Sunday, 31 October 2010

Notes on Organisation and Consciousness

The remainder of Antonio Gramsci's notes grouped under the 'Modern Prince' in the Selections from the Prison Notebooks are a hodgepodge of reflections on state structures, cultural traditions, class consciousness and the kinds of approaches appropriate to them.

The first of these remaining sections is 'On Bureaucracy'. Here Gramsci notes each state has its own particular cadre of functionaries. The tasks they perform are broadly the same - the day to day running of the state bureaucracy - but at the same time they possess their own nation-specific traditions (and, it should be noted, different sectors of the bureaucracy have their own cultures too). Rising classes, whether bourgeois or proletarian, must pay heed to them and develop ways of neutralising/binding them to their own hegemony.

For Gramsci an historical inquiry into the development of bureaucracy would arrive at two qualitatively different forms of organisation to which all empirical examples can be reduced. The first of these is 'organic centralism', the development of organisation around a specific individual. But real organicity, a real reflection in organisation of the (class) relationships that sustain it is a property of democratic centralism. As we have seen previously, democratic centralism enables a party to become the transmission belt of the interests of the working class. Gramsci notes that organic centralism in the state has a tendency to petrify and become bureaucratic centralism. You could say such a fate awaits self-described democratic centralist states, parties and groups if permanent and unaccountable leaderships are at their head.

In 'The Theorem of Fixed Proportions' Gramsci argues there is a link between the organisation and politics of a class. In short, the more it is organised the better it is able to sustain an independent politics. The same rule is true in reverse: the less organisation there is, the less likely political ideas organised around class interests will find a purchase. One should however avoid an absolute separation between the two. Both are dialectically reciprocal and always conditioned by the overall balance of forces.

Gramsci responds to contemporaneous fascist critiques of liberal democracy in 'Number and Quality in Representative Government'. What fascism shares with mainstream advocates of representative democracy is the assumption all citizens have an equal say in the exercise of governance, regardless of their individual capacities. As a fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic body of thought, fascism holds that this is a recipe for mediocrity and ruin. However they are dealing with a definition of liberal democracy at its most abstract. Elections are not a battle of atomised ideas, rather it is a measurement of the persuasive capacities of competing elites. While the freedoms liberal democracy afford are valuable, need defending, and be used as a spring board to argue for
more democracy socialist must also recognise the severe limits imposed upon any form of democratic state structures by the rule of capital.

Turning now to problems of organisation, in 'Continuity and Tradition' Gramsci poses the problem all socialist must face: how do we assimilate the mass of the working class party (in the sense described
here) to its most advanced (socialist) section? For the bourgeoisie this is performed by the state and codified in the law. This organises them as a class and promotes conformity. For the working class, the body of its organisation requires something that can perform similar tasks and prosecute the class struggle to its victorious conclusion. For Leninists the answer is the "general staff" of the revolutionary party. For others it's the attempt to embed themselves and socialist ideas in the class as a means of diffusing consciousness. These are different methods but the outcome they wish to reach is broadly the same.

Moving onto 'Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership' Gramsci argues here that all political developments since the dawn of class society have at their centre conscious leaderships. The slave revolts and peasant rebellions of antiquity and feudalism were conscious in the sense of intentional activity, but were reflections of the common sense of the day. These constituted rudimentary forms of popular consciousness because they could not become conscious of their class position in the same way the classes of modern capitalism can. This means spontaneous mass working class action contains a germ capable of passing over into more durable forms of collective consciousness and organisation. Hence there's no real opposition between Marxism and proletarian spontaneity, but neither is there an unproblematic relationship. Socialists have to respond and relate to it in all its forms - including those with apparently reactionary objectives - with sensitivity and tact to strengthen the tendency toward independent collective activity. Opposing them, as some have done in
recent times runs the risk of deepening reaction and alienating workers. The job is to convince, not condemn.

'Against Byzantinism' is a small polemic against what Althusserian Marxists call 'theoreticism' - of treating theory as if it had an independent value. For Gramsci its value is always measured in concrete terms. Proof of utility lies in being able to explain situations outside of the context it was conceived and crafted, and its capacity to materially incorporate itself into these realities (i.e. successfully guide subsequent theory and practice and therefore influence the course of events). Value therefore does not lie in logical coherence but an ability to understand and facilitate change.

In 'The Collective Worker' Gramsci restates the basic relationship between the working class 'in itself' and 'for itself' - that the workplace reduces the worker to a cog in the division of labour with scant knowledge of the processes that placed them there. But this position can generate a social solidarity between others in a similar position, and it's this that's the starting point for seeing themselves as the collective worker. It's the first step on the road to resolving the gap between their position and consciousness of it.

In 'Voluntarism and Social Masses' Gramsci tackles the problem of 'volunteers': political adventurers that appear independent of any class. This was a pronounced historical phenomenon of Italy prior to Mussolini because of the traditional passivity of the rural mass, and the preponderance of dissatisfied and declassed intellectuals from the petit bourgeoisie and the peasantry. Without a class environment by which to navigate they were drawn to any number of causes and created all kinds of organisations. Politically their parties never succeeded in winning mass audiences and were frozen into sects. Because of this they have a tendency to settle into two types of voluntarism: as a collective of supermen
vis a vis the historical process, or as harbingers of am imminent reality that they're preparing the way for. These are pitfalls and obstacles labour movements need to avoud. The task for socialists is to base themselves on the existing organisations of the class and build consciousness and capacity from there, not to try and break a new path that can only lead to dead ends.

These notes on organisation and consciousness restate many points Gramsci has made before as well as some basic positions of Marxist politics. There are a number of applications that still have relevance to building socialist politics in Britain now. These will be discussed in the next post summarising The Modern Prince.

A list of posts in this series on the
Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Housing Benefit Cuts and Class

Not only is the deficit out of control, the monstrous and growing housing benefit bill threatens to devour us all in our beds. Or at least that's what the Tories and LibDems would have us believe. As far as I'm concerned that anyone has to have their housing subsidised by the state condemns British capitalism unfit for human habitation, but I digress.

The Tories find the growth of the housing benefit bill over the last 10 years unacceptable. They say it's unfair claimants can live it up in mansions and penthouses while the rest of us struggle to pay the rent or keep up with the mortgage. And they (justifiably) attack the Blair/Brown
ancien regime for allowing private landlords to gorge themselves on taxpayers' cash. But the Coalition's solutions - to cap housing benefit and reduce it by 10% for Jobseekers' Allowance claimants on the dole for more than a year - betrays their class instincts.
The Mail, backed with choice quotes from the Quiet Man, says housing benefit cuts means a £10 or £20 shortfall in rents for the low paid and unemployed who depend on them. Far from leading to a social cleansing of London and the South East - something even a buffoon like Boris Johnson recognises - the Tories and their press allies believe the market will adjust and rents will come down. It absolutely isn't an attempt to clear out people who are likely to vote Labour. No siree.

I have a hard time believing the Tories. If they were only interested in getting the housing benefit bill down surely it would make more sense to introduce a rent cap. Administratively it wouldn't be any more complex than the measures they're already seeking to implement. It would quickly adjust the market instead of waiting an age to correct itself. In a snap taxpayers would cease subsidising landlords, and most importantly no one runs the risk of losing a roof over their heads.

This option doesn't even appear to have been considered by the government. That should tell you all you need to know. This is their attempt to
do a Shirley under the guise of welfare reform.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

UK Welfare Spending in One Easy Graph

Time to scotch another Tory myth. Is UK welfare spending at historically high levels, acting like a deadweight around the neck of UK plc and dragging the economy into the gutter? The graph below showing welfare as a proportion of GDP (thanks to Duncan's Economic Blog) suggests not:


The more the Tories lie, the more they expose themselves.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Roy Bhaskar: Worst Writer Ever?

