Sunday 21 June 2015

In Defence of the Anti-Austerity Demo

What do you do when you give up trying to change the world? There are two options. The first is to fade into private life and spend more time gardening, building a model railway, or indulging whatever other ever-so worthwhile pursuits. The other is to try and make a career as a professional naysayer. It's but a short hop from "why are you bothering, nothing ever changes" to full on apologising for the establishment you once railed against. And so yesterday's anti-austerity demo that saw many thousands take to the streets and command the headlines on an otherwise sleepy Saturday also attracted a fair few armchair dismissals from the safety of Twitter. Chief among these was David Aaronovitch, who tweeted "What, in the name of all that is holy, is the point of an anti-austerity demo four weeks AFTER the election that decided the issue?" Many moons have passed since David claimed the Communist Party as his political home, but with the long-lapsed membership has gone some elementary understandings of how politics work. So on the off-chance David's reading this, allow me to provide some needed instruction.

What is the purpose of a demonstration? The most immediate, obvious objective is to demonstrate the strength of feeling about an issue/sets of issues. More or less every weekend the capital sees some sort of mobilisation of one form or another. This week it was tens of thousands marching against the cuts. Last week a few hundred cycled around London in their birthday suits to highlight climate change. Despite the relative novelty of the latter, which protest commanded the headlines? Which activity attracted the snarks and the criticism? If it wasn't in some way relevant, then the anti-austerity demo would have been as safely ignored as the World Naked Bike Ride.

These numbers matter. Whether it was a quarter of a million people or not is neither here nor there. A lot of people marched. And there is a rough relationship between the size of a demonstration and the broader constituency sympathetic to its political message out there in wider society. A couple of million people marched against the Iraq War because that reflected the tens of millions who were opposed. While much smaller, the still quite impressive numbers are, again, indicative of widespread dissatisfaction in the broader population. The bigger its mobilisations are, the bigger the "silent" group of dissenters is. And this matters. Presently, Tory strategists can look at yesterday's march and put it down to the usual suspects. However, had it been twice or three times as large it may have given them pause.

The anti-austerity demo is also very much of the moment. In early July George Osborne's emergency budget - designed to clear up the mess of the, erm, last government - will unveil around £12bn cuts to social security. That inevitably means disabled people will suffer, trying to get by on the dole is set to be tougher, and people who rely on state top ups because their miserly employers are going to get hammered. There will be people in those sorts of situations who do not know the kicking the government is itching to give them is on its way. When austerity as an issue is crowded out by other stories, more than a few people who cast an askance view upon the news might have picked up on what's coming.

Also some, you know who you are, don't see much point in A-to-B marches. The routine of assembling here and marching there to listen to speeches ain't going to change the world, but that runs the risk of privileging form over content. As this report from the BBC notes, the march attracted all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons - socialists and trade unionists marched alongside NHS campaigners and anti-fracking activists. What a march like this does is help draw together various issues and links them up. Often times socialists forget that the common thread running through these issues aren't as obvious to most people, especially those who haven't got years of political activity behind them. Not only are they getting exposed to those arguments, they know who's campaigning alongside them on related issues. In short, a demonstration builds understanding and forges links between activists. A large demo, as per yesterday's, can be quite energising too.

Lastly, this kind of extra-parliamentary pressure sits uneasily with some of the commentariat, as well as a fair few who inhabit the House itself. As far as they're concerned, Parliament is the only sovereign decision-making body in the land. Politics is about presenting your wares at election time, getting voted in (or not), and then laying off until the next round of elections. Because the Tories were proposing more cuts in their manifesto and they got voted in, everyone should sit on their hands. Anti-cuts campaigners had their chance and they blew it. Therefore, demonstrations, protest activity, and the like are borderline illegitimate types of politics. Of course, if our forebears had taken that view there would be no such thing as universal suffrage and weekends, for one. Yet its funny how this logic isn't extended to other forms of extra-parliamentary activity. For the best part of five years, the right wing press traduced the character and printed outrageous stories about Ed Miliband. They've peddled lies about poor people, about immigrants, about the EU, about the Labour Party. And how does giving cash to political parties on the "understanding" that certain policies will and won't be pursued in office sound? Would any establishment figure dream of declaring these extra-parliamentary activities illegitimate? Or will they be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of how we do politics? It seems David and friends have forgotten that politics is always much more than Westminster and elections.


WillORNG said...

Varying degrees of democracy, like class struggle, happen all the time.

Boffy said...


I agree with the general thrust of what you say, but I think that the WW critique is also valid. That is basically:

(1) The 2 million on the Iraq demo of which I was one, didn't stop the ensuing Wars(s).

