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Reinterpreting socialist defeats: a reply to Dave Osler

April 29, 2009 9 comments

At his site, and republished at Liberal Conspiracy, Dave Osler recounts how Popper, Hayek and von Mises were the unholy trinity who retooled classical laissez faire economics for its assault on Keynesianism. The article is essentially a lament that ‘the Left’ has no one to do the same for it. Frankly I’m shocked both at Dave’s ignorance of the philosophy of at least one of the three (Popper) and his ignorance of the development of socialist theory since the 1980s. These ignorances result in a lament for precisely the wrong things – this retooling, or “operationalization” of Marxism without dialectics.

Dave is not the only one to indulge in such talk recently.

To begin with Popper, neopositivism is a philosophy that is essentially lost in itself. Unable to disentangle the referrent of their precise language as either a thing or a bundle of sensations, Popper and others were reduced to the doctrine of falsifiability. To borrow from J.D. Bernal, “By labelling everything which had no direct expression in terms of the natural sciences “metaphysical” and subject only to emotional judgments, they cut themselves off” from any relevance to exactly the field which dialectics operates in: the constitution and processes of the social.

Labelled ‘counter-hegemonic’ by Dave, this philosophy is supposedly what geared up neoliberalism for its assault upon Keynesianism. However, without dialectics we have no earthly reason to presume any opposition between Keynesianism and neoliberalism beyond exactly the same barren, academicist managerialism which New Labour (and Francis Fukuyama) have sought to persuade us is all the future holds. Certainly we should have no reason to presume such explosive clashes as were fought between workers clinging to the last vestiges of Keynesian protection and the ruling class fighting for freer markets with cheaper labour.

It is dialectical materialism which instead focuses our study of any given process on its internal contradictions; from this we might postulate the class content of Keynesianism and the class content of neoliberalism and thus in the context of class, we might interpret the struggles of the 1980s. The philosophies of any of the three men mentioned as godfathers of neoliberalism would be worthless unless the underpinning logic to capitalism was exactly the sort of contradiction from whence we can formulate the concepts of dialectical materialism. It is this underpinning logic which fleshed out the “anti-communist” or “anti-historicist” polemics of Hayek, Popper and von Mises, and which their economic writings expressed in a one-sided fashion, just as those of Marx expressed it for the other side.

Too often, dialectics is thought to address the merely metaphysical. In fact it does not; it is not an a priori assumption but a formulation of laws, initially observed within the process of thought and corrected by Marxism, which apply to processes. Class and class conflict is an empirically observable phenomenon; class relations are the social dialectic. We cannot abolish the dialectic without also attempting to abolish the notion that at the root of all social processes are contradictions which govern both the process and its ultimate evolution / negation.

If that is what Dave is trying to do, then his characterisation of the Marxian Left as having ‘retreated back to fundamentalism’ is meaningless. From Laclau and Mouffe to Zizek and Badiou, the years since the 1980s have seen little but the attempt to abolish the primacy of class as the social relation upon which our whole struggle hinges. There have been attempts to roll back the materialist concept of dialectics to an idealist concept and there have been attempts to abolish dialectics altogether.

Far from lending us insights into the road we must traverse to win our struggle, these attempts have resulted exactly in the impasse which Dave cannot abide. The popular alliances advocated by these groups are not isolated to the Academy as at first they might seem: indeed, Eurocommunism was at one point the main opponent of neoliberalism on the continent. The displacement of the dialectic of class relations resulted in all the stages to outright reaction which Labour, the PS, the PDS and the other countries of Europe have marched through.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, in her book “The Retreat from Class: a New True Socialism”, published in 1985, presciently remarks that the tendency on the Left exempliefied by journals such as “Marxism Today” (which once boasted a T. Blair as a contributor) is to seek alliances that will grab power, regardless of whether those alliances have the social weight necessary to carry through the reforms which the Left at least openly professes. And so it has happened, over the years since the Thatcherite period of reaction receded just a little. And it is the retreat from class, and the dialectical materialism which underpins class-based strategies, which secured that.

Perhaps Dave would dispute that he is trying to abolish class and that when abolishing dialectics, one does not have to abolish class. Except that dialectics emerge naturally from the whole concept of class. After all, at the root of it, is Dave’s article not simply an expression of frustration at the weakness of the Left, when measured against the panorama of socialist history? Understandable as such, I do not consider it to be excusable – and visible even a few paragraphs in are some worrying sentiments.

“A further three decades up the road, the wheels have finally come off the neoliberal model. If the left had a blueprint ready to enact, we would now have a once in a generation opportunity to modify the dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism.”

There are gaping holes in this statement, such as the distance between having a programme and attaining power in the context of a society based on private property, or exactly how our having a programme would modify the ‘dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism’. Moreover, the statement does not include exactly what measures Dave thinks might modify said ideology. Is it really ideology we want to modify, or is it rather power relations that we wish to modify, thereby appropriating the means of ideological genesis? A modification of ideology serves us not at all, and advocacy for such gravely misunderstands in what relation to our exploiters we stand.

