Tag Archives: Socialist Workers Party

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

The ban is not a defeat for the EDL

by Edd Mustill

Those who have called for the state to ban the EDL’s march through Tower Hamlets on 3rd September must take a serious look at their anti-fascist strategy.

It seems likely that the Home Secretary will ban all marches in five London boroughs for a month. This sort of blanket ban is what governments have issued in the past, targeting EDL or National Front marches but also any counter-mobilisations, for the sake of maintaining public order. To believe we can petition a bourgeois Home Secretary – a Tory Home Secretary! – saying “Please ban them but not us” is ludicrously naïve.

Public order, public order, public order. The same reason given for the kettling of every student protest in the last twelve months. The same reason given for the pre-emptive arrests around the Royal Wedding. The same reason given for the mass arrests after the riots, including the wrongful arrests and their ramifications.

Saying that the EDL march shouldn’t be banned is not a question of a gliberal defence of “free speech.” It is a political question because we can’t afford to give in to public order politics. Should the police be allowed to set the parameters of what constitutes “acceptable” political behaviour? We have already seen them do this, pontificating on what is a necessary protest and how people should go through existing structures.

Independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has said: “You have helped us achieve our aim and we no longer need a mass show of support.” Go home, ladies and gents. Job’s done. The East End is demobilised. And if the EDL come back? Ban them again. And again. And again…

Perversely, one of the events affected by the blanket ban could be the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in what is now Tower Hamlets. Historically, the Communist Party and people following its tradition have managed to place Cable Street among the Party’s finest hours. But initially the CP argued for people to attend a rally for Spain in Trafalgar Square on the day, miles away from where the fascists were marching:

Although the CP did give its backing to a demonstration by the Ex-Servicemen’s Committee Against Fascism, which was to assemble in Stepney on the Sunday morning, the party’s main emphasis was to rally support for the JPC [Jewish People's Council] petition calling on the state to defend workers against fascism. As one study of CP history observes: “It was not that the Party’s leaders were lacking in either courage or anti-fascist feeling, but the Popular Front line predisposed them to respectable protest rather than direct militant action, which could only antagonise those they were so anxious to influence among the Tories, Liberals and ‘Progressives’.”

Many CP and Labour leaders were busy telling people to stay at home then, as Rahman and co. are now. There would have been no political defeat for the Blackshirts if East-Enders had followed their advice.

Likewise, getting the march banned does not represent a political defeat for the EDL. This is an important point; don’t we want to defeat them politically? They will posture about how much effect they’ve had just by threatening a march, how they’ve got the Marxist Establishment running scared and so on. And if they hold a static demonstration and it’s tiny, they can blame poor attendance on the ban. They can’t lose.

Anti-fascist politics is in a rut if we are reduced to calling on the state to sort everything out. Apart from anything, this helps the EDL peddle their favourite propaganda piece; that UAF is a front for the liberal political establishment (well, isn’t it?). Socialists in UAF must be slightly embarrassed that their organisation’s joint secretary was among those signing the pro-ban letter to the Home Secretary. But then, in a Popular Front we must acknowledge and respect political differences, as the 1930s Communist Party would have well understood.

3 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy

Serious Rape Ignorance

by Anne Archist

Ken Clarke has made the headlines in the past few days due to a serious of what could be called pseudo-gaffes. I won’t go into all the details as it’s easy enough for people to read about it here, here or here, though that last one has a very misleading title at the time of linking. Hell, you could even read about it on a left-wing blog, I’m sure, though I don’t remember seeing any other than here. Rather than outline what happened, I want to give a short commentary on the lessons and implications.

The first is that Clarke evidently didn’t actually know what ‘date rape’ meant, as he later admitted; he was under the impression that ‘date rape’ was the term applied to consensual acts between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man. This is worrying in its own right, particularly in light of how often he must have heard statistics about date rape in his long career and misinterpreted them (e.g. the fact that the majority of rapes are “date rapes” in the common loose sense that they are perpetrated by acquiantances, lovers, relatives, etc – exact statistics vary depending on how you measure it, but every source I’ve seen puts it at more than 50%).

