Monthly Archives: September 2010

Ed Miliband and Lenin

“The differences are so slight between the two brothers, indeed between all of us.”
– Andy Burnham

“Let me say, I believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support. And come the next election there will be some things they have done that I will not be able to reverse.”
– Ed Miliband

by Edd Mustill

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference on Tuesday was no funeral service for New Labour. He defended the alteration of Clause 4 and the “spirit of 1997,” talked of making Labour “the party of enterprise and the party of small business,” and gave nods to supporting further welfare “reform” and public service “reform.” Anything more positive, such as a foreign policy “based on values,” was so vague as to render it meaningless (which values exactly?).

There were a lot of Cameronish “I met a man who told me…” sort of anecdotes. There were a couple of references to the Good Society. I suppose they will see how that one plays out in focus groups before they decide whether to keep using it, but it smacks of the Blairite logic of beating the Tories by using Tory political language.

Tellingly, Miliband stated out-and-out that he wouldn’t be supporting “irresponsible strikes.” We are not given any indication as to which strikes are “responsible.” It was “the unions what won it” for Ed. But this is no sense means that he stands, or could stand, in the interests of militant trades unionism.

Some on the far left see Ed’s victory as a significant defeat for Blairism and the Right of the party. Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party take this line. Workers’ Power go as far as to claim that it will be hard for Labour to ignore the wishes of the union rank-and-file, because it was the rank-and-file that delivered Ed as leader. But was it?

The breakdown of votes from affiliates shows that “Spoilt ballot” came third in the Big Three unions, GMB, Unison, and Unite. This has been blamed on the inability or unwillingness of union members to tick a box on the ballot paper confirming that they were eligible to vote.

Spoilt ballots in some unions
Aslef: 12.61%
CWU: 17.07%
GMB: 14.74%
TSSA: 18.82%
Unison: 15.75%
Unite: 14.32%
Usdaw: 15.32%

I’m not sure what could account for 6% more TSSA members than Aslef members spoiling their ballots unless there was at least an element, albeit an unknown quantity, of deliberate spoiling going on.

Nevertheless, the biggest sign of union members’ disengagement with the Labour Party is the turnout among the unions. Aslef, among whose members Diane Abbott came first, posted by far the highest turnout at 25.2%. Turnout in the Big Three was 7.8% (GMB), 6.7% (Unison), and 10.5% (Unite). Usdaw brought up the rear with a whopping 4.3%, within which David Miliband won a landslide victory.

The Unison figure is even lower than it seems when you take into account that only 419,142 ballots were sent out to a union claiming a million members. This suggests that the majority of workers in local government and the NHS disenfranchised themselves by opting out of paying the Labour levy, for whatever reasons.

The vast majority of unionised workers are totally disengaged from the Labour Party, even at a time when it is electing a leader for the first time in sixteen years. Within the party, we shouldn’t forget that more individual members preferred David than Ed. We may expect the Parliamentary party to back the most right-wing candidate, but for the membership to do so after fifteen years of experiencing Blairism is, to say the least, thoroughly depressing. Given all this, are we to see Labour as still, on some level, a working class party?

When is a workers’ party not a workers’ party?

For those in the Bolshevik tradition, the idea of Labour as a workers’ party that Marxists should affiliate to and work within dates back to 1920. The formative Second Congress of the Comintern held a session to discuss this question, the only session which dealt exclusively with the politics of just one country. This shows how important the Labour Party question was deemed to be. But due to time constraints Zinoviev, chairing the session, only allowed two speakers from each side.

Sylvia Pankhurst opposed working in the Labour Party, saying:

“… all members of the parties which belong to the Labour Party are subjected to the strictest discipline and when it is a question of making a showing in parliament on this or that question then they are officially subordinated to Party discipline.
In the elections, too, a local organisation can choose its candidates, but when it is a question of being put up as a candidate one must be confirmed by the Labour Party headquarters. It is the same with the individual speeches and votes.”

William McLaine, and engineering shop steward who had been heavily involved in the workers’ committee movement during the war, supporting affiliation to the Labour Party because, he said, the unions were being pushed leftwards by the course of events. McLaine went on:

“I insist on two points: first of all that the Labour Party is the political expression of the workers organised in the trades unions and must be conceived of as a political organisation, and secondly that within the Labour Party the supporters of another party retain their complete freedom of movement and of criticism.”