We've had our field of anuses, just like a pack of wolves recently. But as far as incomprehensible philosophical bobbins goes, I had an abiding memory of something I posted on the UK Left Network almost a decade ago that topped it. And now I've uncovered it after a little digging in the archive. "Critical realist" Roy Bhaskar is the culprit, so open your eyes and be dazzled by a legibility fail so epic it's almost a thing of beauty.
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal of the unholy trinity of Parmendean/Platonic/Aristotlean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and it's close ally, the epistemic fallacy with it's ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kiekegaardian and Nietszhean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard. (Plato, etc. p.215)
Makes Althusser's Contradiction and Overdetermination look like a Peter and Jane book. Is there anything worse out there?

Monday, 25 October 2010

Job Hunting in the Big Society

This post comes courtesy of Elaine O'Neill, or Scattermoon as she's known on Twitter. Here she writes about the utterly ludicrous situation she finds herself in where the powers that be are trying to *keep* her on the dole because of some bureaucratic nonsense. As anyone who's had the displeasure of claiming Jobseekers' Allowance will tell you, the system is overly complex and it's almost as if it was purposely designed to be a maddening as possible. The blame for Elaine's situation cannot be laid at the Coalition's door (though they're set to make it worse), but responsibility for it lies with all governments over the last 30 years who've worked systematically to stigmatise dole claimants. Elaine's original is here.

I've had major difficulty with the Coventry Job Centre in the past two months, mostly due to the fact they are preventing me from taking a job and keeping me on the dole as a result.

I graduated in 2009 with a First Class Honours degree in German & History from Royal Holloway in Surrey, and then went on a six week internship with the major German newspaper 'Süddeutsche Zeitung'. Since then, however, I have difficulties getting employment. Part of the problem was that I was living at my parents' in Nottingham, and for various reasons, I could not stay in Nottingham. Looking for a position out of Nottingham whilst living there led to me getting several interviews, however I got rejected for various reasons - Lidl UK's head office in Wimbledon regarded me as 'overqualified' for an admin position involing fluent German, whilst Adfero in Manchester took me through to the final stage of interviews before rejecting me based off something from my CV - namely that I had only worked professionally before in Germany, so I would not be able to work in an English environment (as a native Brit, I find this ludicrous!). Most rejections were based off my lack of experience in even the lowliest admin roles, and believing that someone with a degree like mine could easily find work elsewhere - which hasn't been the case. In July, I finally moved to Coventry to change my living situation and enable me to look for jobs locally as well as further afield.

In August, I applied for a job position at a specialist café and mail order business in London, and got asked for an interview in early September. They were very impressed with me, and rather than the admin role I had originally had in mind, they wanted to offer me the position of HR manager. However, the job was offered under the Future Jobs Fund scheme, for which I should have been eligible. Coventry Cofa Court decdied I was not. They gave several reasons for this - their belief that they'd need to find my travel to London two days a week (as I'd not be working 9-5, this would not have been an issue), them believing the London job didn't actually exist, and that it was all Nottingham Job Centre's fault, as they should have offered me Future Jobs Fund but didn't (this would be because my advisor in Nottingham was ill throughout June and July and I never actually saw him). The café in London and the London job centre they had arranged the positions with both believed I should be eligible, but communications between those parties and Sarina Russo Job Access in Coventry, whom I had been put on a 13-week 'training' course with, were unable to change Cofa Court's mind, and as of Tuesday 26th October, I'll have lost the chance to get the career-progressing job that both myself and the London café would benefit from.

Sarina Russo Job Access have furthermore complained to Cofa Court that me being there is a waste of both my time and theirs. They usually deal with the sort of people who either won't find work (the sort who happily declare they have 'cash-in-hand' jobs and will just stay on benefits as a little extra) and those who can't find work (due to their English skills, or not knowing how to make a CV). SRJA have said my CV, qualifications and even experience outclasses that of many of those who work there, so there is indeed little they can do for me. I am on a placement managed by SRJA at a sports centre in the Coventry area, but there too, I am not being 'trained' so much as doing the majority of the database and website work for the team, as they don't know how to do it as well as I do.

And I'm being prevented from getting a job at the same time as Osbourne's cuts are wreaking havoc on the welfare system. How am I meant to feel when the politicians rant about those on benefits who need to be pushed into getting a job, when the system they manage is actually preventing me from getting one?

Tristram Hunt Election Photos

As regular readers know, this blog doesn't do adverts. And if it did, they probably wouldn't be the best adverts in the world. But on this occasion I'm going to make an exception seeing as I have a product to plug directly involving me.

To say the cloud of controversy hung over this Spring's election campaign in Stoke Central would be an understatement. The dust had barely settled from a prolonged dispute between the dominant faction in the Constituency Labour Party and the regional organisation. This resulted in a split and the fielding of a self-styled independent Labour candidate. Our sitting MP decided, late in the day, to step down from Parliament. There was the perception the BNP were breathing down our necks. And then Tristram Hunt was selected as our prospective parliamentary candidate after a selection process one could euphemistically describe as far from ideal. Despite this a creditable campaign was put together at very short notice and we worked the constituency as hard as resources allowed. And to Tristram's credit he got thoroughly stuck in.

For the final week of campaigning my good friend and comrade-in-arms Andrew Conroy shadowed us as we pounded the streets and planned the next move in HQ. The hundreds of photos he took have been condensed down into a photography book, which launches today.

Candidate is a photographic portrait of the campaign moments that saw the seat returned to Labour. It gives you a glimpse into the crucible Tristram was thrust into. But also a sense of the work that goes into retaining a nominally safe constituency. And, of course, the book is suffused with imagery typical of the constituency. It is both a candid portrait of Tristram Hunt and Stoke-on-Trent.

Candidate carries a foreword I've penned placing the campaign in the context of the Labour Party's political and Stoke-on-Trent's industrial decline.

Samples from
Candidate are available to view here.

Hard copies are only available in small numbers. To obtain one, you can either contact me at the usual address available through my Blogger profile (remember to remove the 'NOSPAM') or from Andrew's contact details
here.

Andrew also has a photo blog you might want to spend some time looking at
here.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Where Now for Trade Union Friends of Israel?

Guest post from Lawrence Shaw, National Union of Journalists' Assistant Organiser writing in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The question of what position to take over the ongoing conflict in Palestine has been a serious political flashpoint in the UK trade union movement for as long as I can remember.

Like many ordinary union members, I have always been appalled at many actions of the Israeli state, particularly in relation to the impoverished people of Gaza. But I have always also been extremely uncomfortable about the shrill ultra-left trendies in yashmags who remain curiously ambiguous on the question of Israel's right to exist and seem to treat trade unions as simply a vehicle for their Palestine hobbyhorse.

The enormity of the strength of feeling on the issue really hit home to me during the NUJ conference in 2007. Delegates narrowly voted in a sleepy afternoon session to instruct the TUC to explore boycotting Israeli goods.

A few hours later, I opened my NUJ inbox to an unsolicited flood of abuse and ranting from various bedroom Zionists who had trawled the union website to aggressively complain to every email address they could find. It hit the
mainstream media. Within a week, hundreds of NUJ members had threatened to resign over the issue, and some high-profile members actually did – such as Channel 4 anchorman Jon Snow and now Education Minister Michael Gove. The debate still rumbles within the NUJ to this day.

