The UK General election, the Labour Party and the SNP. Who’s calling the shots?

snpWhen the Independence referendum was lost by the nationalists I noted that this created something of a problem for left supporters of Scottish separation.  Their claim not to be nationalist looked threadbare when set aside rallies festooned with Saltires but now they had questions to answer.  Today the questions are even harder.

If the pro-independence campaign that they hailed as a genuine left-wing grass roots movement was not nationalist how do they explain that it is the nationalist Scottish National Party that has reportedly grown enormously since the referendum?  How do they explain that even within their ranks large chunks of their supporters are now members of the SNP?  How are they to explain that figures like Tommy Sheridan are calling for a vote for the SNP in the UK General election?  He wants to wipe out the ‘Blue, Yellow and Red Tories’ but not of course the Tartan ones.

The SNP are now regularly reported to be in position to wipe out the Labour Party in Scotland which would be quite a reversal.  In fact such a reversal that it overturns one of the claimed grounds for Scotland’s independence – that Scotland is more progressive because it elects predominantly Labour MPs.  Shortly it may predominantly elect a party that has gotten to this point by first taking over and assimilating a large part of the Scottish Tory vote, and it will be England and Wales upon which a Labour Government may be elected.

This is excused by the claim that the Labour Party of today is not the Labour Party of yesterday and indeed with the advent of new Labour this is to an extent true.  However, it is also true that the Labour Party of 2015 is not essentially different to that of 1975 or even 1945 and the view that it somehow is exhibits a flawed understanding of that party.

And there is another problem.  The SNP is making the claim, on the face of it ridiculous, that it will ensure that Ed MIliband becomes Prime Minister through Scottish voters voting not for the Labour Party but for the SNP.  How is Tommy Sheridan to justify opposition to the Labour Party, or ‘Red Tories’ as he prefers to call them, by voting SNP?  Perhaps it is because depriving the Labour Party of a majority might allow the real Tories into Government again, through some sort of new coalition with what’s left of the Liberal Democrats and support from the Democratic Unionist Party?

The SNP are making this type of claim because on their own they are incapable of offering any alternative effective opposition to the austerity that is the main issue in the campaign.  This has already been made clear by their imposition of austerity as the party of Government at Holyrood. Their projections for the financial position of an independent Scotland have already been blown out of the water by the collapse of the price of oil.   Their call for full fiscal autonomy is similarly exposed.  As I pointed out after the referendum result the only effective opposition to austerity can come from an all-British alternative but the ‘non-nationalist’ ‘left’ has seemed oblivious to this.

The SNP however being a serious bourgeois party is not.  That is why Nicola Sturgeon has moved the SNP to take up a UK-wide approach, at least rhetorically, projecting the SNP as a necessary part of a united front against austerity, for example in a possible alliance with the Greens and Plaid Cymru.

Knowing equally that this is not any sort of real alternative has forced her to make a virtue out of necessity and claim the need for the Labour Party to rely on SNP support.  It is backhanded recognition that only the Labour Party can blunt the Tory inspired austerity offensive and its intensification should they lead the next Government again.

So the SNP must claim opposition to Tory austerity as its priority when its real goal is to destroy the Labour Party in Scotland, so making continuation of Tory austerity that more likely.   That other serious bourgeois party, the red, white and blue Tories, also know this, which is why they have been bigging up the SNP and Labour’ so-called dependence on it, in order to undermine Labour.  They do this even while it also undermines the union they support; yet one more illustration of their incompetent character.  At least Thatcher’s strengthening of the forces of Scottish nationalism can claim it was unintended.

The two parties feed on each other, illustrating the divisive role of nationalism for the British working class. As this excellent post here points out, a plurality of SNP voters would rather have a Tory Government than a Labour one if it meant more SNP MPs.

The nationalist left’s opposition to ‘Blue, Yellow and Red Tories’ reduces to opposition to Labour since in Scotland the first has only one MP, the second is stuffed across Britain and the third is the single existing disproof of their claim that only nationalist separation offers an alternative to the Tories.  It is mightily embarrassing when an election comes long in which it is clear that this is patently untrue.  Except of course, as the post recommended above describes, the SNP is on such a roll that nothing will embarrass it, at least not at the minute.

The left nationalist case is that separation is necessary to defeat the Tories and that the UK state is unreformable, in the sense that it will never be social-democratic again.  Their enemy is therefore not the Tories, whose existence seems only to confirm this.  On the other hand, as even the mildly left approach of Ed Miliband threatens such claims, we can glimpse the fundamentally weak foundations upon which the great surge of Scottish nationalism currently rests and the totally spurious grounds on which left nationalism sits.

The actions of Sturgeon and the SNP demonstrate that in this General election the only alternative to Tory austerity, however weak and limited it is, is the Labour Party.

