Category Archives: Current Affairs

Overuse of abstract nouns threatens ‘our way of life’

by Anne Archist

A cyclist has been tackled to the ground by the Olympic ‘Torch Security Team’ (TST to those of us who prefer letters to real words). This follows an old Italian woman trying to touch the torch to bring Italy luck in Euro 2012, two young boys grabbing the torch in Coventry, water-bombs being thrown at the convoy and a protester trying to throw a bucket of water over the torch and more.

In some of these incidents the response of the torch’s minders was fairly reasonable and restrained, while in other cases they and the police massively over-reacted. The response to the cyclist getting too close to the torch is just one example of this; the Leeds bucket protester was arrested and accepted a caution (most likely under threats and intimidation from the police) for an offence under Section 4(presumably 4A) of the Public Order Act as well. For those that don’t know, 4A defines an offence as follows:

A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

Presumably the ‘disorderly behaviour’ of throwing a bucket of water over the torch was considered to cause people ‘alarm or distress’ – in which case one wonders how they leave the house in the morning.

I think the handling of the security around the Olympic torch tells us a lot about socially-endemic attitudes towards freedom, the rule of law, protest, and so forth. Particularly, the behaviour of the police (of which the current TST is a part) – and the (lack of) response to that behaviour by authorities such as the Greater London Authority, the British Olympic Association and senior police – illustrates the way that power is wielded in our society.

There will, of course, be endless political-philosophical debates in any modern democratic culture about the appropriate balance between freedom and security, between the rights of the individual to do as they wish and the rights of others not to be adversely affected (or ‘harmed’ in J. S. Mill’s terminology) by them, etc. This is something that even the most strong-minded of us have to accept as a fact of life; we may think that our society is too permissive or too authoritarian, but there is at least an ongoing discursive recognition that this is something that is disputed and over which political battles are, and will continue to be, fought.

What interests me about our attitudes towards freedom and security, however, is illuminated brilliantly by the Olympic torch (if you’ll pardon the pun) – it’s the way in which this discourse of ‘security’ can be misappropriated as an abstraction which is then used repressively by those with power. I should be clear that I’m not talking here about the debate about whether in a particular instance it’s reasonable to view a particular individual or action as a threat to a notion of security that we hold in common , such as how much we should worry about terrorist attacks; whether or not we think that there is a realistic threat of terrorist attack, and whatever we think should or shouldn’t be interpreted as the indicators of such a threat (such as the debate around racial profiling for anti-terrorist purposes), we do at least all roughly acknowledge that should a terrorist bombing of civilians take place, that would be a violation of a type of ‘security’ to which we are all entitled.

What I’m talking about are questions which have nothing to do with risk of death or injury, of integrity of the private home from intruders, etc. These questions can be re-framed as questions of ‘security’, bringing them under one of the most powerful and guarded political categories and lending them the kind of seriousness and concern with which we debate terrorism or armed robbery. Often in political-philosophical debates, categories are constructed, the appropriate reactions and attitudes towards them are determined, and then people try to sneak things which fall outside of a category into it in order to shield it with the legitimacy of real members of that category, and that’s often what happens with the Olympic Games and similar events in general, but the torch is a particularly good and clear example of this.

The TST are “tasked with ensuring the continuity of the Olympic flame”, in the words of the BBC; one member of the team stated that “If anyone of any age threatens the security of the flame or torchbearer, we need to move that threat away quickly”. Note the interesting language in “security of the flame” – what does it mean for a flame to be ‘secure’ or not? The concern is not even stated as being the security of the torch, which one might construe as protecting it from damage theft, perhaps – rather than the more natural ‘torch or torchbearer’, we get the presumably intentional ‘flame or torchbearer'; not only this, but the same police team “protect a mother flame in a lantern during the day, while officers take turns to sleep with it in their rooms overnight”. The concern here is clearly with the continuity of the actual flame, which is considered to have symbolic (political?) importance.

We should really ask ourselves as a society whether we think it is appropriate to employ agents of the state en masse to guard the symbolic continuity of a torch flame, at cost to society, in order to foil attempts to touch, steal or even (God forbid) extinguish the torch. We should consider whether legally backed and endorsed ‘flame bodyguards’ should be able to push, manhandle, tackle and arrest people who threaten the continuity of the flame (particularly considering the bloody thing goes out all the time anyway). What kind of a society are we that we think young people should be tackled from bikes and pinned to the ground for cycling too close to something that they have been taught by their elders to believe is a historic event that they should bear witness to?

Similarly, where do we think the line should be drawn when it comes to the police interfering in our lives? The vast majority of the populace, however cynical or jaded they may (justifiably) feel towards the police force, recognise that some of its functions are necessary or helpful and that some of its employees do their best to serve the community. It is a fact of social life in the UK that the police have the power, in pursuit of these ends (if also in pursuit of less admirable ones or through problematic means) to arrest, to detain, to question, to search, etc; quite rightly, these police powers have limits and conditions governing their use.

Yet we live in a society which is so lax towards its heritage of ‘liberal’ thinking that nobody bats an eyelid when a man is stopped and questioned by police just for wearing a Batman costume and the officers ‘suggest’ that the man should cease his work for the day due to the policing operation surrounding the Olympic torch relay. Surely there comes a point where even the most conformist among us begins to feel that the police have an attitude of casual superiority and consider civilians merely as objects of power to be managed according to a schema convenient for political and policing purposes? This low-level contempt for, and condescension towards, the public is widespread – as those of us who more regularly have contact with the police as objects to be managed (such as urban youth, political campaigners, etc) know all too well. In 2009, officers tasked with torch security caused hospitalising head injuries to a journalist in Vancouver.

This attitude isn’t limited to the police but is displayed at times by others who hold power or work in a disciplinary capacity, such as teachers or politicians. It is often at its worst when dissenters are seen as trying to ‘ruin’ something or as a ‘nuisance’ to other citizens, even in the absence of any real illegality or danger. In 2006, the Italian Interior Minister said that “Law enforcement officials are doing all they can so that [protesters including anti-globalisation groups] can’t provoke more serious damage to the image of our country”. The Prime Minister (which was Berlusconi at the time) declared “zero tolerance” for protesters, stating that the government “may take drastic measures” to prevent the country’s ‘image’ being affected.

Similarly, the theoretical legal relationships that are intended to protect us from abuses are frequently overlooked or circumvented in these kinds of situations. In 2008, Chinese “torch minders” were left to their own devices to bully and harass torchbearers, manhandle and detain members of the public, and generally act like they owned the place – not only in China but also when they toured the world accompanying the torch to other countries (including in London). Various bodies and agencies, including the Greater London Authority and the British Olympic Association, who could have overseen and taken responsibility for their actions simply disavowed any connection to them, and the police left them free to do as they wished despite their complete lack of legal powers outside of their own country.

In every case, “security” is given by way of excuse and explanation. But ‘security’ is a word we associate with bodily safety, with the protection of rights, with freedom from harassment – not a word that we would generally use to refer to stopping a torch from going out or being touched by an Italian restaurateur. When those embedded in systems of power like politicians and police officers tell us that young people must be pushed from bikes and pinned to the floor for the sake of security, what they fear is harm to ‘image’ or ‘message’, not bodies or communities. This shows through in their more candid moments – despite attempts to position the Olympic torch behind a phalanx of vague concerns about security, conjuring up images of Islamic terrorism in this day and age, it should be evident that the supposed symbolism of a shoddy metal torch should not be allowed to substitute for the freedom to get on with our daily business, to take part in the spectacle, or even to protest.

The ‘security’ of the Olympic torch symbolises everything that is wrong with the Olympic Games, not their positive potential. The continuity of the flame should remind us of the attitudes adopted and measures taken to guarantee that continuity – the Olympic torch most closely resembles the torch of the Witchfinder General.

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Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic – I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Is workfare slavery?

