Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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Review: Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest

by Edd Mustill

This is the first of two lengthy reviews of books about the student movement that have recent appeared. This review looks at Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest. The second will look at Springtime: The new student rebellions.

Fight Back! Has been put together largely from blog posts and other articles written contemporaneously to the most heated period of student protest, just before Christmas. Much of the content has been taken from the OpenDemocracy website.

The breadth of the articles is impressive. They include many posts dealing with tactics, some of the more well-known articles of those few weeks such as Laurie Penny’s Out with the Old Politics, and a contribution from a rebel Liberal Democrat peer.

The book is, on its own terms, an important one. The editors have done a decent job collating contributions from what could be called the various “decentralising” trends in the movement (you won’t find anything from the Trotskyist press, but then if you want to read that… go read the Trotskyist press I guess). Perhaps some harsher editing could have cut out repetitive sections in many of the articles wouldn’t have gone amiss, because they are personal accounts from different blogs and tend to repeat the facts of the protests a lot. I’m also not sure why we need to be reminded so many times that all the book’s editors have been caught up in a real police kettle.

The material is very London-centric, dealing with the national protests there and the occupation of the Jeremy Bentham room in UCL in some detail, with few contributions from outside the capital. Nevertheless it covers issues of national relevance.

Protest tactics

Some of the most original articles deal with the variety of tactics used on the pre-Christmas protests. They all favour decentralised, horizontal forms of organisation which, according to Jon Moses, bind activists together through shared experiences rather than ideology (although I’d say the same is probably true for the SWP’s Central Committee…).

In his contribution Markus Malarkey argues: “the strength of the student movement lies in its capacity for dispersal and for spontaneous, creative and autonomous actions that catch the police unprepared and avoid containment.” (p. 311)

This is certainly a tactical strength of the movement, but not really anything to do with its social strength. A failure to get to grips with the latter is perhaps the biggest weakness of the entire volume.

Rory Rowan is similarly a fan of “civic swarming,” the sort of cat-and-mouse protest that occurred on 30th November. Worried that the kettle is being used to defuse and demonise all protests, he argues that, “A step outside the kettle will be a welcome step outside the law.” (p. 235)

Mediaspeak

An admirable emphasis on the importance of radical action runs through the volume, as well as criticism of the media’s coverage of the protests. But some contributions unfortunately lapse back into the language of that same media.

Guy Aitchison’s criticism of the NUS’s famous “glowstick vigil” on the day of the Parliament Square demo is a case in point. He describes “the farcical spectacle of the NUS’ glowstick vigil (candles were deemed against health and safety) of 200 people at Victoria Embankment, whilst 30,000 students marched to Parliament Square to make their voices heard.” (p.55)

Isn’t “marching to make our voice heard” the very same sterile non-protest that other contributions criticise, and indeed that the whole book laudably seeks to downplay in favour of more creative, militant action?

Aitchison again lapses into mediaspeak when he calls the throwing of a fire extinguisher from Millbank roof a “mindless act of aggression.” (p. 69) But how can it be understood as anything other than a part of the Millbank action, however uncomfortable that makes us? Similarly, Paul Sagar condemns a group in Parliament Square “Waving red and black flags, dressed in plain black, with faces covered and snooker balls in hand, these were anarchists in the technical sense… clearly prepared for violence.” (p. 77)

This seems to capitulate to the police narrative of a minority ruining it for the innocents, especially in a protest situation where we know – and the series of eye-witness reports included in Fight Back! Testify – that the police have effectively criminalised us all and will use violence more-or-less indiscriminately.

Politics and space

I’ll admit that when it comes to talking about the spatial element of radical politics, a lot of that stuff goes over my head. I get bored with Debord. I’m at a loss with Deleuze. Nevertheless, even I found some interesting nuggets on the topic which I could understand.