I’d also like to know precisely what Dave means by ‘socialism’. Vagueness here in particular is redolent of the old Labour attitude, “socialism is what Labour does”, and when combined with Dave’s Compass-like misuse of Gramsci smacks of exactly the sort of ‘popular alliance’ strategy that ultimately resulted in New Labour. If our goal is socialism, and socialism is defined as the appropriation of the means of production by the exploited working class, then modifying ‘the dominant ideology’ means little. If our aim is to substitute Keynesianism for neoliberalism once more, it could be done, but we’d be setting ourselves up to re-run the later 20th Century and for no purpose.

Keynesianism had a popular element, being “more conducive to socialism” as Dave might put it, but it was still an ideology of exploitation. Nevertheless, its restriction of the free movement of Capital grew to threaten the global post-war economic mechanisms. Bretton-Woods collapsed and the only thing standing between organised Capital and further exploitation was organised Labour. We lost the fight then, but had we won it, we would either have had to deprive Capital of its own ability to reproduce its own conditions or we’d have fought the battle again, and again, and again, until resolution.

This contradiction exemplifies the usefulness of dialectics as an analytical tool – and it can at least tell us where we are going wrong. That is something that Dave Osler’s article manifestly fails to do, instead preferring isolated jabs at different groups on the Left and a retreat to cynicism.

Expenses Redux

April 27, 2009 1 comment

How hard can it be to sort out the expenses and salaries of Members of Parliament? When I listened to the headline news on the plans to reform expenses, I was broadly in support of them. After all, the number of poorly attended debates is a little shocking. Actually, if we could pay MPs according to how much backbone they show and deduct wages if they ask simpering questions from their own party, I’d consider us to arrive at the perfect system – but since I’m not going to be given the job of determining ‘the backbone’ allowance, we can skip past that.

Having read Harriet Harman’s speech in defence of the proposals, and seen the party political pissing contest that has resulted, I feel the passionate urge to reiterate the original question. How hard can it be to sort out the expenses and salaries of Members of Parliament? MPs earn about £60,000. Of itself, this should be more than enough to handle mortgages, taxes of all shades and any sundry bills. It’s enough to afford suits and travel. It probably isn’t enough to afford accommodation in London, but it’s not clear to me that this requires the second homes allowance.

A better way to channel resources would be to purchase a series of rooms in different hotels around the city, or to allocate MPs council housing instead of inviting them to pick their own second home and paying down the mortgage on it. At the end of their tenancy, the house would revert to whichever council in whose jurisdiction it lay. Instead both Brown and Cameron are insisting upon the option of allowing MPs to purchase a second home, leaving Clegg to insist that any profit from selling the home be realised by the taxpayer.

Clegg has the right of it, in that regard – though I think it’s a mistake to concede second homes to MPs. It’s unnecessary – or it would be unnecessary if we had enough council housing to go around. Then there’s the matter of the staff of MPs.

The Tory Democracy Task Force and the government have already agreed that MPs expenses in regard of staffing etc should be exempt from Freedom of Information laws, recent announcements on expenses being published notwithstanding. The topsheet of parliamentary expenses will be published, the rest will not. The government, which plans to hold a vote next week, has also decided that the staff employed by MPs shall become employed by the House of Commons, which shall have oversight as regards wages and so forth.

I’m not in favour of exempting staffing expenditure from FOI, but on the other hand, centralising the employment and payment of parliamentary assistants may turn out to be a good thing. Who can forget Derek Conway, the man who was employing his son to do nothing, whilst his office secretary was being paid barely £10,000 per annum? That sort of behaviour is scandalous – and perhaps centralising the staffing issue might allow for better levels of pay – but the only way we’ll know about it, is if all the details are published, not just the bottom figures for each of the new twenty six categories of expenditure.

Far from being merely an issue for populist tub-thumpers, ranting about how the leaders of our land are too busy clearing out the kitty to fill their own larders, the payment of all parliamentary staff is a matter for the labour movement. Both in the case of MPs, and in the case of their assistants, the amount of money changing hands is relatively small – but there is a point in having MPs survive on something approaching a worker’s wage, and something to be said for making sure their assistants aren’t drawn only from the self-supporting wealthy.

The point is to diversify parliament, through both experience and personnel, perchance making it a little bit less of a clique.

Categories: General Politics

Review: From Marxism to Post-Marxism

April 25, 2009 4 comments

Prior to reading From Marxism to Post-Marxism, I was unfamiliar with the work and political stances of Göran Therborn. I approached this book with an open mind, hoping for a pamphlet of brilliance – since the work is a short one at a mere one hundred and ninety four pages. A veritable relief since my previous reading material was Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, volume one of which weighs in at over eight hundred pages and of which no review shall be forthcoming this side of me collecting my pension. Sadly, I was to be disappointed by Professor Therborn.

The book is divided into three essays. “Into the Twenty-First Century: the new parameters of global politics” attempts to grapple with what forms of social analysis we might care to use. Grafted on to this is a fairly anodyne survey from the academy of how the ‘socialist’ project has fared in all the years since the Bolshevik Revolution. Even before I mention some of the ideological weaknesses (as I see them) of this first chapter, the survey disappointed me above all. It contained the type of unnuanced, state-focussed information and commentary one can get from any newspaper.