Screwing the unemployed in the North of Ireland

Belfast Plebian

work-fare211

One development in the North of Ireland that has come into existence largely unmentioned is Stormont’s new welfare to work programme. There have been quite a few of these in the past, New Deal, Steps to Work, but this one is more than just a hand me down modification, it fits with the now.

It emerged from out of the thinkery of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) as recently as 2012. The protocols were first aired in a draft published in April 2012 (feasibility study; DEL web site). Tenders were then put out to the private sector for attention at the beginning of 2013 and the Stormont Executive approved the full regulations in June 1914. Implementation of the programme started in October 2014 and it is still being rolled out. The Alliance party man in the Executive, Minister Farry declared that this was ‘a major change in the way we help people, focusing on providing more flexible support for individual’s needs and their barriers to work.’

It is certainly a major change all right; it is the semi- privatisation of Stormont’s unemployment responsibility. The job of getting the north’s unemployed reserve army into work has just been handed over to three ‘lead contractors’ i.e. to profit seeking private companies.

  • Belfast Ingeus UK Ltd, supported by Armstrong Learning NI, People 1st, Springvale Learning, SES Consortium and Addiction NI.
  • Northern Region – EOS (Trading) Northern Ireland Ltd, supported by Elle Enterprises, Customised Training Services, Network Personnel, Ulster Supported Employment Limited, North City Business, Roe Valley Enterprise Ltd and Roe Valley Community Education Forum.
  • Southern Region Reed in Partnership, supported by Global Education Ltd, Network Personnel, Rutledge Recruitment and Training and South Eastern Regional College.

From now on the private sector will be gifted an opportunity to make a profit out of the unemployed with contracts worth £35 million. The only objection raised by those MLA’s who were there for the Committee stage was that DEL had unkindly overlooked some locally run training organisations in favour of the bigger outsider businesses -Pat Ramsey of the SDLP worried that 400 jobs could be lost to local training organisations in the transition period.

Ingenus, for example is a welfare to work international business founded in 1989 by the wife of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Therese Rein sold the business to Providence Service Corporation of Arizona in April 2014 in a deal said to be worth £65 million in cash and another £25 million in stock options, and she agreed to stay on as the Chief Executive.

Although present in several countries, Ingenus makes seventy percent of its declared profit from the British Government’s welfare to work contracts. The Australian government has been pretty ruthless in the slashing of the social entitlements of workers and this gradgrind model is being imposed in Britain via companies like Ingenus.

Another lead contractor is Reed Partnership a division of the Reed Group that includes Reed Specialist Recruitment and Reed Online. The Reed Partnership boasts on its web site that it was the first welfare to work contractor to be trusted by New Labour to deliver the service under the New Deal Programme – “We launched as one of the first private welfare to work providers in the UK. Our first contract started in Hackney in 1998.”

News journalists in Britain frequently claim that the welfare to work programme has been an unmitigated disaster, on the basis that it has been shown to be not good value for the taxpayer’s money lavished on it.  It has been reported that less than 5 percent of those forced under its iron wheels find any permanent work. These sorts of ‘I feel sorry for the taxpayer’ type of political analyses has become the norm for almost all news media criticism of government policy.

When asked about the work programmes’ lamentable failure reported by the news media in England, the DEL civil servants simply told the Assembly Committee that civil servants were under no legislative obligation to take the poor results into consideration when inventing their own scheme specially tailored for the North of Ireland. The DEL officials told the Assembly Committee they were aiming at a better programme and at a higher achieving rate of 29%. Success is defined as finding a job for anyone on the programme for at least three or six months.

The ‘getting good value for taxpayers money’ model of social criticism is an absolutely hopeless one in dealing with the private welfare to work model as it is to be applied in the North of Ireland. The only model of political analysis useful here is the one that relates important government policy decisions directly to the aims of the Good Friday Agreement and fulfilling the mandate of the peace process.

The managerial side of the Stormont regime is certainly not dedicated to ‘helping’ the unemployed section of the working class into some new era of private sector prosperity – that much is obvious.  Rather it is preparing and training them for a future based on low expectations, frequent changes to part time working and acceptance of a long life on the minimum wage.

One of the most significant new protocols attached to the steps to success programme is that the new providers are not obligated by their DEL contract to offer training and education to their unemployed clients. All of the previous work programmes at least contained such a proviso, stipulating some skills training.  This new iteration does not.  It was no doubt thought to be an added expense that the private contractors could well do without.

There is no expectation that the jobs the private sector currently has on offer will be anything but part time, temporary, low skilled and low waged. The fact that the private contractors will receive a payment from the Department on the basis of any three or six months job take-up speaks volumes.

It should be said that participation on the new work programme is mandatory. Even the 60 to 65 age group are forced to take part, something that did not previously apply.