I’ve known what date rape was (insofar as these colloquial terms have strict meanings) since I was a goddamn schoolchild, so my mind is somewhat boggled at the prospect that Clarke doesn’t. Let’s be clear about this – he’s a 71-year-old Cambridge-educated man who studied and practiced law, was a Health Minister for 3 years, Health Secretary for 2 years, Home Secretary for a year, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor for a year. In all this time nobody told him what ‘date rape’ meant?

Secondly, it seems as if Clarke is also unclear on how the law stands, though this is a bit of a hazy topic. The law actually refers to his hypothetical case of the 18-year-old and 15-year-old as “intercourse with girl between thirteen and sixteen”, not rape (unlike sex with a girl under 13, which is now called “rape of a child under 13″). ‘Rape’ used as a legal term of art, therefore, would seem to be an inaccurate application in this case. Maybe he was using the word in some kind of loose sense, but that would seem to be at odds with the point he was making, which was that the legal term means something much wider than the general usage “in conversation”.

The exact wording might seem pedantic given that it’s still an offence, whatever it’s called. However, this overlooks the actual status of those hypothetical people in relation to the law. While the man would technically be committing an offence, CPS guidelines should prevent the case from ever getting to court. Many people don’t realise the true extent of what technically counts as an offence precisely because these guidelines are constructed to give some rationality to how the law is applied, so that people aren’t arrested and imprisoned for swearing in public or otherwise subjected to ridiculously inflexible laws.

It’s therefore unrealistic for Clarke to suggest that there are large numbers of people on short sentences for having consensual sex with underage partners who are skewing the average sentence towards a shorter period, as he did. And, of course, if there are such people, maybe he should be doing something about it, as the Justice Secretary – I assume his job includes the task of preventing innocent people being convicted as well as the more frequently-acknowledged task of ensuring that guilty people are convicted…

What really makes my blood run cold in relation to this story, however, is that there has been a public outcry – led by leftists and feminists – in this instance but none in the case of Tony Benn. While a public campaign for Ken Clarke’s dismissal gains momentum (though I expect it will go the way of Theresa May’s), I’ve yet to find even a single newspaper article about the latter; kudos to Zetkin for bringing this to my attention, in fact. This would make a perfect case study of the endemic sexism and opportunism of the left – the SWP and others bay for blood when Clarke implies a difference between “forcible” rapes and other rapes, but when their darling in the House of Lords does the same they laugh along as if they’re watching a Bill Hicks “war on drugs” routine.

For those that don’t know (as I didn’t until today), Benn said at a StWC meeting that “a non-consensual relationship… [is] very different from rape, which, er, most people would understand to be the seizure by force of a woman for the gratification of man’s need” (start watching at 3.05). Note the gendered terms (he’s not generalising here, which is legitimate, he’s defining rape in gendered terms) and the reference to a “man’s need” (yuck); presumably this particular view wasn’t one he shared in the letters to his grandchildren

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The General Strike debate

There has been lots of talk recently (on the left at least) of a general strike in the UK – the NUJ has voted in favour of a 24 hour general strike, and most left groups have been pushing the slogan strongly on March 26th and since.

However, there seems to be little understanding of how we can move from sloganeering towards helping to create a situation that could be called a ‘general strike.’

The writers here at the Great Unrest have tried to put down some of their thoughts and ideas.

This kind of reflection is crucial, otherwise we’re just ‘calling’ for something without understanding what ‘calling for it’ means, and without understanding what the thing we’re calling for actually is. And that’s not a good situation for a revolutionary to be in.

We encourage all readers to share their own thoughts on the general strike debate in the comments.


Patrick:
The TUC does not call strikes – trade unions organise ballots and workers vote to call strikes. Even if the TUC did have the power to call a general strike, it almost certainly would not call one.

A general strike can only develop in an asymmetrical way – with more organised sectors striking, and moving into more militant tactics – real picket lines, indefinite strikes, and perhaps most importantly, use of social movement unionism – service users materially supporting strikes against cuts, communal provision of services (food etc) on picket lines, even (at the most militant end) work-ins at public service buildings. The latter could take the form of schools continuing to run but teachers refuse to fill out forms, adhere to tests or the curriculum, for example.