Adam Harper argues strongly that students have used the protests to assert that, far from being the “dreamers” Clegg dismissed them as, they are actually very much rooted in the real world. Slogans about LibDem betrayal and the “This is actually happening” banner that appeared on the marches testify to this, as does the Book Bloc (making ideas literally into instruments of protest).

Talking about the use of music on the protests, Dan Hancox draws an interesting comparison between London grime and punk in the 1970s: “At its best, it’s the most explosive, exhilarating form of music Britain has produced since punk rock: and the repeated playing of two songs at several of the student protests – Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’ and Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’ – encapsulate that energy” (p. 267)

Punk is always thought about in the context of the “political” 70s. I relish the prospect of Next Hype being the soundtrack to countless future nostalgic documentaries about the political struggles of this decade.

Class and the unions

Class is in some ways the elephant in the room. There’s plenty of talk of the damaging effects of the government’s austerity measures, some very interesting exchanges on the changing nature of the university and the social implications of this,

Despite calling Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s article praising the student protests a call “without parallel in the history of social activism in this country,” (p. 314) most articles don;t go further than talking about making solidarity with others affected by cuts.

Through this there is a danger that everyone’s struggle is seen as auxiliary to everyone else’s, that, rather than the holistic movement that Laurie Penny rightly calls for in her opening piece, we remain a series of sectional struggles united more-or-less through marriages of convenience. We support our lecturers in “their” struggle and hope for their support in “ours.”

Similarly, there is an implication that militant tactics are “our” – that is, students’ – tactics. The unions can have their boring marches and we’ll go off and do our exciting things. Perhaps what needs to now be talked about is how we go about applying militant tactics in the industrial field.

Guy Aitchison is absolutely right to argue that the most pressing question is how to turn solidarity into a fact on the ground. Surely the best way to do that is to start talking about the class struggle that we are all engaged in?

A lot of useful legal and practical information is included in the back, and thanks to the editors for plugging the Unrest alongside other websites in the book’s appendix.

Fight Back! is worth a read, or even just a dip into, to get a flavour of some of the ideas coming from a particular amorphous “wing” of the anti-cuts movement. Everything is readable and clearly written. Taken together, the articles reveal a useful engagement with the tactics of protest and the practical questions of “resistance,” but leave you wondering whether the contributors are thinking much beyond short-term protest and resistance. Nevertheless, as an introduction to last year’s protests; as I suppose what could already be regarded as a historical document, it serves its purpose well.

For details of how to get hold of
Fight Back! click here.

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The Siege of Sidney Street and East End Anarchism

by Edd Mustill

A century ago, in the morning of 3rd January 1911, a house in Sidney Street, in the East End of London, was surrounded by police and soldiers. Inside the house were members of a political criminal gang who were suspected of involvement in the killing of three police officers on Houndsditch two weeks earlier.

A gunshot from the house hit an officer in the chest and wounded him. Following this, two companies of soldiers from the Scots Guards were brought in, and the police withdrew to keep the gathering crowd of curious cockneys away from the street.

By lunchtime the house was on fire. The cause of the fire has never been conclusively established. It could have been the army throwing an incendiary device, or the three trapped criminals. When firemen eventually moved in to put out the fire, falling masonry injured a group of them. One of them died later.

Inside the house the bodies of two of the gang, Marx and Svaas, were found. “Peter the Painter,” supposedly the leader, was never found, dead or alive.

This is the story of the Sidney Street Siege, an episode of East End history which is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.

The one-room exhibition crams in all the narrative above, along with artefacts such as the coat Home Secretary Winston Churchill wore when he arrived on the scene, and the scale model of the Houndsditch jewellery shop the gang planned to rob, carved out of wood, for use as evidence in the subsequent trial.

There are inevitably some gaps in what is a small exhibition. Some attempt is made to put the siege in the context of the politically radical, largely Jewish immigrant community that existed in the East End at the time, but the big strikes of Jewish tailors and the role of anarchists and socialists in labour organisation don’t get much of a mention.