There are to be five client groups – Jobseekers 18-24, Jobseekers early entry, ESA’s (employment support allowance) voluntary ESA’s and Returners. The ‘client’s’ routine is to change from visiting the job centre once a fortnight, to show sufficient evidence of really seeking work, to carrying on with this plus an added second routine of meeting with the ‘provider’ at least three or four times per week for sessions lasting either one or two hours – supervised job searching to really really show they are seeking work.

The larger client group must do a minimum of five hours supervised searching spread out over the week.  This routine includes cold calling of employers who may not have even adverted any vacancies. This is obviously an enhanced surveilling of the lives of the unemployed. The ‘clients’ even have to hand over their mobile phone details and email addresses for random contacts about job offers. They also have to sign wavers allowing the providers to retain and make use of their personal details.

You are asked to inform them of any health problems you may have and to let them know if you are a ‘substance abuser.’  Some of the client groups have to agree to do work placements without pay. The client can in theory claim travelling expenses if they are especially diligent.  I had to delve deep into the DEL protocols documents to discover this.

Claims for travel expenses will be submitted at participant level and can be claimed on a four weekly basis. The Department will make payments within 30 working days of receipt provided receipts are offered.’ The least expensive way to travel in Belfast is to buy a bus day ticket costing £3.40 or £3.90. So the typical travel expense for participants is likely to be between 10 and 15 pounds per week. A single person under 25 on JSA receives £57.35 and the over 25 person gets £72.40. Obviously one training tip you are going to get on this programme is a vital lesson on keeping receipts.

Any unemployed person who is deemed not to be ‘performing’ to the protocols will be sanctioned with a withholding of benefit. The rules state that:

‘Your benefits will be stopped for two weeks for the first time you

  1. Give up, or fail to attend the required S2S attendance without good reason or are asked to leave for non-compliant behaviour.
  2. Your benefits will be stopped for four weeks for a second breach of the rules.
  3. It will be stopped for 26 weeks if the client breaks the rules for a third time.’

There is as yet no evidence available for current sanction rates in the North of Ireland. The rates of sanction penalisation in GB are amazingly high.  On 12 February, DWP published an important Freedom of Information response 2014-4972 showing the proportion of JSA claimants sanctioned and the numbers of repeat JSA sanctions.

Almost one-fifth (18.4%) of the 3,097,630 individuals who claimed JSA during 2013/14 were sanctioned: 568,430 people.  During 2013/14 the maximum number of JSA claimants at any one time was 1,474,428. This gives some idea of the amount of turnover in the claimant count.

We know from Stat-Xplore that there were 888,936 JSA sanctions in 2013/14, so that the average number of sanctions imposed on sanctioned claimants in 2013/14 was 1.56. It should be remembered that these figures show the proportion of claimants sanctioned after reviews/reconsiderations and appeals. The proportion sanctioned before these challenges in 2013/14 must have been about 20%.

Incredibly the Work Programme continues to deliver far more JSA sanctions than successful JSA job outcomes. The official statistics show that up to 30 September 2014 there had been 345,640 JSA Work Programme job outcomes and 575,399 JSA Work Programme sanctions.

This new policing regime for the unemployed is already in situ while the controversial welfare reform changes that have provoked so much comment are yet to be rolled out. One intention of the welfare reform plan in waiting is to push as many of the more costly benefit claimants into the cheaper Steps to Success programme.  This anticipated change is the reason why the bigger private sector welfare to work contractors from Britain are anticipating an increasing client base. The other is to harry as many people off the benefits system as is possible within the law.

The early signs are that it is working – the last three months have seen the biggest fall in live jobseeking claims ever recorded, 1,700 per month. Many are drifting on to other benefits like claiming sickness benefit but the the economically inactive count is also rising rapidly and last month it reached 28%, the highest by far in comparison with Britain. It is the high numbers of economically inactive that is now attracting the gradgrind attention of the neo- liberal economists.

How quickly the promises of the Good Firday Agreement have turned to dust for the working class. The peace process promised a better life for all and there was much talk of a lasting peace dividend. For a few years there was all the appearance of incresasing prosperity, but it was based on bank lending, rising house prices and some increased public spending.  In retrospect the material cause of the peace process can be said to be precisely this raised State spending.

A recent study carried out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute provided data showing how the cuts may impact.  According to the report three parliamentary constituencies, Foyle, West Tyrone and West Belfast have above-average public sector employment, with West Belfast the most vulnerable to job losses with over 45% of total employment being in the public sector.

A proposed public sector redundancy scheme was announced as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The scheme is intended to “re-balance” the local economy, which is said to be disproportionately dependent on the public sector, which accounts for 31% of total local employment.

The exact number of job losses in the scheme remains the subject of speculation. The DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has announced an initial “closure” of 2,410 civil service posts over the next year but trade unions have estimated an eventual figure of 20,000 job losses. The report also highlighted that the retail and hospitality sectors, which make up the second and third highest sources of employment in West Belfast for example, and which are areas where those made redundant might find alternative employment, are also the sectors with the lowest wages. (NERI Research no 20 by Paul Mac Flynn)

If so many of our people, the ‘oppressed nationalists’ are being employed in secure long term jobs by the State why are we concentrating all our efforts on destroying it? This was the objective condition faced by the revolutionary movement organised by the republican movement pre-peace process.  The long war was never targeted at the private sector just the State. We know how that story turned out.

The republican movement disarmed and then married into the State to become senior board members in a logical exercise in political thinking. Things are now changing – the British government strategy of supressing the insurgency with above-normal levels of public spending is coming to an end. You could argue that the proposed rebalancing to a private sector based economy is simply the logical extension of neoliberal austerity economics. Yet a more precise argument would have to factor in a change in the political conditions and climate of opinion.

The republican organised insurgency is finished and the peace process leverage once thought to be with Sinn Fein has all but been used up. Martin McGuiness said recently that the Tories just don’t get it like Labour did.  This was a plea for special economic clemency for the North of Ireland.  But it is Sinn Fein that doesn’t get it.  We are no more special than the Greeks.  We surely are in new times.

Austerity and Sinn Fein

sfdownloadThe strike by public sector workers in the North of Ireland on March 13 was significant because the two major parties, including Sinn Fein, were a target of the strike, whether Sinn Fein or even some of the strikers liked it or not.  Sinn Fein obviously didn’t like it because it damaged its posturing as an anti-austerity party and trade union leaders didn’t like it because their strategy is to persuade the parties responsible for austerity to change their minds and try to get more out of the Treasury in London.

The latest multiyear budgetary programme of the Stormont administration is the second austerity programme which Sinn Fein has jointly authored while in office.  The first did not see the job losses witnessed in England, Wales and Scotland but it did see a reduction of around 14,000.  Pay and pension entitlement for public sector workers were also cut.  Along with almost every other public sector worker I have suffered two years of a pay freeze while inflation consistently exceeded the supposed target of the Bank of England and my pension contributions increased, while my benefits were reduced and I will have to work longer to get them.

The much vaunted protection of welfare in the new budget, whatever coverage it eventually has, will come from money taken from other public services, including cuts to education.  As one local newspaper columnist put it – these will include an end to free books for pre-school children, making Northern Ireland the only part of the UK that will not have the scheme.  This will save £250,000 a year, or one third of the £750,000 that 36 Sinn Fein politicians at Stormont paid to a party research company that was unable to show any research.

As also remarked, Sinn Fein’s often boasted politician’s salary at the industrial wage includes industrial scale expenses.  Widespread cynicism exists in ‘republican’ areas at the rise to riches of leading figures identified with the movement.

The much vaunted financial deal that saved the Stormont administration, before the latest crisis, was hailed for delivering an extra £2 billion to the Northern Ireland budget, except that it didn’t.  Only a third of it could be called new, which spread over 10 years is less than a third of 1% of what is spent each year.

The rest is loans or ‘flexibility’, which means that money that is for capital investment can be incurred on day-to-day expenditure.  You don’t have to be an accountant to realise that relying on loans and investment funds to pay for on-going expenses is not sustainable.  Further expenditure is allowed if funded by asset sales, which again is not sustainable, and raises a green light for privatisation.

Such privatisation would leave the lefty credentials of Sinn Fein wearing even thinner.

Not all the capital money will be spent on recurring expenses.  £700m can be spent (in fact must be spent or it won’t be spent at all) on paying off around 20,000 public sector employees through a voluntary exit scheme.  This is a major plank in the opposition of the trade unions but it is not clear that many workers themselves will not take the money and run.  Unfortunately the old union maxim that the job is not yours to sell is long forgotten.  It is obviously completely unknown to Sinn Fein who talk of losing only ‘posts’ as if this is not what is actually wrong about what they are doing.

It is claimed that there will be no compulsory redundancies but the NIPSA trade union has drawn attention to advanced plans to cut 50 jobs, or over half the workforce, from the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO).  As NIPSA points out, when NIACRO works with prisoners on release reoffending rates drop from over 50% to less than 25%. This has all the hallmarks of the stupid and counter-productive cuts often condemned by Sinn Fein.

The claim to be protecting the vulnerable now doesn’t look so strong.

An amount of £350m will go to capital investment in integrated education, which at least sounds progressive until it’s understood that this doesn’t involve Catholic and Protestant children being educated in the one classroom but actually often means two sectarian-denominated schools being put on the one campus.  The move towards a shared campus simply reflects the fact that sectarianism is becoming expensive.

Rather than signalling the end of sectarian schooling it shows the lengths that will be gone to in order to preserve this apartheid system.  But the sectarian education system also has the support of Sinn Fein.  It would appear that apartheid can be supported in this case if the justification  given for the original South African variety – separate but EQUAL – can be adhered to.

This isn’t even progressive never mind left wing or socialist.

That the new deal means no rejection of the previous imposition of reactionary Tory-Lib Dem policy is shown by the fact that the fines of £114m that had to be paid for not implementing the welfare cuts in 2014-2005 must be paid now, and the £100m loan required to balance the books in the same year must also be paid.

Last but not least the new financial arrangement allows the local administration to lower corporation tax, once again supported by Sinn Fein.  Their thread bare justification for this is the harmonisation of an all-island economy.  In fact, along with many republicans’ support for Scottish independence, it involves mutual competition of small states in a race to put more money into the fat pockets of mainly US multinationals.  Were the policy to succeed the London Treasury has stated clearly that the Stormont regime will have to pay it for its losses.

All of this passes Sinn Fein by.  It clings to its claims to be anti-austerity purely on its partial opposition to cuts in welfare benefits.  Its populist politics is revealed by its approach that workers are victims and its most vulnerable members should be given some form of protection by a benevolent state.

The effect of privileging one section of the working class above another is always to undermine and weaken its potential political unity.  In this case the potential unity of the working population and those on benefits, who are always the subjects of divisive attack by right wing forces.   By limiting its proclaimed anti-austerity agenda to support to some on benefits it plays into the divisive claims of these right wing forces.  Sinn Fein appears happy to see austerity delivered to those in work while proclaiming great concern for those who are unable to or cannot work.

The interests of the working class as a class and as a political force independent and opposed to the state are alien ideas to a purely nationalist movement.

Unfortunately it is also alien to the leaders of Ireland’s trade unions and their new proclaimed support for Sinn Fein is proof of this.  At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis – that is even before Sinn Fein’s renewed expressions of concern for welfare claimants – the Irish Congress of Trades Unions President, Jack Douglas, extolled Sinn Fein’s adherence to the union cause.  That is after the austerity budget the Northern unions were calling a strike against!  A week or so earlier the leader of Ireland’s biggest union SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, hailed Sinn Fein as a potential partner of the Labour Party in Government. The same Labour Party that has been implementing the Troika austerity agenda it was elected promising to oppose.

The performance of Sinn Fein in office in the North is a stark warning of its future role in the South but the record of Sinn Fein in the South is ample demonstration itself.  It was Sinn Fein who voted for the bank bailout that made the debts of the speculators the millstone round the neck of the workers.  Its ‘leading role’ in the resistance to austerity today is to identify itself with the campaign against water charges while seeking electoral advantage from it.  Beyond seeking votes from the campaign it has no strategy to make the campaign a success.

A couple of weeks ago an economist from Goldman Sachs claimed that the biggest threat to the Irish economy was that Sinn Fein would keep its promises on its opposition to austerity.  He needn’t have worried.

I remember around twenty years ago attending a meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road during which time Sinn Fein was trying to get into talks with the Unionists, who were refusing to engage. I asked Gerry Adams what he expected to achieve from such negotiations when the Unionists wouldn’t even talk to him.  A United Ireland he said.

Well we all know how that worked out.

Workers strike against austerity in the North of Ireland

20150313_130323-1Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the North of Ireland on March 13 in protest against cuts in jobs and services implemented by the devolved administration in Stormont.  The local administration is imposing the austerity agenda dictated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London.  The strike was particularly successful because transport workers, including on the buses and trains, took part as well as those in the civil service, health and education.

Observance of the strike was good and pickets and rallies had respectable turnouts.  Workers have suffered a long period of declining living standards and are clearly willing to declare their opposition.  It would be a mistake however to exaggerate the stage we are at in the development of this struggle.  A glance at the numbers voting for strike action in a couple of the biggest unions involved shows the distance yet to go to build a strong and active movement.

In the trade union NIPSA, covering staff in Government departments and other bodies as well as admin and clerical staff in the health service, 52.9% or 4,201 voted for strike action in the civil service side out of a membership of around 20,600, with the health service side having an even lower turnout.  Not all of the membership was called upon to strike but the vast majority of members were affected.  In UNISON, with a membership mainly in the health service and some in education ,3,181 voted for strike action in a membership of around 40,000, again not all of whom would have been called upon to vote but a majority of whom would have been affected.  The strike had sympathy among the wider population but this finds no expression in organisation.

Many on the left have demanded another strike and have claimed that the recent ostensible U-turn by Sinn Fein on welfare cuts is a result of the strike.  However this would be to take the Sinn Fein position at face value, or rather take them at their word, and exaggerates the effect of the strike.  While it focused opposition to austerity, and can lay the grounds for a deeper campaign against it, the actions of Sinn Fein are not so much a reaction to the strike but the wider feeling of opposition to cuts.

The strategy of the trade union leaders is to lobby and put pressure on local political parties so that if the next Westminster election results in a hung parliament local politicians can demand and negotiate an end to, or at least an amelioration of, austerity imposed in the Northern Ireland.  It therefore takes as given the continued position of these parties and resists any project of setting up a political rival.  This is on the basis that to do so would inevitably require a position to be taken on the constitutional position of the Northern State.

Such a party would inevitably have Keynesian policies of greater state activity in taxing and spending.  In other words salvation would be presented as arriving from the state, so the programme of any such labour or workers’ party would very quickly run up against this challenge.  No autonomous development of the party would be possible.  It is now some years since a labourist project was attempted and the last one that set up the current political arrangements was an embarrassing failure.

The strike was however noteworthy because it was carried out explicitly against the policies of the local Stormont Executive, the centre piece of the peace process and the ‘new’ political settlement.  It also took place against the background of another ‘crisis’ in the process, with the whole financial arrangements of the local administration thrown into doubt by a late Sinn Fein withdrawal of support for the budget because the deal to preserve it did not fully cover the cuts in welfare that were to mirror ‘reforms’ in Britain.

Sinn Fein therefore paraded its anti-austerity credentials, which the media took to be another late intervention by Gerry Adams to shore up the anti-austerity stance of the party in the South of Ireland.  Sinn Fein faces a general election in the South within the year.  The party is riding high in the polls on the basis of this perceived position and it would not look good if it were seen to be implementing austerity in the North while claiming to oppose it in the South.   Sinn Fein therefore ‘supported’ the strike even if the strike was clearly against the budget it had just approved as a major part of the local administration.

This support was invisible in the well-attended rally in Belfast city centre on 13th and is based on the party once again talking out of both sides of its mouth.  A long established practice.

This most recently saw an outing through Sinn Fein’s vocal support for the Catholic teacher training college St Mary’s, which was threatened with cuts by the local administration.  The cuts were proposed by the Alliance Party Minister responsible who was simply implementing the reduced budget given to him by Sinn Fein and its Democratic Unionist Party partners.  The sectarian aspect of this support was lost on no one as similar cuts were to be made to the ‘Protestant’ teacher training college at Stranmillis.  In the end the two biggest sectarian parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – got together to overrule the Alliance Party Minister.

The last minute opposition to the welfare arrangements therefore doesn’t inspire the view that Sinn Fein are a principled opponent of austerity but rather smack of an opportunist change of tack.  At their Ard Fheis in Derry the weekend before they dropped their bombshell the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont, Martin McGuinness , was proclaiming great satisfaction with the deal and congratulating the party on how well it had done in the re-negotiated financial settlement with the British Government.

At the very best their new found concern means that they hadn’t done their sums right or had been rather easily hoodwinked by the DUP; or perhaps that they had re-evaluated the calculus of staying with the welfare cuts programme as it was going to develop – thus facing the flak when it was put into practice – as against provoking another ‘crisis’ and the fall-out that would then ensue.

That this was all a bit last-minute became clear from the Sinn Fein media performances to explain its change of approach.  One prominent spokesperson on local radio refused to say it was a question of money when it could hardly be anything else; then it was claimed that it would cost over £280m to put right before this became translated into a round figure of £200m when the round figure it would appear closest to would be £300m.  Unionist claims that it was clear in the deal that not all the benefit cuts would be covered by mitigation measures in the budget, and would not be permanent for new claimants, seemed more convincing.

Nevertheless, the row over the extent of the funds to cover cuts in welfare matters to those welfare recipients affected who are indeed, as Sinn Fein says, some of the most vulnerable. It doesn’t in the least affect the fraudulent nature of Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity posturing.

To be continued

The civilising mission of capitalism – Marx’s alternative part 3

lewis-hine1So Marx understood that capitalism’s compulsion to increase the appropriation of unpaid labour through development of the forces of production and exploitation of workers also meant the expansion of the consumption of the working class and development of its needs and capacities as a result; what has been called capitalism’s civilising mission. But Marx also referred to the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Today, and over the last half century, many people have been radicalised by the threats of nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe, both of which are products of capitalisms’ productive powers and its irrational social and political relations.  But opposition has more often than not failed to identify the source of the threat or the solution.

It has also been noted at the end of the twentieth century that there had not been a single year since 1816 without at least one war going on in the world.  The twentieth century itself witnessed human slaughter on a truly massive scale with more than 9 million deaths in the First World War and 57 million (37.8 million of them civilians) in the Second World War, with 80 million between 1900 and 1950 in total.  The relative peace since is purely relative with proud claims that war had been abolished in Europe, for example, blown away by the war in the former Yugoslavia and now in the Ukraine.

This contradiction is not one that exists in Marx’s argument but one that exists in reality, as Marx explains in Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital:

“We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.

We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes.

It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.”

Marx compares capitalism favourably to its predecessors:

“Thus the ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.

In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself?

What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion.”

Overall growth of productive powers and increased planning within capitalism – between firms and countries – and increased coordination of a massively developed division of labour is a growth of human power and civilisation, not just potentially, but in creation of the preconditions for socialism; the potential for the creation of a society without material and cultural want, for a future society in which the level of production can remove the necessity for class inequality.