Beyond this, however, Therborn’s first chapter is troubling. There most obvious aspect is Therborn’s abandonment of class and class struggle as any kind of factor. Therborn’s notion of ‘the Left’ consists of a surface reading of political demands and movements – and this is reflected in his survey of “Left” states. The abandonment of class struggle is somewhat masked, but the abandonment of class is defended with statistics on the shrinkage of industrial labour as a percentage of global labour, and the rise of service-based and ‘informal’ labour.

Perhaps some other Marxist will weigh in (and I know that Phil has been thinking of reviewing this book), but I consider Therborn’s contention over class to be profoundly unmarxist. Class is a relation, not a means by which to describe a labour process. Under such a definition, the shop floor worker and the factory worker share a class identity as they stand in exactly the same relation to the exploitation of their labour. To assert anything else, beyond mis-reading Marx, is to fetishize the labour-process (following EMW, p16ff).

In fact I would go further still. The service sector bears witness to the very proletarianization which Marx spoke of in the Communist Manifesto. One of the natural tendencies of capital accumulation is towards monopoly, as small service businesses are bought by large and their owners become glorified wage-labourers. As the business becomes bigger, the salary, terms and conditions of these managers suffer the further they are removed from the owners – as did those of the second generation managers following Tesco acquisition of Stewart’s in Ireland. This is a process one can watch taking place on any High Street, though of course it is neither linear nor total.

Therborn at least attempts to retain some sense of class struggle, though without the language thereof. His replacement is a three-fold diagram within which co-ordinates take place any given political action or idea. The diagram is anchored by states, markets and ‘social patternings’ – which in turn operates along a set of X-Y axes of Individuality-Collectivism and Irreverence-Deference. Reading this, I was actually a little embarrassed since the weaknesses of these seem readily apparent, and I’m far from an expert. Let me give an example.

Within the triangle of factors, mentioned above, Therborn asserts that certain rules of motion apply: the space is contingent upon ‘the outcomes of previous political  contests…from the input of new knowledge and technology…[and] from the processes of the economic system’. Each of these is readily reducible to class struggle. The whole point of Marxism was to explain that there are no objective processes to the capitalist economic system outside of those determined by the relation in which the working class of wage labourers must be held.

To suggest otherwise is to ‘naturalise’ capitalism. One of the greatest of Marxist historians, E.P. Thompson, wrote his magnum opus, the Making of the English Working Class, around the idea that the input of new knowledge and new technologies were themselves the result of spaces being opened by victorious or unsuccessful struggles waged at whiles by the proletariat or by the capitalist class. From the displacement of journeymen to the introduction of Ford’s mass production, class struggle rather than technologism as a prerequisite of economic and technological development is empirically observable – and there are any number of historians of science who would maintain the same.

Therborn describes ‘irreverent collectivism’ as emblematic of the ‘classical left’ whereas other radical movements such as feminism have a more individualist flavour. However, having abandoned class, Therborn has no means whereby to prioritize between different radical movements, much less explain the invididualist-collectivist dichotomy according to the differing class character and demands of each movement. This is a weakness which characterizes the entire book and leads to what are in my view some very wrongheaded departures – such as an endorsement of the same flawed ‘popular alliance’ which has been the strategic mainstay of ‘post-Marxists’ since the 1980s and to no real effect.

However, his is the only logical conclusion to be drawn from such assertions (under the subheading ‘Less Class, More Irreverence’) as that the largest cities on the planet are only creating an ‘urban proletariat in the pre-Marxist sense of informal labourers’. My point is that we should dispute Therborn’s premise: it is the same system of capitalism, the same nominal equality between bourgeois and proletarian, the same expropriation of surplus value that characterises even this informal labour. If there are lessons to take away from ‘informal’ labour, it is that it is the Third World equivalent of outsourcing and is both a weapon and a result of class struggle.

Paul Mason’s wonderfully evocative book, Live Working or Die Fighting, discusses several elements of informal labour and in each of them the story is the same; when workers organize to fight for their rights, even rights so limited as basic contracts, they meet opposition and must overcome it by collective action. The subheading ‘Less Class, More Irreverence’ as applied to this situation is thus a preposterous misreading of actual events from South America to the Indian sub-continent, where workers’ organisation occurs even despite difficult conditions.

Essay two, “Twentieth Century Marxism and the Dialectics of Modernity” includes another whistle-stop tour, this time of Marxist historiography and sociology. The second essay compounds a lot of the errors I think are evident in the first, including a conclusion that the ‘dialectics of modernity’ (i.e. the opposition between organised Capital and the organised working class) are disappearing. I don’t propose to spend much time on this, therefore, and will quickly pass to the third and final essay.

