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Lenin versus Hattersley

Strange bedfellowsI have in the past been less than complimentary towards Labour veteran Roy Hattersley. Today, however, the old boy managed to surprise me just a little. So used to hearing the ‘social democratic’ Left justify below inflation wage increases on behalf of their New Labour counterparts, it was refreshing to read Hattersley writing frankly about wealth redistribution, a house building programme and so forth. Hattersley even went as far as to attack the notion of social mobility as an end in itself.

As it happens, I agree with all of those points. However Hattersley’s critique of social mobility has a few holes in it. He notes that he would celebrate should one in every thousand (rather than one in every two thousand) students in his former constituency go on to medical school, but he doesn’t tell us why we should care if that’s the case. Hattersley attacks the notion that the working class don’t ‘get on’ simply due to their own inherent make-up, but doesn’t address the question of why ‘getting on’ is important.

If ten or twenty or a thousand of every two thousand in Hattersley’s constituency became doctors, then we’d draw our pool of manual labour and the lower-paid workers from somewhere else. As Hattersley seems to note, before veering off, social mobility is a zero-sum game, based on a competitive ethic that ensures somewhere at all times there are underpaid people performing menial tasks when they are capable of more than that. Hattersley simply comments that everyone needs an equal start and an open road.

Fine, but to what end? If, as Hattersley says, social mobility means nothing without deeper economic change, what sort of economic change does he have in mind? He doesn’t say. He supports building houses to improve the life chances of the working class, and no doubt free education and a better NHS, the touchstones of British social democracy. Yet his analysis doesn’t account for the opposition these things face in practice and for what reason they face opposition.

It is a laudable ideal that everyone should be able to reach whatever they aspire to be – but that’s not fundamental economic change. It may be possible in the UK, but largely at the expense of having the ‘lesser’ jobs exported to other countries. Even with that, we’ve still not rid ourselves of chronically low paid jobs, from the retail industry to service sector workers, greasing the skids on which the City of London runs day after day, week after week. I’m sure none of those people grew up wanting to do that.

Not that they’re not proud of what they do; anyone who works hard at their job has the right to take pride in it.

Nevertheless, the lot of these people is not a good one – and though Hattersley wants universal education and such to help them work their way up the ladder, it isn’t fundamental change. The fundamental change is lacking because of Hattersley’s conception of the State as an impartial, democratically influenced instrument to adjudicate the interests of different sections of society, whatever those different sections of society may be.

Such a notion forgets that the State is fundamentally grounded in the socio-economic system we call capitalism. It is the defender of property rights, and on the basis of private property, which can be amassed by individuals and collections of individuals, only an exploitative economic system can exist. The framework within which the State operates is therefore grotesquely biased, not to mention that any number of the politicians go to public schools with the same individuals who amass such property.

Without the overthrow of private property (and consequently the State) there will be no ‘fundamental’ economic reform. We might protect the poorest from the worst excesses of their poverty, and we might create and sustain a middle class bridge of small producers and professionals between the propertied and the propertyless – but this doesn’t enfranchise people within the democratic state. Nor does freedom of speech; there is a gap between voicing dissent and bending the actions of the State.

The gap can be filled by activism – within a political party for example – but where that action is designed to democratize or redistribute wealth, once again it will provoke class-based opposition. The contradictions of capitalism sharpen and either the activist movement collapses or the capitalist system of production is conquered; there is no middle way, no ever-vigilant body which cannot itself fall prey to the rhetoric of its opponents during the wars of ideological position.

After all, this is what happened to the Labour Party; the contradictions of maintaining a pro-redistributive party in the midst of economic crisis were resolved by the swing of arms of the Party to the right and to the left. To try to recreate that centre-left ground upon which Attlee and his successors stood is simply to attempt the repetition of history, on much less favourable terms, since we have not the militant resources that Bevan, Tribune and the Communist Party of that period had.

Hattersley may say that to promote a view of class war is to demand that we hang the bourgeoisie from the trees – but this is hyperbole. Similarly to attempt to explain away class opposition between worker and owner as merely resentment of ‘positional goods’ is to indulge in a mockery of politics as old as Aristotle’s euporoi and aporoi, and Aristophanes’ demos: the politics of envy is not what motivates people. No, the division is much more fundamental than merely haves and have-nots.