It is a pattern that has been repeated across the wider labour movement, causing bitter schisms at several union conferences. The latest episode was played out at the recent TUC in Manchester where delegates voted on working towards boycotting goods produced in illegal Israeli West Bank settlements. The motion itself was very targeted. This was no Israel-wide boycott, and in actuality will probably have little actual impact on the ground, but was symbolically important.

The
Trade Union Friends of Israel held a fringe meeting in Manchester just hours before the motion on the boycott entitled “What can Trade Unions do to aid peace?” It was effectively a last-ditch attempt to influence any un-mandated delegates into changing their voting position.

Speakers included Roger Lyons, the former Amicus/MSF luminary who famously claimed his bathroom radio on
expenses, Eric Lee of the Labourstart website, Terry McCorran a Unison activist from Northern Ireland and Alon Roth-Snir, a senior Israeli diplomat in the UK.

The meeting was small. It was later very clear that aside from the handful of unaffiliated delegates and
Palestine Solidarity Campaign supporters engaging in a spot of masochism, the majority of attendants had come to the TUC specifically for the TUFI event.

Each speaker began, ostensibly at least, to be conciliatory. Indeed, the
stated aim of TUFI is to “promote Israeli-Palestinian Trade union Co-operation”.

Sadly, the pacifying tone was not borne out. As things wore on, the various axes to grind appeared. Mr McCorran, for instance, clearly had issues with Unison decision-making structures by suggesting the recent Unison conference decision to call for a boycott had been undemocratic because it had not been put to “all” members and went off on a personal tangent about the powers of Unison branches. Eric Lee somehow managed to bring up the Iranian nuclear power issue.

By the end of the meeting, having been egged on by some of the bussed-in delegates from the floor, Roger Lyons suggested that there was more than a whiff of naked anti-Semitism around some trade unions in the UK – a very serious and preposterous allegation.

As someone who relishes Israeli culture through my
Krav Maga obsession, I was hoping the meeting might lend its way towards showing a level of understanding of the complexity of the issue and towards addressing the actual question posed.

In the end, I walked away feeling that it was just more of the same - another attempt to brush over the abject crimes of the Israeli state with not one mention of the flotilla scandal and nothing on the internationally condemned settlements, instead suggesting that any move towards a boycott was driven by anti-Semitic sentiment. Eric Lee proudly proclaimed that TUFI would be happy to have an open public debate with the PSC over the issues, without seeing how this would do precisely nothing to solve the problem.

It is a debate that, for now at least, TUFI is
losing heavily. The TUC voted unanimously for the boycott that afternoon. I witnessed a large gang of Lyons’ entourage slinking off after the vote in spite of having loudly decreed that unions should be more bothered about addressing issues like pay and the cuts. Clearly, they were not bothered enough to hang around to listen to the other debates.

While genuine attempts to build cross-cultural workers' co-operation are to be welcomed and urgently encouraged by any serious trade unionist, it is no good if those attempts are dressed up in a strident defence of Israeli state policy. TUFI and their allies should stop moaning about various perceived persecutions, diverting attention from major global political issues, calling for debates with the PSC and turning up mob-handed to hold fringe meetings that nobody goes to. TUFI and the PSC should instead stick to the task about bringing workers together on the ground and engaging UK trade unionists in facilitating that. Then maybe they might find many more ordinary union members would come around to their way of thinking.

Until that day comes, the pointless arguments and bitter debates will continue and in doing so turn off the vast majority of workers from engaging in trying to build for a labour movement solution in Palestine.

Theory and Activism in Marxism

The previous post in this series concentrated on the socialist struggle against economism in the labour movement, and looked at the relevance of that position today. The next two major note fragments - 'Prediction and Perspective' and 'Analysis of Situations. Relations of Force' - address themselves to the place Marxism occupies in the formation of socialist strategy.

Understandably the ability to predict the consequences of unfolding social trends and processes is essential for any kind of Marxist political project. The capacity of theory as a guide to practice depends on identifying those moments where the application of the limited forces at its disposal can make a difference and effect the overall balance of the class struggle. By way of an example, it is to the eternal credit of Militant and others who brought the Anti-Poll Tax Federation together that they could mobilise a mass movement against it and help re-energise the organised working class after the defeats of the 80s. But this realisation wasn't just because of a particularly canny analysis of the situation. As a small but rooted organisation, Militant's analysis condensed the experience of tens of thousands of conversations its membership was having in the labour movement and beyond. Theory drove subsequent practice, but that theory was preceded and conditioned by practice from the outset.

As far as Gramsci was concerned predictions depend on seeing the present and the past as a movement. They are not discrete entities only distantly related to one another. The past is
not a foreign country: it is the necessary foundation for all subsequent developments. But also theory and practice needs to generate (and subsequently be conditioned by) a programme. It's not enough to analyse and deploy our forces. Socialists need a road map, a sense of how to get from here to where we'd like to be. The programme mediates the relation of theory to practice and practice to theory, while striking a balance between what is and what ought to be (in their pathological forms, the former can be realised as the worship of accomplished fact, of capitulating to prevailing social relations in the manner of right wing labourism and social democracy), and the latter ultra-leftism and voluntarism). For socialist politics the immediate objective is always striking a new balance of forces, one that differs from the objective of its pathological forms because they work to transcend the present. Hence 'ought' is always concrete and should always be based on imminent historical possibilities. If this is neglected all one is left with is a revolutionary whimsy.

For Gramsci the Marxist analysis of class forces proceeds from different levels of abstraction. These are

1. International Relations (how these define a great power, position states in systems of international hegemony(ies), questions around small and medium state sovereignty and independence).
2. Society's "objective relations" (level of development of the productive forces, level of development of class relations and political force, hegemonic parties and party systems).
3. Immediate political relations (small scale actions and activism, everyday political activity, etc.).

Demonstrating their interpenetrated and interrelated nature, he writes

Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a nation state does nor precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.) . However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it ... (1971, p.176)
It's worth emphasising the separation Gramsci makes is an analytical one and is essential for constructing an accurate appreciation of the situation before the party. But as well as these he argues our principles of analysis must also distinguish between 'organic' movements and conjunctural (accidental) events. The accidental events of history have their roots in the various movements of capital and people that slosh around all societies, but ultimately they have little far reaching sociological significance in and of themselves. Instead they impact on the configuration of existing trends. For example, as psychologically shocking the September 11th attacks remain they were rooted in US policy toward the Middle East and the responses to it. Similarly it became a foil for the movement within the US ruling class favouring military action to impose its will on Afghanistan and Iraq. In a similar fashion personalities (history's "Great Men") emerge when they are invested in and borne aloft by these same class forces.

At moments of crisis organic forces and the conjunctural can coincide. For Gramsci the stuff of everyday politics is the attempt to preserve
and overcome structural crisis, and can steer the course of subsequent developments. For example, though the Coalition and Labour leadership favour programmes for cutting the deficit by reducing the public sector, the different speeds and depth they advocate will make a major difference to how politics and the economy unfold over the next half-decade. Because organic forces are always open to modification by political action this is necessarily the terrain of the labour movement, but if it is to shape subsequent history the working class party - in the wide sense established here - has to convince wider public opinion that it alone is capable of offering a way out of the crisis. It has to strike a fine balance and avoid economism and 'ideologism' while relating to really-existing levels of consciousness.