Social networking platforms have exploded with howls of outrage over the latest workfare scandal; I would imagine that real-life face-to-face conversations have done the same, but cannot confirm this due to not getting out of the house enough. The specifics of the case are that Tesco were caught advertising night shift positions with a “wage” of “JSA + Expenses” on the Jobcentre Plus website [Edit: Link now dead - presumably the advert has been pulled or expired]. John Harris, who has a good track record on unemployment-related reporting has written a great piece for Comment is Free that really puts this case into its current affairs context. I’m sure I couldn’t do this job better myself. Why bother writing this article then? Well, what I can do is put it into a much broader human-historical and theoretical context. That is, after all, what us Marxian philosophers are supposed to be good at.

Specifically I want to address the question of whether these ‘workfare’ schemes are a form of slavery, or at least reasonably comparable to slavery; many people have been throwing the term around, but some people have suggested that we shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable or inappropriate, and I want to explain why. This article will include some discussion of violence, including sexual violence, and other intensely unpleasant and immoral practices, in case that isn’t obvious already. Also, it’s going to be largely historical lecture/analysis, so the first part might be a bit dry.

What is workfare?

Before anything else, I should outline the concept of ‘workfare’ for those unfamiliar with it. Essentially, it describes policies that enforce mandatory unpaid labour upon unemployed people. Workfare means the withdrawal of benefits if you do not accept the work assigned to you, but nothing more than your usual benefits if you do accept the work. This is the sense in which it is unpaid – you continue to receive the normal welfare payments that you would have been entitled to had you not been offered the work at all, but they are now conditional on performing the work where previously they were a basic entitlement.

In the UK this has been implemented in the form of at least two schemes. One, mandatory work activity, is absolutely compulsory if you want to avoid the withdrawal of your Job Seeker’s Allowance; the other, work experience placements, are technically opt-in (though a lot of pressure may be put on jobseekers to opt in), but cannot then be opted back out of after the first week. Essentially, you cannot decide that a placement is not working for you for any reason, and you must persist or else have your eligibility for benefits withdrawn. The opt-in nature of the placements and the restrictions on opting-out have sometimes gone unexplained to the jobseeker offered a placement.

Mandatory work activity is supposed to be of benefit to the community, and was spun as being charity volunteering and so on, but concerns have been raised about whether this has always been the case. Concerns have also been raised about the gender and race profile of those forced into this scheme, with ethnic minorities making up a larger proportion of those on mandatory work activity than those on optional work experience placements.

North American Black slavery

The type of slavery most people are familiar with is that practised in North America between the 16th and 19th centuries. This was probably one of the most cruel, brutal, violent and horrifying human practices to date. It is, in a sense, morally comparable with genocide – the main (perhaps sole) reason it stopped short of actual mass extermination was the potential for profit. Under these arrangements, white slave-owners could expect to get away with extreme negligence or violence, and this might extend to the point of rape or murder. In many cases sexual violence was used against female slaves by the slave-owners or their relatives, who then carried their children, and so on. It is difficult to overstate the morally revolting nature of this form of slavery and the practices associated with it.

It’s easy to see why people might be sensitive to the usage of the word ‘slavery’ when it brings to mind such a vivid, horrible and extreme image. Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally will know that I have no particular affection for Trotsky. I will, however, quote him on this occasion as one of the few very good things he said is highly relevant here: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be… these are the rules”. Calling workfare ‘slavery’ may well conjure up unpleasant associations and seem like an over-reaction, but this is to let the deeply affective cultural memory of historically located practices eclipse a sober analysis of the social relations at hand. To understand why the diagnosis of workfare as akin to a form of slavery might be entirely accurate, we need to look at other concrete forms of slavery.

Roman slavery

Counter-intuitively, earlier forms of slavery were often less brutal than that we have already looked at. In Rome, for instance, slaves increasingly gained legal protections that allowed them to file complaints if their master mistreated them and protected them from execution without trial. Eventually the voluntary freeing of slaves by their owners became so common that the state attempted to legally regulate it so as to preserve slave stocks. Admittedly freeing did not mean that much in the context of Roman slavery, since even once freed an ex-slave did not become a true citizen, but rather a member of a distinct class of a lower legal status than citizens, and was still subject to (less stringent) labour requirements. Children of former slaves escaped this special class, having full citizenship status (whereas children of current slaves were born into slavery, as in the North American system).

Perhaps most importantly in relation to workfare, Romans practised a form of slavery in which individuals could be owned not by other individuals but by Roman society as a whole. They might be employed as servants to elected officials in the duties of their office, but they might also be accountants or secretaries. A slave of this kind was known as a servus publicus – literally a public servant, a slave of the body politic. Interestingly, it was not only the public servants who were given relatively important and skilled jobs – some privately-held slaves were employed as teachers, doctors, domestic accountants, barbers, etc. One of the reasons for this was that previously educated or skilled people could become enslaved through debt and other methods, so slavery was not merely the preserve of those seen as ‘animalistic’, ‘barbarian’ or ‘sub-human'; slaves may have previously been free citizens of some standing.

Generally speaking we can say that in Roman society, especially in later periods, slavery was a truly class-based cleavage within society. Slaves in the later Roman Empire were recognised as thoroughly human, even if they did occupy an inferior social status. Some were given positions of responsibility and were able to earn recognition for their skilled public servitude. Some had good opportunities to earn their own money, and many achieved manumission through the good will of their owners or the public bodies in which they worked. Domestic slaves, though by no means lavished with luxury, might reasonably expect to live in better conditions than poor free citizens.

All of this paints a very different picture from the previous discussion of North American slavery. If I had to give an explanation for this, I would suggest that slavery in Rome was based on class power in its own right. By contrast, I would propose that the African slave trade and the Black slavery it created in North America was first and foremost a question of race power – slavery was a weapon that presented the content of racial oppression in the form of class oppression. The system of Black slavery has as many parallels in Nazi solutions to ‘The Jewish Question’ as it does in prior historic forms of slavery; it used segregation, demonisation, dehumanisation, brutal violence, and killing by force or overwork or neglect.

Greek slavery

Having considered Roman slavery, let’s take a look at the Greek model (which likely formed a huge influence over the Roman system). Once again the system changed over time, but generally slaves had a greater legal status than in the ‘classic’ case of North American slaves of African origin. Slaves could – at least in certain periods – own property, including land, and some had a status almost equal to citizens. In most Greek cities, a citizen that killed a slave (including their own) could expect to be severely punished, and could even face the death penalty themselves; if someone killed your slave you would not claim for damages due to their status as property, but pursue punishment due to their status as a human. Athenian law protected slaves from being beaten and Athenian culture generally demanded less diffidence and deference from slaves than in other systems, with citizens tolerating argument, etc. In other city-states the treatment of slaves was much harsher and their social and legal position was significantly worse.

Slavery in Sparta was analogous to the later servi publici – rather than being based on individual chattel ownership, the bulk of slaves were state-owned and were assigned to citizens while remaining common property. In keeping with general Spartan ideology, this class of slaves (known as Helots, and distinct from privately-owned slaves) were treated very poorly indeed. There is debate, but generally historians seem to agree that Helots could be killed with impunity at least at a certain time in the year, and that the attitude of Spartan citizens towards Helots was utterly contemptuous at best. On one occasion, the Helots were asked to nominate for manumission those who had best proved their bravery, capability, wits, and so on. 2,000 Helots volunteered themselves and were summarily slaughtered on the grounds that those with that much confidence in themselves were likely to be the most seditious and rebellious.

Similarly to the Roman economy, Greek slaves were not restricted to hard manual labour or domestic service and could practice a craft or profession, though most were employed in agriculture, mining and so on (this also was true of the Roman economy – the accountants and so on may not have been exceedingly rare but they were certainly the minority). They were sometimes forced into arrangements somewhat reminiscent of modern wage-employment, although it would probably be overstating the case to call these arrangements proto-capitalist. On the one hand, slaves could be hired out to other citizens as labourers, generating a profit for the owner. Conversely, some Greek slaves lived independently of their owners as traders, bankers, etc, merely paying a king of ‘tax’ to their owners. Slaves might earn enough to buy their emancipation in this way.