One reproduced poster, from 1890, advertises a meeting at which figures as diverse as John Burns, Kropotkin, Eleanor Marx,William Morris, and Felix Volkovsky were billed to speak. This was an era when different organisational and ideological affiliations often bled into each other. There is controversy over the extent to which the Houndsditch gang were “anarchists.” Three of the four who went to trial were members of the Lettish Social Democratic Party’s exile organisation. And there were certainly anarchists, like Rudolf Rocker, who snubbed any violent activity. Rocker alleged that Peter the Painter himself became an agent in the Bolshevik secret police after the Russian Revolution.

A smaller controversy surrounds the landlady of the Sidney Street house. Oral testimony in the exhibition says she helped the gang to hide out, but William Fishman in his book East End Jewish Radicals claims she was the one who alerted the police of their presence. Both could, of course, be true.

The whole episode led to a demonisation of “anarchists” and “aliens” in the press, and not just from the usual suspects. Socialist papers like Clarion and Justice took the opportunity to smear anarchism.

This contributed to the decline of East End anarchism but did not prevent its finest hour, during the tailors’ strike of 1912. This was not only a big success, but overlapped with the dock strike of the same year to break down hostility between different communities. Jewish families offered to accommodate the children of striking, largely Irish, dock workers.

Despite not giving a mention to the tailors’ strikes of 1906 and 1912, this exhibition, and the museum in general, is well worth a visit. Resting as it does in the shadow of the capitalist dystopia of Canary Wharf, it reminds us of a time when East London was at the forefront of class struggle, a crucible for radical ideas – and all the victories, defeats, and tragedies that are inseparable parts of this history.

“London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists” runs at the Docklands Museum until 10th April. Entry is free.

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Review: Breaking Their Chains

by Edd Mustill

Tony Barnsley’s book on the Cradley Heath chainmakers’ strike is timely; it appears on the centenary of an almost forgotten industrial struggle.

Barnsley provides descriptions of the industrial Black Country, the strike itself, and the life of Mary Macarthur, the leader of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW), who was the chief organiser of the dispute.

He gives a clear outline of the background to the dispute. The chainmakers of Cradley Heath worked 54-hour weeks for a pittance. Industry was small-scale, and the only way bosses could compete with more mechanised industries was to repress wages. Women in domestic chainmaking were exploited by middlemen who contracted out the work. They were paid a pittance, and could not afford childcare. Barnsley says, contrasting Cradley Heath with Stourbridge where the bosses lived, “The only public facilities that did exist were the workhouse and the mortuary.”

The Liberal government was pressured into setting up Wage Boards in industries like chainmaking, with representatives from workers and employers. Such measures constituted the beginnings of “industrial relations” as we know them today.

The demands of the dispute were eminently “reasonable,” simply that the women should be paid a statutory minimum wage that the employers had agreed to and subsequently reneged on. They did this by tricking the largely illiterate workforce into signing forms opting out of the minimum, then using this as an excuse for abandoning the minimum altogether. The new rate was double what the women had been earning, but still less than half the average national wage.

Barnsley does not mention the controversial nature of conciliation boards at the time. They were met with huge hostility by some, for example in the rail unions, at a time when state intervention in anything, including working conditions, was met with deep suspicion within the working class.

Macarthur’s work was always quite legalistic, although she was prepared to use militant industrial action too. Barnsley explains how her many skills included making contacts in all walks of life, which helped with fundraising. She even used film, a new medium. A short reel was produced and watched by up to ten million people. Because of this, the strike got support from unlikely sources. Local conservative papers backed the women, and local Liberal Unionist Neville Chamberlain donated to the strike fund.

Macarthur’s popularity is shown by how close she came to beating a pro-war Liberal in Stourbridge as Labour candidate in the 1918 “khaki” election. Helpfully, her election address is included as an appendix. Barnsley criticises her for embracing electoralism in the years before her tragic early death in 1921, and rightly criticises the Labour leaders generally for being absent from the post-war upsurge in industrial struggle.