Entitled “After Dialectics”, this chapter sees Therborn stand shoulder to shoulder with Laclau and Mouffe. Before I begin however, readers might be interested in Louis Proyect’s (Unrepentant Marxist) view of this chapter as it appeared in New Left Review in 2007. Louis quotes disdainfully the following excerpt, believing it to share the defeatism of some other Marxists of the kind who have tried to scale down the scope and relevence of Marxist analysis:

“Then, suddenly, the high water withdrew, and was followed by a neoliberal tsunami. Socialist constructions were knocked down, many of them proving ramshackle or fake in the process; socialist ideas and Marxist theories were engulfed in the deluge. Privatization became the global order of the day, formulated in the Washington Consensus of the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank. At the dawn of the 21st century, not only liberal capitalism but empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return, and with them the worldviews of the Belle Epoque.”

Actually I have no problem with what Therborn says here. Stylistically, it’s all a bit ‘Naomi Klein eat your heart out’ but it’s true enough. Apart from that rather nasty ‘suddenly’ at the beginning, as though the emergence of the neo-liberal economic order were a response to some ‘natural law’ which governs the economy and was not a direct response to great and powerful working class movements. On his later point – especially the brazen return of national chauvinism to the Western Europe mainstream – Therborn hits the ball and runs directly to first base.

The key error is what shortly follows (p114) when Therborn states, “While the inequalities of capitalism were increasing…the dialectic of capitalism was imploding. Capital’s new push was accompanied not by any strengthening of the working class and anticapitalist movements.” Perhaps my perceptions err, but underlying this statement seems to reside the sentiment that unless a working class movement springs full-grown from the depredations of capitalism, that there must be something wrong with our theorization of the working class.

In the case of Mouffe and Laclau, the problem is that it is discourse alone which determines resistance to capitalism, and the materials utilized by discourse are simply found within the hearts of each person, according to their ability to reason. With Therborn, the problem is that the industrial working class, so long the bastion of organised labour, has begun to decline. One must view this with the same embarrassment as Therborn’s claim that persistent mass unemployment is a result of policy failure, not a factor necessitated by capitalism.

In fact, in both cases, class struggle is at the root of things. In the case of unemployment, the existence of a mass reserve army of labour is one of the key structural requirements of capitalism. It is no accident that Thatcher and her liberalisations threw three million workers on to the dole. This example is directly relevant to Therborn’s contention that capital’s new push was not accompanied by a strengthening of the working class movement. Certain elements grew more radical, and others were beaten by fear and the exercise of capitalist hegemony.

Such elements as did grow radical were then picked off, whether through their own bad tactics or the successful tactics of their class enemies. The dialectic of capitalism was then and is now far from imploding; in fact, the manner in which the dialectic manifests itself is conditioned by the outcome of previous fights, as per one of Therborn’s own contentions in his first essay of this book. We, the working class, lost that fight, and we’re still picking ourselves up and putting ourselves back together – at least in Western Europe. Outside of Western Europe, where the reserve army of labour is mostly aged 15-24, according to the ILO, it’s a different matter.

For all of these reasons, I was disappointed in the book.

However, none of this is to say that the book does not have its interesting and stimulating points. Therborn makes some astute observations about the decline of pan-Arabian secular socialism in the context of Western support for what we would today call Islamists. I would enjoy a deeper study of this subject, or of the notion that the derivatives markets were ultimately the progeny of massive state expenditure by the US during the Vietnam War. Therborn is also sharp (and bang-on, in my view) in rebutting notions of the decline of the nation-state.

The only thing I would warn any potential student against is using Therborn’s whistle stop tours as accurate measures of the history of the development of Marxism; they are every bit as tendentious as Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism – and employ an even greater degree of simplification, the like of which we should expect only populist liberal commentators to adopt. The only thing that topped this simplicity were the ridiculous terms to which some reviewers reduced the book.

Categories: Book Reviews

Murdoch, Kindle and digital mass communication

April 23, 2009 9 comments

An article from Mil’s new endeavour, Zebra Red, slipped by me a few days ago. It dealt with an issue that I’d been meaning to go into for some weeks, ever since Robert Thomson called Google an ‘internet parasite’ and promised that ‘content creators’ would no longer bear the burden of creating said content while Google and others reaped the rewards. This interview by the editor of the WSJ was part of a broader intervention by People’s Champion of Free Speech, Comrade R. Murdoch in which he promised that the future would involve us all forking over more cash to him and his enterprises.

In his article, Mil foresees paying for online news coverage becoming like paying for our digital TV etc: we pay a regular subscription which we don’t even notice, in the end. Mil also mentions one potential alternative: Kindle. This is a software and hardware platform for reading e-books and, as it turns out, Murdoch is attempting to develop his own version to rival both it and the Sony Reader. Murdoch’s version is going to be bigger, however, aimed at syndicating the content of newspapers. So eventually we’ll be like the people in Spielberg’s Minority Report, reading digital newspapers on the train as we travel to work. It all sounds well and good.

Except. I run this site based off three national news sources and about fifteen blogs the RSS feeds to which sit in my bookmark toolbar. When I publish an article, I’m referencing content that is not legally mine – and if I have to pay to access that content, then we’re in difficulty because the people who read this site might not be paying to access the same content. They might be getting it for free via my commentary, or via the commentary of a million other political and cultural blogs which flourish by discussing events reported by the news media.