Gramsci then moves on to the historical development of the bourgeoisie's collective political consciousness. As European feudalism decayed and capitalism began incubating in its decomposing womb the nascent bourgeoisie began to manifest a form of consciousness at the 'economic corporate' level of guilds and trade associations. Hence consciousness was partial and limited to sectional interests: they were unaware of what they shared with other sections of the rising class. This shared consciousness is eventually realised on the economic plane but as the threshold is approached and reached, the existing state structure looms as an obstacle to their achievement of equality with established ruling classes. This opens the period of struggle for political rights (for Gramsci the lead up to the experience of the French Revolution is the quintessential realisation of this process). At the final stage when the bourgeoisie are installed as the ruling class to secure their interests they have to become the repository of the interests of other classes too. This applies to the previous aristocracies displaced by their victory and the various subaltern classes. On each and every vital "superstructural" issue the bourgeoisie seeks to establish a political lead. The state co-opts, concedes, and corrupts the interests of other classes. It attempts - and often succeeds - in presenting itself as the embodiment of the universal (or national) interest. In other words, it consistently and systematically works to subordinate the interests of other classes to the hegemony of capital.

Be that as it may, no state is an island. As we saw before there are myriad connections between its internal relations and those of other states. Social relations are no respecters of borders. Hence policies carried out in one state can influence others - depending on the position it occupies in the international order. For example, Britain's role of the last 30 years in the EU can be described as a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism.

In summary, the theory and practice of socialist politics are intimately bound up with a programme. Successful interventions in large measure depend on having a correct diagnosis of the situation, which itself must crude determinism and voluntarism. We must also understand that socialists swim against the tide of bourgeois common sense.

With this in mind, Gramsci rounds this section off with a question. Does economic crisis necessarily lead to an historic (systemic) crisis of capitalism? No. Economic crises create conditions favourable to certain ideas, interventions, and ways of resolving particular social questions. An historic crisis therefore does not happen by itself. Though capitalism systematically creates the conditions that make socialism a real possibility it does not render it an inevitability. Gramsci's understanding of Marxism is about understanding the points of least resistance, of generating strategies and tactics appropriate to them and attending to the preparation of working class organisation to the task of transcending capitalism. It is nothing less than a call to arms.

A list of posts in this series on the
Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

No2EU on EU-Inspired Cuts

Remember No2EU? Since its poor showing in last year's European elections it has limped on as an irregular press release machine. As I'm a bit busy this evening and haven't the time for a proper post, I reproduce this latest broadside against the hand the European Union had in yesterday's Spending Review. While I think the emphasis of this piece is wrong in placing the cuts at the EU's feet (the Tories would always cheerfully carve up welfare and the public sector irrespective of what Brussels thought) it does highlight the anti-democratic neoliberal game Europe's governments are playing behind closed doors. Whether you're opposed to the EU, would like to see it undergo root and branch democratic reform, or worship it as the nearest we're going to get to Hegel's Absolute, socialists and labour movement people across the continent need to keep an eye on the EU's cut-happy machinations.

ConDems play Brussels austerity game
Governments across the European Union are putting austerity policies in place which include massive cuts to welfare states, driving down wages and pensions, while raising unemployment by cutting investment and public spending. The public sector is to be handed over to the private sector with loss of service quality and accountability and no regard for the social consequences.

Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has agreed in Brussels that national budgets must be vetted by the European Commission. The budgets must be in line with the EU’s 1996 Growth and Stability Pact where Britain has exceeded the limits on government borrowing of 60 per cent of GDP and deficit of three per cent of GDP - currently and respectively 71.4 per cent and 11 per cent (Office of National Statistics). EU member states are to be fined if their budgets are not brought back into line with the Pact.

Italian economics minister Giulio Tremonti emerged from the meeting of EU finance ministers last month to announce that "budget policies in European countries cannot be national policies any more".

He said that the EU will be slapping economic sanctions and fines on countries which refuse to slash public services in order to cut deficits and maintain “budgetary discipline”.

Marco Buti from the European Commission for Economic and Financial Affairs also explained how the EU plans to slash public sector wages. "When wages in the public sector damage competitiveness and price stability then the country will be requested to change this policy ... And the wage development in the public sector does of course have a great influence on the private economy," he said.

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas also chose last month to reveal more new Thatcherite rules designed to create a ‘Single European Railway Area’, dominated by EU "open access" competition rules, which incrementally remove national governments' power to control their own rail networks. “My aim in all of this is more competition in passenger and freight services. I intend to move forwards as quickly as possible with legislative proposals to open up the market," he said.

In summary unelected EU institutions, without a mandate, are now deciding the budgets of member states, how much public sector workers earn and how fast Europe’s railways can be privatised along the lines that created the dysfunctional transport mess we have in Britain.

That is why over 100,000 trade unionists marched in Brussels last month against unelected institutions like the European Central Bank and the European Commission which are driving up unemployment by slashing public borrowing and investment.

Ignoring the huge protests outside his window like some latter-day Nero, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso declared that placing economic sanctions on member states marked “a sea change in the way economic governance is dealt with in the European Union".

Under the plans, fines for countries which fail to meet the Thatcherite Stability and Growth Pact economic criteria will be "quasi-automatic", meaning that they could only be blocked by a qualified majority within the European Council.

George Osborne agreed the need for “credible sanctions” for member states which did not conform with EU budget rules as his own Tory government has announced a Spending Review in line with EU demands.

These EU-backed austerity measures are being repeated in all members states, especially those locked into the disastrous single currency. France is attempting to cut pensions and raise the retirement age to 62 from 60, and force employees to work longer.

The Spanish government has approved an austerity budget after promising the EU to cut its deficit to six per cent of its gross domestic product next year, from 11.1 per cent last year. Public sector workers face a pay cut of five per cent while unemployment has more than doubled to about 20 per cent.

The Greek government has pledged to the EU to slash the budget by £26 billion over three years, privatise the rail network, freeze public sector salaries and pensions for at least three years, raise retirement ages and increase EU-inspired VAT from 19 per cent to 23 per cent.

The Irish government has slashed spending and cut all public sector pay by at least five per cent, leading to GDP falling 1.2 per cent and gross national product dropping by 0.3 per cent.

There is, of course, resistance to these vicious measures which are only deepening and intensifying the nature and depth of the malaise. Yet the EU’s hand to impose its corporate-driven and suicidal neoliberal economic programme has been massively strengthened by the ratification of the Lisbon treaty.

This treaty gives EU institutions all the powers necessary to unleash a free fire zone for finance capital, creating a direct threat to jobs, public services and standards of living.

Minimum standards, legal protection and trade union strength could all be swept away in an orgy of speculation, profiteering and social dumping.

Therefore it is staggering that support for this agent of neoliberal structural adjustment in Europe still wins support from sections of the trade union movement, politicians and even the left.

Writing in the
Morning Star newspaper European TUC John Monks claimed that the EU is not about “dead-end, cruel Thatcherite economics but has a strong social dimension”. While this is wildly at odds with reality for hundreds of millions of workers Monks does, at least, admit that “no-one is acting on this message”. The simple explanation for this is that ‘social Europe ’ and ‘social partnership’ is nothing more than a mirage designed to seduce trade union bureaucracies and trick workers into swallowing the EU’s bitter neoliberal pill.

This sophistry was made clear by the architects of the EU’s internal market and the single currency, the corporate lobby group the European round Table of industrialists (ERT). ERT secretary-general Keith Richardson said long ago that big business did not oppose inserting a ‘social dimension’ into EU treaties “as long as it only remains an aspiration”. Now the trap has been set and workers and their organisations have a stark choice, resist this corporate-backed assault on democracy or continue in the elaborate charade created for them by monopoly finance capital.