We can see that both his and Pankhurst’s arguments are still put forward today in very similar terms. Sylvia’s arguments about the power of the party machine are arguably even more relevant now. No one could argue that the modern Labour Party would allow revolutionaries complete freedom of action inside it, but McLaine’s view of the party as somehow organically linked to the working class due to the influence of trade union leaderships is at the bottom of the analysis of many who hold that Labour is a “bourgeois workers’ party.”

Lenin, while pushing for Communist affiliation to Labour, strongly opposed the idea that there could ever be anything as simple as the “political expression of the trade union movement” that McLaine had spoken of. He said, famously:

“whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie

At the time, the Communist International was attempting to mark itself as a clearly revolutionary alternative to the Second International, famously putting stringent conditions on parties that wished to affiliate. Lenin’s attitude to the Labour Party was therefore contradictory, and was based on the following belief:

“the British Labour Party is in a very special position: it is a highly original type of party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trades unions, and has a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties.”

This is where I think Lenin went wrong, and where we can come back to the present day. No-one, especially given the level of trade unionists’ participation in the leadership election described above, not to mention the policies of the Labour Party towards the trade union movement, would today argue that the party’s membership included the millions enrolled under the banners of the affiliated unions. The Labour Party is not the political expression of the will of these workers.

Comintern tactics in the revolutionary period following the First World War were geared towards the ruthless splitting of the working class away from the reformist movement. For Lenin the point of Labour affiliation was never to build up a “Labour Left”, and the building of an independent revolutionary Communist Party was certainly not to be subordinated to any manoeuvrings inside the Labour Party. His idea was simply that the revolutionaries eventually leave the party in a stronger position than when they entered it. Lenin argued that if the Labour leadership moved to expel the Left, this would be a victory for revolutionaries and would win them support among the class. History has since shown this not necessarily to be true, as the experience of Militant and others shows.

In Left Wing Communism, published just before the Second Congress, Lenin argued for the revolutionaries to support a Labour victory over the Tories and Liberals on the grounds that the working class had not experienced a Labour government before. Such an experience would shatter illusions in Labour and lead workers to revolutionary conclusions. Again, history tells us differently. Our class has experienced numerous Labour governments and their betrayals, and it has not increased consciousness towards revolutionary levels. On the contrary, it has served to demoralise.

The idea that workers will look to Labour in a crisis is not borne out by historical experience, or anything much more than wishful thinking. A party of liberal Fabian types and trade union leaders who have accepted social partnership instead of class struggle, cannot itself be a vehicle for class struggle. Ed Miliband represents no more than a toned down version of the right-wing liberal strand within the Labour Party which realises that it can no longer get away with openly calling for its most dogmatic excesses, like further privatisation of the public sector. He is not, and cannot be, a workers’ candidate, just as Labour is not, and cannot be, a workers’ party.

Thanks, as ever, to the Marxists Internet Archive for making the relevant sources readily available.

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Trade unions attacked over the proximity and opacity of their envelopes

by Anne Archist

Over at our friends The Third Estate, Owen’s been defending the right of the Labour party to choose their leader however they want. I generally agree with his article, but I think he was too soft in conceding that “yes, the GMB dubiously got round the rules about not endorsing candidates, and they probably shouldn’t have done”. Apparently these accusations have abounded everywhere, even from the supposedly left-wing paper; but GMB didn’t “get around” any rules, they clearly stuck within them!

The rules stated that you cannot put endorsements in the same envelope as the ballot paper, but that you can put them in the same mailing, in a different envelope. The GMB ballot paper envelopes didn’t contain any endorsement; they were inside a larger envelope that carried an endorsement – so they clearly followed the rules. Some people have argued that although this isn’t against the rules per se, it violates their ‘spirit’.

Look at it this way – how can the spirit of rules which explicitly allow for endorsements to be contained in the same mailing be in any way interpreted as suggesting that endorsements shouldn’t be contained in the same mailing? That’s not the ‘spirit’ of the rules, that’s a completely different set of rules!