That’s a minor issue and I’m not overly concerned about it. What does concern me is that we’re essentially feeding the hand that bites us. I accept that individuals, however resourceful, can’t compete for news gathering ability with the giants of the media – and the reason being that the established media gathers immense amounts of cash and can use it to pay professional journalists, flying them to the location of major events and so forth. This type of journalism is decreasing because of a demand for profit – and pay-per-view simply equals more profit.

Unless people can be critically engaged in news values, in production values and in editorial values then it’s not news that we’ll be paying for, whatever platform we’re using to read it from. It’s more of the same churnalistic nonsense. And yet, as the internet progresses, tools are becoming available for people to be that engaged – whether through blogs, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Even while journalists were at the scene of the April demonstrations against the G20, others were uploading pictures and videos they’d taken themselves.

Background research is always going to be more accessible to a professional journalist – but via the internet, should the major news companies switch to a pay-per-view or limited-platform model of distribution, some of us are going to have to take on that responsibility because the major news companies aren’t doing it well enough. This is difficult since I live in Canterbury and perhaps the news is happening in Newcastle. I don’t know anyone in Newcastle. That’s a problem that can be solved by embedding the news into our political movement – which is national.

There are other potential solutions too. Ensuring full and social access to the internet should be a national priority and to that cause we should be prepared to dedicate tax revenue. Whether by providing more computers in libraries, subsidising internet businesses in poorer areas or providing a scheme whereby the government distributes free computers and the BBC operates its own ISP, everyone should be able to access the resources of the internet. By expanding the reach of the internet, we increase the number of volunteers who might help construct a social media.

Information is power; the deluge of information we get every day from broadcast, print and internet media is largely devoid of importance, missing important contextual elements or completely distorted by editorial values. Instead of recycling Council press releases, if someone on the ground could access online resources telling them how to check these things for accuracy, we might actually get some genuine news content on the web. Meantime the big news companies can take their privileged platforms and shove them where the sun ain’t shining.

Some steps have been taken in a positive direction by groups such as Liberal Conspiracy – involving professional journalists such as Sunny Hundal or humanitarian aid worker Conor Foley, who writes some spectacular articles on subjects that are mistreated by the media and large swathes of the commentariat. Another site which I can’t sing enough praises to is David Harvey’s online lecture series. Some of Professor Harvey’s actual honest-to-god lectures are even webcasted online. This is the milieu from which a social media could be created.

Such sites as Lords of the Blog, where blog sixteen members of the House of Lords (though only four with any regularity), are great for the insider’s view. The disadvantage is that from such sites we only find out what the authors want us to find out unless we have the time and resources to perform investigative practices – such as going along to events and the people involved to find out what’s going on that may not be so conducive to the narrative certain parties wish us to take away. Building those resources, however, will take time for us just as it did for mainstream newspapers.

However, it’s not like we’ve got anything better to do, as we sit about reading the same recycled crap in our daily paper, in the emailed government press releases or on any of a thousand blogs peripheral to the mainstream media – from Comment is Free to the Telegraph blogs. The positive thing is, we can start small. We can go to events, we can talk to people. We could even get some support from the NUJ for a liberalisation of press card policy and perhaps a bit of training to professionalize such volunteers as we have. Things like this can only make a social media stronger – and make it easier to stick it to one R. Murdoch and his fee-charging, content-policing attitude.

Budget 2009: A crisis gone to waste

April 22, 2009 12 comments

Credit where it’s due, Rahm Emmanuel masterfully pinched the jam-tomorrow glee of some nuttier revolutionaries when he said, “Never allow a crisis to go to waste, they are opportunities to do big things.” That is precisely what Alistair Darling has done with the new budget. The crisis has gone to waste as the clock runs down on a Labour term of office. No mighty reforms to banking, more of the same tokenistic gestures (e.g. the £200 million to be raised by a 50% income tax band) and little else.

I’m probably being a bit too harsh, since there were some very helpful measures included – on pensioners, retraining for employment and on the carers of young people – but delivered with brevity and solemnity amid the jeers from the opposition benches, a 2009 “People’s Budget” it was not. There was no watershed moment, excepting that the Labour leadership published a headline grabbing tax band whilst extending corporate subsidies through tax relief on profits for the last three years, without tying that to a promise to keep workers in jobs.

On the other hand, I’m watching people like Iain Dale getting away with calling even these limited measures reminiscent of Denis Healey’s “tax them til the pips squeak” moment. There’ll be more in a minute on Dale’s branding of Labourites as a “happy little band of envy warriors”, but in the meantime, it should be painfully clear to even the Newest of New Labourites that the leadership has lost direction and focus. This is not to do with the individuals – it’s to do with an equivocation caused by NuLab’s realisation that they’ve been essentially abandoned.

By Labour activists, by the working class, by the wealthy (to whom New Labour offered so many anti-tax or PFI carrots) and by history.

Before the budget was announced, John Band made a good joke over at Liberal Conspiracy by saying that now is the time for socialists to rejoin Labour. I damn near looked at the calendar to see if it was April 1st. The Labour Party’s internal democracy is corrupt (as if we needed Alice Mahon’s resignation letter, Erith & Thamesmead, or Calder Valley, to prove that!). The membership has been depoliticized; however abandoned Brown may be, there are still members touting David bloody Miliband or some other cabinet figures perceived as ‘more left.’