His assertion that the lack of a revolutionary party in Britain before, during, and after the First World War prevented a revolution on Russian lines is a standard Leninist view. Unfortunately it is tacked on the end of the book and not really elaborated. There were revolutionary and socialist groups around at the time, and more of an analysis of their role would be helpful. Then again, perhaps they simply had no influence on this particular dispute.

While the hellish industrial landscapes of Edwardian Britain are a long-forgotten memory, we are reminded that sweated labour (nowadays called sweatshop labour) is still here, in migrant communities, and in other parts of the world.

Books like this are necessary in order to rediscover lost struggles from the past. A minor criticism, from someone who is researching the period, is that clearer footnoting would be useful. Overall, this is a useful account of the Cradley Heath dispute, and should be read by anyone who wants to look at the Great Unrest as a whole, and can be a stepping stone towards a more detailed analysis of the period.

Breaking their Chains: Mary Macarthur and the Chainmakers’ Strike of 1910 by Tony Barnsley, London: Bookmarks Publications 2010 , pp. 88, £6.99, ISBN 978-1905-192-649

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Adventures in music and politics I: Captain Ska

by Edd Mustill

The launch gig for Captain Ska’s single Liar Liar took place on Monday night.

The venue, Vibe bar on Brick Lane, seemed pretty trendy to my untrained eye, and there were a few obviously-Shoreditch types. But, as the place filled out, the audience becomes more diverse, at least in terms of age. This wasn’t a gig just for “the youth.”

Josie Long
kicked the gig off with a short comedy set, reminding us, simply, just how awful the government are. She says she wakes up every day full of fight, then remembers: “They hate LIBRARIES?! Who hates LIBRARIES?!”

Next up were the Hackney Colliery Band, exuding energy from their collection of brass instruments and getting the audience moving.

Then there was this:

What motivated Captain Ska to write the song? “I hadn’t been that political before,” he says, “Some of my friends were quite political but not that angry.”

It was as the government’s policies began to take shape, over the summer, that the song began to take shape too. In a sense it reflects the mood of the moment: not politically fully-formed by any means, quite vague in many ways, but incredibly angry.

By the end of October it was finished and emailed around, quickly finding a home in the left-wing blogosphere. “Once one person blogs about it,” he says, “The effects are amazing.”

There was a sense that no-one else was writing something, and that this is a song that is necessary for the times. In that sense, compared to the 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence recorded by, amongst others, the once fiery Billy Bragg, Liar Liar is streets ahead. It is not a too-clever-by-half post-modern protest, but a blunt political weapon of the sort that Bragg once wielded. And the Captain assures us that he has “two more tracks that are ready to go.”

“The idea was that this was something more for the mainstream,” he says, “There’s not much protest music in the mainstream but there are a lot of grassroots things.”

No-one could deny that getting Liar Liar in the charts, with some airtime on major radio stations, would be a good thing for the anti-cuts movement. But the Captain insists: “I don’t want to become a pop star latching on to the back of an anti-cuts thing.”

Unlike last year, the anti-X Factor Christmas Number One movement is hopelessly fragmented. RATM’s feat is unlikely to be repeated. But even as Cowell and Co reassert their monopoly over the Christmas airwaves, perhaps there are just a few more people who are turning the radio off and getting down to their local anti-cuts gig.

Events like this, mixing music, comedy, and politics could easily become big successes when the anti-cuts movement steps up its campaigning. There is more than one way of getting alternative messages across. The night was also the official launch of the False Economy website, for example. The challenge will be to change passive gig-goers into gig-going activists.