 It’s worth pointing out that as well as the common prohibitions on violence in the form of beating or killing, it was generally illegal to rape a slave (including your own) in Greece. There is an exception to the rule in that some male slaves were forced to work in brothels. Apart from this forced prostitution, the injunction against rape was widespread and in theory was strict, even if it could be broken with relative impunity due to minor punishments in some city states. Conversely, slave women could be raped with impunity in many American States (by White slave-owners or Black slaves or both) not because of minor punishments but because no such offence was even legally recognised. Greek law recognised the slave as having a basic degree of sexual autonomy and raping a slave was legally equivalent to raping a citizen; North American society generally considered Black women to be ‘unrapeable’ – even in the states that technically prohibited it, no jurors would convict a rapist, particularly if he was White and the owner of the slave in question. This even extended as far as child rape in some cases, with the Black rapist of a 10-year-old Black girl being allowed to go free on the grounds that there simply was no offence on the statute books or in common law that could conceivably be brought to bear against him.

Aztec slavery

A final example that’s really alien to our received notion of slavery – the Aztec model. In Aztec society, the children of slaves were born free, and slaves could free themselves in various ways. Firstly there was the traditional route of buying freedom, but there were also options such as proving mistreatment; running away was actually a legally recognised form of emancipation under some circumstances too, typically by taking flight in the market place and fleeing the city walls in order to step on some human poop, which was then presented to a judge as proof of the slave’s full escape. I have no idea why poop equals freedom, but apparently this made sense to Aztecs. Then again, as I understand it, they were constantly worrying about whether the sun was going to come up, so I’m not going to try to get into their mindset on this one.

You could also become a slave in quite unusual ways, such as by trying to prevent the flight of a slave whose owner you were not related to, or by selling yourself into slavery (in which case you were given some time to spend the proceeds and enjoy your freedom before entering servitude. Slaves typically had to give consent to their sale in order to change owners and could marry and own property, including slaves of their own.

Slaves could generally not be sacrificed, though this was reserved as a punishment for those who had been sufficiently unruly, but the legal mechanism protecting them was stringent enough that I find it hard to believe many ever broke it. An owner would have to publicly prove three times, using three different instructions, that a slave was disobedient before they could be sold against their will, and a slave had to be sold in this manner three times before they were fair game for sacrifice; one wonders how many citizens were willing to buy a slave that had already been publicly proven to be disobedient on six occasions to 2 other owners, and therefore how many slaves ever made it to the third such sale. The exception to this was slaves captured as a result of war, who could be taken as prisoners specifically for the purposes of sacrifice.

Aztec seems remarkably merciful for a culture that regularly cut people’s hearts out. Here we have a system of slavery in which you can’t be killed except as punishment for severe disobedience, you can’t be mistreated or else you will be granted your freedom, you can run away to freedom and only your owner will bother to stop you, you can own your own property and have your own family, and you can’t even be sold against your will except as a punishment. This is a totally different type of system to the North American model. Once again, it is a question of class, not caste or race – there is social mobility in the slave class, slaves are significantly protected because of their recognised common humanity, and so on.

Slavery as a generic system

Having looked at several varieties of slavery, we should not understand the term as referring to a concrete historically-situated phenomenon, but rather as a universal/generic term, referring to a set containing various sub-categories.  We might even consider it to include penal hard labour or indentured servitude, but I won’t address these here. Slavery takes significantly different forms in different societies. To draw a comparison between slavery and workfare, therefore, is not to suggest that workfare shares all of the significant features of North American slavery.

Despite the racial imbalance between the two schemes that weighs more heavily in favour of ethnic minority jobseekers being forced into work, workfare – at least in the UK – is clearly not based on race power. It is not fundamentally a system used to segregate and significantly dehumanise in a similar way that Nazi propaganda did to Jews. I don’t think even the most ardent tory would consider the unemployed to be literally sub-human or non-human, or suggest that they were less evolved than those with paid employment, or that they lacked a soul that others had (plenty of people may, of course, think jobseekers don’t have a soul, but this is probably due to them being non-religious rather than to prejudice).

When we compare workfare to forms of slavery found in ancient societies, however, there is a more apt analogy. The position occupied by those on mandatory work activity is similar to that of certain types of slaves, and the basic social relations of slavery may be a useful and appropriate model for understanding workfare in the modern world. Drawing on a few of the features we have noted about specific forms of slavery, we can point out parallels with the servi publici or Helots, with the Greek slaves hired out as labourers by their owners, with the legal protections in place in some slave-holding cultures, and so on.

Parallels between workfare and slavery

A workfare labourer, like a slave, has certain legal rights and protections due to their basic humanity – the right to their own family life, the right to own property, freedom from corporal and capital punishment or other mistreatment, etc. Some of these rights are not available in most slave-holding systems, true. However, they did exist in some systems, so the lack of these freedoms is not a necessary condition for slavery.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, may theoretically be able to escape to freedom (in the form of emigration, for instance) or earn their freedom (by getting a better job somehow or setting up their own business or the like). But most of them will be stuck with no realistic way out due to their material conditions.

A workfare labourer, like a slave, is subordinate to the entity that controls their labour, in this case the state. The state is sovereign and has a monopoly on legitimised force – just as a slave cannot overrule their master or attack their master, the unemployed cannot realistically refuse or challenge the state, they must obey or else face destitution.

A workfare labourer, like a Helot, works at the behest of the state and receives a pittance in return from the state. Like a Helot, the unemployed must be economically obedient to the state in order to receive their means of subsistence.

A workfare labourer, like some Greek slaves, is ‘hired out’ to private firms for the purpose of generating profits for the employer; the benefit to the state is not identical to the benefit to the Greek slave-owner, but it exists. Consider, for instance, the political capital involved in running ‘successful’ workfare schemes, or the increased tax receipts that will follow from the increased profits of the firms involved in the schemes.

Most importantly, we can see a common logic to the structure of workfare and the underling common themes of slavery. The individual in question is forced to provide unpaid labour by an entity with the monopoly of legal power, economic power and legitimised violence in the relationship. The individual in question has little or no autonomy in how their labour is employed (in fact, some Greek or Roman slaves would have had substantially more autonomy in the employment of their labour power than many workfare scheme participants). The individual in question may theoretically be able to accumulate wealth and eventually emancipate themselves in some form, but is realistically unlikely to achieve this. The individual in question need not be performing back-breaking physical labour or domestic service, and they may even land a fairly enjoyable or skilled role, but most people in their position will be working in the bottom rungs of the contemporary economy.

Conclusion

I’m not arguing here that workfare is actually a set of social relations identical to a historical form of slavery or anything that extreme and specific. All I will say is that we can see from the above substantial cause for comparing the position of someone forced to work for free stacking shelves in order to receive a pittance more or less equivalent in value to the material necessities of life with the position of someone forced to work for free sowing seeds in order to receive the material necessities of life. It isn’t unreasonable, when we take a broad and cross-cultural historical view, to compare workfare to slavery.

I don’t think many people drawing the analogy here are genuinely trying to suggest that workfare involves the same power relations and holds the same cultural meaning as Black slavery on the plantations. What they are really saying is that slavery is a basic economic concept – the idea of forced, unpaid labour inflicted on an individual by an entity that stands in a position of extreme dominance over them. The note that historically the term ‘slavery’ has been applied to many other contexts dissimilar to the presumed-paradigm case of North American slavery is not merely to point to a precedent for this usage of the word, but is precisely to reinforce this argument that ‘slavery’ is a fairly universally-recognised and universally-applied concept which is, at bottom, free of ties to any specific historical period or class structure or racial divide.

I may not agree with some of the uses of the term, but I can recognise the political importance of identifying hyper-exploitative social relations or hypo-autonomous working conditions as slavery-like. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement combined the concepts of ‘wage slavery’ and ‘domestic slavery’ in one fell swoop: “slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to the kitchen sink”. Regardless of whether you agree with them, this was clearly a politically significant development in the women’s liberation movement and the socialist movement. Workfare is clearly not based on a brutal system of white supremacy, where rape and lynching is deemed acceptable and the labourers are deemed sub-human animals. It is, however, a hyper-exploitative system of class power and conflict, where workers find themselves in conditions of diminished autonomy and the general value of labour is driven down.