No to EU austerity.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Comprehensive Spending Review Cuts

The phony war is over. George Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review statement is the artillery barrage signalling the start of the shooting war. Far from striking a sombre note appropriate to the circumstances and despite Dave's handwringing, the Tory benches were in a chipper mood as the chancellor announced assault after assault on the social wage and the public sector.

Osborne prefaced his avalanche of cuts with the usual deficit deceptions. The Coalition's actions in the summer saw Britain "step from the brink". The cuts are designed to reduce the "waste and welfare we can no longer afford" and that we are stuck paying billions upon billions out to foreign creditors - even though the bulk of debt is domestically owned!

Measures introduced were

* Capital spending at £51bn, £49bn, £46bn and £47bn until 2014-15.

* Total public spend of £702bn, £712bn, £724bn, £740bn until 2014-15. In real term this is the same as at 2008.

* 3 principles - reform - fairness 'all in it together' 'broadest shoulders' - growth (prioritise those promoting growth)

* £6bn Whitehall savings with an estimated 490,000 job losses over four years (claims much will come from natural turnover). Believes private sector will take up the slack and cited 178,000 new jobs created over the last three months as an example of the economy's capacity to absorb the shock. Money to be provided for BigSoc projects.

* Treasury dept. budget to be reduced by a third. Cabinet office to find £55m savings.

* Civil List: a new settlement with one year cash freeze, 14% fall in 2012-13 royal household costs. Receive grant linked to proportion of crown estate income. How will the Queen survive?

* Decentralisation - recognises not all services need be provided by govt but can come from private or voluntary providers. Green light for further privatisations.

* Local government - councils face 7.1% reduction year on year. Reducing core grants to councils from 90 to 10. Funding available for council tax freeze. £2bn additional resources for social care by end of 2014-15 period.

* Housing benefits capped and entitlement reduced, new social housing tenants 80% of market rates. Will have the effect of pricing many claimants out of their communities.

* Military - 8% reduction by 2014-15.

* Police -4% reductions year on year without affecting frontline services. Fall by 4% each year. Counter-terrorism being maintained. Home office reduction by 6%. More reforms for streamlining justice system. £7bn budget by 2015. Ministry of Justice also 6% fall.

* Banks face more regulation. Bank of England in charge and independent commission on banking. Implementing code of banking practice which will see banks give up tax avoidance. Additional £900m to go after £7bn in tax fraud.

* Welfare: Crack down on estimated £5bn fraud. Pensionable retirement age of 66 brought forward to 2020 to save £5bn. Staggered increased progressive employee contributions to public sector pensions. £1.8bn savings 2014-15. 12 months limit for sickness benefit not deemed incapable of work. £2bn universal credit fund to make it work. Savings from cap on benefits at average wage resulting in a total welfare saving of £7bn savings.

* Universal benefits: No further change to child benefit apart from higher rate tax payers - £2.5bn saving. Keep universal benefits for elderly. Permanent increase in cold weather payments.

* NHS: Total health spending to rise above inflation. £114bn budget by 2014-15.

* £1.5bn Equitable Life pay out.

* Dept Business: Costs to fall by 7.1%. Maintain Post Offices, support for students. £4.6bn science funding frozen maintained by finding £320m worth of savings. £1bn committed to carbon capture and storage project. Another £1bn to offshore wind farms. £1bn green bank. 'Green Deal' incentives.

* Culture media and sport: 19 quangos to go and budget 15% reduction over four years. 41% admin costs reduction. Free entry to museums and galleries maintained. BBC to fully fund World Service and Monitor, and part fund S4C. Frozen license fee for six years. BBC to face a 16% budget saving in line with govt departments. Reducing online spend, no encroachment into local media markets, and contribute to superfast broadband.

* Dept of Transport: invest £30bn over next four years.

* £1bn regional growth fund.

* Schools budget rising from £35bn to £39bn. Replacing EMAs with targeted support. Five education quangos, to be scrapped with a one third reduction of admin. Money to be found for a £2.5bn pupil premium.

In his bullish reply, shadow chancellor Alan Johnson rightly labelled the Coalition cuts programme a "reckless gamble". In addition to the 490,000 public sector job losses, according to Price Waterhouse Cooper a further half million private sector jobs are at risk. Furthermore for every 100,000 lost jobs there is - assuming those people claim JSA - an additional half a billion cost.

Despite Coalition rubbish about being "all in it together" this is a budget whose consequences fall disproportionately on working class shoulders (and working class women at that). To pretend a top banker or tax-dodging business owner might have to take one less holiday, an extra new car, or an additional summer home is in the same league as being turfed out of your community because of housing benefit changes or losing your job because it's "redundant" is risible and deeply insulting.

The Tories and LibDems are pleased as Punch with their work. But the cuts are not inevitable. The labour movement can defeat these cuts not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's necessary.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Best Blog Ever

I've not long come across this utterly amazing blog. The RNCPGB(ML) - Revolutionary New Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) - appears to be the latest hardcore Stalinist new kid on the (eastern) block. It combines slavish support for the countries of actually-existing socialism with the sub-Spart ranty style of the Brarites, and overdoses on "anti-revisionist" revolutionary identity politics.

Or does it?

In the post celebrating
the anointment of the North Korean "Young Leader" Kim Jong-un, it writes:
The RNCPGBML has come under fire recently from unlikely sources, ranging from the ultra-revisionist CPB to the now fully Trotskyite embracing ‘CPGB-ML’ for its shoulder to shoulder solidarity with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ... Whatever the criticisms these microscopic Chernenkite-Wałęsaist maggots have of the government of the DPRK, forever on their ‘blogs’ and ‘websites’, we ask these so called ‘communists’ to respect democracy.
'Chernenkite-Wałęsaist maggots' has to be the best leftist insult ever.

A post titled
how dare these people mock the glorious red liberation army of people's China?!! makes this telling observation:
... the enemy has poured millions of dollars into that factory of lies and falsification called Hollywood. Who amongst us hasn’t, at family Christmas dinner, shouted “Imperialist filth!” at our television screens as some James Bond or Rambo film dared to come into our homes?
On Erich Honecker:
Perhaps some of our number would categorise this man as a dirty revisionist secret banana eater, who enjoyed erotic dancers while entertaining Mikhail Gorbachev and his filthy, vile, capitalist, unhuman, sickly, gypsy-loving, proletarian-democracy-hating, berlin-wall-despising crap.
And lastly, from Portugal's seven-nil drubbing of the North Korean footy team in the World Cup:
The latest attack by imperialism on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea comes from an unlikely source. Events from the past few days have now proved beyond all doubt that the Portugal 7-0 DPRK football result was a total fabrication and possibly the biggest hoax since the Srebrenicia massacre.
I'm really stumped.

Is the RNCPGB(ML) a work of evil satirical genius or a bona fide gaggle of Enverist moon howlers?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Alan Johnson's "Alternative"

Alan Johnson's first speech as shadow chancellor (full text here) was interesting. Sunny titled his preview 'Labour abandons Darling's plan, to focus on growth, not cuts'. If only that was the case.

It was necessary for Johnson to nail the lie of Labour's "profligacy", a myth the Coalition have spun to draw a veil over the culpability of the Tories' city mates for the crisis. And by prefacing the meat of his speech this way Johnson employed it to good effect. However just as Dave and co have conveniently forgotten their support for Labour's public spending up to the banking collapse, so the marketisation of the NHS, higher education and bit-part privatisations of the benefits system have disappeared into our leadership's memory hole. Labour's 13 years in government saw more investment in the public sector, but it went hand in hand with wasteful PFI projects and a never-ending procession of cuts.