It is a resentment that a minority fundamentally control the means to create wealth, and a minority control the uses to which that wealth is put. The State, by refusing to intervene to a huge extent here, biases itself further still; far from being a neutral arbiter, the artificial division of ‘social’ from ‘economic’ sphere is inherent to the point of the State, protection of property rights. In short, the bourgeoisie can keep their goods, we’re simply aiming to take over the means of their creation, to put them to better use.

This is a distinction which Hattersley clearly fails to understand.

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  1. January 26, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Class war – more properly class *struggle* – doesn’t mean that one side wins by killing the other. This should be obvious to all but the willfully ignorant. I wonder though, does Hattersley misunderstand or rather want to misunderstand?

    For years he was telling all who would listen that Gordon Brown was a secret socialist. We can only assume that Brown has forgotten his secret – unless, of course, Gordon’s still keeping it. Perhaps from beyond the premiership, Bliar has an iron grip on poor Gordon?

    On the capitalist class, I recall Arthur Scargil being asked on Parky what the Queen would do in a socialist republic. He replied to the effect that she could get a job in Woolworths (this was the 80s remember, the Queen was younger – & Woolies was still with us). This reply got a laugh from the audience, and still brings a smile to my face, but is it not a serious answer?

    We should say that rather being hung from trees, ex-capitalists will be assisted in getting skills training so they can get ahead in a rapidly changing socialist economy!

  2. January 26, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    “Class war – more properly class *struggle* – doesn’t mean that one side wins by killing the other. This should be obvious to all but the willfully ignorant. I wonder though, does Hattersley misunderstand or rather want to misunderstand?”

    Fair point; he’s clearly confusing the subject with violent revolution. About which my feelings are rather similar, I should add.

    A lot of thinking on the Labour right during this period fundamentally misunderstands and mischaracterises the basics of Marxism. I’ve got a particularly poor example of this; an ancient Fabian pamphlet about Militant which peddles all kinds of misconception.

    IMHO it’s right to support the capitalist right to organise, as well as the capitalist right to life and free speech. But then, even Chavistas stretch to this.

    Then again, my politics is more about what should be the obligation for capitalists than what their rights are. I think the same could also be said of RH, however mistaken he is about the point above.

  3. January 29, 2009 at 12:07 am

    “IMHO it’s right to support the capitalist right to organise, as well as the capitalist right to life and free speech. But then, even Chavistas stretch to this.”

    I don’t understand this bit. Are you talking about the rights of capitalists, or the rights our class have won through years of struggle under capitalism?

  4. Pete
    January 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    With regards to social mobility being a zero-sum game, I think that’s largely correct. That doesn’t make it worthless though: In theory it should mean that natural talent is used to its optimum, and people should have more (although inevitably limited) ability to find a job which helps them get what they want out of life: Some want to be stretched mentally, some want physical exertion, some want shorter hours etc. So social mobility has to be positive in itself.

    I realise I’m preaching to the choir here, but I wonder whether you have an alternative vision for how jobs should be shared out. There will always be menial jobs because menial jobs need doing, capitalist economy or not. Certainly, we can try to do something about horrendous wage discrepancy, but I don’t see how anything could even theoretically be done about the fact that some jobs are simply more enviable than others.

  5. January 30, 2009 at 2:23 am

    Remuneration on the basis of effort and sacrifice?

  6. January 30, 2009 at 11:00 am

    What Charlie says is basically what Lenin proposes in State and Revolution, which are his musings on the transition between capitalism and communism, via the dictatorship of the proletariat and its relevant economic system. The least palatable jobs get perks, as the system of wage labour would survive for a while – though naturally being more fair, and with the surplus value controlled by the workers themselves.

    Beyond that, we should remember that the division of labour which currently exists is artificially created and sustained (and extended!) by capitalism.

    With the advent of a genuinely fair system, first of all there would be full employment and concomitantly less labour in total. Employment would not be based on extracting the maximum surplus for the minimum expenditure. It would be based on a democratically planned economy, wherein manpower could be rationally allocated rather than allocated according to the vagaries of class struggle.

    The degree of specialisation in society would also decrease, since no one would be deprived of access to facilities of higher learning, and we could give full reign to the development of all talents. Menial tasks could then be shared out amongst people; if there are X hours of menial work – say bin-collecting, or street sweeping – and there are Y people, then X/Y would be the amount of time individuals spend on menial work. Which is virtually insignificant if you think about it logically.

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