brutal repression including detentions and beatings of workers and women. In Franco’s Spain, striking was equal to military rebellion and was punished harshly.
Yet strikers were able to organise effectively. The strike gripped 24 provinces for more than eight weeks.
The Spanish democratic movement stemmed partially from the Asturian mining strikes. The strike wave had given the movement strength, momentum and hope that fascism in Spain could be beaten.

So, to quickly come up to the present day. I can do no better than to quote from Richard Seymour's LENIN'S TOMB blog:

"Spain is one of the "peripheral" economies of the eurozone, exposed to high levels of debt and volatility. Its banks, having expanded during the construction and property booms, are now dangerously weak. Like Greece, Italy and Ireland, it has been subject to waves of austerity, ostensibly to reduce the deficit. €27bn cuts are already planned this year. These cuts, and the conditions they have exacerbated, have already produced a mass insurgency, with the indignados of Puerta del Sol drawing inspiration from Tahrir.
However, the latest spending squeeze, which includes 63% cuts to coal subsidies resulting in thousands of job losses, has provoked furious and desperate resistance by the miners of Asturias. The cutback came just as the government spent billions rescuing the banks. So, toward the end of May, approximately 8,000 miners went on strike, indefinitely. The main square of the Asturian capital, Oveido, was occupied by workers using the same tactic as the indignados.
This is not to say that the miners are simply following the indignados. As one of their most widely seen banners put it: "No Estamos Indignados, Estamos Hasta Los Cojones" ("We Are Not Indignant, We Are Pissed Off To Our Balls").
The conservative government is anxious not to be seen to capitulate, or even negotiate. Aside from anything else, its political credibility with European lenders partially derives from its ability to contain domestic revolt. This is a dynamic being repeated across the EU, and it raises the stakes considerably in such struggles. Governments are bunkering down, and preparing for protracted battles, banking on the likelihood that union leaderships are not equal to such prolonged warfare. This hasn't worked in Asturias despite the key unions being allied to the Socialists, who are in favour of austerity.
The government's position is weak. Its crisis already compounded by the chaos in Spanish banks, it looks feeble after returning from EU negotiations with a bailout package which it claimed had "no strings attached", only for Germany to repudiate this claim. The reality is that the bailout of Spanish banks is making another sovereign debt crisis more likely – in an economy five times the size of Greece. As such, the battle with the miners is being conducted on shaky ground, and could easily fall apart. This is another factor that is common across Europe – the weakness and uncertainty of our rulers, which is exposed at the first sign of a real challenge."
The strategy of pushing through as many cuts as possible, to hit trade union organization and where possible to restructure the public sector and the ‘social wage’ – the welfare states which were set up in so many countries after World War Two as a buttress against revolution – is being carried through by governments across Europe. We in the UK are caught up in this struggle – the ‘struggle of our lives’ as it has been called more than once, against a weak, unpopular and bungling government, whose Chancellor, as daily more bad economic news arrives, is especially vulnerable.
In Spain Opposition to attacks on jobs and conditions is growing. Public sector unions have called on others to join them for a two-day general strike in September. Government workers marched through the Spanish capital Madrid on Monday of this week while striking against the cuts.
Opposition to attacks on jobs and conditions in Spain is growing. Public sector unions have called on others to join them for a two-day general strike in September.
The Spanish economy has contracted by one percent in the past year, new figures revealed on Monday.
Workers, unemployed people and students have been organising demonstrations, road blocks and sit-ins almost daily. The government announced over £50 billion in cuts last month.
A coordinated eurozone bailout of Spain’s economy looks increasingly likely. But there is also deep confusion about when and how this could happen.
Spain’s borrowing rate started to drop on Monday of this week as a bailout began to look more probable. But the problem for Europe’s ruling classes is that the bailouts aren’t working.
Billions have been pumped into the Greek economy, coupled with ferocious austerity measures. Yet things have only got worse. In these desperate attempts to save their system, the politicians and the bosses have no ideas beyond “make the poor pay”. As the crisis deepens, and as governments seem increasingly unable to control their events, resistance will grow. 
Our main focus in the UK is to build our own resistance, focusing in particular on the TUC demo on 20 Oct, and to turn it into the sort of ‘Day of Rage’ that the TUC leadership would run a mile from. We need to be arguing to use the demo to launch a programme of strike action: bear in mind that in early November we are likely to see mass strikes by teachers, civil service workers and others. We need to be arguing to turn this into a general public sector strike. Bear in mind also that on Wednesday 21 November a national student demo is planned.
We need to use the Asturian miners’ strike as an example of how to resist, how to build in a way that gives the rank & file some power, how to try to create the spark that will detonate a wider explosion and spread resistance in the only way that can win.