Those criticising GMB are not openly critical of the unions’ right to endorse candidates in the first place, yet they seem to become very concerned when that endorsement is put within a few inches of the ballot paper. Do they think that some as-yet-undiscovered gravitational force will transmute a union leadership’s recommendation into a member’s obligation? This clearly isn’t the case – many members frequently dissent from their union’s recommendation in labour leadership contest, most notably in 1994, when every major union recommended Prescott or Beckett, only to have their members disregard this and vote for Blair.

I’m not saying that no criticism of the rules themselves is valid, but any such criticism would not reflect badly on any single candidate or affiliated body. It’s certainly not the fault of GMB or Miliband that the rules are as they are. Personally I wouldn’t care if affiliated bodies were allowed to include the endorsements in the same envelope – it wouldn’t make any real difference and would save some trees, at least. As long as nobody is strong-arming members into voting a certain way by disadvantaging those who don’t, controlling the casting of the votes directly, or otherwise coercing individuals, I see no reason why leaders shouldn’t be allowed to offer whatever opinions they want – let us not forget, after all, that they are elected by their members in the first place!

There is an important distinction, though, between accusing someone of cheating or otherwise being ‘unfair’ (‘unsportsmanlike’ at best) and criticising the party rules, not least because – rules being what they are – you don’t generally need to give a reason why breaking the rules is a bad thing. Is it the desire to conceal their true motives that causes all of these apparently concerned citizens to criticise GMB rather than the rules they followed to the letter?

Recently the media have been thrusting left, right and centre at the labour movement, whether it be over union funding, affiliated members or whatever their next bugbear is. And yet at the same time, they pass by without comment the disproportionate electoral power of MPs within the party, funding from sources far more egocentric and self-interested than those representing millions of working people, etc. It’s also worth noting that similar accusations (this time involving “transparent envelopes”) are being levelled at Unite, and I’m sure this won’t be the last we’ve heard of them.

For what it’s worth, it should be evident that I don’t support Labour in any meaningful sense (except perhaps as the least bad alternative in dire circumstances) – in fact, I’ve never voted Labour. I do think, however, that it’s worth defending the basic principle that Labour and Labour-affiliated organisations ought to run their own affairs without undue and misleading scrutiny (such as the false claim made by some that the unions decided the election by block vote – they don’t have block votes any more). After all, “then they came for the trade unionists”…

I suspect this is just another chapter in the media onslaught against ordinary people exercising any kind of power or representation that is accountable to them as workers, especially when this is done collectively.

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The media have no problem with class politics

by nineteensixtyseven

The dust has barely settled on yesterday’s Labour leadership result and already the Tories and the media are adopting the line of attack which is likely to dominate the political discourse for this Parliament.  According to them, ‘Red Ed‘, son of a Marxist academic- no, not Vince Cable- has been ‘installed‘ as the leader of the Labour Party by ‘Middle England’-hating trade union ‘barons’, salivating for a fight with the government and ready to march their legions of minions into battle during a new ‘Winter of Discontent.’

The unelected Baroness Warsi (an actual baroness) was quick of the mark:

‘Ed Miliband wasn’t the choice of his MPs, wasn’t the choice of Labour party members but was put into power by union votes. I’m afraid this looks like a leap backwards for the Labour party.’

Who, we may ask, was she the choice of?  Yet it is not just the Tories who hold this view.  The right-wing of the Labour Party, too, appear to agree that the failure of the electoral college to elect David Miliband is a ‘leap backwards.’  The motley crew of Blairite ghosts traipsed grimly from the shadows to warn against any deviation from the strategy which has seen the Labour Party lose 5 million voters since 1997, start an illegal war in the Middle East and drop any pretence of even mildly social democratic instincts.

More fundamentally wrong, however, is the mendacious conflation of the votes of hundreds of thousands of individual union members with the votes of so-called ‘barons’, who presumably sit above the stage at Labour Party conference in rooms filled with Cuban cigar smoke, tugging puppet strings and dictating policies down the red telephone.  ‘The Unions’, invariably so described to suggest that they are one homogeneous entity, have delivered nothing; it was the votes of  their members that decided the outcome.  To be sure, union bureaucrats made their recommendations but these were not binding, and nor is it likely that they were universally followed.