The less organised may begin with work-to-rule, and build support within the membership from there. Temporal coordination of strike action will surely come at a relatively late stage in this process.

Would a general strike be effective? Not if it was a one-day affair, like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have all seen recently. A one-day general strike may be an important confidence boost (like March26th could have been), but an effective general strike would have to be longer (or at least very regular), with strikers using their days to raise support, organise mutual aid services, and hold public events to pull convince the undecided that disruption is a necessary price to save public services.

Liam McNulty:
One thing which worries me about the ‘General strike now‘ slogan is that it conceivably represents for the organised far left what the March 26th demonstration represented for the TUC: a one-off event involving months of planning with little consideration given to what happens afterwards. As with the ‘March for the Alternative’, in which the ‘alternative’ was left purposefully vague, the content behind the slogan is by no means clear. There is a danger that, if it were to happen, it would at best be a spectacular gesture; at worst could lead to demoralisation if it failed to have any palpable impact on the government’s political agenda. Indeed, by what measure should we, and the workers’ who take part, judge the ‘success’ of a general strike?

I have some sympathy with the view that if socialists do not raise the slogan of a general strike then no one will. However, I fear this is a mistaken attitude to take towards the labour movement. Unless accompanied with rank-and-file work within trade unions in various sectors to prepare the way for such an action, there is a sense in which the slogan of a general strike is being ‘handed down’ by exogeneous organisations from on high. It seems to me that this is indicative of a bureaucratic and formalist conception of politics, as opposed to one which is rooted more organically in the class.

It would surely be better if the slogan was raised in a manner more in keeping with the flow of struggle. Rather than being a corollary of the tactical vacuum post-March 26th (well, we have to propose ‘something’!), the call for a general strike might make more sense if proposed, say, as the extention and escalation of a current ongoing wave of industrial action. In this sense, its emergence would be tactically more concrete and less akin to a generic formula. The role of the organised left is not just to shout slogans from the sidelines in the hope that they fall on fertile ground but to judge the best opportunities for intervention, guiding the flow of struggle and providing leadership when it is most needed.

Anne Archist: Workers’ Power have formulated one of the more reasonable takes on the ‘general strike’ formula, telling us to “raise the call now for a general strike, call for the TUC to do it but don’t rely on them, and crucially build the anticuts committees … to coordinate action from below.” They’ve also made the case for indefinite action and private sector inclusion, contrary to the Socialist Party for instance.
Even when formulated like this is strikes me as a tactic that involves playing with fire. The only serious general strike Britain has ever seen was in 1926, and it teaches us some harsh historical lessons. Socialist Worker and other Trotskyist papers are willing to learn from the positive lessons like Churchill’s comment that the strike was “a conflict which … can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory”.

As usual, the same groups are largely unwilling to learn from the negative lessons o the experience: the general strike came out of coordinated action in a few industries that threatened to spread; the TUC sent a negotiator (both in order to avert the strike and during ongoing negotiations once workers had come out) who was notorious for refusing to take solidarity action and who was clearly on the government’s side, saying “God help us unless the government won”; the army, special constables and scab volunteers were called upon to run services and police pickets, leading to violent confrontations; the councils of action were unable to sustain industrial action for a significant length of time in the face of the TUC’s aggressive withdrawal; the failure of the strike led to a significant fall in TUC-affiliated union membership and to legislation that first made general strikes illegal (which was on the books for nearly 20 years before Labour removed it – it’s now illegal again, incidentally).