(2) Repeated demonstrations over cuts for as long as I can remember, going back to the 1970's, have not prevented governments introducing them.

(3) Part of the problem of these types of demo (1) and (2) is precisely that they do draw in a wide variety of participants, i.e. they are vague in their objectives, and popular frontist in their politics - the former being a necessary condition determined by the latter.

(4) the vagueness is most clearly represented by the fact that the only message that can be discerned is that those involved in it are once again "anti" something, rather than being actually for something. Popular Fronts can never actually be "for" something, because the reality is that all those varying political forces involved are actually "for" different and conflicting things. That will be seen most clearly in the upcoming EU referendum where the SWP and SP will be making common cause with UKIP and the Tory Right to withdraw from Europe, even though these political forces claim to be "for" completely different political objectives.

Having said that, I thought the numbers on the march this soon after the election were impressive. But, the point is rather like Marx's argument in "Value, Price and Profit" in relation to strikes they are a necessary minimum, even though they change nothing in practice. They are a necessary minimum as a means of rallying workers and putting to them a positive alternative to just doing the same old ineffective thing over and over again.

The problem for organisations like the SWP and SP and their various splinters, is that they have no real vision as an alternative to workers other than doing these same things over and over again, because the reality of their vision is only to "build the party" member by member, from these various popular fronts.

The consequence is, as with Respect that the politics to the extent they existed to begin with get blurred, and then dragged down to those of the most reactionary elements of the popular front.

To move forward clear politics are required, based not on being "anti" whatever it is, but on being positively for a socialist solution.

BCFG said...

Positive solutions were put forward, many of them classically socialist or at the very least classically social democratic. Boffy either wasn’t listening or just falling back into his dogmatic handbook which says demo = anti something.

While this March will have little immediate affect ona Tory party that has shown itself to be thoroughly debased it does tell us that there is a sizeable bloc of people who have not bought into the propaganda of the BBC, the Sun and the Mail (let us add Sky news into this abysmal mix), it also boosts Corbyns profile and reminds the New Labour cabal that they have at least to pay attention to social democratic voices.

Incidentally, from my point of view the Tories do not represent the small business owner in particularly but they reflect the consciousness of the manager class. I was looking at some savings suggestions today and was interested by those from middle management. One example was (I paraphrase)

“We should consider not paying sick pay as this will save money and encourage people to not stay off as long. This is a real problem in my service area“

What a one sided view! Firstly, what the manager wants is people to work when they are sick, which could have all sorts of long term costs – lower productivity, exhausted workers, deteriorating long term health, higher turnover of staff etc etc etc.

And secondly, the manager hasn’t stopped to think that the reason for high sickness may be their bad management!

This is a classic managers view of workers and one reflected in the Tory party.

Matt Wardman said...

Am I being thick or are there no comments on Saturdays?

Anyhow, why does your interviewee tweet from Pittsburgh with a beard? Do we have a scandal of another Councillor living abroad or is the link wrong?!

It is instructive to compare the two demos. The Naked Cyclists are much more successful as a movement, and - with all the other cyclist activists - are slowly changing the culture. Their communications are not working though, since climate change is peripheral to the problem. If practical Zero Emissions vehicles, available now at reasonable prices and charged off solar panels, are around, the pollution and climate arguments evaporate. It has to be about lifestyle.

But they have a working model to point out (Holland Holland Look at Holland - it is nice to bike, the children aren't fat, and slightly fewer people on bikes get killed).

Equally they have proven strategies that will produce incremental change locally, and have been shown to do so in some places. It just needs 30 years of slogging and persuasion!

For the other demo, where are the working models? And what happened to all the people?

Parliament Square holds 20-25k, even being generous about people not there, they overestimated by 5-8 times. I'd expect a double claim, but I'd say they are deluding themselves as to the size of their silent support - an important point as you identify.

More strategically, what are they going to do if Osborne and Duncan-Smith make the project work, and in a few years there are a mass of small businesses, less than 1 million unemployed, and a strengthening of prosperity in the North?

Anonymous said...

In Defence of David Aaronovitch.

And where better to start defending Mr Aaronovitch than with a quote from Trotsky -

"Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." (Preface History of the Russian Revolution.)

So, who were the "pistons" on offer on Saturday?

1. The SWP (Weyman Bennett) - Fell out with Respect big time and spat out Counterfire.

2. Counterfire (John Rees) - Behind the People's Assembly but were the big honchos in the SWP CC at the time of the fallout with Respect and subsequently expelled.

3. Respect. (Lee Jasper) - See above. Best known for George Galloway (loved by some and loathed by many).

There are other pistons, of course, such as the Socialist Party (who didn't seem to have been invited to speak at this gathering).