With its token populism, this budget has demonstrated that Labour’s leadership has not the inclination to turn back the clock on Labour policies. What it hasn’t demonstrated is that Labour’s leadership has lost control of the Party – in fact, it hasn’t. The same student hackery, the same policy wonkery, the same endless carousel of circle-jerking junkets is still going to produce leadership figures because it still has iron controls over parliamentary selection and over a marketing machine that invalidates internal democracy – and Conference is toothless besides.

This is why Iain Dale is so wrong; the people he might regard as “envy warriors” have nothing to be envious of, since they are themselves often rich, of an Oxbridge education and decidedly not in favour of thorough-going measures of redistribution and progressive taxation.

The people in charge of Labour are champagne socialists and their control is nigh unshakeable. No leadership battle, no economic crisis is going to change just how far individuals can get by knowing the right people and mouthing the right platitudes within the Labour Party. As the NEC’s forced deselection of Janet Oosthuysen proves, and as the selection battle between a Unison insider and the 22-year old nobody daughter of Lord Gould confirms, the future of the Labour Party is being railroaded right now.

If we are to change tack, the solution does not lie with constitutional trickery within Labour itself. The inertia of the Unions, the Reaction of the leadership, the reduction of CLPs to apolitical networks of propaganda distribution…none of this will change in a widespread and meaningful way without a sea-change in the context wherein Labour operates. That context, material and ideological, can only now be changed by organising to fight the swingeing cuts the next government will bring in – and the cuts are coming, if you believe Iain Dale’s article.

In Labour, out of Labour; the difference has now been rendered irrelevant by a continued course of massive borrowing and no structural change. Amongst all those opposed to capitalism, we’ll swim together as we arrange protests, pickets and occupations, to derail what comes next or we’ll sink together. Such weapons as we need – new media to communicate and new methods of inspiring and organising the working class – we’ll have to fashion without reference to the leadership of any political party but according to our principles.

Otherwise we’re simply asking to repeat the whole situation all over again – and, as this budget and this crisis clearly demonstrate, we can’t afford that.

Sunder’s broom for the blogosphere…

April 20, 2009 21 comments

Sunder Katwala and a cohort of other left-bloggers have laid out a declaration of ethics and principles that they feel should guide their participation on the internet. It’s being reported fairly widely, in both positive and negative terms, and is fairly worthy if unremarkable material. It acknowledges that examining the character of politicians advocating certain policies is of necessity political, whilst disavowing needless (i.e. untrue or irrelevant) smears.

However, I can’t help but wonder that so many of the signatories are directly involved with Labour List. Obviously Derek Draper’s scam with the emails has provoked outrage not just in the Tory blogosphere but also among many Labourites, and yet the individuals behind the “ethic of progressive blogging” statement are happy to lend their name to this abysmal enterprise. Before I get into calling them hypocrites, let’s have a look at the most recent offering by Labour List, which just happens to be another smear.

Michael Harris, in an article chock full of soundbites (“Young Labour exists because we believe in praxis, not proselytising”), basically launches into one stereotype after another in a blistering attack on those people who were protesting at the G20 events. I can’t describe the rage inspired in me by such sentences as, “I took a little stroll down to the G20 protests in the City…wearing my enjoyably conformist suit and tie (de rigeur blackberry in hand, comrades)”. What a smug little fuck this guy is.

On the demo itself, Harris declares, “What struck me wasn’t the political substance of the demonstrations, or the violence (there wasn’t much), but how many young, fashionable waifs there were.” At a stroke, Harris can trivialise the demonstrations, “The G20 protesters have a “big idea”, it’s that the US is to blame for everything, that global warming is perpetuated by corporations who control puppet governments, and that Labour is a servant to big business. They know what they’re against: but they don’t have any answers.”

Well, firstly, knowing quite a few people who were there and being able to watch the violence on YouTube or the Six O’Clock news for that matter, it’s important to note that there was plenty of violence – most of it from the police. Secondly, it was actually refreshing to see a march not dominated by militant Islamists chanting bad things about Israel. Thirdly, despite Harris’ snobbery, a great deal of the (supposedly) middle-class fashionistas can be talked to instead of talked at, which is Harris’ tactic judging by his article.

If I had to describe the whole thing in a phrase it would be “postmodernist waffle”, with its kowtowing to the familiar theme of the death of metanarratives. Herein, we anti-globalisation, anti-capitalists have diagnosed some of the problems of global capitalism but we are disbarred from proposing solutions (presumably because we’re too busy hating America?) due to the loss of our ‘big idea’ after the Cold War. Because the fall of a bunch of Stalinist states necessarily invalidates the premise of socialism. Er, no.

On one level, the connection between Michael Harris’ contribution to Labour List and Sunder Katwala’s pronouncements on ethical blogging are self-evident. It seems hypocritical to be contributing to a site that regularly pushes a bunch of stereotypical horseshit and tries to disguise a vigorously pro-leadership line behind a metaphysical mirage and the odd word pinched from the enemy lexicon (like ‘praxis’). It might not be about a specific, named individual, but it is a smear nonetheless, rather than a genuine theoretical engagement.