The questions we should be asking are: how we can build the kind of confidence that would lead workers to take non-tokenistic action in defiance of the law and the TUC leadership; how can we build the kind of organisation that would make such action successful (ideally through forms of action that are disruptive to employers and build class strength and consciousness while being sustainable and conducive to solidarity, as Patrick touches on in this article); how do we circumvent the official leadership of the unions and provide political leadership to the anti-cuts movement through this action; how do we minimise the possibility of a backlash that could do serious harm to the organised workers’ movement in the face of an unsuccessful general strike? Another vital question that is neglected by every discussion I’ve come across is quite what we expect to come out of a general strike at a time when social revolution doesn’t seem to be a short-term option like it might have been in 1926 – do we stop short at bringing down the government, do we expect to beat the cuts entirely if we bring a Labour majority to office, do we push further and go on the offensive (e.g. for full employment), do we struggle for political revolution to replace even Labour with a workers’ government within broadly capitalist relations…?

Edd Mustill: The Tower Hamlets strike rally a couple of weeks ago was interesting because it showed both some of the contradictions in the public sector unions, and some of the left’s current approach. Made up of teachers and local government workers, the majority of the room were women of various ages and backgrounds. All the main speakers, except one, were middle-aged men. A crude observation perhaps, but one which maybe underlines the disconnection between leaderships and membership, especially in the public sector. The chair, a young NUT member, did a good job of telling people that members make the unions, and that leaders need to be held to account. She urged people to get involved in their branches.

There was no floor discussion, no discussion of tactics and strategy, at the rally, so perhaps chanting was the only way to get an idea across. The danger is that, like some chanting on demonstrations, it comes across as pleading for someone else to act rather than self-organising. This is perhaps reflected in the behaviour of the left within union leaderships. This report from a Unison NEC (take it or leave it) says:

“…one after another on the ultra left accepted that we are neither administratively industrially ready to launch successful industrial action with the NUT and PCS in June and recognised the importance of planning for this properly. Only the Socialist Party representative from Yorkshire believed in the need for immediate action, if not a general strike…”

In fact the Socialist Party’s leaflet for the Unison NEC election mentions co-ordinated strike action, but not the ‘general strike’ at all. So how seriously are the left really taking it?

The groups pushing most strongly for a general strike, the SWP and Workers’ Power, wrote in their reports of Tower Hamlets that their general strike chant was taken up by most or all workers in the room. Apart from not being true, this doesn’t bring the general strike any closer. The idea that a group of workers “throwing their weight behind the call for a general strike” will push union leaders into calling one is tenuous. That’s not how union leaderships are forced into taking decisions like that. There needs to be an alternative pole built up in the unions, a rank-and-file pole. To be fair to Workers’ Power, they seem to be involved in a new “Grassroots Left” movement in Unite.

Rather than a question of what calls we make or what headlines we put on reports, bringing about a general strike is really a question of what forms of organisation we need.

14 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Student Issues

Why Social Mobility is Shit (I)

by Anne Archist

Everyone’s talking about it. David Willetts has kicked the hornet’s nest most recently by arguing that feminism is to blame for reduced social mobility over the last few decades, but the concept itself is in widespread usage these days, from the left through to the government. Social mobility is good, we’re told; it gives people a chance to get on in life, to do better than the generations before them. That all sounds nice, but today I’m going to tear the whole concept apart like only a philosopher can.

The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other. To talk about (vertical) social mobility without imagining society in this hierarchical and unequal way renders it nonsense.

So the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point. Next time people imply that equality and social mobility go hand in hand, remember that while higher degrees of equality may correlate with higher measures of social mobility, real equality is incompatible with real social mobility.

Some people will be confused by the previous paragraph – generally more equality means more mobility, but the most equality means the least mobility? How can that be the case? Something that might illuminate the previous paragraph is the idea of multiple-peakedness; this is important in understanding certain aspects of politics. The idea is that not everything works as a linear improvement in a particular direction. It’s not true, for instance, that everyone who votes for the most right-wing party would vote for the second most right-wing party as their second preference (an assumption, incidentally, that seems to be underlying much of the AV debate at the moment; maybe I’ll talk about this more in a further post).

Suppose that a working-class voter is minimally class-conscious; they realise that free markets are just a route to the rich getting richer at their expense, and they know that they have a certain common interest with fellow workers in a similar position to themselves. They may also be racist or generally nationalist and short-sighted, however. That is, they may not be internationalist and may not understand their common interest with immigrant workers. They vote BNP because they see the BNP as a party that will fight for the native working class, will oppose free market profiteering, etc. Ignoring the question of how accurate this perception is, it doesn’t therefore follow that they would vote for UKIP or the tories as their second preference. Perhaps they’d vote Labour or even support the Socialist Party or something of the sort.