But this is the new generation, right? Turn over a new leaf and all that? Unfortunately, while not as cut-happy as Darling's blood curdling "worse than Thatcher" comments before the election, the new Miliband/Johnson plan has the awful tendency to undermine itself. While the new 'alternative' doffs its cap to Ed Ball's recent adventures in Keynesianism it still accepts the need for cuts.

Johnson is absolutely right to say "without growth, attempts to cut the deficit will be self defeating. A rising dole queue means a bigger welfare bill. And less tax coming in" and "a spending cut hits growth twice as hard as a tax change – three times as hard when it’s capital spending." There are some good arguments here the anti-cuts movement can deploy against the Conservatives and their LibDem running dogs. At times the point is made so well, especially against the banks, that you could be forgiven for thinking you're reading Labour party policy
circa 1974 than a post-New Labour tract. But then neoliberal common sense (an oxymoron if there ever was one) spoils it all by rearing its ugly head.

Johnson informs us that "we can't oppose every cut". Cue continuity with the harrying of the disabled, the great welfare cheat witch-hunt, changes to housing benefit, "tough decisions" on public sector pensions and pay, and an endorsement of halving public borrowing over the next few years. Provided the Coalition cuts responsibly, Labour - or at least the leadership - will support it.

And they call this opposition.

If the need for cuts to bring down the deficit is accepted - and I do not - the new plan does at least make some sort of sense. A slower pace of public spending cuts would theoretically allow the private sector time to adapt to the new situation. It's a difference between cutting as part of an overall economic strategy vs chainsawing through the public sector without a care for the consequences.

But both depend on magical thinking. The Tories think quickly chopping up the social wage and amputating parts of the economy will let business fill the gap. Ed and Alan envisage a similar process, but on a more gradual time scale. None of it is based on solid evidence or previous experience. Freezing wages, chucking public sector workers out of their jobs, holding down benefits etc. have the same depressing effects on the economy whether one favours deficit reduction by a 70:30 or 50:50 cuts/tax ratio.

The Miliband/Johnson "plan" is an alternative in degree, not in kind. It is an awkward mish-mash of neoliberalism and Keynesianism. They want to cut, but accept the need to invest. They want to invest, but accept the cuts argument. Ultimately we're left with an incoherent approach that will neither satisfy the right wing press or the bulk of the labour movement. The party may have the "luxury" of opposition but events have an annoying habit of catching up with and throwing political programmes into sharp relief. And when they do, which way will the leadership jump?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Political Influences: Conservatism

Some time ago, I was tagged by Bob's political influences meme and now, finally, I've got the time to do it. While it's tempting to list super serious canonical figures from the world of activism and theory to boost one's credentials as an erudite thinker, I'm going to plump for a mix of the personal and political. Copying Bob's format of a series of posts, I begin with my introduction to politics.

Josephine Barbara Carver, or, as she was known to my family, Nana Barbara, is probably more responsible for my developing an interest in politics than anyone else. My Nana spent most of her life in Normanton, an inner city working class district in Derby. She worked as a housewife and later in the canteen at the local nick.

She was also a life-long Tory.

During a mock election at school run to coincide with the 1987 general election, Nana gave me my basic course in politics. She admired Thatcher and fully subscribed to the view that Thatcher's policies would ultimately benefit everyone, despite the short term pain. Labour on the other hand wanted to get in everyone's way, and had "made a mess" last time they were in government. Thatcher was a woman of action who had sorted out the unions and empowered council tenants by giving them the right to buy their own homes. In short, my Nana was like millions of other working class Tory supporters. They aspired to better things for themselves and their families and it was Thatcher who was clearing the way for them. The state, the unions, Labour: they were the real conservatives holding Britain and British people back.

Nana's conservatism was firmly in the bootstraps mould. It was not about doffing your cap or being latter day ragged trousered philanthropists. It was about accepting the way of the world and getting on with things. But also it was a conservatism that had little time for bigotry. As far as she was concerned what you did was always more important than your background. When I dilly-dallied with racism in my early teens she helped talk me out of it. When I brought my school yard homophobia home with me she always challenged it (she was much more critical years later after I returned from nine months at university with anarch-ish views and a copy each of Lenin's Selected Works and Marx's Capital in tow).

Nevertheless despite her influence I could see what was going on around me. After Major's election victory in 1992 I quickly became very disillusioned. By the time I'd left school I no longer saw myself as a Tory but as a socialist (whatever one of them was). This was defined by an inchoate sense of being against certain things but being unsure what I was for. Because the Tories were against socialism, it seemed convenient to rebadge myself as such.

Where that went next I'll leave for another post, but what has proved to be an abiding influence is the bootstraps aspects of my Nana's conservatism. This doesn't mean I'm for chopping up the welfare state and public services, or the removal of the many things performed under the aegis of the state that makes life, as well as British capitalism, tick. But I am sceptical of overly statist conceptions of socialism (whether reformist or revolutionary) and believe we should celebrate the self activity of our class. From voluntary work to community activism, from everyday trade unionism to political work, our class and our movement has been doing the Big Society from year dot. We don't need lectures from Dave or cadres of semi-detached BigSoc consultants. Socialism is, among other things, the unleashing and harnessing of the collective ingenuity each of us carry a particle of. This is our political DNA, and we should not allow the Tories to hijack it.

(As this is a meme I hereby tag a few regulars: Splinty, Dave and Paul, Stroppy, Dave O, Madam Miaow, and Andy.)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Norwich SWP Resignations

Just when you thought the dust had settled after the bulk resignation of Socialist Workers Party members in Doncaster, news reaches me of another flutter of departures from their ranks. A trio of comrades have resigned from the Norwich organisation, and I reproduce their letter below. Their arguments reveal the three ex-members (whose full names I've omitted) were ill at ease with the SWP's response to the coalition's round of cuts. This reflects wider debates concerning the SWP's Right to Work campaign. Comrades who've been round the far left block a few times are well aware of the SWP's habit of setting up party fronts for any issue that seems like a goer, and justifiably many activists are weary.

That said, I do think a couple of claims made in the letter are slightly off. The SWP
should have approached other existing groups and campaigns with a view to building something united, but they cannot be blamed for not tapping into the wide but diffuse anger out there. The fact is the labour movement and class consciousness is where it is. We can work to change and build it up into a force that can present a systematic challenge to capital, but it's a long and drawn out process. It demands patience and consistent work by the most conscious and active parts of the labour movement. No left group, not even the SWP, can jump over and short circuit this development. I also think the comrades' boosterism for the Coalition of Resistance smacks of hyperbole - for all its faults the RtW campaign has mobilised the largest demonstration against the cuts so far.

Do these resignations mean much? It demonstrates that Counterfire's positions - whatever one thinks of them - still exercise an influence in some sections of the SWP. It makes you wonder how many others could make a similar move over the coming months.


To Martin,

After many weeks of deliberation we have come to the conclusion that we must leave the SWP. This decision has not been a light one, but we feel that the choices taken by the Central Committee in regards to the events in Doncaster have highlighted a deeper problem with the party’s leadership and perspective. Furthermore, we believe the strategy taken around the recession has been misguided, and that the SWP is unfortunately incapable of leading a consistent fightback against the incoming austerity measures.

