Category Archives: Political Strategy

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Political Strategy, Reviews, Uncategorized

Quick thoughts on the student-worker problem

“Why don’t you bloody well get a real job?” ask Workers’ Liberty in their new pamphlet.

Well, not exactly. “Change the world – organise at work!” is aimed at left-wing students about to graduate, and it’s a welcome, and rare, piece of propaganda from the left that tries to tackle the problematic student-to-worker transition.

What should politicised students, not least those radicalised during the 2010-11 movement, do with their lives once they’ve left university? It’s a big question for a lot of us. Workers’ Liberty want us to become rank-and-file union activists, an emphasis I agree with (should we become Labour Party activists too though? That question, where I disagree with the AWL, is left lying in the pamphlet).

Certainly it’s struck me for a long time that more and more good student activists I’ve known have started Masters courses, then PhDs, and will, presumably, stay in academia. Because universities have been the left’s biggest recruiting ground for ages, this is having a long-term impact. Sometimes it seems like the industrial base of the SWP, for example, is shrinking to just the UCU (this is just an impression so correct me if I’m wrong).

Some good things have come of this. There’s more post-grads joining the UCU, for example. And the GMB’s student-worker conference at Goldsmiths was a good initiative. But generally speaking, the funnelling of left-wing activists into academia will be a bad thing in the long run.

For those of us too thick or too sick of it to want to stay in the bubble, the pamphlet suggests we take jobs in strategic workplaces; health, communications, rail, local government, rather than, for example, working at a “worthy” job in the charity sector.

The criticisms of charity are well and good. I found myself thinking, though, about the Shelter strike in 2008. Those workers were workers like any other. Surely it’s not working for a charity that is a problem in itself. It’s being a boss in a charity, which is, I imagine, much the same as being a boss anywhere else.

So should we urge people to turn away from “graduate-level” jobs and go into workplaces on the bottom rung? There’s a more complicated problem here. Some graduates have found they can’t get those jobs anyway, and have to work minimum wage jobs in cafes and the like because nothing else comes up. On the other hand, I think there can also be a problem for graduates applying for “low level” jobs: employers see your degree, assume you’ll sod off when something better comes along, and don’t hire you.

How has it worked out in the past when groups have urged their university-educated young members to take jobs in factories and the like? I know it’s happened, but my history of the movement isn’t good enough to comment. Some more information and testimony about that would be useful. Did the bosses get wise to it and do the 1970s equivalent of a Google search on prospective employees? It’s difficult to parachute yourself into a workplace and fit in. “Engels was a mill owner.” Sure. But he wasn’t a union rep. He was, in fact, a boss. Not the best example.

Urging people to get jobs in strategic industries is fine, but let’s recognise that it’s far from always possible. In the post, there’s no jobs. In local government, very few. On the railways, even fewer. We’re not really in a position to pick and choose. Obviously AWL comrades know this, so they’re sort of urging us to get whatever jobs we can, and apply for this other stuff in the meantime. But for a lot of people, it’ll never happen, we just won’t get jobs on the tube or wherever. The unions need transforming in other areas too. Bar work, retail work, other areas where grads and non-grads work side by side (I can’t talk with great authority about this, having made no headway in my current job).

For me, the most interesting point in the pamphlet is this:

Today’s older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away. Yet many of them – on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them – have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage limitation.

I think this is more or less bang on. The spirit of the student movement was that a token protest is not enough, and that the point of fighting is winning. This is something the unions need to rediscover; strikes not just as protests or bargaining chips, but strikes as a form of industrial warfare. It was difficult, probably impossible, for the student movement to teach this to the workers’ movement “from without.” Student activists have a better chance of doing it by becoming union activists themselves.

Take everything I’ve written here with the caveat that I’ve not been very active myself for a while, but I broadly agree with the thrust of the pamphlet. All I’d say to the comrades who wrote it is, recognise that at the moment a lot of people will just take whatever employment opportunity comes along, rather than dropping in to one of your favoured industries. Those of us who work casual, part-time, short-term hours need some political and industrial help too. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

4 Comments

Filed under Industrial Relations, Political Strategy, Student Issues

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.

4 Comments

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

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Liberation issues, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

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’”.

Image

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Liberation issues, Political Strategy, Satire, Uncategorized

‘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.

4 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy, Student Issues

‘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.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy