Sunday, December 20, 2009

From currents to the Whirlwind

IT must be about 20 years ago that I met with an old acquaintance from my teenage years in Manchester, as we were assembling for a demonstration in Kilburn. We'd each been active in different quarters of the Left. He, a bright and confident lad, had led a dissident faction out of the Socialist Workers Party and gained respect for a time for his economic analyses, as well as campaigning against the South African apartheid regime.

To my surprise, he asked me whether I did not find the political situation depressing. He looked pretty gloomy, as if he meant it. I said no, considering the upheavals in South Africa and eastern Europe, as well as signs that people had had enough of Thatcherism in Britain. He seemed to think the Tory government could ride out any crisis, having gained popularity by letting people buy shares and council houses. When I mentioned "negative equity" and repossessions he acknowledged there was a problem, but said he could not see middle class homeowners becoming militant and leading a struggle. At that point someone interrupted our discussion, so I did not get to remind him that the idea of embourgeoisement rested on working class people having become home owners.

Not long before this I had heard a leading member of the Communist Party's so-called 'Euro' faction, linked with the magazine Marxism Today arguing that Thatcherism had successfully evened up the differences between the classes, that old-fashioned industries like coal and steel and manufacturing were giving way to a different economy, based on information and services, in which working class traditions of struggle and solidarity, and aims like public ownership, were out of date. Afterwards, a couple of Labour Party members were shaking their heads in disbelief. "You say he is a Communist?" asked one old boy, as it happens a veteran of the Polish Bund and Soviet labour camps, amazed to find erstwhile Stalinists now well to his Right!
"He's right to say Thatcher has changed things", commented an academic involved with urban planning problems. "but the way he presents the changes you'd think he was speaking for Thatcher herself".

My old Mancunian associate has continued battling on, though last time I saw him he still looked gloomy. Arguing that Britain remains an imperialist nation, a "country that sustains the standard of living of its citizens through the income generated by a ‘gigantic usury capital’, he sees nothing new about New Labour. Noting the gap between rich and poor has not been reduced, indeed has grown wider under this government, he is too busy knocking down the opportunism of his one-time SWP comrades to ask why this should be so, when the Labour imperialists could presumably continue delivering reforms and improvements on the basis of super-profits? Seeing no contradiction in the "official labour movement" he can see no good coming of it. Only corruption, from which the dedicated "revolutionaries" must remain pure, while seeking forces for change elsewhere.

Our Marxism-yesterday, marketing Maggie-today man on the other hand, moved on, swimming with fellow ex-CPers in a "think tank", making his way up the bourgeois media ladder, serving as an adviser to Tony Blair, and becoming a freelance guru advising managements on how to encourage "participation" and cope with change. I don't know whether he is finding trade slack these days, or has launched innovative short courses like "How to break the news of mass sackings".

Capitalism has always been subject to booms and slumps, and yet while Tories sneered at Gordon Brown's promise to end boom-and- bust (as though anyone could), the current global crisis seemed to catch the Left and the labour movement largely unprepared even to wage defensive actions, let alone a political offensive. At the end of the second annual conference called by the National Shop Stewards Network in 2008, a delegate proposed that the following year's conference should be strictly for workplace representatives.
"This time next year a lot of people here might not have any workplace!", I commented to my colleagues.

The following year's conference had plenty of reports on workplace struggles, but also a well-attended workshop on the history of the pre-war unemployed workers' movement. My own trade union council had still been discussing what to do about the money in the bank from our old unemployed workers' association when it occurred to us we might have to start a new one.

Bob Archer is secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network, but like others involved, Bob is also a political activist. A member of the United Socialist Party formed by sacked Liverpool dockers and former councillors, he edits the Marxist journal Socialist Studies associated with it. In this pamphlet Reaping the Whirlwind, published for the journal, Bob makes no claim to crystal ball predictions, but sets to work tracing the tangle of financial wizardly by means of which capitalism sought to mystify the real nature of wealth production and free itself from base labour, only to crash in the way it has.

The 'neo-liberalism' which emerged as 'Reaganomics' in the 'States and Thatcherism here purported to champion independence from the state, yet this was a myth, extending only to freedom from redistributive taxes, the costs of welfare, and restriction on money movements, while using the state to crush working class resistance (as we saw at Wapping and with the miners' battles), and to provide help, not just in subsidies but by opening up areas like transport, public utilities, health care, education and local services to private profit.

Globalisation has meant shifting manufacturing and other investment to poor and so-called "developing" countries, driving down pay and conditions in the richer countries (with the tendency when necessary to use migrant labour with restricted rights), while, as in the case of China, profits have come back to be invested in the United States.