Nevertheless, Nicholas Watt in the Guardian has some ‘useful’ advice for the new Labour leader:

‘The Tory line of attack shows that Ed Miliband will need, as a matter or urgency, to show the unions can expect no favours under his leadership.’

I would have thought that the engagement of thousands of workers in the political system, voting democratically in voluntary organisations, was a positive thing.  Indeed, don’t trade unions fit in so well with the ‘Big Society’?  Apparently not; Miliband should ignore them.  Britain’s millions of beleaguered workers can expect ‘no favours’ from the party ostensibly set up to represent them.

Yet the same columnists and politicians express nowhere near the same alarm at the influence of wealthy individuals such as Rupert Murdoch, Lord Ashcroft and Sir Philip Green over our political system.  Murdoch, one of the first people Blair and Cameron met after their assent to power, is poised to take over a controlling stake in Bskyb and thereby cement his sinister power over the media.  Green meanwhile, who owns an estimated 12% of the UK retail market, has taken advantage of the fact that his wife, who is the direct owner of the Arcadia Group, happens to live in Monaco which, conveniently, happens to be a tax exile.  This is the man who will advise the government on next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  Clearly, class politics is fine so long as it is not the working-class exercising any modicum of political power.

The Spending Review, we might add, is based on a deficit reduction strategy that most people rejected last May at the polls and which, according to a recent Populus poll, is opposed by most voters. Still, we must be on guard against those ‘union barons’!

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Citizen Cable

by Edd Mustill

Guys, we’ve won. Pack up your banners, put your pamphlets in the recycling bin, and let’s go down the pub. It turns out that there’s a rabid anti-capitalist activist in the very corridors of power.

Vince Cable has single-handedly shattered the doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility and shaken Whitehall to its core by launching a scathing attack on the capitalist system. So say various media outlets.

Except that the vast majority of his speech had nothing to do with any of that. In fact, take out the one line about “spivs and gamblers” in the banking sector and you’re left with a vociferous defence of the Coalition Government’s programme. Cuts, the privatisation of the Royal Mail, that sort of thing. This is the sort of Marxism that only a former chief economist of a major oil company could adhere to.*

Peoples' Front for the Liberation of Twickenham?

Far from any of the guff about capitalism, the most important line of the speech was this: “The biggest test of our party’s contribution to the coalition is whether we can ensure fairness more widely.”

What does this sentence even mean? It gives away absolutely nothing, and contains no political content whatsoever. “Ensure fairness more widely” is a phrase which is much more revealing about the nature of the Liberal Democrats: utterly pointless.

* The BBC News website has predictably provided us with a helpful comparison of the respective philosophies of Vince Cable and Karl Marx. It reminds us that Marx said: “Capitalism is dead labour, which, vampire-like, survives only by sucking living labour.” That’s great, except that Marx didn’t say it because it makes no sense. Capital is dead labour. Capitalism is something else entirely. Still, don’t let a fundamental misunderstanding of your subject matter get in the way of producing a quirky, misleading article.

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Talkin’ Labour Leadership Blues

by Edd Mustill

There’s nothing like an election to remind us of the sheer size of the bullshit mountain known as “mainstream” politics. The Labour leadership contest now drawing to a close is no exception.

I already expressed my preference for a spoilt ballot paper in a previous post, to the disproportionate horror of at least one reader. Whether or not socialists choose to back any candidate depends on if they think the Labour Party is acting, or could be made to act, in the interests of the working class. I tend to think not.

The wilted rose of social democracy

Mark Steel recently pointed out and satirised the inadequacy of the candidates’ own definitions of socialism. They have apparently forgotten that socialism is, in fact, about the establishment of a totally different economic system to the one which exists at the moment. It is not a form of literary criticism or anti-banker pub-talk. Given that none of the candidates are idiots and two of them are the sons of a Marxist academic, one suspects that they are well aware on some level that they are talking rubbish.

Despite this, lesser-evilism as usual has drawn left-wingers to back people who they know have nothing politically in common with them. Attempts to paint Ed Balls as some sort of Keynesian economic genius and an alternative to the Milibrothers have been forthcoming from various quarters. His programme of GCSE economics plus migrant bashing has sadly failed to run the red flag up the pole of my soul.