If socialism must arise out of capitalism and capitalism were purely barbaric, containing within it no contradictions that presage the new society, socialism would be a utopian dream because the agents of change who are to bring it about would simply be products of barbarism.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 2

333869336In the first part of this post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism we noted that this was ‘simply’ the real alternative that is already growing within capitalism and is composed of the working class that the development of capitalism creates.

Workers have no, and are not to be encouraged to produce, “ready-made utopias”.   Such blueprints are always presented to workers rather than arising from them, they must “work out their own emancipation”.   In doing so they will necessarily “have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men”. (Marx, The Civil War in France)

The working class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism but it can only achieve emancipation if it becomes conscious of its revolutionary role. So, in some way, capitalism must not only provide for the development of the forces of production, increased division of labour and cooperation across the globe and increased planning within and between companies and production facilities, upon which a higher society can be built, but it must also provide the grounds for the development of this consciousness.

Capitalism does this by removing the relations of personal dependence that, for example, ties the peasant serf to the lord of the manor or the artisan to his master and to the Guild.  In doing so it atomises individuals and promotes an ideology of individuality that in juridical terms makes people free, independent and responsible but which in reality is expressed in an estrangement of people from each other.

This estrangement is routinely expressed through terms such as the ‘rate race’; the view that ‘charity begins at home’; that you ‘have to look after your own’, or ’look after number one’ or in the thousand and one various ways in which the unity of humanity is disintegrated and vanished under capitalism.  This is not primarily an ideological phenomenon but a realty that workers are indeed in a rat race.  As a poster campaign put it some years ago – many are only a couple of pay cheques away from homelessness.  Almost all workers are an illness away from relative or absolute poverty.  Lack of ownership of the means of producing a livelihood means an inescapable compulsion to sell one’s labour power in the market under circumstances more or less totally out of one’s control.

This estrangement is universal and the idea of free individuality finds roots from this universal separation.  Its universality creates the possibility of it being overcome. This is done through the development of the forces of production that puts workers in a similar relationship to those who own the means of producing life’s necessities creating the conditions within which unity around common class interests can be built.

The development of the forces of production themselves, based on advances in scientific understanding and its practical application, has implications both for the material and moral/spiritual development of the working class.  The extraordinary development of the productivity of labour that is a feature of capitalism cannot fail over an extended period to have an effect on the material conditions of the working class.  The current level of development of the productive forces could not have been achieved simply by seeking to meet and increase the consumption demands of the richest in society.

Capitalism constantly seeks to advance the consumption of society in order to accumulate capital and thus consciously and unconsciously produces new needs and new desires and, through this, new capabilities that create not just the material but also the spiritual and cultural preconditions for socialism.  If it did not, if capitalism left workers as limited and narrow in outlook as the peasant class that preceded it, there would be no grounds for a new higher society, for who would bring it into being?

This development takes place under capitalism, under the determining dynamic of the production of profit from the exploitation of labour, and thus this development is distorted, often thwarted, partial, uneven and limited.  It is subject to advance and retreat and it is ‘dumbed down’ and commodified.  It takes place not as a rational objective of society but as one whose development is in contradiction with the system’s rationale of seeking the expansion of capital through the appropriation of more exploited labour.

This process is what Marx calls the “civilising mission” of capitalism, without which there could be no talk of socialism:

“Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side — i.e. surplus labour, value-creating labour — so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilizing science itself just as much as all the physical and mental qualities, while there appears nothing higher in itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange.

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.

For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.  In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life

It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse)

But how can capitalism be called civilising?  Is it not the Marxist case that capitalism is inhuman and that the historic choice is between socialism and barbarism? Does Marx not speak, in relation to British rule in India, of “the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 1

DSC_0136The reason why a person will identify themselves as a Marxist will be biographical, a product of their background, history and circumstances, their attitudes, character, personality and intellectual curiosity.  All these will be individual and accidental to a greater or lesser extent, the product of one’s actions and decisively, the views and actions of others that one comes into contact with, directly and indirectly.

On the other hand their background and circumstances and the views and actions of others that influence them will be social, the product of society as a whole.  Even their individual character and intellectual curiosity will be shaped strongly by their social circumstances.  So also the reason to identify as a Marxist is not individual or accidental but crucially derives from the content of Marxism itself.

It constitutes the most rational alternative to capitalism and all the irrationality and oppression that that system entails.  The most consistent and coherent alternative to capitalism is Marxist because Marxism comprehends capitalism in a way that is adequate to its replacement.

Marxism best encapsulates the view that ‘another world is possible’ because it best understands capitalism itself and can identify whether, and to what extent, an alternative can develop out of it.  Any alternative must come out of it in some way, yet be sufficiently different to actually be an alternative, and not a refurbished version of existing society which must enforce the limitations and strictures of the existing system. Marxism must therefore identify in what precisely this alternative consists.