Large numbers of people who might never have borrowed money before are heavily in debt, having had to rely on credit for basic necessities such as a roof over their head. The pretence was that this was about "freeing" the people (Tory propaganda boasted of "giving people the right to buy their homes", always emphasising the word "giving" as though people were being given something free). At the same time local authorities were not free to build more homes for rent. Meanwhile the idea of mutuality was taken out of building societies, and the housing finance market opened to all. The other myth was that wealth came from "risk-taking". The upshot was billions invested in dodgy loans, with big bonuses for bankers, while thousands of homes have had to be repossessed, first in the United States, then Ireland, then here. If this brings house prices down remaining home owners are left with negative equity, meaning they are paying out more than their houses are worth. Meanwhile, builders decide to build fewer homes, and both the housing problem and unemployment get worse.

There is no mystery as to why Britain is worse effected than other European countries, and no point in pretending it's just down to Gordon Brown. This country is the most dependent on its financial sector, and
its people the most indebted (for housing and education, as well as consumer goods). As I've said before, our leaders have fulfilled that much of the Churchill legend - "Never have so many owed so much to so few".

Without cluttering up his pamphlet with quotations from the Marxist classics, or entering into "sectarian" polemics, Bob Archer effectively demonstrates the truth of the labour theory of value, and shows that attempts to refute it, pretending wealth could be created purely by manipulating money, have not disposed of either class struggle or crises. At most, they have given the crisis its present shape, and shifted the battles into different terrain.

It is when we come to how and why the working class was weakened in organisation and readiness, and how we can overcome these weaknesses to raise again the banner of socialism, and at a higher level, that the analyses becomes problematic. Was the collapse of the Soviet Union, -from which neither Bob nor I accepted leadership - really such a factor in demoralising class-conscious workers and socialists, or was our confidence sapped by decades of bureaucratic treachery and brutality before? Would workers in either the Soviet bloc or Britain have let industries be privatised so easily if we had really felt state ownership meant they were ours?

We don't expect a pamphlet on the financial crisis to include an analysis or reappraisal of Stalinism and social democracy, on both of which new work needs to be done. Bob Archer mentions the shipping of coal from Poland during the miners' strikes. But Arthur Scargill, though one of the best of union leaders, whose struggle with Thatcher has earned him wide respect, had made the mistake of thinking "our enemy's enemy is our friend" when siding with General Jaruzelski against the Polish workers' efforts to establish independent unions, assuming the latter was just a conspiracy by the West. Jaruzelski and Thatcher didn't let ideological emnity stand in the way of business as usual between them as friends. China too, which many, especially in the "Third World", saw as an alternative, is still the 'bad boy' of Western propaganda in some respects, but economically America's ally, an asset in the way it maintains the exploitation of its workforce.

How we look at the crisis, and at past mistakes, is a factor in how we can try to build a new workers' party to fight for a better future. Bob Archer aims to contribute to the discussion, and he suggests some basic points of policy which few could disagree with - defence of the public health service, opposition to privatisation, support for "powerful and re-democratised local government" to provide services, defence of civil rights, opposition to those who stir race or religious hatred to divide people, and so on.

Acknowledging that this is but a start to discussion, Bob warns: "Nothing could be more dangerous than a sectarian approach in which small and often tiny groups try to impose cut-and-dried policies, worked out to the last dot and comma, which they have decided in advance".

Indeed, looking at it another way, workers are coming into struggle -often in what were previously quiet places, and raising new issues, which enable new alliances to be built (as witness the Vesta workers and environmental campaigners). But there is a problem. Instead of a wide open gate and welcome for political discussion, along with solidarity, they are confronted by a host of competing booths, outside each of which they are either admonished for doing things wrongly, or promised that this is the one true way to salvation, through whose narrow portals they must squeeze, having wiped their feet of their misconceptions. This too has to be tackled. But fortunately Bob Archer's work is not part of that problem, and may help us towards overcoming it.

Reaping the Whirlwind, The financial crisis and what it means for the labour movement,
by Bob Archer, Socialist Studies pamphlet, £2.
ISBN 978-0-9564319-0-5

Socialist Studies, PO Box 154, L25 8WW


Bob Archer has written to say:

The only inaccuracy in an otherwise immaculate review of “Into the Whirlwind” is that I am not secretary of National Shop Stewards Network, but Press and Website Officer.

Linda Taaffe is Secretary.

It would save both of us embarrassment if that could be put right…

Thanks Bob.

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