The impact of the party’s failure to create a genuine united front against the recession and the incoming austerity cannot be underestimated. The limited success of Right to Work and its inability to tap into the huge levels of anger against the class nature of the austerity measures (around bankers bonuses etc) and crucially to develop as more than a ‘party front’ we believe reflects a much wider political problem within the party. The inward-looking approach of the organisation that has led to the unwillingness to build a genuine united front has also manifested itself in some significant tactical errors (for example, its response to anger over bankers bonuses and its relegation of Stop the War). This has led us to believe that these are more than a series of unfortunate mistakes, and that this perspective is a product of a deeper conservatism within layers of the party; a conservatism that we believe can no longer be overcome.

More recently we believe that the response to the Coalition of Resistance, which has tapped into an unforeseen level of anger, is a perfect example of the party putting its aims before the needs of the class. We feel this is further evidence of the inherent weaknesses within the SWP.

We are grateful that the SWP has given us the opportunity to work with some of the best activists in the class, however we feel that we can no longer be the best activists, and be honest with the class, working within the SWP.


Norwich SWP/University of East Anglia SWSS

Chilean Miners

Unambiguously a good news story. This footage courtesy of Russia Today.



More from Harpymarx and Union Futures.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions

It's not often I blog about the weekly ritual of Prime Minister's Questions. Most of the time there seems very little point. This ritual, which gives an appearance of accountability, seldom sheds lights on the government's actions - especially when the PM is a slippery customer deft in the art of answering everything but the question. And don't even get me started on friendly "don't you think the government are the best thing since sliced bread"-style queries. It's small wonder the public at best don't care or, at worst, find the whole spectacle alienating. It really puts the endless commentary trying to apportion points to the PM or the Leader of the Opposition into perspective.

But because today's questions saw Ed Miliband's debut at the despatch box, there will be a bit more interest than usual. As a new leader uneasy with the manner of his election and a whole host of Big Issues before Parliament, his performance had to satisfy the party faithful and those MPs eager to seize on any pretext to wield the knife. For once the points game
did matter.

And how was it for Ed? Presentationally he did well. His measured questioning and passive-aggressive sparring with Dave may come across well. Ed stuck to the issue and stuck Dave with a barb where appropriate, whereas the PM came across as an Old Boy braggart desperate to win points through colourful insults. Those who tuned in might possibly see Ed's performance as a step away from Punch and Judy.

Ed Miliband's choice of issue, however, spoke volumes about political pose he wants to be seen striking. On the benefit cap and more medical tests for disability living allowance, Ed promised to work with Dave on supporting the coalition's proposals. But it was on the scrapping of universal child benefit and the well-publicised anomalies the proposed changes will throw up that Ed chose to attack the government. While any socialist worth their salt should defend universal benefits, Ed's angle focused on their "unfairness" rather than the correctness of the principle.

True, the government deserve condemnation on this matter, but given Ed's trajectory since winning the leadership I'm left wondering. Did he go for this (even though the Browne report is juicier) out of genuine concern, or because it's an issue championed by the self-proclaimed daily papers of Middle England?

It is right for Labour to try and win over relatively affluent voters in swing seats. But that Ed chose to do so on his first outing while the concerns of the vast majority effected by the cuts go unvoiced tells us who he wants to be seen championing. If this is the shape of Labour strategy to come, we might as well have voted in his brother.

Marxism and Higher Education

In their continuing quest to ensure a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of rich people and their families, the Browne report, released yesterday, gives the Tories and LibDems the green light to dismantle higher education provision in this country and let the market take over. There's commentary and opinion here, here, and here.

Again, for all of Saint Vince's
faux reluctance the government's enthusiasm for dismembering the university system and organising it along the lines of the oh-so successful American model is justified by the deficit. Once again it is the cover for an experiment in neoliberal social engineering. And like similar policies in the past, and quite apart from the social consequences, the effect this could have on the profile of British capitalism is potentially catastrophic. In his recent book, The Writing on the Wall: China in the 21st Century, Will Hutton argued that the key advantage Western economies have over China is their 'soft' cultural and institutional infrastructure, on which successful capitalist economies depend. As technological innovation, entertainment, knowledge and other forms of "intangible" commodities become more important for global capitalist production the greater the advantage accruing to those countries with large further and higher education sectors. From the standpoint of British capital, the government's attack on higher education threatens the preeminent place it occupies in the global knowledge economy. While science and advanced manufacturing are to be protected by subsidy, the so-called soft subjects which sustain strategically important entertainment and creative industries, as well as providing the kinds of transferable analytical skills essential for any advanced economy are threatened by the government's reckless plans. In plain economic terms, market share and billions of pounds are at risk.

One argument advanced by opponents of free HE, whether Liberal, Labour or Tory is how unfair it is for the poor to subsidise the education of people who, on average, will earn far more over their working lives (curiously, the logic of this argument is never deployed in relation to corporation tax cuts and tax breaks for business). This is an example of bourgeois
economism, of deploying a "common sense" that appears to stand up for the economically weak while reinforcing a socially regressive agenda.

If you want to get all Marxist about it - and I do - capital gains far more from a well educated workforce than the economic rewards accruing to individual workers. As regular readers and anyone with a passing acquaintance with Marx know, the ultimate source of profit lies in the difference between the amount of money paid out as a wage (determined by what is necessary to reproduce a worker at a historically and socially given physical and cultural level) and the total wealth they generate over the course of the working week - this difference accruing to the employer. From this perspective, qualifications serve to make available workers with certain sets of skills to fill particular niches in the social division of labour. Regardless of their wage, salaries and other privileges, graduates are as economically exploited as any other section of the working class.

Until the abolition of free education by Tony Blair, HE funding from general taxation reflected this (to an extent). Capital profits from a well educated workforce, and so capital paid. Under the Tory/LibDem-endorsed Browne report, capital will will receive all of those benefits without having to pay for the cost - in effect, students will be picking up the tab and subsidising their future employers.

As with any other measure being pushed by the Tories and LibDems, it is a statement of intent. It can be stopped by mobilising as wider a coalition as possible against the cuts. If, as the political elite like to think, a new spirit of cooperation and working together is abroad, then let our movement be the repository of it. Let us turn their slogan of 'all in it together' into our own. Students, public sector workers, the elderly, parents, public-dependent private businesses: this is the vast constituency the government are determined to clobber. It is the labour movement's challenge to bring it together and give it shape and a sense of direction. Because if we don't, these counter-reforms, this decimation of the social wage is a recipe for generations of misery. It's not much, but where HE is concerned there is a march on 10th November. Details
here.

Monday, 11 October 2010

100 Years of UK Public Sector Debt

You know the UK's public spending deficit? The one we're saddled with because Brown and Darling used buckets of taxpayers' cash to bail the banks out, thereby transforming a financial crisis into a public spending crisis? The very deficit the Tories and LibDems think is going to eat babies once it's finished breakfasting on the economy? It kinda looks very small when placed in historical perspective:



Now read this post on Boffy's evergreen Marxian economics blog. Don't let the coalition fool you: there is nothing unprecedented about this debt.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Tristram Hunt on the Coalition's Prospects

At Friday evening's branch meeting of North Staffs and East Cheshire's Cooperative Party, new MP for Stoke Central Tristram Hunt gave a brief talk on what the prospects of the Coalition government. Will they disassemble at the first hurdle or are they likely to go the distance?

He began with a potted history of previous coalition governments. The first coalition in modern times was the six month-long Fox-North coalition of 1783, a Tory-Whig lash up George III dismissed after nine months. The one 19th century experience of a coalition (during the Crimean war) was also an inglorious episode. Small wonder Benjamin Disraeli famously declared "England does not love coalitions". But given the two parties' duopoly in an adversarial system, any alliance between the two made little sense. Because this party system has survived in various permutations down to the present day, Britain stands out among West European nations in not having much experience of coalition government outside of war (Crimea, 1st and 2nd World Wars) and economic crisis (the 1931-35 national government notoriously presided over by Ramsay MacDonald, and the Tory/National Liberal "coalitions" prior to the war).