It is no more distasteful, unacceptable or inaccurate to draw relevant comparisons between workfare and slavery than it is to refer to forced sterilisation as genocide – yes, it is a term that these days is associated more with extermination of the already-living, but technically genocide simply means an attempt to wipe out an ethnic or national group, and this can be enacted by preventing any future generations being born too. Yes, slavery is a term associated with kidnapping people from Africa and whipping, but this is not all it means and is not the only form that it can take. It is important to acknowledge what workfare represents for taxpayers, who are essentially paying the wages of people they aren’t employing (that are often generating profits for other private firms).

It is even more important to acknowledge what workfare means for the working class; it is unacceptable that in the 21st century people will be coerced by the threat of absolute poverty and destitution to work without pay (often for the private gain of others), driving down wages for those already in work and contracting the supply of real jobs available for others seeking work. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if workfare ‘is’ slavery, but I propose that there are certainly striking and unavoidable similarities that merit attention and criticism.

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Diane Abbott and “Black community”

by Anne Archist

In an unexpected turn of events, my writer’s block seems to be getting better, so here’s a post about Diane Abbott’s latest controversy. I should have known that something would have to happen, at some time and place, to compensate for the fact that Diane Abbott actually said something really sensible the other day. I didn’t realise that the balance of the universe would be restored quite so quickly, but there you have it.

So, for the benefit of those who haven’t clicked the second link above, Abbott tweeted that “white people love divide and rule”, in the context of discussing the Stephen Lawrence case and the media coverage of it with some fellow twitter users. This was apparently meant to be a sophisticated comment about the history of race relations and specifically applicable to colonial power structures. To a lot of people it just sound like cracker-hating. This prompted a debate across the blogosphere and all seven seas of social networking (not forgetting that weird domain called Real Life too) as to whether it was possible for Black people to be racist to White people.  I’ll give you my thoughts on that as quickly as possible and then move on to the main point of this post.

Whether you call things aimed at White people ‘racism’ is a question of definitions, and definitions (like dialectics) cannot break bricks – defining and redefining words will never in itself change the reality they refer to (yes, words play a role in constituting ideologies and social norms and so forth, but I mean here that something doesn’t change bad to good just because you use a different word to refer to it). So you can choose to define ‘racism’ as referring only to acts backed up by institutions or systems or sheer weight of number, and you can even try to convince other people to use your definition, but that merely leaves an unresolved question: do other forms of racially-based prejudice, discrimination, hate or violence that don’t count as ‘racism’ under this definition matter?

I’d argue pretty strongly that these things do matter and they are bad – generally speaking they might not be ‘as bad’, perhaps, but they certainly shouldn’t be excused or encouraged. I’d like to hear the reasoning of anyone who thinks that racially-motivated violence, in particular, should be ignored just because it happens to White people – obviously generalisations and stereotypes are not on the same level as attacks, but the principle still stands that it is fundamentally bad for people to be acting on the basis of prejudice or hatred rather than an open mind. Having said that, I d o think the debate around Abbott’s remarks are a storm in a thimble – yes, she said “white people”, which is bound to be interpreted to mean “all white people”, and racialised a generic tactic used by powerful people of all colours. However, she was talking on twitter in the context of a conversation about institutional racism within power structures like the police and referring to colonialism, not tweeting ‘honky’ at unsuspecting members of the public and suggesting that The White Man Is The Devil.

The real problem with what she said, I think, is precisely what she was intending to say, not the poor and controversial phrasing she chose. One Black woman tweeted that she was fed up of the “Black Community” myth – sick of seeing “Black leaders” who didn’t listen to the people they supposedly represented, speaking as if the community was monolithic. Abbott replied that Black people should put up an image of unity to the media and not ‘wash dirty linen in public’ (as she suggested in a #hashtag multiple times).  This is not an argument I expected to hear from a Black feminist woman representing a poor constituency, especially since it was used to dismiss feminists within the Civil Rights movement and Black activists within the feminist movement, not to mention time and time again since (lesbian separatists within the LGBT community, etc).

Abbott defended herself one the grounds that she was talking about “political tactics” while acknowledging that there were cultural differences within the community/ies, but knowing that she once owned the Black feminist reader ‘All the women are White, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave‘, it’s difficult to know quite what to think about this advice. Putting Abbott’s mentality into practice most often means the loudest voice in the group winning out and the others being silenced; this is also clearly manifested not only in the history of Black feminism but also in certain modern and historical political parties, etc. Open debate is a good thing, and there is no reason why it cannot be carried out in public. I find it slightly worrying that nobody else seems to be picking up on this point so far.

This isn’t just a question of silencing less powerful or numerous voices and preventing the expression of certain opinions or experiences. The “Black Community” being represented by a single voice with a single viewpoint also makes it easier to stereotype and undermine. The feminist movement has been noticeably impeded by precisely the notion that all feminists think alike – despite more recent attempts to acknowledge diversity of opinion within the feminist movement, the old attitude of “if you don’t agree, keep quiet and we’ll have it out later” seems to have influenced the public imagination a great deal.

This affects ‘recruitment’ into movements – there are quite a few women out there who refuse to call themselves feminists, would go to great lengths to avoid being labelled as feminists, avoid feminist books, etc purely because they didn’t want to be put in the same camp as anti-porn activists or people more concerned with woman CEOs than working class women, etc. It also affects the way that the movement can engage in public discourse, since it is compelled to state single definitive position (often a poorly-thought-out one, because often the people in a position to speak for the whole group are not in a position to know what is happening on the ground, or have more extensive bias or more simplistic or blinkered ideas than a lot of other people who might try to offer a view as part of the community). It probably has other negative consequences that I’ve not mentioned in this article, and the same sort of problems apply within communities.

To suggest that the “Black Community” should, despite its heterogeneous nature, project a single voice in public is to suggest that every other voice within the community should be silenced; being afforded the luxury to speak within your own community on the terms of those with more power is hardly the same as an open exchange of ideas and experiences as part of the wider public  discourse. It suggests, among other things, that Black women should put up and shut up while White women and Black men attempt to speak for them in most cases, and it certainly suggests that minority communities, women, less mainstream political tendencies and so on should be contributing to the debate from the perspective of somebody who is a part of wider society rather than marginalised by it. Let’s wash our dirty misogyny, our dirty racism, our dirty exploitation, our dirty violence in public, where everyone can see it and the perpetrators cannot sweep it under the carpet.

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New Year, New Labour

by Anne Archist

Labour are trying once again to re-invent themselves; 2012 has already seen a new attitude that amounts to exhuming the short-lived corpse of Blue Labour.

The media identified prior ‘re-launches’ under Miliband’s stewardship in June of last year and November of the year before, not to mention that his election as leader was itself supposed to de-toxify the Labour brand after the Blair-Brown years. Each previous attempt also utilised Maurice ‘The Baron’ Glasman’s “if you can’t beat them, imitate them” logic; this time, though, the leadership’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ ideology has been dressed up in Beveridge’s old clothes, saved for just such an occasion.

The Baron was disappointed to learn that Jon Crudas had skipped Sunday service.

Blue Labour is enough to make a Marxist miss Brown Labour. At least Gordon ‘Golden’ Brown realised it was “the economy, stupid” and had some tentative ideas what could be done about it – The Baron would rather have us believe that modern society’s inexorable autosarcophagy can be stemmed by getting more bums on pews at St Saviour in the Marshes. Liam Byrne is the whipping-boy tasked with the triumphant fanfair, and is at least an improvement on Glasman. The Baron wrote and said the sorts of things that would make you choke on your bourbon biscuit in shock as you casually perused the Guardian website over a cuppa. Byrne is the kind of character who might make you emit involuntary Marge Simpson impressions, but not cough up crumbs and hot tea over your keyboard.

The big news is that Labour are “reclaiming [Beveridge’s] vision, learning from his political courage, understanding what has gone wrong in recent years as well as what has worked”; they must “become the radical reformers again”. Like a student who forgets to attach their essay to the e-mail, Byrne seems to have all-too-conveniently left out the details. There are hints at what the new approach to welfare policy might be, and some of them aren’t pretty.