Liar Liar is available now on iTunes

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The Apprentice and Das Kapital

by nineteensixtyseven

Following on from this blog’s last unlikely titular juxtaposition,  I have been following the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice and have reached the conclusion that the show demonstrates, in a nutshell, many of the insights about capitalism to be found in Marx’s Capital. No, it is not down to the fact that both involve a bearded man of Jewish descent.  Neither is it because Marx’s capitalists and Alan Sugar’s contestants are the most selfish, debased and downright disagreeable creatures on earth.  Outrageous as it may seem, The Apprentice really does demonstrate the absurdities of the capitalist mode of production.

First, let us take the very premise of the show.  Competitive individuals are instructed to set up a business selling a seemingly random product (sausages, cakes, book-stands for reading on the beach etc)  to random people on the street for the sole purposes of making maximum profits.  Ironically, they are instructed to do so by a man who made his name selling antiquated computers which made the Sega Megadrive look like a NASA spacerocket and who famously predicted that the iPod wouldn’t survive its first Christmas.  But let us set that aside for now.

Last week the teams commandeered an industrial bakery and viewers were informed that one contestant was basing his strategy on producing ‘best-sellery’ things.  Not for the love of fine cakes and the satisfaction of human taste-buds did these entrepreneurial spirits whirr into action.  Nothing so quaint.  As Marx would say, ‘These budding Apprentices have something to make besides cake.  Cake-baking is merely a pretext for surplus-value making.’  Quite so, for ‘it is not use-values and their enjoyment, but exchange-value and its increase, that spur the capitalist into action.’

In Marxist economics there are several inter-related elements which may contribute to an economic crisis. In the latest episode of the Apprentice we saw a a full-blown realisation crisis. One team produced a vast amount of cherry muffin commodities but when they entered the anarchy of the market system they found no buyers for said muffins.  Tragic.  But let me explain the significant of this.  In simple (non-capitalist) production, the producer sells a product in order to purchase other products which satisfy specific needs or wants.  The potential Apprentice would start with a cherry muffin, sell that particular delicacy for money capital which he or she would then use to purchase, say, a can of Pepsi.  Simple: C-M-C.  If the Apprentices can’t sell the muffin then they can eat it and quench their thirst by alternative means, like from a stream.

Under capitalism, however, the capitalist starts with Money, uses this money to purchase Commodities (labour power and means of production), and then after the process of production sells the Commodities for more Money:  M-C-M.  The Apprentice, therefore, invests Alan Sugar’s money in the industrial bakery, the flour, eggs, cherries and so on.  However, if the Apprentice does not make a profit then he or she shall face Alan in the boardroom, and that would not do at all.  Therefore, under pressure from the objective laws of capitalist accumulation, the value of M must be made larger at the end of the process than it was at the beginning or the capitalist will be driven from business and will never win Sir Alan’s £250,000.

Unfortunately for our muffin producers the consumer was not interested in the cherry muffins.  They were passé and he was not for having any.   Suddenly, the surplus-value contained within each muffin could not be realised. As our intrepid Apprentices were not interested in the use-values of the muffins (their ability to satisfy one’s hunger or sweet tooth) and were only concerned with their exchange-values, the muffins were worse than useless.  They sat, uneaten and unwanted in a heap and much of the capital invested in their production was wasted.  This also happened with the other team whose muffins were popular but whose bread was left over at the market stall, its surplus-value also never realised in the act of exchange.  We even had a crisis of disproportionality when a team’s means of production could not generate enough bread roll commodities to satisfy the requirements of a hotelier.  This in turn threatened to damage his business if clients stayed a way due to this induced bread roll famine.

Thus, The Apprentice demonstrates quite clearly capitalism’s tendencies towards crisis in all their vivid colours.  To be sure, the entrepreneurial drive so exhilaratingly characterised in the prose of the Communist Manifesto is also on display in buckets, as contests scrap with one another to design the best products.  This, however, is overshadowed by the boardroom bollocking dispensed by Sir Alan when the contestants fail miserably.  It is this latter phenomenon, if we are honest, which makes people tune in.