I could be Waspy McWasp, working in an investment bank, but by turning up to that protest I’d be demonstrating an attempted critical engagement with politics – so Harris can take his smear and fuck off. Meanwhile, it falls to me to diagnose once again the structural conditions which are causing this hypocrisy. The point of Harris’ article is to defend ‘the establishment’ – by which he means the propagandistic vomit we’re treated to at most YL conferences – but ‘the establishment’ is indefensible, and this type of person is your bedfellow at Labour List.

Despite Harris’ claims, it’s not unreasonable to think of Labour as a party of business rather than a party for workers. The changes to Labour Party conference, Bernie Ecclestone, Rupert Murdoch, the corporate reach-arounds running parallel to tossing people off the welfare rolls…the reasoning behind this view is complex and detailed. When you can no longer empirically or ideologically defend the establishment, the last option is smears or trying to raise a laugh at your opponents expense.

Either that or the nauseating emails we all get from Labour Party HQ, signed off by different Cabinet ministers, pleading for money. It is to each of these tactics that Labour has resorted, naturally enough. They are much easier than actually changing policies. By allowing themselves to write on the same website as politically illiterate leadership-supporting hacks, Tom, Sunder and the rest are going to find themselves unable to get away from that element within Labour which is ready to descend to Guido Fawkes level of conduct.

We need to realise that, while progressive strands survive within Labour, the unrelenting reactionary behaviour of our leadership complicates the relationship of Labour activists with the working class, and with other political activists. Taking that into consideration, rather than essentially being a populist shield for Labour ministers, we need a grassroots, ground-up effort that will function independently of our leadership until such times as our leadership ceases to function independently of us.

Sting in the tail…

April 18, 2009 Leave a comment

Just when “Drapergate” seemed to be dying down, an ex-Labour MP, Alice Mahon, resigns from the Labour Party, citing the scandal as the feather which broke the camel’s back. Other blogs on the same subject here and here. Tony Lloyd, chair of the PLP, has already demanded that Draper step down as editor of Labour List. And yet there has been no concrete attempt to grapple with the political culture that gave birth to this nonsense – least of all from within Labour List.

There are plenty of other bloggers with stuff to say about Labour List, such as passing judgment on NuLab link-whoring, or this amusing article on Labour List astroturfing from Mr. Eugenides. There’s also an interesting article by Shuggy at Common Endeavour, a new Labour aggregator. None of which really makes up for knowing that people can still post such self-congratulatory bilge as this, demonstrating that proximity to Labour press releases and Labour ministers is dangerous to your health, or at least your cogency, prose and wit.

Categories: Labour Party News

Fun times in Erith and Thamesmead

April 18, 2009 6 comments

So Georgia Gould has failed to get selected to Erith and Thamesmead, for the present, as the selection process has been suspended. I don’t know if anyone has been following the storm in a tea cup, but apparently someone believed a ballot box had been tampered with and so called off the selection. Presumably the person in question was one of the centrally-delegated flunkeys, since the NEC took over control of the CLP last week, after all sorts of allegations began flying about regarding a corruption of the postal votes process.

I have a few thoughts. The first of which is this: presumably, since it’s not even 9am yet, the ballot box has no ballots inside it yet, since the final hustings won’t have been held? And secondly, if it has postal votes inside it, then surely these can be verified against the relatively small party membership of 250-odd people, rather than re-run the selection. Which leads me to thirdly; is there some other reason to call off the selection process? Media furore has been slowly building all week – from Guardian to Mail. How does this tie in?

Call me cynical, but I think the suspension is political, rather than a genuine administrative worry. There are two major factions by all accounts – Georgia Gould, endorsed by Alistair Campbell and one or two other arch-Blairites, and Rachel Maskell, apparently a ‘Brownite’, either of whom might gain from some added time to canvass / let accusations of nepotism die down. It is these accusations of nepotism which seem to be motivating the press – Gould is the 22 year old daughter of Lord Philip Gould.

Additionally, Gould has had a lot of professional PR from bbm, a firm run by Labour insiders, a firm which has also been interfering in Calder Valley, where my good friend and good socialist Susan Press came second in the selection process, behind a NuLab preference. Some of the support has been comedic, such as the release which put these words in Georgia’s mouth, “Virginia was one of the ‘swing’ states and although I can’t claim to have won it single-handedly for Obama…

Nevertheless, presumably Georgia is happy to have a professional machine sew up the nomination for her rather than relying on her personality and politics. Well…her personality I can’t speak to since I didn’t spend much time socialising with the Oxford University Labour Club – but as for her politics, if she has any, she never demonstrated them. In fact I can wholly endorse whatever London Young Labour official said to the Guardian, “I can think of at least 20 young people who have been very active for years and they are not getting considered for a seat.”

The overriding message we get from bbm’s campaign for Georgia, 20-page glossy included, and from the NEC handling of selections generally is “Never say anything out of place, never utter a controversial sentiment and you’ll get selected. Be the drone you wish to see in the world.” I’m told the outgoing MP has written to his party members recommending four other candidates other than the top two, though the source for that is not the best – that’s how bad things are getting within Labour these days and I’m not sure I want to be part of it.