Encouragingly, Byrne savages the current system’s treatment of the ill and disabled, and ends on a high note: “Beveridge’s first principles are the right place to begin”. But the warning signs are all there, and we have come to expect no better from ‘triangulated’ Labour: “Beveridge would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again, not least to bring down that benefits bill to help pay down the national debt”, “He never saw unearned support as desirable”, so “let’s restore the idea of ‘something for something’”.

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Now, as it happens, although Liam Byrne was neither born nor elected in my local area, he was educated here in his adolescence. I would like to think, then, that having experienced a world where around 30% have no qualifications, unemployment has frequently hit 10% or higher (with youth unemployment particularly high and a relatively high number of people never having worked), there is a high measure of overcrowding and 30% live in council housing, Byrne might have some understanding of the problems facing – and generally the lives of – those who rely on the welfare state in some form.

On the other hand, Byrne also sat on the committee that drafted legislation penalising phone usage by drivers, and then got a fine and points on his license for… yep, you guessed it, using a phone while driving. Perhaps, then, it would be too much to expect of him. While paying lip service to the content of Beveridge’s skilful and considered (though still imperfect) report, one gets the impression that Labour are more keen to vicariously cash in on its kudos than to implement its ideas as policy. This impression is all the more forgivable in light of New Labour’s record, and especially given the continued influence that Glasman’s ideas exercise over the party leadership (despite the formal dissolution of the Blue Labour project after the aforementioned ugly comments made by The Baron himself).

It would be a massive coup if Labour could produce something like the Beveridge report these days. Of late, state-commissioned research has been getting more slapdash and significantly shorter, with all of the loss of detail, balance and elucidation that implies; consider the 2010 Browne report into Higher Education, a total wash-out weighing in at only a nominal 60 pages (which is misleadingly high considering that ~5 pages of that are taken up by appendices and references, and the report itself contains more blank space and pictures than your average colouring book). The 1963 Robbins Report into Higher Education, to put that into perspective, had 335 pages. Obviously I’d rather give the number of words since this is a better standard of comparison, but this is difficult for technical reasons and you get the picture at any rate.

Beveridge struggles to find anything of any intellectual merit in the Browne Report.

It’s not just a question of the length of the report and the level of detail and the development of the logic that was possible as a result. It’s also a question of the mind and principles behind the recommendations; the principles were laid out honestly, the best practical application was explained meticulously and with sharp insight. As Liam Byrne points out in his article, the general public responded so positively that there were queues to buy the report. Beveridge strips his subject matter bare and builds his thought process up in a clear and honest way that can be followed by anyone inclined to do so, rather than filling the text with jargon or tacitly presupposing a narrow ideology. If every report were like the Beveridge report, bureaucracy would not be such a bad thing.

Labour have two choices. They could attach a dynamo to Beveridge’s coffin and prove themselves partially useful by forcing him to spin – with a bit of luck they might be able to power a constituency office with the electricity generated. Alternatively, they can take the challenge seriously and commission talented intellects to conduct a wholesale enquiry into the modern benefits system and its intersections with other areas of state and market activity. Taking this route would mean considering not only issues like the incentives provided by child benefits, but also the relationship between wages and benefits in their various forms, the future of social housing stock, the feasibility of full employment (which Beveridge assumed in his report), etc.

While it may not be immediately apparent, these questions are vital to understanding why the benefits system works as it does, and how it might work differently. The level of benefits or the conditions associated with them do supply incentives to act in one way or another, but they do not do so in a vacuum. The consequence of a particular policy (setting a threshold just so, or banning this type of person from receiving that payment) depends hugely upon other social variables that exist alongside the benefits system but are not themselves part of it. Even Byrne’s colleague Diane Abbott made this point effectively when she noted that the housing benefit bill “reflects a conscious political decision by successive governments to subsidise (mostly) private landlords rather than invest in affordable council housing”.

While we’re looking at benefits from different angles, let’s also remember that there are more things in heaven and earth, neoliberal, than are dreamt of in your economics. It shouldn’t be a surprise if someone values 15 hrs of their time more highly than the £15 difference it would make to their income. We should re-evaluate which factors are taken into consideration in determining payments and how – should 2 friends living together get any more or less than 2 partners living together? We should be clear about what sort of behaviours we are incentivising or penalising and why – do we want less children (say, for environmentalist reasons) or more (to counteract the aging population and pay for their parents’ pensions and healthcare, perhaps)?

If a re-examination of the welfare state dodges problems like this then it will have ensured its irrelevance and its inferiority to the original. In fact, it’s tempting to suggest that Miliband might as well just re-publish and re-read the original Beveridge report in its entirety and apply the principles and arguments laid out in it to the contemporary situation, since it’s difficult to imagine the modern Labour party producing or commissioning anything of great positive significance.

Byrne hits the nail on the head when he says that what is needed is radicalism, though I doubt he has the stomach to put this concept into action – healing the malaise of the welfare state may mean rebuilding the entire taxation system from the ground up, ensuring structural full employment, introducing a universal minimum income (like that proposed by the Green Party), or other wholesale changes to basic components of our economy and society. Byrne is all bluster, but calling his bluff could yield real fruit.

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How dense are the public?

by Anne Archist

As student politics moves through its seasonal cycle back into a period of comparatively high activity, we see occupations in Cambridge and Birmingham, with a strong probability of protest once again sweeping across the country, particularly in the South-East. Politicians might want to carry umbrellas over the weekend as there may be showers of rotting fruit. Seriously, though, the students are at it again.

I have mixed feelings about this, though mostly positive; my enthusiasm is tempered by the impression that despite the relatively high political and organisational continuity from last year, nobody has learnt very much from past experience, or thought very hard over the summer about the way forwards. It feels like an activist ‘Groundhog Day’ rather than the next step in a struggle that’s going somewhere. Regardless of this, the recent student activity (including the recent national march) does at least raise interesting questions about current attitudes within and towards various groups.

Firstly, of course, it raises all the usual questions about the attitude held by the rest of society towards students, students towards education workers (given the upcoming strike), etc. However, it also raises another question with more immediacy and clarity than before (and it has certainly been hovering around for a while). Namely, how long can the media go on reducing this to a question of tuition fees?

I just read an article about David Willetts’ first appearance (should that be non-appearance) lecturing at Cambridge last week. I was in the audience at this event – amazed at the audacity of this man and bemused by the surreal atmosphere that the student intervention created – and something rang very untrue about the media’s representation of this intervention. An article subheading read “protesters take over lecture hall to oppose £9,000 tuition fees”, one of those grey sentences that could have been written by anyone, for any paper, at any time over the past year. What is interesting about this sentence is its distillation of a whole lot of complicated issues down to one simple and fundamentally inaccurate summary. The protest was manifestly not about tuition fees.

If there is one positive comparison that can be made between what had happened by this time last year and the first couple of months of this academic year, it is that the focus within the movement has shifted somewhat from tuition fees. This supposed anti-fee protest consisted of students reading two statements (one was directly addressed to Willetts, while the other was read after he had ostensibly left the building). Only one of these statements is mentioned in the article – the first one, judging by the context. I got hold of a copy of this 2-page statement, and it does not mention fees. Not once.

The second statement does mention fees in various contexts. There is no explicit reference to “£9,000 fees”, but one sentence does presumably relate to this – the criticism in this context goes no further than referring to fees as “a massive debt”. The remaining sections relating to fees are more for the sake of putting other issues (cuts and privatisation) into perspective than protesting fees (in fact, these sections could equally be used as an argument for higher fees), and altogether these make up only 3 paragraphs out of 13.

Whereas earlier protests and arguments centred around the effect of near-tripling fees, there seems to be both a deeper and a wider understanding of the white paper as a whole – it is perhaps possible that the supposedly incendiary issue of tuition fees is merely a flash in the pan by comparison to the kind of unrest that could grow from a thorough and widespread grasp of quite what the government is doing to education. Personally, I take this shift in focus as a good sign; I have to own up to a relatively heterodox position on this, in that I don’t really believe in or agree with a lot of the alarmist arguments used around tuition fees.

By arguing about high fees reducing applications, or whether loan repayments are affordable or not, I think we largely play into the government’s hands. The issue, for me, is not one of whether high fees are unaffordable (because I think it’s fairly rare for this to be the case) or whether they reduce the number of people going to university (there isn’t really any evidence that this is likely to happen). The question we have to put is whether they are fair, given that there are alternative methods of funding education which would put the burden more squarely on the rich and would acknowledge the contribution of education to society and the economy as a whole, etc.