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Nineteen Ten and all that

by Edd Mustill

I just caught up with a couple of programmes on BBC iplayer looking at politics in 1910. This was a year which produced what would now be called a hung Parliament, a dream for politically commentators who love things to happen on convenient anniversaries. Two elections saw the Liberals and Conservatives win almost equal numbers of seats, and left the Liberals reliant on Irish Nationalist and Labour votes to rule.

One of the BBC shows, Peers versus People, was done in the style of a mock election night broadcast and gave an overview of the constitutional crisis of that year. The Liberals were trying to break the power of the House of Lords, where the Tories, surprisingly enough, had an inbuilt majority. Leading Liberal David Lloyd George apparently remarked that “a fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts (battleships).” They were threatening to pack the Lords with Liberal peers to get these reforms through, something that the new king, George V, secretly agreed to in between the two elections.

The other programme was Sunder Katwala’s lecture “Political lessons from 1910.” Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, focuses on these two elections, which resulted in Liberal-led governments and narrow defeat for the Conservatives. Katwala, in true Fabian spirit, is talking about lessons that can be learned by the political elite, rather than the working class. For him, the much-vaunted “progressive alliance” of Labour and Liberals was the only way to stop the Tories. One hundred years later, Clegg’s subservience to a Tory government should have killed any idea that there is such a natural alliance, but many in the Labour Party, not restricted to Fabians, still seem to cling to it.

These programmes focus exclusively on high politics and Westminster machinations, but the year 1910 also saw the beginnings of the period of labour militancy known as the Great Unrest, from which this blog takes its name. By the Autumn of the year the South Wales miners’ strike which is widely seen as the opening chapter of the unrest was under way, and the famous Tonypandy Riot occurred just a month before the December election.

The links between the constitutional crisis and rising industrial militancy, if there were any, have not really been examined. Sometimes Marxist and other left-wing history ignores high politics. The unrest is explained in terms of declining real wages in the first decade of the century, and the spread of syndicalist ideas. Both these are objectively true, but it is impossible to believe that Lloyd George’s anti-Lords campaign did not have an effect on workers’ consciousness.

Perhaps the political deadlock seemed to show that the Labour Party would only ever be a junior partner to the Liberals, and so contributed to the growth of what might now be called anti-politics among working men and women, most of whom still could not even vote anyway. Even the Independent Labour Party had come close enough to disaffiliation from the Labour Party for Ramsay MacDonald and Kier Hardie to resign from the national council in protest in 1909.

By 1911, voices within the ILP were calling for more socialist policies, put forward by some of the left-wing leaders in what became known as the Green Manifesto. Some, like independent MP Victor Grayson, were calling for a new explicitly socialist party to be founded. The new British Socialist Party was a bit of a damp squib, but that’s a story for another post. A left alternative to Labour was, of course, finally brought about by the establishment of a Communist Party in 1920. For those interested, the Weekly Worker is currently running a series on this.

Katwala did make a couple of good points. Firstly, that the Liberal campaign against the peers arguably came closer to “class warfare” than anything the Parliamentary Labour Party managed since. Because of the class hatred prevalent at the time, it was possible for Lloyd George to use the language he did, but if it represented any class struggle it was that of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy. Secondly, that next year will see the centenary of the Parliament Act which curtailed the Lords’ powers, but that the question of reform is not settled. It makes you hope we won’t have to wait another century to be rid of the anachronism of an unelected upper house.

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Featuring…

by Edd Mustill

Casting a socialist eye over the Top 40 singles chart isn’t often done and may seem fruitless to some people, but something has been bugging me recently. There’s a lot of tracks in the charts right now, and not all of them bad, by So-and-So ft. Someone else. They range from B.o.B. ft. Hayley Williams (not bad), though Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg (awful), to Professor Green ft. Lily Allen (inexplicable).

Mostly they sound like two people singing bits of two different songs alternately. What I’d like to know is, are these genuinely experimental artistic collaborations, or the result of industry machinations to keep two currently-famous performers in the public eye for a bit longer? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? This has been on my mind, for some reason, since the Gaga-Beyonce Telephone alliance.