This is multiple-peakedness – the line on a graph that represents their preferences doesn’t have just one peak and descend in a straight line from there, but actually has a peak at each end. In this instance it’s probably double-peaked, with a gradual descent down from the far left towards the tories but then a big peak at the end representing the far right. In other instances there may be more than two peaks separated by troughs of varying heights, etc. Now we can apply this idea to the relationship between equality and social mobility; it may be that in, e.g. conditions present in Western European style broadly social democracies, equality and social mobility are correlated. This doesn’t imply that they will correlate in other conditions (other sections of the graph, as it were). After all, if a society is too polarised, mobility will be all but impossible too – social mobility is going to be low for slaves, for instance! – but if a society is equal enough then social mobility is going to be conceptually impossible altogether because there is no room to ‘move’.

While we’re on the subject, don’t forget the transformation of quantity into quality in terms of understanding the relationship here… This is the thing that Engels repeatedly explained in terms of water changing states – as water heats up (a change in quantity of energy), it eventually reaches a point where it boils (a change in quality of state). It could be that social mobility improves up to the point that it just becomes a socially/politically meaningless concept because there is little relevance to moving within the narrow constrains that a society that is basically equal. I’m not concerned here with laying out a strict analysis of the relationship between the two variables across the whole range of possibilities, but it seems pretty clear that at the extreme of total equality, social mobility is utterly non-existent. As I’ve said, social mobility presupposes an unequal, class-divided society.

Part II coming tomorrow…

2 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy

Should we be calling for a general strike?

by Edd Mustill

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) conference a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting debates was around whether or not we should, at this point, call for a general strike in Britain as part of a strategy for defeating cuts. It was the first time in a long time that I changed my mind numerous times during the course of a political discussion. I ended up abstaining (cop-out, I know).

The idea of a general strike is being pushed strongly by Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and less so by the Socialist Party. The cuts are a general attack on the working class that require a general response, which, so the argument goes, logically leads us to conclude that a call for a general strike is necessarily the correct call to be making.

There have been one or two general strikes in British history; the 1926 strike is indisputable, some say the Chartist “Sacred Month” in 1842 constituted a general strike as well. On other occasions, general strikes have been threatened or nearly materialised, such as in 1919 or 1972.

To drop a dead Russian into my article… Trotsky said that “a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.” What is needed to make the slogan of a general strike any less empty than raising the slogan “revolution now”?

A few months ago Charlie Kimber (now National Secretary of the SWP) argued in Socialist Worker that the demand for a general strike is made possible because the rhetoric of trade union leaders shifts leftwards. We can start talking about it when they do, or at least when they talk about the fact that they’re not talking about it. Apparently the need for a general strike is implicitly raised by the union leaders themselves. Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party (SP) puts across a similar argument, saying that the TUC’s pledge for co-ordinated strike action has “unconsciously raised” within the working class the idea of a general strike.

According to these arguments, the ability of the workers’ movement to actually carry out a successful general strike is not a major factor. For some in the SWP the fact that people are, apparently, really angry, is enough proof that a general strike would be pulled off if one were called.

But what sort of general strike are people usually talking about? Most calls for a general strike focus on a 24-hour stoppage, such as has frequently occurred in Greece recently. Hannah Sell has pointed out that numerous 24-hour general strikes in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have failed to defeat austerity policies.

1926 - the right model?

The idea of such “warning strikes” is to increase the confidence of the working class. According to the SP, they are to form part of a programme where everything acts as a springboard to something else. So a chain of action develops which looks something like: local protests > a national march > a one-day public sector strike > a one-day general strike > an indefinite revolutionary general strike(?)

The first round of industrial action here, a public sector general strike, could effectively happen legally by different unions balloting separately and co-ordinating their strikes to take place on the same day.