I digress. When I ask “How dense are the public?” I am posing a question that I suppose politicians, journalists, editors, and news presenters have to ask themselves on a regular basis. It could be phrased otherwise – “How much can we get away with? For how long?” For how long will facile arguments such as the accusation that current student protest is motivated by pure selfishness hold currency? How long can the government and the media stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend that this is a passing dispute over rising prices, as if we were bartering at a market stall?

It is convenient for servants of capital and neoliberal ideology to pose this as an argument over a ‘fair’ price for a ‘private advantage’ that happens to have ‘positive externalities’ (in other words, coincidental positive effects for other people). What is not convenient is to acknowledge the truth; in fact this is a full-scale revolt against a fundamental redefinition of the rules within which education operates (and I do mean education as a whole, rather than just universities, as these moves are in concert with the establishment of more academies and free schools, hints in the direction of desecularisation, etc).

The student movement, as part of a wider coalition, is coming to the point where it is not quibbling over price but questioning changes to the very nature of what it is that people are paying for, quite distinctly from the question of how it is funded. This is laudable and is moreover a strategic and intellectual advance compared to where we were a year ago. But it is not getting the attention it deserves, as the same old narrative horse is continually flogged (an apt cliché here since both senses of the verb apply). Who will point out the flies circling the carcass first? Just how much do the public understand that is not let on in the media consensus – on this and other issues? And what will happen if it no longer becomes possible to frame the back-door deregulation and privatisation of public education as “driving up standards” or “ensuring value for money”?

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‘Free speech’ and Willetts: Thoughts on the student movement

Almost a week ago, Cambridge Defend Education activists disrupted a lecture by the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, on ‘The Idea of the University.’  In doing so they provoked a wave of liberal hand-wringing and opprobrium from academics, all sections of  campus establishment politics and their own student union.

I admit that I was surprised by the myopically misplaced direction of energy towards condemning fellow students at a time when Willetts’s White Paper poses such an existential threat to Higher Education as we know it.  I know now that perhaps I shouldn’t have been.  The reaction provoked a lot of fundamental questions for me about the nature of the student movement as a political force; about ‘the student’ as a social category; and about the relationship between these two related phenomena and wider society.   The lay of the land has been thrown into sharp relief and that is immeasurably valuable.

One thing which struck me was the banal uniformity of the response from detractors.  It was almost as if everyone had internalised the bland Aaron Porter-style condemnation-speak which is itself a regular feature of political life.  The culture of condemnation is deeply-rooted; we saw it at Millbank and during last summer’s London riots, to give only two recent examples.  It is a form of collective ritual through which liberal bourgeois society attempts to reinforce its normative values, and seek assurance that its hegemony over public discourse remains in place.  By doing so it marginalises dissent through self-righteous hectoring and vapid moralizing, both of which were in large supply in Cambridge throughout the past week.  When that doesn’t work, out come the plastic bullets.

Not only was much of the criticism predictable but it lacked any self-awareness of the terms in which it conducted itself.  Rare were discursive and critical analyses of terms such as ‘free speech’ or any attempts to contextualise Cambridge Defend Education’s actions within the broader power-relations of the society we live in.  The basic equation was thus: a man was speaking, he was interrupted, ergo his right of free speech was transgressed.  Orwell once quipped that ‘there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them’ and no more so than in this case.

To explain we must first situate the arena of speech and the speaker himself in a social-historical context.  A lecture, in the University of Cambridge, by a government minister, on the ‘Idea of the University.’  Once upon a time this would have been undoubtedly an impeccably progressive arena and there could be little justification for interfering with the free exchange of ideas within it.  One can almost imagine the priggish dons reaching for their copies of Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and using it to eulogise about the merits of the University as a space for free and critical debate.  This romanticised vision typical of the period bourgeois ascendancy is implicit in many of  the wasted column inches from the student epigones of broadsheet opinion-formers.  Sadly, these hopeful ink-slingers for the ruling class have only imbibed the opening chapters of Habermas’s paradigmatic tome.  They can’t deal with the rest.

Willetts, as a government minister in charge of Higher Education, backed with the state’s coercive and ideological apparatus, with immeasurable influence on and access to the print and visual media, is not just one of many voices striving to be heard on the idealised level playing field of the public sphere.  Behind him stood the lines of riot police who so brutally attempted to cow the student protests of the past year.  From his mouth spoke the legions of professional propagandists in the Conservative Party press department who are in no small part responsible for the euphemistic and dishonest defences of the Higher Education White Paper to be found in the Tory Press.

This is because what capitalist society built up in promoting purely formal conceptions of individual rights and citizenship against the ramshackle privileges of the ancien régime, it undermined through the creation and reproduction of a new division of labour, wealth and power, denying in practice much of what it promised in theory.  Thus, the liberal political sphere, theoretically status-blind and inclusive, has in reality become a question of access to print media and the appeasement of advertisers; of the exercise of public or private power.  The debate on the future of education, so effectively closed down by a government which has consistently ignored the voices of students, academics and the several universities who have passed votes of no confidence in the minister in charge, has been replaced by a false substitute, a crude caricature, a laughably inadequate simulacrum; a university lecture series open only to a privileged few.  To argue that its disruption was a grievous transgression of free speech, tantamount to spitting on intercepted samizdat,  is almost offensive.  We did not disrupt free speech; we smashed the representational phantom which was posing as the real thing.

This leads me to the issue of the student as a social category.  Having seen the waves of solidarity messages from students, workers and well-wishers outside Cambridge which followed the Willetts disruption last Tuesday, and having heard of the impact of the action on student activists at other universities, has reinforced the conclusion that to speak of ‘students’ as anything approaching a unified social and political constituency is dangerously misleading.  Erik Olin Wright, for instance, defines the student as a transitional category, to be defined in relation to student’s class trajectories; that is to say, his or her background and the bearing that it plus education is going to have on the student’s eventual position in the class hierarchy.  This I largely agree with, recognising the temporary specificities of the student experience (with spaces for socialisation, access to resources, relative abundance of leisure time etc but no real leverage over production in any meaningful way), as well as the impact these have on the forms of political activism.

Two main things flow from this.  One immediate conclusion is that the disruption of the Willetts talk should not be seen as a tactical error when seen as part of a totality.  When the focus is restricted to Cambridge, it may certainly seem that way, but it has helped inspire a further wave of occupations and emboldened activists and workers ahead of November 30th.  In other words, Cambridge is not a microcosm of anything besides itself so we must resist the urge to generalise purely from local experiences or be discouraged that liberals got upset.  That the barricades have been thrown up is a good thing; it shows who is serious about challenging the government and who is not.

(Admittedly I have used a tactical division to explain a social and political divergence and there will be some people who genuinely and in good faith have problems with the specific action.  That I completely understand, whilst still disagreeing with.  However, I would contend that a sizeable constituency of those condemning the action are in fact acting in bad faith, hiding behind the convenient ‘defence of free speech’ to justify their own passivity in the face of the assault on Higher Education.  The test will be who is able to set aside tactical disagreements in the spirit of unity going forward and who, on the other hand, has no interest in this at all.)

On a wider level, this analysis calls for a transcendence of the mere rhetoric of student and worker unity into realising that many students are in fact workers or are imminently going to become dependent on the wage-system.  November 30th must not, therefore, become only a show of solidarity between disparate forces but part of the process to inculcate the idea that there is an essential sociological unity between large sections of Britain’s increasingly socially representative student body and the wider working-class.  The picket lines, therefore, are not only the first line of defence against education but take on an educative role themselves in a dialectical process.

It follows that there will class antagonisms within the student body as the fight against the government intensifies.  We should not flinch from the “centrifugal tendencies of the class struggle” because we have a higher goal than the mere sectional defence of student interests.  We are engaged not only in a defensive struggle; we believe that we can unlock the potential within this movement to create a new and better society.  We shouldn’t let misplaced and myopic hysteria stand in our way.