So, a lot of pistons (who don't get on) and a lot of steam generated on Saturday.

So, where do they go from here?

The big rallying cry for the Far Left at the moment is, of course, Jeremy Corbyn's Leadership bid. As I wrote over on "Shiraz Socialist" -

"So, who’s backing Jeremy, then?

Tories, Communists, Thatcherites, Trotskyists, Reaganites, neo-Trotskyists, Ukippers, cryto-Trotskyites, Islamists, ultra-left union leaders, anti-Zionists, Right-Wing weirdos, Guardianistas, Torygraph readers, Left-Wing weirdos, Guido Fawkes, Left Unity, Guido Fawkes’s cat, Bennites, Louise Mensch, Seamus Milne, Frank Field, Stop the War, George Galloway….

and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

And who’s opposing Jeremy?

Anyone who wants Labour to have a chance to win the next election"

Phil wrote in his article above re the views of the commentariat -

"Parliament is the only sovereign decision-making body in the land. Politics is about presenting your wares at election time, getting voted in (or not), and then laying off until the next round of elections."

I think that most people in the country do believe that Parliament is the only "sovereign decision-making body" in the land. Labour lost big time (and I'm gutted about that) but the Labour Party is not "laying off" as you put it. There is a Leadership election and a debate about where things went wrong and how best to try and win over Tory voters to win in five years time.

As ever, there is a split between mainstream Labour and the Far -Left. The latter want believe that the most pressing issue is promoting their particular view of socialism (and there's a huge variety to choose from) and the former want to try and win elections even if it means a painful compromise with an increasingly, conservative, nationalistic (SNP, UKIP) electorate. I'm with the latter. The former just want to see reruns of 1983.

At the moment, I'm with Nick Cohen on the Leadership election and inclined to vote for Liz Kendall. Why?

1. She stands the best chance of L:about doing well in the next General Election.

2. It will make my old mates in the Socialist Party very happy ("SEE! We told you so!") and would, hopefully lead to a greater exodus of the Far-Left from the Labour Party. This should even help Labour even more.

Then the Trotskyists, Stalinists, Islamists, anti-Zionists, Gallowayites, Bennites, etc. etc. can all put their differences together under the Leadership of Jeremy Corbyn to put forward their "bold Socialist Programme" to the Electorate in five years time. Let's see how they fare.

John R

Boffy said...

"Labour lost big time (and I'm gutted about that)"

Then don't feel so gutted, because the idea that Labour lost big time is just Tory and Blairite spin!

The last government had a majority of around 80. This government's majority has been reduced to just 12. How does that reflect the idea that Labour lost big time?

Labour won as many additional seats in England as the Tories. The idea that Labour lost support is just factually wrong. In fact, Labour's vote share increased by a bigger proportion in England than that of the Tories by some margin.

The truth is that Labour moved ahead strongly in England, whilst the Tories only moved ahead by taking the seats of their erstwhile Liberal allies.

If we look at where Labour lost heavily it was in Scotland, where they suffered from having joined in the Popular Frontist "Better Together Campaign" with the Liberals and Tories - see the discussion above on why Popular Fronts will do that to you if you are a socialist!

The SNP were able to present themselves as to the left of labour - even though they are conservative nationalists - in the same way that the Liberals were able to do that until they merged with the Tories in 2010.

Similarly, the peasant parties such as the Greens were able to strike up a similar fake left pose, which took votes from Labour. The votes that Labour lost in England, apart from those scared by the nationalist bogeyman, were largely people who saw Labour as not being sufficiently left and radical.

Some of those who voted for UKIP, even fell into that category. As with the fireman on the Labour leaders debate, who had voted UKIP as a protest because he was opposed to the cuts the fire service and others had suffered, and so could not vote Tory, but found Labour's opposition to the cuts not robust enough.

Once again, it shows the problem of opposing cuts or other things, without putting forward a sharp clear programme as an alternative. It show the problem of lumping yourself in with the great mass in some Popular Frontist organisation, where clear socialist politics get drowned out.

BCFG said...

I think Trotsky would have a few issues with Liz Kendall being the 'guiding light' of the 'movement'!

New Labour of course represent the piston of capitalism as usual!!

The anti Zionist part of anonymous's comment gave it away, no wonder anonymous lept to the defence of Aaronovitch!

But your attempt to do it while posing as radicals are really those who support the status quo will not wash.

But don't worry, New Labour can be relied upon as a staunch supporter of the racist Israeli state for many years to come, so rest easy, I mean who cares if they have capitulated to neo Liberalism when they can be relied upon to support whatever outrage Israel carry out next.