This is something not lost on the Tories and LibDems. Despite not being historically enormous, the deficit is dressed up as a mortal economic menace demanding extreme measures - such as a coalition - to get rid of it. They pretend it is an instrument designed to work in the national interest, but the colouration of cabinet and junior minister appointments owes more to political expediency than anything meritorious. This is even clearer when it comes to the coalition's constitutional plans. The Alternative Vote referendum is a Tory sop to those LibDems who are at best lukewarm over the cuts - even though the measure is unlikely to win, it might buy off a LibDem revolt while the first cuts package is going through parliament. Then there is the fixed parliament with its two thirds majority threshold for dissolution. And not forgetting the major boundary exercise which will, at a stroke, snuff out 50 constituencies. By pure coincidence the majority of whom are Labour-held seats.

That said, Tristram thought the coalition, as a piece of political machinery, is working well. Because this is an alliance of
Orange Book LibDems (i.e. the party's dogmatically neoliberal wing) and the Tories, they already share a very similar outlook. It is this ability for the two to rub along nicely. If the coalition lasts the five year distance the personal and political friendships will help see them through, as well as their mutual culpability for the dark deeds they are committing. This is what his head thought, but his gut was telling him something else: it gave the coalition three years tops. Again, it comes back to the AV referendum. After it has failed many LibDem members will be wondering what they have got out of the coalition (apart from undying enmity and a deserved reputation for opportunism). Therefore it's likely the centre and centre leftish LibDems are the ones to give the coalition a headache. Meanwhile backbench Tories might moan and make themselves difficult, but not to the point of bringing the government down. Good Tories never put principles before power.

Moving on to questions, Tristram added that the Tories and LibDems entered the relationship without an exit strategy. While there has been some speculation about joint election campaigns (something that would screw Labour for the forseeable future), neither body of activists would stand for it - unless faced with the prospect of total wipeout.

Asked about the boundary review, Tristram thought this would cause the coalition innumerable problems within its own ranks. Many LibDems sit in marginal constituencies - a movement of a boundary here or there could tip them into the hands of the other parties. In addition, the loss of 50 seats will see many MPs from all sides of the Commons absorbed in internal selection battles from the middle of the parliamentary term on. Hardly a recipe for rebuilding public trust in politicians.

Another point Tristram made, which seems to be what many Labour MPs are thinking but I'm not entirely sure about, is that people
like the coalition. It's becoming received wisdom that the public prefer to see parties working together rather than knocking lumps out of each other. I certainly haven't encountered this sentiment outside medialand, nor have I spoken to anyone chillaxed about losing their job or pension rights because it's a coalition wielding the axe. But if you believe there is a mood favouring consensus, Ed Miliband's decision to appoint Alan Johnson over the consensus-challenging economic policies favoured by Ed Balls makes sense. But it doesn't make it any more right.

In all a worthwhile look at the problems the coalition face. Unfortunately, in my opinion Labour lacks the leadership to make the most of them. Just as it was under Thatcher the strongest opposition will come from *outside* parliament.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Why Alan Johnson?

As stupid choices go, there can't be many dumber than Ed Miliband's decision to make Alan Johnson the shadow chancellor ahead of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper.

You've got to wonder what's going on in Ed Miliband's head. On the one hand you have a couple of Keynesian economists who favour an agenda more in tune with public opinion than Osborne's frenzied cutting and Alastair Darling's "slow and shallow" cuts. On the other you have Alan Johnson, a cabinet minister so useless, so compromised by Blairite authoritarianism and neoliberalism that even the union he once ran refused to back him in 2007 for deputy leader. I would have thought it a no-brainer. But no, Ed's decision seems counter-intuitive for counter-intuition's sake.

So what the hell is happening? I think there are two interrelated things going on.

1) Ed Miliband is still shit-scared of the press. Were Balls or Cooper heading up the response to the Autumn Spending Review Osborne would have faced a social democratic critique. That would have played well in the country away from the Westminster Village, but not in the medialand Ed Miliband inhabits. As we
have seen before, leading politicians seek to inhabit the domain of non-punishment. For the sake of an easy ride in a declining press, our shiny new leader is prepared to sacrifice a coherent alternative to Tory/LibDem cuts so he won't be dogged by the 'Red Ed' tag.

2) When the wheels came off Brown's premiership, the Blairites proved time and again to be a bunch of treacherous bastards. Ed is all too aware that if he's seen to stumble the knives will come out. And the Blairites too are aware there's a question mark over his legitimacy as leader due to the circumstances of his election. By appointing an (inexplicably) popular Blairista as shadow chancellor, he binds them to his leadership. As the old saying goes, keep your friends close ...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Dave and BigSoc

Thankfully, rumours Dave's Tory conference speech would be performed in the style of a rap with a dubstep accompaniment proved unfounded. But the cod philosophy delivered in its stead was equally embarrassing. Dave's hour in the spotlight was all about his Idea, the Tories' "vision thing", the warm huggery of liberal conservatism: BigSoc.

Dave has wisely turned his back on the uncaring individualism of the Thatcher years. But he has preserved its philosophical core of individual responsibility and freedom and simultaneously locating it in an updated version of One Nation conservatism. This is more in tune with the trajectory of British society over the last 20 years than John Major's sad attempts to rebrand Toryism in terms of afternoon cricket, warm beer, and Spitfires. But that is the limit of BigSoc's originality. During his speech, Dave singled out 96 year old Tory activist Harry Beckhough, a man who's been batting for the class enemy since 1929. One can't help wondering if he'd heard Harold Macmillan uttering similar platitudes over 50 years ago.

The thing is it's difficult to disagree with Dave's big wheeze. Just like Andy Burnham's
foray into pop political theory, on paper there is nothing objectionable about BigSoc. A redistribution and decentralisation of power, the phasing in of limited democratic checks on the police, more accountable and less bureaucratic public services, a voluntary citizens' service, more social activism, a balance of rights and responsibilities - if one ignores the waffle about the 'entrepreneurial economy' you might have found this sort of rhetoric in social democratic manifestoes of years past. And even shades of it in the odd list of Trotskyist transitional demands too.

Of course, BigSoc's deliberately designed to be all things to all people. Dave might genuinely believe in the list of nice feel good things he and his advisors have thrown together, but it's hard to see it as anything other than ideological cotton wool wrapped around the axe the Tories are currently sharpening. For example, in the name of choice and accountability public services are to be "broken open": this is Dave giving capital the green light to percolate even further into the fabric of public services, albeit with cooperatives, voluntary organisations and social enterprises acting as its Trojan Horses. Time and again they will be wheeled out as the success stories while private welfare and healthcare providers gorge on profits away from the media spotlight. Nice.

BigSoc needs to be placed in context. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the 'end of history', the crashing and burning of the metanarratives, mainstream politics have sought to define itself in terms of post-ideological pragmatism around unassailable neoliberal nostrums. BigSoc marks an evolution in this condition: we're not so much as experiencing a return of ideology (in the sense of the open espousal of big ideas) but the
appearance of its return. BigSoc is an empty signifier marking the absence of anything beyond the latest iteration of neoliberal managerialism.

Dave can talk about responsibility, activism, aspiration, values, citizenship or whatever BigSoc buzzword suits the occasion, but all the while his party is the instrument of forcing the working class to pay for capital's crisis.