Thursday, 19 May 2022

Let Them Eat Longer Working Hours

Before news broke about the arrest of a Conservative MP for rape, the party was having a bad week. An outcry over their civil service cuts, on the hook over Northern Ireland failings and former Gloria De Piero office manager turned Tory MP Lee Anderson arguing that the lack of cooking skills is responsible for Britain's growing food bank problem. Into this very Tory mess we find Home Office minister Rachel Maclean stirring the pot further, suggesting people can protect themselves by "taking on more hours or moving to a better paid job." Even worse, this was for the "long-term" and not about addressing the difficulties many millions face now.

But it's a common refrain. We heard it a lot during the Coalition years. When I used to write complaints against social security cuts, the "advice" back from Iain Duncan Smith would always say that constituents should simply "get more hours". Remarks reminiscent of Norman Tebbit's famous anecdote about his dad getting on his bike and looking for work - as opposed to rioting. It speaks to an entirely voluntarist mind set, as if people who don't have enough hours to get by on endure their situation out of choice. All one needs to do is ask the boss for more work and hey presto, enough money to live on without bothering the DWP and "the taxpayer".

Why is this a repeat offender in Tory discourse? Is it a symptom of the Tories being "out of touch", which is a favourite if ineffectual barb of the Labour front bench? Or just plain callousness and cruelty? Indeed, why do these same refrains turn up time and again, repeating decade after decade? To answer the question is to think about the Tories in context. In Capital, Marx treated capitalists as the personifications of capital. I.e. as vehicles of an exploitative social relationship. They were agents of a process they set in train and, as owners of capital, its beneficiaries. Marx was uninterested in capitalists as individuals and resisted viewing their behaviours through the prism of morality. What mattered were the compulsive character of the relations of production they engendered. Hence cruelty, patricianism, penny-pinching, tyranny, the character traits we typically associate with the ideal typical Victorian capitalist is rooted in these self-same relations. They crystallise the behaviours imposed on the capitalist by the competitive necessities of accumulation.

What has this got to do with the Tories? Extrapolating outwards, for Marx and Engels the state was the committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. That is, because individual capitals were responsible for managing the class relations peculiar to their enterprise (whatever that might be), but did so in the context of competition with other capitals doing the same thing, the management of the relations of production by capital-in-general is uneven, messy, chaotic and leaves gaping holes for resistance and counter powers to build. Or it would, if it was not for the state. The state is the institutional condensation of the relations of production, the chief defender of the wage relation and guarantor of the pre-eminence of capital. It is both an instrument of the bourgeoisie as a class, and a site of political struggle. The expansion of the post-war state, for example, typifies this dual character - the growing dependence of the state on immaterial labour was due to having to employ masses of workers to attend to the reproduction of the social by rounding off the hard edged consequences capital imposes on it (unemployment, underemployment, poverty, ill-health, racialised and sexist divisions of labour. etc.) and the expectations of strong labour movements around health services, public services, the institutionalisation of the labour interest, and so on. Unsurprisingly, the extent to which a state cleaves to the labour interest testifies to the strength of the contending classes.

Because the state is an arena of class struggle, parties eventually cohere around the collective movements and constituencies of interests the relations of production give birth to. For example, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the first modern political parties in this country were the Conservatives and the Liberals. Their core social base was the same - capital (albeit, loosely, different fractions of capital) and the political divisions between the two were, crudely, about how best to manage the class relations of their system. The 19th century was when the labour movement formed and its history could be roughly sequenced as machine breaking and protest movements, the development of trade unions and the cooperative movement, and then working class parties - culminating in the Labour Party (and to a much lesser extent, the Communist Party). As a proletarian party, its habits of mind were formed in the attritional battles and small-scale victories of everyday trade unionism, and it articulated the historical but pragmatic aspirations of the class organisations that comprised it. Labour's programme was always a compromise between different strata of proletarians, of salary and wage earners, but one in which the relatively privileged predominated. And, interestingly, from the beginning Labour attracted some fractions of capital, particularly those who spotted and developed a commercial interest in its growing the economic power. Despite the hysterics of some, when Labour has held office it always proved as reliable as the Conservatives and Liberals in managing the relations of production - it worked hard to manage the aspirations of the labour movement within the terms of address afforded by the system, to the point of demobilising and dispersing its own base. And in exchange there was the building of public services, state ownership, and the institutionalisation of organised labour into a haphazard tripartite system - before it was undone in the Thatcher years.

The compromises Labour makes, which are often unnecessary and overly craven, are to be expected. The party exemplifies the tension within the state as overseer of the relations of production and a site of struggle itself, and this manifests itself in the character traits and politics of the adherents the party attracts - often helping explain the contradictory politics often encountered in one person. The Tories are somewhat removed from this. They are not encumbered by a base at cross purposes to the state-as-manager. Altogether, as the one remaining major party of capital its tensions are altogether simpler. Look at recent factional groupings, the Northern Research Group presses for more money for northern constituencies, the Covid recovery group were worried it might give people political ideas, and the One Nation group just want everyone to pull together and for the party to stay united. Hence the personalities that rise to the top of the Tory tree are more likely to reflect capital's traits in a "purer" fashion. Johnson's well known indolence, recklessness, and disinterest in work exemplifies the "laziness" of capital tied up in property. I.e. Capital converted into property only has to sit there to appreciate, which is guaranteed for as long as housing demand outstrips supply and land ownership is concentrated into vanishingly few hands. The Tories who delight in cruelty, like Therese Coffey and her scheme to pile more cruelty onto social security recipients, resembles capitals whose model is about squeezing and intensively exploiting their workforce as much as they can. The arrogance of Tories, like Lee Anderson, who lectures the poor on their competencies reflects the superiority that comes with control over the production process. And bringing us back to the excuse for this excursus, for our Rachel Macleans their pig ignorance of and indifference to the realities of the hoi polloi is what you'd expect from a profoundly instrumentalising process that treats employees as inputs instead of the complex human beings they are.

In other words, the fact the Tories of the 2020s are just like the Tories of the 1990s isn't a quirk of fate or coincidence, it's because they are the flotsam and jetsam of the social flow sloshing through bourgeois politics. The faces change but the personalities do not thanks to the Tories being the pre-eminent party of the state, the state being a crucial nexus in the relations of production, and the fact these relations are an exploitative zero-sum game. For all the dynamism and uncertainty capitalism generates, the line between capital and the character traits of those who espouse its politics is remarkably stable.

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