There is a problem though. A one-day “general strike” is not really a general strike. Would this sort of “general strike” pose the question of power in the way that all classical general strikes supposedly do? No. No-one will seriously question where power lies in society just because the TUC, for example, tells them not to go into work on May 1st, especially if they know they will be back in work on May 2nd.

Socialist Worker on September 28th defined a general strike as “when all workers walk out on the same day,” but actually it is much more than that. Real general strikes are called as open ended actions, but cannot last indefinitely (people need to eat). So they raise the question of how to organise society in a different way, without the bosses. This began to happen, for example, in France in 1968. For a revolutionary general strike to be successful, the workers’ movement needs to be capable of rising to these challenges.

We are in a situation where even the more militant unions are finding it very difficult to win clear-cut victories. Witness the RMT in the London Underground dispute over job losses, and the FBU’s long-term battle over changes to shift patterns, for example.

What would a clear-cut victory for a One Day General Strike be? The government abandons its cuts programme? The government collapses? Or we have a successful staging post from which to launch the next, Two Day, General Strike…?

Spain 2010 - set piece?

For unions to be in a position to win serious disputes, we need seriously organised rank-and-file networks that can direct these disputes. Raising a general strike in the manner popular on the British left can lead to the faintly ridiculous spectacle of someone like NUS president Aaron Porter signing a petition in favour of a general strike, on the same demonstration that he is chased off by a militant section of his own union’s membership.

Set-piece strikes will not roll back the government’s programme or force their resignation. Jeremy Drinkall of Workers’ Power (WP) argues: “The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one.”

Perhaps in Tunisia the threat of a general strike toppled Ben Ali, but in Egypt the reality of what was effectively a general strike last week failed to bring down Mubarak.

In the last few days, the Egyptian working class has muscled its way even into the Western media explicitly, because strike action appears to be spreading. We could reasonably suggest that a sort of mass strike process has been going on in Egypt since the Mahalla textile strike in 2006.

A century ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, attempting to analyse the strike wave in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution, and the prospects for something similar occurring elsewhere. In it she makes a distinction (at least in English translations) between the general strike as an event and the mass strike as a process. A general strike refers to an all-grades strike in a particular industry, or a general stoppage in a geographical area like a town or city.

The mass strike can last months or years, it can contain within it victories and defeats. It can explode in one industry even as it dies down in another. Within it, political and economic questions are inseparable:

“It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now it is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing set of phenomena.”

Sounds remarkably like Egypt to me. So, simplifying things a lot, we can see the effectiveness of the mass strike in Egypt as against the impotence of the set-piece “general strike” in Greece.

I’m not necessarily saying take the general strike off the table altogether. At NCAFC conference, WP comrades made the very reasonable point that if we as revolutionaries don’t raise it, it won’t get raised. But we always have a responsibility to explain properly what our slogans mean. What sort of thing do we want to see? A series of show-piece strikes, or the situation that Luxemburg describes above?

Let’s take a small scale example. The BA cabin crew dispute has taken the form of a series of set-piece strikes, which are now fighting only for the restoration of working conditions that were taken away as a result of the first strikes. It has lasted well over a year, with large gaps between action, rather than escalation. An alternative proposal would be, for example, to broaden the strike out across the industry, where there is a tradition of unofficial action among some baggage handlers (see the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005). We need to build rank-and-file networks, and popularise militant forms of industrial action like this. These are the sorts of actions that can create the conditions in which a real general strike could be successful.

It is worth mentioning that any action in Britain even remotely like what has happened in Egypt – political strikes, wildcat strikes, work-ins – would be illegal because of our anti-union laws, so were it to take place it would take on a political character because it would bring the working class directly up against bourgeois law. Egypt shows that fighting political and economic battles cannot be separated. A lazy call for a legalistic general strike risks artificially separating them, not to mention making the TUC General Council and union leaderships into something they are not (i.e. radical).

I’m still willing to be convinced that there are ways in which the general strike slogan could be raised right now that make sense. But I think we should prioritise rank-and-file organisation, and the broadening out of disputes at the grassroots through militant action, before we hold our breath for the TUC to deliver the goods.

7 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy