Class war, libertarianism and hunting
The concept of class war has been getting a lot of attention. Whether it’s the Tory posters accusing Labour of pursuing it, or Labour denials on the subject even whilst they put the boot into the Tories for favouring the rich, or Sunny saying it’s playing well in the polls or Paul’s investigation into the substance of what’s going on, there’s plenty of chat about it.
Now there are headlines in the Independent, “Now Brown declares class war on hunting!” The article records how some Blairites are ‘wary’ of scaring off the ‘aspirational middle classes’. The headlines are a result of the new campaign to ‘strengthen support for the ban’, led by, of all people, Hilary Benn. And it has got off to a preposterous start, as one might expect.
In an article for the Indy, Benn writes, “Quite why this is something that would be a priority for a Tory government, instead of the economy or tackling other concerns, is hard to explain to the public and [the Conservatives] have failed to do so.” One could wonder the same thing about this new campaign by the current Labour government.
Could it be that any given government can focus on more than one issue at a given time? Else how does Mr Benn bother with anti-hunting editorials in national newspapers? Why is he not cloistered with Alistair Darling, sorting out the economy even on Boxing Day? But we shall pass over this unfortunate pot-kettle-black moment.
If the essence of class struggle is the fight of the working class to organise itself, against the fervid opposition of the ruling class, then hunting bans have little to do with it. If the essence of class struggle is the seizure of power and the means of cultural legitimation away from the bourgeoisie, then a hunting ban hardly furthers that aim.
The benefit of a hunting ban comes in the feelings held by much of the working class, ranging from irritation to anger to visceral hatred, against those who participate in the great hunts. Such as the hunts every Boxing Day. They are, in essence, red-coated Tory toffs, of wealthy background even though not all may be landed gents any longer.
This is the picture which emerges if we frame the debate in terms of class war. I’m not arguing that there are not other ways to frame the debate, such as cruelty to animals, but the media get a kick out of framing it like this. And the various pro-hunting groups also frame it like this, from the Countryside Alliance right down to the individual magazines.
Ironically, hunting is not exclusively the pursuit of the red-coated Tories. Reading any hunting magazine, the one-man-and-his-dog aspect to hunting is very clearly visible. The great hunts, which do not have universal appeal, can thus be repackaged as a fight of liberty against an overbearing State – and this has much wider appeal.
Our working class have every right to resent the State and its client political parties. They are remote from the average worker. The State is at once the soulless bureaucrat, the cut welfare cheque, the seemingly stupid H&S rules, the corrupt politician, the reason we’re out of a job and the friend of the bosses who want to make us work extra hours for no pay.
Libertarianism, which on the surface contains much rhetoric about fighting for individual liberties against State control, can thus be vested with much class content that can appeal both to the urban working class and the rural working class. The State, in a capitalist context, is the tool of enforcing bourgeois class demands and restricting working class demands.
So it should be no stretch to see how a ‘class war’ against the hunts can be obfuscated by ‘libertarian’ demands to repeal the powers of the State.
On hunting, urban workers may be more likely to see through the rhetoric. The Countryside Alliance, for example, represent themselves to rural-dwelling people as defenders of a ‘rural’ way of life. This is tosh, obviously, but identity politics can have a great pull on people who can find within the proffered identity something that resonates.
Urban workers stand apart from that, but as hunting is not likely to be a key issue at the next election, Tories may win even in constituencies with large anti-hunting majorities. Thus the balance in Parliament is likely to tip. The answer is not to try and hike hunting up the agenda, it’s to beat the Tories on the issues which are high on the agenda.
The real class war, for example. Lower taxes for the poor and middling; higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations.
Better public services, with confident unions prepared to intervene on behalf of the public interest, rather than abandoning ‘public service’ to profiteers.
Unions, organised nationally and internationally, with no State-enforced restrictions, that can fight for investment and better wages.
Universal healthcare, universal and universally good quality education right up to third-level.
Labour’s problems in these areas are manifest. It fears the Unions. The PFI-PPP deals threaten the future of universal education and healthcare. The failure to structurally challenge neoliberal capitalism means selling off more ‘public’ industries rather than putting them to social use. And the failure to organise the working class means the inability to resist ruling class demands that the cost of the recovery be shouldered by workers.
This is why the easy visual of fighting horse-riding toffs in red jackets is a good out for New Labour. It’s not the prosecution of class war, it’s a way to escape having to prosecute class war.
Instead of such demands as the rather classless ban on hunting, the ideal Labour fifty-state strategy would target the terrible margins on which many rural workers have to live. It would reach into every small town and its environs to bring workers together in unions and communities, to take control of jobs, to demand and plan housing and so on.
We cannot escape the need to do this. In Kent, where I live, the vindictive destruction of the mining industry has removed a core plank of the organised working class. It’s easy to see the results; listless communities and high levels of youth crime, because a lot of people will never escape an area where joblessness is relatively high and education a low priority.
The Conservatives are never going to solve problems like this. Labour, left to its own devices, would never solve them either. But every revolutionary demand, that exceeds the capacity of capitalism to cope with unrest, must have a demand for reform – for building houses now, for changing the law now, for creating jobs now.
There’s no reason why a ‘reconquered’ Labour Party should not be the vehicle for that. Indeed it was one of Lenin’s truisms that the ‘reformists’ should be in power, that the working classes see what they are really like, in order to push the organised proletariat towards conscious, rather than incipient, socialist, revolutionary demands.
A ban on hunting doesn’t even address most of these issues. It is a front, and one which we need to move past sharpish.
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