Has someone in the music industry decided that bands just aren’t where it’s at? Maybe my sixth-form self is just pining for the return of three guitars and a drum-kit to the charts. Or any anti-recession, angry, state-of-the-nation stuff that we can all nod glumly along to. I’m not inclined to Pack Up my troubles in my old kit bag, whatever Eliza Doolittle thinks.

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My Summer Meditations

by Anne Archist

I’ve spent the past few days immersed in the break-up of the ‘Soviet Bloc’. Having first watched Shooting Robert King, I decided to finally crack open Summer Meditations, a book written by Václav Havel, the post-’Communist’ Czechoslovakian president. Since the former follows a photojournalist through various conflict zones over the course of a decade and a half, sections of the film highlight aspects of the fall of ‘Communism’ (I can’t bring myself to write it without the scare quotes when referring to the USSR and other totalitarian-socialist party regimes) as he encountered them.

Naive to almost the end of the film, King views the fall of the ‘Communists’ from power as an event of unbridled good; while undoubtedly there were significant steps forward in the release from totalitarian party rule, King overlooks the social harm that can be done by a transition from even the most poorly-managed and indifferent socialist economy to a market-based one. King sees a silver lining but misses the cloud, and particularly has no thoughts on how the public might react when they realise that West-style capitalism is not all they have been led to believe.

In one telling scene, a woman buys fifteen bananas and attempts to eat them in twenty minutes – fresh fruit is only just being released back into the ‘Second World’ markets at the time. King sees this not only as a bizarre form of erotic fulfilment for himself, but also as a vindication of the market and a triumph for American producers. Indifferent to detail, he simply replies “part of NAFTA” when it’s pointed out that the bananas came from South America, not the USA. Again, the journalist seems nonplussed when the subject of his supposedly-erotic art vomits a dozen freshly-ingested bananas on to the hotel room floor; “low grade fruit” is the excuse this time. Clearly, “want bananas, get bananas, eat bananas, be sick, regret bananas somewhat” could  be an allegory for the whole process of globalisation and westernisation of second- and third- world countries under the auspices of NAFTA, IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc.

Summer Meditations, written very much in the period of reform and liberalisation in Czechoslovaki, shortly after the fall of the ‘Communist’ party and before the country fractured into two states, paints a portrait of a confused man with his own words. Despite his position as a champion of the market and Western ties, Havel considers himself a type of Socialist. It’s remarkable at times to see how little faith Havel actually has in the market and how realistic he is in the face of market dogma:

[On state funding of culture and heritage:] There can’t be a hotel in every castle or château to pay for its upkeep, nor can the old aristocracy be expected to return and provide for their upkeep merely to preserve family honour”

[On energy policy:] One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand that the marketplace alone cannot decide which direction Czechoslovakia should take in the matter of energy production”

[On the environmental impact of industry and agriculture:] The state must systematically make use of all the means it has to compel companies to behave responsibly.”

There is also evident contradiction in Havel’s writing between the pro-market approach he adopts and the end results he hopes to see; it is a contradiction we have seen throughout history since at least the development of capitalism, if not earlier. Wishing to build a society in which land is cared for, work is fulfilling, the environment is treated with caution and so on, Havel naively expects the market to provide this. Havel’s politics come across more as one-nation-toryism with a place for the state-sector than neoliberal deregulation and profit maximisation. Readers might wonder why he has even the limited faith in the market that he does, given passages like:

“At all levels, schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students. Schools will have to be humanised, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers… and in the sense that technical and other specialised education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities. The role of the schools is… to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical and philosophical implications of their specialities… The schools must also lead young people to become self-confident, participating citizens; if everyone doesn’t take an interest in politics, it will become the domain of those least suited to it.

The universities will not select students; everyone must have access to education… The more citizens who complete university, the better. I do not see what harm it can do for a businessman, a restaurant owner, or an official of state to have studied law.”

Overall it’s a pretty interesting book, and if you get your hands on it then take a day or two to flick through. Obviously some of his political analysis is highly flawed, but at the very least it’s an opportunity to get inside the head of a fundamentally altruistic and ‘progressive’ pro-capitalist reformer. I’ll leave you with a practically comic demonstration of Havel’s inability to accurately assess the effects of the market, in a passage that could just as easily be a fast food chain handbook as a critique of ‘Communist’ agricultural policy (but all of which is mistakenly singled out as the results of ‘Soviet’ policy, of course):

“Farmers are no longer close to their livestock of the soil. Animals were moved from pastures and well-kept stables laid with clean straw into vast factory barns where they stand in stalls on metal grates, often never seeing the sun or having the run of a meadow in their entire lives. These barns were painted with toxic disinfectant. The land was polluted with chemical fertilisers. Ploughing under the strips and hedgerows dividing the fields and introducing heavy machinery led to the destruction of the ecological balance, to erosion, and to the disintegration, compacting, and deadening of the soil, which in turn led to more excessive chemical fertilising and the expensive liquidation of pests that would otherwise be eaten by the birds that had been driven from the fields. The yields are decent, it is true, but the produce is not of high quality, and the meat sometimes contains toxic substances. The absurd centralisation (so-called wholesale production) and, in some places, unnatural specialisation disproportionately increased the consumption of energy in agriculture. Farmers are dependent on the large and often monopolistic purchasing, processing and distributing organisations that have them – and the distributors – completely in their hands. “

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Recession Lifestyle Telly

by Edd Mustill

It seems that the serious documentaries about how naughty bankers have got us in an economic mess have given way, perhaps inevitably, to Recession Lifestyle Telly. Channel 4 seems to have embraced RLT with gusto, currently showing Undercover Boss and The Fairy Jobmother.

Undercover Boss does what it says on the tin. An executive steps down and secretly samples life on the shop floor of their own company. The first episode followed David Clarke, CEO of Best Western hotels, doing various menial hotel jobs.

Best Western doesn’t own hotels, it just brands them and brings them under a common name, provided they meet certain standards and pass inspections. So perhaps the executives shouldn’t be as surprised as they are, when they realise that none of the workers give a damn about their company despite a TV advertising campaign that cost them £1 million.

The incredibly low wages that have become the norm in the service sector are made apparent. A head housekeepers earning just above minimum wage, groundsman on £6 per hour, and a chef working hours of overtime for nothing extra, all make appearances. There is, needless to say, no mention of unions, recognition agreements or collective bargaining. Clarke tells us hows It’s Really Made Him Think and then unmasks himself to each person he’s worked with, giving them a small luxury gift like a family holiday.

The Fairy Jobmother follows Hayley Taylor, who we are reliably informed is an “employment expert,” although exactly what this means is never made known to us. Perhaps, like a character from Lost, elements of her past and profession will be revealed as episodes go on. Or perhaps she’ll continue to invade people’s homes with her musings on the poverty trap – “this system makes it easy for them,” “I see myself as a satellite navigation system,” – until all of Britain is back to work. It’s too early to say.

The Jobmother helps a young Middlesborough couple look for work with mixed success, against a backdrop of shots of the mothballed Redcar plant and the transporter bridge. The message is that finding work is all about confidence. Confidence and lowering your expectations. Do work experience for free, overcome your aversion to agency work, be prepared to do anything from tea-making to cupboard-fitting.

Both shows have an essentially philanthropic outlook. If only every CEO became humbled by the everyday tasks of his workforce, and if only the Jobmother visited another one and a half million households, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess much longer.

We can expect more of this sort of TV in the coming months, perhaps replacing the plethora of irritating property shows that characterised the boom years. Soon we might be pining for Location, Location, Location.

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