Friday, 15 June 2012

SO, WE'RE AGREED ABOUT THE CUTS THEN...



 Swansea South Wales Evening Post for June 13  carried an editorial which, in the context of cuts to the police, called for us to ‘accept as reality…substantial cuts in public spending,’ they were ‘inevitable’ and there could be ‘no ifs or buts about the need for cuts.’ What follows is the email I sent their letters page.

Your editorial on June 13th – ‘Cutbacks part of today’s reality’ – presented an opinion as if it were an objective fact. In fact ‘substantial cuts in public sector spending’ are NOT inevitable. You might have found one poll that thought this – there have been other polls that showed the opposite. Public sector cuts are being promoted by a certain sector of the political elite around the Cameron/Clegg coalition, and given full backing by the media.  This opinion has little resonance among the vast majority of public sector workers and union members, counted in the millions nationwide.

You would do well to remember that many of these live in Swansea. In fact, public sector workers represent a huge 31.76 % of the total workforce. The position of Swansea Trades Council is one of complete opposition to the cuts, as was that of the 2,000 people, both public and private sector workers, who marched through Swansea on 30th November last year. The ‘there is no alternative’ brigade pretends that what is really a set of political decisions is an inevitable fact. Many of us feel it is not an inevitable fact, and on 20 October we will be taking to the streets in our hundreds of thousands to join the Trades Union Congress march calling for a different economic strategy.

What would be an alternative? Well, the government could take its taxation of the rich and of the big companies seriously for a start. Although these are times of austerity for ordinary people, there seems to be no squeeze on the bosses of Britain’s biggest companies. Chief executives of FTSE 100 firms pocketed an average of £4.8 million each last year. More than a quarter of them took a pay rise of over 41 percent. Simply taxing at the levels Thatcher did in the 1980s would raise billions. Neither would this be electorally unpopular – the vast majority of people would like to see something done about the scandal of fat cat pay. In addition, the hugely expensive white elephant of Trident replacement could be abandoned, and the equally profligate, pointless and unpopular occupation of Afghanistan could be brought to an end as well. These swallow up billions each year.

The real problem at the moment is not the budget deficit. Britain had a much larger deficit at the end of the second world war and went on to build the NHS and the welfare state. The real problems globally are unemployment and lack of growth: this has been recognised by Obama in the US, and the recent elections in France and Greece reflect this. Increasing numbers of people doubt that austerity is working, or indeed can work. They fear that it will do just the opposite – it will destroy national economies.

In truth, as economists like Paul Krugman and commentators like the Guardian’s Larry Elliott will tell you, if you take an axe to the public sector you will deepen the recession. There is no Chinese Wall between the public and private sectors, especially after successive waves of privatisation. Cuts to the public sector are already having a chilling effect on the private sector. For example, education cuts mean schools abandon building programmes, which drives construction firms out of business and throws construction workers on the dole.

Then there is the effect on consumers and on tax revenues. In your editorial you point out the dangers of “tax revenues…falling at their fastest since 1923”. Exactly. What sort of impact will throwing millions of public sector workers out of work have?  Massive amounts of revenue will vanish to be replaced by greater payouts in unemployment benefit. Remember - the vast majority of UK cuts – 94% - are still to come. Is this a serious strategy  for achieving economic stability? Many see it as a suicidal programme which will put both the UK’s and the world economy into a ‘death spiral’ that will make the 1930s look like a tea party.

But of course none of this matters, because the Conservatives in the UK and the right-wing Republicans in the US have their own agenda. If you read Naomi Kline’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ you will see how far-right economic fundamentalists have since the 1970s used successive economic crises to remodel society to benefit the rich and powerful. This is precisely what is happening now: Cameron and Osborne are intent on ‘shrinking the state’, getting rid of the NHS and handing the public sector over to their rich chums. That is why their plans make no economic sense. And that is why public sector cuts are not inevitable. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS & THE JUBILEE




It’s been a week in which many people seemed to be intent on sabotaging their own best interests. Like US workers in 2004 voting for a president who would savage their health and welfare and give huge tax cuts to the super-rich, it seemed the masses either didn’t know what was good for them, or else were masochistically bent on their own self-destruction.

In 21st century Britain, at a time when austerity is the watchword, when the government is launching a programme of cuts, and money is hard to come by, a million people can, it seems, be persuaded that a clutch of inbred aristocrats are so ‘special’ that they will turn out in the rain to cheer them, and, presumably, the millions we spend each year to keep them in luxury. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in the state of Wisconsin, where last year thousands of trade unionists launched mass protests against the removal of collective bargaining rights, Governor Scott Walker won the vote in a recall election that has given the green light for huge attacks on the US trade union movement.

Although the latter is clearly the more serious of the two events, I want to spend a minute on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. These sort of events are always particularly irksome if you are a republican or anti-monarchist. The whole mass media goes into hyperbole mode, insisting that ‘the whole nation’ is as one in supporting, nay, adoring the monarch, leaving aside the fact that millions do not.

Even if we look at it in geographical terms, the ‘nation’ is far from being ‘one’. The BBC’s Scotland correspondent James Cook asked: ‘Is Scotland’s Jubilee Flagging?’  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-18317092  concluding that large swathes of Scotland, ‘show no visible enthusiasm for the Windsors’.

Although this is a subjective observation, in West Wales too, driving through Llanelli and Swansea on Saturday, I saw very little of either civic or domestic bunting (the latter being a rough rule of thumb for public support). It is not just that the wider support for socialistic ideas down here tends towards the anti-monarchist, but Welsh nationalists, too, resent the fact that an English aristocrat calls himself ‘the Prince of Wales.’ Although this is not to say there is no support for the Queen down here (there clearly is) it is to say that there is less of it than in the English heartlands, and that what there is, is more nuanced, more questioning, much more conditional. The BBC tends to relate even the weather forecast primarily to the South East of England, and this demographic bias, as a matter of course, over-estimates the depth and breadth of popular support for the royal family. In fact the wall-to-wall 24-hour over-the-top BBC coverage was a turn-off to many, as we shall see.

Nonetheless, the adoration directed at the British royals is extraordinary. On one level those sane adults who indulge it must be aware it is based upon a delusional, irrational notion – namely, that one particular blood line of aristocrats is, by virtue of its DNA, special, even godlike. That an institution based upon such a preposterous idea should have survived into the 21st century is a testament to the power of PR, spin and marketing, but something more than that sustains it.

The royal family fulfils an important unifying function for the British establishment and ruling class. Otherwise it would have vanished long ago. Its message is that national identity is supremely important, that it unites us before a woman who is above class, above the dirty games of political parties and elections. In some obscure way she represents us, she symbolises our history. Untroubled by the ebb and flow of electoral politics, she is a constant, with whom we identify as mother of the nation.

And funnily enough, as politicians themselves sink in popular esteem, being now regarded as a species somewhat below the bedbug, so the Queen becomes more transcendent. As politics becomes ever more debased and corrupt, so she shines ever brighter above the sorry mess. Bread and circuses was the formula which kept the ancient Roman masses quiescent: enough food to keep people from rioting, and the distraction of spectacle. And in London in the 21st century we have processions and military aircraft and a barge made of gold. The royals fulfil a symbolic function, certainly, but that is not to say they have no power. The only thing lacking is bread for the people. But then as the food parcel returns the diversion of the extravaganza becomes even more important.  

This is 21st century Britain, and symbols can cut both ways. Circuses are particularly welcome in hard times. But as the rich and the poor sectors of society polarise ever more violently, hard times have a funny way of finding their way into the spectacle, like grave worms bursting through a whited sepulchure.  As the royals were warmly tucked up in bed after the Jubilee celebrations, 30 ‘jobseekers’ – the patronising name of successive governments for unemployed people – and another 50, on apprentice wages, were dumped in the middle of London in the pouring rain to work as stewards for the Jubilee river pageant. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/04/jubilee-pageant-unemployed?intcmp=239  The appalling details of their employment by Close Protection UK, who told them to sleep under London Bridge, gave them no changing rooms, no access to toilets for 24 hours, and all for no pay, caused widespread revulsion. The government had to issue denials but the juxtaposition of hugely expensive royal celebrations alongside unemployed people on slave labour sickened many.

So, despite the best efforts of the BBC to present the Jubilee as a transcendent act of collective worship, the fly in the ointment’s scaly legs waved and distracted attention. Tom Watson – deputy chair of the Labour Party – felt emboldened enough to dismiss the celebrations as a ‘show of opulence by state elites’, eliciting an immediate shit storm from the Tory media. At the same time Ed Miliband decided now was the time to stake his claim for patriotism, averring , in a widely trailed speech, that politicians should ‘talk more about Englishness.’ Why they should he did not make clear. While it is understandable that the Scots and the Welsh should wish to stress their identity to stop their distinctive minority culture being swallowed up under an English dominated monoculture, it is less clear that the English need or want to do this.