Diane Abbott has not run a campaign designed to strengthen the organised left within the party, and in fact has only received half hearted approval from the most left-wing organised current in the party, the Labour Representation Committee. Various far-left groups have backed her as a candidate who stands against the pro-market consensus. The argument seems to be that a good vote for Abbott may open up a space inside the Labour Party for socialist ideas. This is, I think, not something that Abbott herself is interested in. Labour councils are already signalling their readiness to responsibly implement the cuts programme, and this is not something that an Abbott leadership would change.

Polls are showing a skin-of-the-teeth lead for Miliband the Younger. My prediction has long been that Ed will win (honest!), because he is the safest non-David candidate. David represents too much continuity with Blair, who is personally discredited but whose ideology still dominates in the party. The support lent to Ed by the Big Three unions has made some people see him as a more worker-backed candidate. But this support was given by union leaderships who are interested in social partnership, not class struggle. In any case, unions no longer have a block vote that they can use to swing behind a single candidate, so their backing reflects no more than the opinion of their national committees.

The minuscule difference between the brothers has been made slightly bigger only by the fact that more unrepentant right-wingers have coalesced around David. Nevertheless, he has a lot of support from other people who still subscribe to Blair’s mantra that the best way to beat a Tory is to become a Tory. Jon Cruddas, the darling of the party’s soft-left, and Will Hutton, who was seen as a heavyweight intellectual opponent of Blair, are both backing David. When some of the country’s most high profile “social democrats” are backing the most right-wing leadership candidate, it raises the question of what they think politics actually is at all.

Their irreversible capitulation to Blairism is belied by their belief in power for the sake of power: We must get the Tories out. Why? So Labour can implement the same programme in a different timescale, because any systemic challenge will render the party “unelectable.” We must elect the leader who is “best placed” to challenge the Tories. Who? Whoever is closest to Tory policies, of course.

Merry-go-round politics it is. Socialism, or even social democracy, it ain’t.

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The Week in Irony

by nineteensixtyseven

Pope Benedict XVI criticises Britain’s ‘aggressive forms of secularism‘ during a multimillion pound visit paid for by- you guessed it- the State.

Infamous billionaire tax-cheat Lord Ashcroft blames the failure of the Tories to win an outright majority on ‘ suspicions about lack of substance, concerns that the party was for the better-off rather than ordinary people and a residual fear that the change had been merely cosmetic.’  Hmm, whatever gave people that idea…

Pseudo-left Guardianista favourite Will Hutton backs torture-colluder David Miliband for Labour leadership because the party and the country ‘need a leader who will not jettison the political legitimacy’ won by war criminal Tony Blair.

The Basque separatist group ETA has included former SDLP leader and Nobel Prize laureate John Hume on a list of statesmen and women it would accept to mediate with the Spanish government, just weeks after Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams boasted of his own role in securing the ETA ceasefire.

Despite backing a cuts agenda which appeared nowhere in their manifesto, agreeing to gerrymander electoral boundaries, and ignoring a conference motion critical of the very same Michael Gove education reforms which Sarah Teather opposed in opposition but is now helping to implement, Nick Clegg’s party still have the tenacity to call themselves the ‘Liberal Democrats‘.

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The Real IRA’s radical new rhetoric

by nineteensixtyseven

The Guardian Ireland correspondent, Henry McDonald, has obtained a statement (after following some careful instructions) from the Real IRA saying that it will attack ‘criminal’ bankers.  The statement said:

“We have a track record of attacking high-profile economic targets and financial institutions such as the City of London. The role of bankers and the institutions they serve in financing Britain’s colonial and capitalist system has not gone unnoticed.

“Let’s not forget that the bankers are the next-door neighbours of the politicians. Most people can see the picture: the bankers grease the politicians’ palms, the politicians bail out the bankers with public funds, the bankers pay themselves fat bonuses and loan the money back to the public with interest. It’s essentially a crime spree that benefits a social elite at the expense of many millions of victims.”

This is the first time that Real IRA have used such a Baader-Meinhof style of rhetoric but it unlikely there has been any radical overhaul of the terrorist groups’ dominant ideology of violent nationalism.  Note how the statement mentions ‘Britain’s colonial and capitalist system’, as if capitalism is Anglo-specific or that only British capitalism is worth opposing.  This, and the historical precedents of republican groups adopting leftist rhetoric, suggest that the Real IRA are adopting a populist stance against finance capital as a strategy to harness support for what was always their central objective: the removal of the British presence in Ireland by force of arms.