The strength of Marxism is not that it has developed a brilliant idea from the brain of an exceptional intellect but that it seeks to bring to consciousness the development of capitalism itself and the alternative that is pregnant within it.

“In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx 1843.

If capitalism does not contain within it the struggles that will replace it, and the grounds for those struggles to succeed, then there will be no alternative to capitalism, at least not with the features or characteristics associated with a socialist alternative.

The claim that Marxism is the social and political alternative to capitalism thus rests on its claims to understand the development of capitalism so that the alternative it poses is not then a utopian one, sprouted more or less fully formed from the brain of this or that social reformer, but from the perceptible development of capitalism itself.

Just as the alternative to capitalism grows out of capitalism itself so too does the understanding of the alternative grow in the same way from the development of the system.

This is held to account for Marx’s known aversion to setting out a blueprint of what the alternative will look like.  It was, for example only when Marx was in his mid-50s that he claimed he had found, or rather the working class itself had found, through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

In his review of this experience Marx made many observations on the alternative to capitalism that apply today, including that:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”

A book published a few years ago is an extremely useful guide to Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism, more particularly of the principles that underpin it.  It demonstrates that the alternative is not some perfected socialist state or society, not some condition of social equilibrium but a movement of people and their own self-activity and self-development.

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence,” (Marx in The German Ideology).

There is no end-state to socialism, perfect or otherwise, but the social conditions that allow the full flourishing of the individual and humanity as a whole, which will in turn change social conditions.

Socialism cannot be reduced to principles such as a planned economy because planning itself is only one human activity, the totality of which is the expansive alternative that Marx foresaw.

The alternative to capitalism is the self-development of humanity, its overcoming of an alienated existence within which its own powers over its environment and its own development appear separated from and oppressive to it.  So humanity understands the danger of environmental destruction but has no transparent means of control to stop it despite its own actions being the cause of the threat.  So it witnesses economic disruption, unemployment, poverty and suffering, caused by a drop in ‘value’ of pieces of paper – shares, bonds, swaps, options, derivatives etc -that it has created but which by themselves are simply pieces of paper, which in any rational society it would be impossible for them to cause the suffering involved in economic crisis.

Emancipation therefore is the result of the actions of humanity itself, led by a class within society whose liberation must entail the liberation not only of itself but of society as a whole – what is called a universal class because it represents the universal interests of all humanity.

This universal class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism, to a degree that could never have been conceived in previous history, including the rapid development of technology, scientific knowledge and overall cultural development.

It is people however who create history, ‘history’ itself does nothing, and it is the development of the working class that is the carrier of the wonders of the new capitalist society and the bearer of the new within it.

What is required then is that the working class becomes conscious of its role in existing society and the necessity for it to change this society.  Decisive for the working class is therefore its awareness of itself as a separate class with its own interests, requiring a change in the consciousness of the mass of workers.

This change in consciousness to an awareness of class interest does not mean the nullification of individual personality or character but the recognition of shared interests that will allow creation of a society in which the free development of individuals is the condition for the free development of everyone; no one is subject to the requirement to work to live in order that someone else can live without working.  The creation of wealth will be for the satisfaction of individual needs and desires and not the pathological pursuit of profit for a few.  People will labour to satisfy their needs not the accumulation of money, wealth and capital for others.

The structures of society will therefore be the consciously directed products of human activity, transparent in their operation.  They will not entail the domination of people by impersonal, disembodied powers such as the ‘rule of the free market’ or ‘rule of law’ or ‘state authority’, over which individuals feel and have no control.  No longer will workers face wage cuts or unemployment because the things they produce are no longer profitable to produce and the needs of ‘the economy’ then require the sacrifice of their livelihood.  Things no longer control them, they control the things that would not exist without them.  No longer will the price of pieces of paper wreak economic devastation.

Instead workers will control the things that are their creation, including the machines they build, the firms they create, the agencies that provide services or set rules for them – all the organisations appointed for any purpose that affect them.  They control them because they work in them.  Managing them is not a detached function to be carried out by a separate class or bureaucratic group but is the task of everyone.  Management and control become part of everyone’s job description.

By this means the supreme authority, the State, that rules over society is not set apart from it but is gradually abolished through its functions being incorporated into society itself and into its day to day functioning.  Only in this way can the  rule of a minority become the rule of the majority, can the working class become the new ruling class, before there is no class system whatsoever because no relations of economic and social domination exist.

For this to happen the majority of society have to be not so much ready to carry out these million and one tasks but more and more actually carrying them out beforehand.  The problem then is not so much to revolutionise the means of production or state structures but to revolutionise the working class.

So how does capitalism create the conditions for this?  In what way does capitalism itself prepare the ground for its supersession by the working class?