The backlash even struck those breathless, shiny monarchy-lovers at the BBC. Their relentless coverage, together with the banal and platitudinous commentaries, was too much for some. There were 3000 complaints. The modern BBC audience obviously wants to be entertained, for god’s sake, and these days is not prepared to just watch a flotilla, even a royal flotilla, floating around for hours to a badly-prepared and inane voiceover.

However, at times when in other countries large gatherings of people on the streets are usually accompanied by tear gas and police batons, the fact is that in Britain large crowds turned out waving union flags for the Queen. In the Guardian Jonathan Haidt tried to explain a similar tendency,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jun/05/why-working-class-people-vote-conservative, claiming that the propensity of blue-collar voters to ally themselves with the political right, against their own material interests, is a global phenomenon . I thought of the recent vote in Wisconsin in favour of retaining Governor Walker, opening the door to a wave of attacks on US trade unions. In both these cases – the UK’s Jubilee and the recall vote in the US, large numbers of working-class people have been induced to identify with a person and a cause that not only does not advance their interests but may actually harm them.

There are obvious differences between the two cases, and the events are so heavily mediated that interpretation of either cannot be clear and simple. Reasons for voting in a particular way are usually complex, as are reasons for standing in the rain waving a little Union Jack. However, my main objection to Haidt’s explanation is that he sees the whole thing in terms of individual psychology, in this case to do with the fact that conservatives apparently have a ‘broader moral palate’ than leftists. Exactly what this insight means and how we use it are not made clear.  

Actually, the notion of the working-class Tory would not have been surprising to Marx. Workers accepting, even voting for reactionary ideas is not some new phenomenon. Notions of alienation and false consciousness go back to Hegel . One of the basic propositions of Marxism is that it is not ideas that shape the state of society, but the state of society that shapes ideas. The generally-held notions in society reflect the way society is organised. For example, in feudal times the rigid division between lords and serfs was accepted as natural and inevitable, as ‘ordained by God.”’ Modern capitalist society is founded on the profit motive – so this is thought of as ‘natural.’ Such ideas do more than simply reflect society : they justify it and the current class divisions embedded in it. “The ruling ideas of any age,” as Marx said, “will be the ideas of the ruling class.”

Anybody looking at modern society will see the dynamic of this process. The ruling class controls the channels for the formation and dissemination of ideas, the education system and mass media: its ideas are dominant here. But this is more than a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘brainwash’ workers: capitalist ideas seem to make sense because they reflect the world as we experience it. Businesses are run for profit, society is divided up into classes: believing that these things are ‘natural’ and ‘true’ seems common sense. So there is nothing surprising about the working-class Tory. If capitalist ideology didn’t dominate workers’ thinking in this way capitalism couldn’t survive at all. It is by no means the case that if people are oppressed and exploited, they automatically develop socialist ideas. The spread of socialist ideas on a mass scale must have a material base.

In the same way as capitalist ideas dominate workers’ thinking because they reflect their daily experience, so the spread of socialist ideas will reflect changes in that daily experience. For example, the recent huge growth in support for the left wing Syriza coalition in Greece did not come about because they found new and better ways of propagandising their political ideas, or that they suddenly discovered the internet. It happened because the dramatic changes in Greek society meant that their ideas came to resonate with the lived experience of masses of people. Things that had previously sounded outlandish became instead ‘common sense’.

It is not intensity or depth of suffering that creates revolutionary and socialist ideas, but rather the experience of fighting against that suffering. It is when levels of struggle are high that workers are most likely to develop confidence in their ability to change society, and to see that alternatives to capitalism are possible. Capitalism, by its tendency to crisis, continuously precipitates periods of intense class conflict, so that workers are forced to fight.  This is the sort of period we have entered now. Two years ago, commentators were remarking that the political left had ‘shot its bolt’: that at the time after the banking collapse, when socialist ideas should have grown rapidly, the bankers and the governments had won the argument. As usual, they thought that ideas were formed in the abstract, not in the actual process of conflict and resistance itself.

Ideas, whether of deference to royalty, or of collective contention through trade union action, can change quickly as conditions within society change. The Egyptian masses’ ideas about society and how it should be constituted changed rapidly as the huge crowds that assembled in Tahrir Square began to feel their power.  In the Greek general strikes workers’ ability to run their own enterprises came forward as an alternative to what was on offer. In the UK the biggest strikes since 1926 have given workers a glimpse of how to resist the biggest attacks on their living standards for generations.

The revolts of millions worldwide against austerity have, after decades, put revolution back on the agenda. Revolution sees millions of people stand up for the first time and take control of their society. It is necessary, said Marx, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”  It is through struggle that we change society but also come to change ourselves.