The Provisional IRA were undergoing a re-assessment of their tactics and strategy in the 1970s in response to changing circumstances.  The collapse of the power-sharing Executive in May 1974, together with worsening economic circumstances deluded some of the Provisional leadership into thinking the British government was prepared to withdraw imminently.  With this in mind they called a truce in 1975 which disrupted their capacity for ‘armed struggle’ and had nothing to show for it after the predictable failure of negotations.  Younger, more radical and increasingly Northern-based activists such as Gerry Adams were pushing for a move away from the stale vision of Eire Nua (based on the principle of Comhar na gComharsan or Neighbours’ Cooperation, with a stress on ‘Irish and Christian values’ rather than the ‘Communism’ of the Official IRA leadership around Cathal Goulding) and what Jimmy Drumm criticised in his 1977 Bodenstown address as a perception that the Provisionals were ‘devoid of political thinking, dependent entirely upon the bomb and the bullet.’

Signs of this new departure were contained in a Republican News editorial in February 1977 by Peter Dowling which talked of the need for Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland to take up ‘all popular social and economic struggles… within the revolutionary framework of the national struggle.’  Similarly, Adams wrote elsewhere that the ‘overriding question is of course the National Question but there are many, many issues affecting people in the Free State in which we should be showing a lead- issues which are linked to the national question, and which can only be solved when it is solved, but issues which people do not relate as relevant to that issue.’  However, one can severely question relevance of such issues as wages, equal pay for woman and regressive taxation structures to the National Question in the Republic. As Henry Patterson has pointed out, it was at the time increasingly dominated by multi-national investment, not necessarily linked to Britain.  Either way, it is clear that the National Question was the issue on which all others were hinged.

Similarly, the Real IRA are trying to escape the logic which led the Provos to conclude that they could not wage ‘armed struggle’ on the backs of a small minority by adopting a populist stance against the banks.  With proposed budget cuts set to hit Northern Ireland hard, the Real IRA may continue to draw support from alienated young nationalists in deprived areas but the notion of a popular struggle with them at the helm is fanciful.  They are deluding themselves if they think that a sizeable proportion of the Northern Ireland population wishes for any return to violence and even if anger continues against bankers and the political class, there is a zero chance that it will manifest itself in increased support for a group engaged in a senseless bombing campaign.  Despite the rhetoric, violent republicanism, which continues to see Protestant workers as pawns of British imperialism devoid of any independent thought and is based on elitist and conspiratorial sects of militarists, offers no answers or constructive solutions to anyone.

For a complementary analysis from a slightly different angle see Garibaldy over on the Cedar Lounge Revolution.

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TUC gets it wrong… Then right… Then wrong…

by Anne Archist

Having been reduced to sitting in front of the TV in order to better ambush the DHL van I’m waiting for (which, judging by past experience, is driven by Godot), I’ve been watching the coverage on BBC News of the TUC conference. It’s good to see the trade union movement stepping up the response to the cuts somewhat. Of course, it’s worth tempering that optimism with a nod to Patrick’s recent contributions about the kind of rhetoric and so-called strategies they’re peddling; on the other hand, the unions are in a much better position than far-left tendencies to turn platitudes into concrete results at least insofar as moderating the extent of cuts and influencing the private sector’s response.

One interesting thing about this analysis is the extent to which the BBC are pushing their editorial narrative in the face of the facts. The correspondent at conference must have brought up the threat of a general strike, poll tax-style “riots” or a “winter of discontent” at least half a dozen times, and seems intent on insisting that this represents a “return to the trade union militancy of the 70s”.

So far as the actual evidence goes, the composite motion the BBC have focused on seems to be rather tame overall – “it doesn’t mean the TUC calls a general strike”, according to Bob Crow. Derek Simpson also rejected the possibility of a general strike. All the union leaders that have been interviewed have disagreed that this is a return to union militancy or the language of the 70s. Nevertheless, the BBC haven’t “changed the script” (metaphorically or literally).