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‘I’m in favour of capitalism, just for the record.’ *

by Liam McNulty

Ed Miliband set out his stall at the Labour Party Conference last weekend in Liverpool but behind the rhetoric about breaking from neoliberalism, Labour’s role in stabilising the capitalist system in general is all the more starkly revealed.

One of Miliband’s central messages was to divide UK companies into two categories: ‘producers’ such as Rolls Royce and other manufacturing firms, and ‘predators’ such as RBS and the riskier elements of the financial sector.  Never mind the fact that Rolls Royce is the UK’s second largest arms company, producing the military hardware to realise imperialism’s ‘predatory’ drive, this distinction is fundamentally wrong.

Firstly, the division between manufacturing and finance is by no means clear-cut.  Large manufacturing companies such as General Motors and Ford in fact make as much of their profits from financial operations, for instance in selling insurances through subsidiaries such as GMAC Financial Services, as they do selling cars.  Secondly, it was the very crisis of profitability in industrial production in parts of the advanced capitalist economies which led to the boom of cheap credit and runaway financial profits in the first place, as falling wages squeezed consumption and created a chronic demand problem.

However, what the distinction lacks in purely economic terms it arguably makes up for politically.  As the Financial Times point out, Miliband is riding a wave of anti-finance, anti-banker sentiment which has seen the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, come out in favour of a financial transaction tax.  Moreover, it has strategic importance on two counts.  Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has laid bare the Tory Party’s reliance on funding from financial capital which counts for over half their income.  Not surprisingly, Peter Hain has jumped on this as evidence of the Conservative’s subservience to the City.

Also, it reflects a real unease within manufacturing capital and intelligent ruling-class circles about the systemic risks posed by runaway finance.  Even George Osborne has doffed his cap to the need for some separation of savings and investments, and don’t forget that even though some fractions of capital are profiting nicely from the crisis and the subsequent bailout, it will take years at the current rate of GDP growth to reach pre-collapse levels of output.  As Larry Elliott wrote back in July: ‘The UK economy is smaller today than it was in 2006 and is crawling out of the deep pit into which it plunged in 2008 at a snail’s pace. There was a 6.4% drop in output over six quarters during 2008 and 2009, and since then gross domestic product has increased by 2.5%. You would have to go back to the 1930s to find an economic recovery so slow and so feeble.’

What does this mean for the socialist left?  With regard to the focus of agitation, it calls for a re-think of incessant targeting of finance and bankers as the root of all evil.  A disdain for finance-capital, though rational and popular, is on its own not necessarily socialist, or even left-wing.  Fascists too have historically denounced finance as a parasitical growth on the productive capacity on the nation, and now Miliband and Barroso are getting on board.  It may even be negative, shifting focus from what capitalism actually is -a form of social relations which is based on the exploitation of surplus value from wage-labour by a small minority who own the means of production as well as the means of exchange- towards a particular aspect of capitalism, finance, which can be safely isolated and held up as an anomalous problem in an otherwise sound system.

What is required now is to shift to a focus on the system as a whole; pointing out the inter-relatedness of finance and manufacturing, the exploitative nature of the wage system and the need not only for the expropriation of the banks but also the struggle against capitalism in the work-place, the engine room of capitalist production itself.  We can’t let Labour off with deliberately narrowing the terms of the debate.

* Ed Miliband to Kirsty Wark on Newsnight.  

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“Enough of this UAF triumphalism!” – How to Fight Fascism.

By Chris Page

So, in the aftermath of the much-hyped EDL demonstration in Tower Hamlet’s earlier this month, the common slogan seems to be “They did not pass!” Anyone who knows their anti-fascism history will know this as a reference to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, where the noble actions of residents, activists and trade unionist stopped Oswald Moseley’s Union of Fascists from entering Cable Street.

Let’s be clear on a few things: firstly, the EDL did, essentially, march. This is in spite of Theresa May’s reactionary attempts to prevent this from occurring. The EDL travelled as a large group across London, in a procession which essentially equated to a rowdy and noisy march, as well as back to their coaches at the end of the day. Around 1000 people attended a rally at Aldgate Station, where Tommy Robinson spoke (after making a joke of dressing up as a Rabbai. He’s totally not racist, is he?) If anything, this proves that measures from the top down will not stop an Active demonstrations of fascism, something I have written on at length elsewhere.  The UAF organised demonstration certainly did march as well (good on them for doing so) but eyewitness accounts from the ground suggested that much of the anti-fascist demo was spent listening to somewhat clichéd speeches, and then a lot of waiting around, before learning that the EDL had left.

Hooray! We stopped them! They did not pass! Sitting at home, recovering from a major depressive episode, I watched the triumphalism pour over Facebook. Yet the question that came to my mind was “How?” The anti-fascists were separated from the EDL by a small army of riot police. The closest they ever got was a distant glimpse of England flags and the far-off discordant notes of “God Save the Queen.”

But let’s look at the grander picture. What did the anti-fascists achieve? Are we a step closer to stamping out the EDL? Did we win a decisive victory, or tackle a root cause of fascism – no. In fact, the UAF demo was, for want of a better word, passive. Tommy Robinson was arrested, but this will not kill off the EDL. Indeed, it seems to have galvanised support for them, as they can now claim that they have been deprived of their freedom of speech.

 A stalemate is food for thought – it suggests that it is time to reconsider tactics and ends. UAF’s response to Tower Hamlets suggests either a total divorce from reality, or a blind triumphalism. The latter is much more worrying – if the anti-fascist movement is willing to accept a stalemate as a major triumph, then it is clutching desperately at straws, albeit with a glazed and self-congratulatory smile on its face.

 THE STATE AND FASCISM

In doing so, the anti-fascist movement is entering dangerous territory, by playing into the hands of the state. Let us be clear: despite the bland assurances of mainstream politicians that they oppose fascism, it is they who are upholding, and, indeed, creating a system which breeds fascism. Even if there is genuine anti-fascist sentiment in mainstream politicians, it is almost childish in its simplicity. They are “evil” or “nazis” – whilst I would agree with both, to some extent, simple name calling does little more than de-contextualise fascism as a movement from its social circumstances.

Furthermore, it wasn’t the anti-fascists who prevented the EDL from entering Tower Hamlets, but the small army of riot police. On the surface, bravo! But on closer analysis, we see a worrying attitude by the state. Yes, the police kept the fascists out, but they allowed them to hold a large, static demo. The police, it would seem, played to role of a parent, trying to keep two feuding children apart. Credible eyewitness accounts suggest that the police were actually helping the EDL get to their demo, by giving them the monopoly over Tube travel to Tower Hamlets. When an EDL coach was targeted after driving into Tower Hamlets (not supposed to do that, are they?) the police launched a heavy crackdown in Mile End.

Can this really be called a demonstration, or simply a tame celebration of state power?

FASCISM AND THE WORKING CLASS.

A potential counter argument comes to the mind: what, exactly, am I advocating? Am I simply annoyed that there wasn’t a good old fist-fight between Red and Nazis? Not at all.

It is important that we draw a distinction between so called “classical fascism” and the EDL. Broadly speaking, there are similarities – the racism, obviously, and the strongly nationalistic world view. That said, the EDL has more been more effective at masquerading its views as those of the workers. The EDL taps into, and claims to respond to, an Islamaphobic cultural hegemony, and claim to be the voice of the “ordinary” British person against a threat to the lifestyle of the British worker, an idealised lifestyle situated within the framework of extreme nationalism. “Classical Fascism” is exclusively nationalistic; that is to say it vehemently opposes class based internationalist ideologies (socialism, communism, anarchism). It may be verbally anti-capitalist but, in practice, destroys working-class organisations and leaves capitalist power relatively unscathed. The EDL give more a primacy to ideas of race, rather than economics. But, by the very fact that they are a fascistic movement, they stand for the same things as classical fascism.