Categories: Labour Party News

Now is the winter of our discontent…?

April 17, 2009 2 comments

Reading George Osborne’s plans for the UK post-2010 election, and the expectations of Alistair Darling’s budget, I am not certain that Labour has learned the lesson of 1979. Osborne is playing for old Tory ground when he talks about massive spending cuts, rather than tax raises such as would “kill off the recovery.” He can talk about what he likes, but when Alistair Darling is talking in the same vein and speculations about that VAT may rise as might NI contributions, I begin to despair.

What use are the headline measures such as the creation of a new tax group for those earning more than £45,000 annually and the reduction of personal allowances for those earning more than £100,000 when we’re going to go for regressive taxation such as a VAT rise? How about get rid of any personal allowances for those earning more than £50,000 and, a still higher tax rate for those earning over £60,000, a reversal of the estate tax allowances passed by Labour and a heavier capital gains tax, then abolish VAT altogether.

A regressive budget will seal the death of this government. The lesson on 1979 isn’t that unions are big bullies who need to be curtailed, it’s that Jim Callaghan shouldn’t have taken a leaf out of the monetarist book, backtracked on his commitments to organised labour and caused untold chaos with the union strikes. Similarly with the 2009 budget; we shouldn’t be increasing the burden on those least able to afford it. It hardly plays well alongside Peter Mandelson telling people that they should look on the up side and stop complaining.

I applaud the notion that senior civil servants will see a capping of their wage raises at 1.5%, but that’s the icing on the cake surely? Private Eye contains allegations almost every fortnight about the amount this government has spent and continues to spend on consultants, disastrous PFI projects and so forth. Despite this, from local government onwards we’ve got Serco royally cocking things up, defence deals which the MOD is desperately trying to find partners for and railways bosses earning six figure salaries whilst hiking prices.

I don’t see a Son of York coming either.

Tea Parties and Taxes in the USA

April 15, 2009 9 comments

It’s difficult to be anything but derisive when discussing people like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity. Recently these guys have been on television (Fox News, unsurprisingly) to claim that not only are people right to talk about their taxes being too high, but that by organising ‘tea parties’ in major cities to protest such taxes, they are generating the sort of economic activity that will save America. A large chunk of the tea parties are taking place today, and are specifically aimed at the spending plans of the Obama administration.

Or are they? Fox News and right-wing talk radio hosts have been agitating for something like this for months now. It shouldn’t surprise us that people are willing to get out and protest about high taxes. In fact, it should encourage the Left – because we don’t have a problem with low taxes…for the working class. As far as I can see, this is not an argument being made in the US. Liberal commentators like Keith Olbermann have been very swift to denounce the protests as hypocritical, or astroturf groups or whatever.

In some cases, no doubt these allegations are true. It’s certainly hypocritical for some of these protestors to be carrying “Protest is Patriotic” banners, when I suspect they’d not have had the same sentiment about anti-war protests. That escapes the point, however. No matter how brainwashed these people are, if stripped of the veneer added by the professional right-wing commentators, their basic point is right. They are being taxed in order to rebuild the economy that then goes on to exploit their labour, when it doesn’t leave them unemployed.

Not only should they be protesting, but so should we. On one glance, it may seem to render the whole idea preposterous when you consider that Obama is raising income taxes on the richest to some ten percentage points less than they were under Reagan. However, we need to swallow our immediate urge to indignation and reach out. How much more effective would it be if there were trade union banners on these protests, where union activists could talk to the very mob called into existence by right-wing jerk offs and make the counter arguments?

Trades unions…protesting against high taxes on their members? I think Rush Limbaugh’s head would explode. More importantly, if some of the liberal media and bloggers could stow their unconcealed disdain for right-wing populism for a moment, they’d also see that for most of the people being encouraged to take to the streets, their interests don’t lie with an unfettered capitalism. Sure, tax workers less…but what about the people who created this economic mess? Well, tax them more.

American ‘liberals’ should also be enheartened that roughly 48% of the country believes that their taxes are about right. The other 46% of the country that thinks taxes are too high cannot possibly ALL be Wall Street brokers whose direct financial interests lie in sticking it to the rest of us. In fact, I’d guess that a large chunk of that figure are groups like the auto-workers, struggling against the repossession of their homes, having had their wages stiffed by the government’s ‘bail-out’.

And the interests of all of that type are with the Left. With wealth redistribution; with organising to resist forced unemployment; with a globalised labour movement that can curtail globalised capitalism. Obama is being called a socialist because of his limited measures of redistribution and the last time popular resentment of taxes built up, back in the 1970s and 1980s, you had measures like Prop 13 voted through, capping property taxes, which benefitted the wealthy more than those who were genuinely angry and relatively poor.

We cannot allow the conservatives of America to lead that resentment, and the tactics of political satire, of laughing at the poor deluded fools who clearly have no conception of political economy (for such is how people like Olbermann seem to treat them) are not going to get the job done. Our mantra must be, “Organisation, organisation, organisation!”

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