One dissenting speech was allowed regarding the near-unanimous vote on the composite motion, coming from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) delegate whose name I didn’t catch. He argued that “the tone” of the motion and of conference altogether was wrong; specifically, that the TUC was focused on convincing the people “in this room” rather than the wider public support necessary. His argument was essentially a concession to the “we’re all in this together” pisstake of the government, in that he seemed to argue that the unions need to engage more constructively with employers and that trying to place the burden squarely on the rich would be unpopular and unrealistic, etc.

The delegate was right in one sense – the tone does seem to be wrong. Granted, not actually being present at conference means my opinion is based on partial evidence, but the TUC has been sending very mixed messages to the public via the media. The motion that was so strongly passed “reject[s] all cuts”, but on the other hand we heard wavering like Derek Simpson’s suggestion that “we acknowledge the cuts have to be made … it’s the timescale” as opposed to Mark Serwotka’s position that there shouldn’t be “a single penny cut”. As well as continuing to maintain moderation, legality, etc, the TUC’s leading bureaucrats seem to be unable to stay “on message” and are already rolling over to the “inevitability” of cuts. This is evidenced also in some anti-cuts campaigns.

Labour’s paltry showing also deserves mention. Harriet Harman seemed keen to reassure conference that Labour would defend the political levy – in other words, they will defend our right to give them money. How philanthropic of them. When it was put to her by the studio anchor that “there’s nothing that’s going to put the recovery at risk more than co-ordinated strike action”, Harman gave a pathetic weasel answer which more or less agreed.

Some on the left have argued that, in the words of a speaker at a local trades council meeting recently, “everything is dialectical” (well, it is and it isn’t…) and that therefore the defeat of the coalition would drive labour significantly to the left. She wasn’t clear on whether she meant the event of their defeat or the process by which their defeat was achieved, but I’d be sceptical about either. Harman is putting forward the oh-so-left position that maybe we could half the deficit over 4 years (implicitly still by – smaller – cuts); now, undoubtedly this would be a preferable short-term situation, but surely a long-term systemic deficit is a real problem, wherever you lie on the political spectrum (at least so long as we have to deal with a market system)?

Harman’s proposals would merely put off an even more extreme backlash against workers, claimants, public tenants and service-users; the only way of avoiding it altogether is by putting the screws on the rich for once and investing in infrastructure and public services.

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Lies, Dammed Lies, and Metaphors: An Appeal to Socialists

Written by Patrick

‘By pointing out and labeling the work of metaphor, logic effectively hinders its operation.’

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

‘ there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves… Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact.’

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Have you ever called for a ‘fight’ against an unpopular government policy, knowing full well that no-one intends to throw punches? Have you ever stated that such-and-such a group has ‘links’ to another groups, without detailing what these ‘links’ entail. Have you ever referred to ‘the ruling class’ and ‘the working class’ as groups of people, not as expressions of social relations? Have you ever heard anyone else do these things? If you have, you have come up against one of the massive problems the left faces – a constant use of metaphor.

Don’t get me wrong, metaphor can be useful, if it is used knowingly, as a verbal shortcut or as a descriptive device, and if the audience are aware that a metaphor is being deployed. However, in my experience, a counterproductive, pernicious form of metaphor constantly appears in writings and speeches made by socialists.

As socialists, we are familiar with Marx, and (hopefully), with Das Kapital. In volume one, Marx details how a metaphor (namely, the idea that there can be a social relation between things), is used to disguise the real social relations between people. The price of a commodity appears to be an inherent physical characteristic of that commodity (like its weight or its temperature), when in fact, the price of a commodity is just an expression of the social relation between the consumer, the producer, and various middle-men and capitalists.

The metaphor of the commodity is built up into a whole system of metaphor – a logic. The laws of value, exchange, economics and so on look like logic, but they are built on sand. They look like a coherent system, but in fact the commodity disguises their origin in the fundamentally illogical relations between human beings.

One of the big tasks of socialism is to cut through this ill-founded logic – to reveal the commodity for what it really is – a social construction, which disguises real social relations. By defeating metaphor, we reveal more about real social relations – actual lived experience, the actual inequalities of power in our society.

So, to bring this back to my introduction – we, as socialists, should never use a metaphor when a simple, true explanation is possible. We should never use a metaphor if we are unsure that the audience knows it’s a metaphor. We should never construct a ‘logic’ out of metaphor – this always ends up in pure sophistry.