What I am saying is this: EDL fascism masquerades as a working class ideology, when it is clearly not. It attempts to appeal towards the working class by offering simple solutions to their wage slavery and alienation. As Hal Draper writes, fascism often thrives on a lack of education – a burden the working class will feel more than ever in a country which is savagely cutting funding to education. James Cannon in Fascism and the Workers Movement (1954), writes that it is workers who must force a counter-movement to fascism because of fascism’s middle class appeal:

“The workers are the strongest power in modern society. If they show a resolute will to take hold of the situation and effect the necessary revolutionary change, the millions of desperate middle-class people—impoverished farmers, bankrupt small businessmen and white-collar elements—who have no independent power of their own, will follow the workers and support them in their struggle for power. This was demonstrated in the Russian Revolution of November 1917.

On the other hand, if the workers, as a result of inadequate or pusillanimous leadership, falter before their historical task, the allegiance of the middle-classes will rapidly shift to the support of the fascists and lift them into power. This alternative outcome of the social crisis was demonstrated in Italy and Germany.”

WHY A WORKERS MOVEMENT?

Let us sum up briefly: Fascism, including the form offered by the EDL, is not a working class ideology. Fascism opposes internationalist workers unity, and it substitutes class based politics for the politics of race, and nationalism. The origins of fascism are found in capitalist system, a product of the bourgeoisie, the ultimate reactionary movement when faced with the crisis of capitalism.

The sober lesson of history shows us that where the workers do not take action, fascism flourishes. In his essay “For a Workers United Front Against Fascism” Trotsky pinpoints a similar problem with the German left’s reaction to Nazism.

“If you place a ball on top of a pyramid, the slightest impact can cause it to roll down either to the left or to the right. That is the situation approaching with every hour in Germany today. There are forces which would like the ball to roll down towards the right and break the back of the working class. There are forces which would like the ball to remain at the top…The Communists want the ball to roll down toward the left and break the back of capitalism. But it is not enough to want; one must know how.”

The tragic flaw of the German left was the belief that a) the victory of fascism was certain but that b) the ball would roll to the left and fascism would be little more than the death throws of capitalism. Whilst the modern left does not see the victory of fascism as inevitable, it is drawing a similarly conclusion to the Stalinists of the 1930s though complacently claiming victory where none can be found. We may not be under threat of a immediate fascist dystopia, but we are ignoring the reality of the situation if we claim victory where there isn’t one.

Trotsky takes his analysis of “anti-fascism” further, in his later essay “Once Again on the Causes of the Defeat in Spain” (1939):

“The very concept of “anti-fascism” and “anti-fascist” are fiction and lies. Marxism approaches all pheneomena form a class standpoint. Azana is anti-fascist only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeoisie intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proliterian revolution. Azana will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this.”

Trotsky’s point here is the fascism is a threat to the working class, because it is anti-revolutionary. Despite having an anti-capitalist veneer, fascism can win the support of the bourgeoisie. In this case, Manuel Azana, the republican president of the Second Spanish Republic, was seen as an ally of the communist and socialist movements when the majority of the bourgeoisie supported Franco. Trotsky bemoans this as a tactical error; not only did this allow the bourgeoisie to set a limit on the workers revolutionary movement, but actively played into the hands of the bourgeoisie. In a world where the choice is socialism and fascism, Azana and other aspects of the bourgeoisie would, and did, choose to oppose socialism, which meant that they played into the hands of the Fascists. When Trotsky says that “anti-fascism” is “fiction and lies” he does not, of course, mean the ideology itself – but that, on its own, it is not enough. If you are anti-fascist, you must be for something; for a workers revolutionary movement, a true alternative to reactionary fascism.

I do not oppose UAF at all – I merely oppose seeing a victory where there isn’t one. They are, like the SWP and SP, comrades, and we have a common ground in our battle against fascism. I would not discourage anyone from going on a UAF demo – of course we must turn out against the EDL. Indeed, I would advocate a greater involvement in the UAF, so that (*hat of optimism placed on head*) we might change the organisation and methods of UAF. We must take advantage of the structures which are already in places to fight fascism, even though they are not, at the present time, perfect.

What is victory for the anti-fascist movement? We are we aiming for? If “victory” means standing behind a line of riot police until the EDL get bored and go home, then perhaps I’m in the wrong movement. I am not satisfied with a ban on marches, or the brief prison time of Tommy Robinson. Surely, “victory” would mean the EDL and other fascist organisations withering away. This cannot be accomplished by passive measures, but by countering fascist hatred with a genuine alternative, a workers movement committed to socialism.

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Milton Friedman’s Vision for Universities

by Anne Archist

In 1955, Milton Friedman published a highly influential paper entitled ‘The Role of Government in Education’. All the major UK parties have borrowed policies from the text. It argues that lower levels of education should be funded by the state, with only “citizenship or leadership” education being funded beyond this (not “vocational or professional” education); all levels of education should be administered privately, through a system subject to market pressures.

The goal here is to ensure that education providers must respond to “consumer” demands, there is no “unfair” competition between the state and private providers, and only appropriate educational activities are funded. While recognising the difficulty of distinguishing between the two types of education in practice, Friedman holds that they are in principle separable. A key passage dealing with the latter type argues that the market ensures appropriate incentives and it is unjust for taxpayers to bear the costs while graduates reap the benefits.

“[Vocational or professional education] is a form of investment in human capital precisely analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded … by receiving a higher return for his services than he would otherwise be able to command. This difference is the economic incentive to acquire the specialized training … [I]f the individual undertakes the investment and if the state neither subsidizes the investment nor taxes the return, the individual (or his parent, sponsor, or benefactor) in general bears all the extra cost and receives all the extra returns: there are no obvious unborne costs or unappropriable returns that tend to make private incentives diverge systematically from those that are socially appropriate”.

The American higher education system has led to an underinvestment in human capital, according to the paper, so easier access to capital must be provided for this purpose. However, if this easy access to capital took the form of state subsidies for students, there would tend to be overinvestment in human capital. Friedman’s solution is to provide an advance for up-front investment secured against later earnings. In the modern political vernacular “the funding follows the student”, exercising market pressures, while the system as a whole is still funded through a form of semi-progressive taxation.

What Friedman’s article doesn’t give due consideration to is the difference between training in different areas – “education” and “training” are treated abstractly. The “return” varies greatly depending on degree subject, and to a lesser extent with race and gender. All of this is obliquely acknowledged when Friedman says that “[Repayment] should in principle vary from individual to individual in accordance with any differences in expected earning capacity”, but there is no exploration of the effects.

Where does this leave arts degrees, which I presume are not covered under training for “citizenship or leadership”, and others that represent a low return compared to the current cost of education? At present, all undergraduate degree courses generally cost the same at a given institution. In some subjects the cost is already greater than the return, and this will only become more common as fees rise and graduate premiums potentially fall due to greater supply of graduates. Medicine degrees, for instance, have a huge impact on earning potential, whereas male arts graduates may not earn any more than they would otherwise, according to some studies (this varies, but there is unanimity on the fact that the arts are currently very low-payoff disciplines). If the student were to bear all the costs of such a degree up-front, they would have no economic incentive to study it. Nobody would want to invest in students on such low-earning courses so easily available capital would dry up in these disciplines; it would represent the death of the arts for all but the wealthiest.

On the other hand, Friedman wants graduates to bear the costs of their own education, so there is no reason why he should support cross-subsidisation between faculties. For consistency, arts subjects would have to be provided at a much lower cost, meaning that medicine, engineering, and similar high-cost, high-return subjects would be even more expensive than they currently are. The gulf in graduate earnings would be reflected by a gulf in tuition costs. This would avoid the death of the arts but may cause less expensive degrees to be seen as the poor person’s degree, as low-quality (‘cheap’ in a derogatory sense), or as unattractive due to evidently low returns.

All of the above is an attempt to impose market logic onto the education system. Despite our best efforts, consecutive governments are following Friedman’s paper as a blueprint – this puts us in a difficult position if we want education to be about more than individuals investing in future earnings. Not only this, but it raises the question of whether the idiosyncrasies of higher education (e.g. providers select consumers as well as vice versa, we only know what we were paying for after the transaction has been completed, etc) conflict with the neoliberal market logic that Friedman sought to discipline it to. I’m interested in that question and might write about it later, but for now I just want to leave you with this question of what further ‘marketisation’ could do in terms of differentiating courses financially, and the broader consequences that these changes might have. Any ideas are welcome in the comments section below.

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