To explain what I’m talking about, and why I’m writing this piece of stupid theory, I’ve attached as a handy PDF some quotes from recent socialist publications. Though they are only examples, hopefully the reader will be very familiar with the tropes and turns-of-phrase – they have been repeated in endless speeches, articles, and leaflets, whose use of language creates an aura of authority, whilst actually disguising what lies behind – a strategic and political disarray.

Until we acknowledge this disarray, and stop disguising it with lazy metaphor, we will never be able to think strategically, and we need to think strategically right now.

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Criminalising the Commons

by nineteensixtyseven

The most recent episode of Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed‘ contained a segment on ‘skipping’, the practice of removing for use food and other items which have been thrown out by individuals or retailers.  Attending the British Society of Criminology Conference at Leicester University, Taylor learnt from ethnographer Jeff Ferrell (who spent a year skipping) how the practise was becoming illegal as part of the general criminalisation of people at the margins of society.

Much of the ‘zero tolerance’ rhetoric emanating from New York, which has transferred to a degree across the Atlantic, focuses on crime and public safety.  However, it also complements the logic of capitalism in leading to the erosion of the commons, and the destruction of collective space and property for common use; everything must be commodified, even if it has been thrown in the garbage.  In a similar vein, it was as a journalist for the Rheinische Zeitung, writing on the 1842 debates in the Provincial Assembly to criminalise the theft of wood from previously commonly-held forests, that a young Karl Marx first became interested in political economy.  Marx wrote caustically about the proposed law that:

“It would be impossible to find a more elegant and at the same time more simple method of making the right of human beings give way to that of young trees. On the one hand, after the adoption of the paragraph, it is inevitable that many people not of a criminal disposition are cut off from the green tree of morality and cast like fallen wood into the hell of crime, infamy and misery. On the other hand, after rejection of the paragraph, there is the possibility that some young trees may be damaged, and it needs hardly be said that the wooden idols triumph and human beings are sacrificed!”

Examining similar recent legislation, an interesting think-piece by Antonio Tosi in the European Journal of Homelessness examines how, for instance:

“Regardless of the extent to which they are directly targeted at the homeless, the new practices of controlling public spaces have severe consequences for the homeless. The regulation of public space further restricts the life spaces of homeless people in that it deprives marginal groups which spend most of their day in public space of ‘ a location for basic human functioning ’ ; of ‘ spaces to congregate for social interaction ’ ; of ‘ places where they can claim some degree of personal comfort in keeping (relatively) warm and dry ’ (Doherty et al, 2006 : 12) and also paradoxically ‘ places where one may feel safe and somehow protected ’ (Giannoni, 2007 : 9).”

He also notes that:

“The dominant view in recent years is that the use of public space has become increasingly restrictive, with a raft of regulations prohibiting certain acts, resulting in the criminalisation of the homeless. The logic underpinning these punitive regulations are to safeguard and protect the public from the predatory actions of those inhabiting public space, which in turn can cleanse city centres and attract capital.”

The radio programme also raises the issue of retailers destroying the goods that they throw out in order to render them unusable.  As Ferrell says, there is a market logic to this.  This of course ensures that the commodities do not exchange hands without being paid for; capitalist production is by its very nature orientated wholly towards the pursuit of profit rather than meeting social need so producers would rather see mountains of food than a nourished population.

 As Marx says in Chapter 24 of Capital:

“It is not use-values and their enjoyment, but exchange-value and its increase, that spur [the capitalist] into action.  Fanatically intent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.”

And elsewhere, “Use-values are produced by capitalists only because, and insofar as, they are… depositaries of exchange-values.”

 Indeed, a UN report last February found that if the world’s largest companies had to pay for their own environmental destruction it would wipe out a third of their profits.  Their behaviour can only be considered ‘rational’ in a purely monetary sense because they are led by the need to create shareholder profits, and these can only be attained by passing on the costs to the rest of us.  Individuality rationality breeds collective madness.

This state of affairs has become so normalised that, at least until before 2008, to question it was akin to a sort of madness.  Butter mountains and milk lakes, however, are not rational in any objective definition of the word.  Only when production is democratically-controlled and orientated around actual need can rationality be achieved.

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