The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 2


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The demonstrations against the water charges last Saturday showed that the Right2Water campaign is supported by local groups in towns and cities right across the State.  This grass-roots organisation is a reflection of the strength of feeling among the working class and is its greatest political strength.  It is not the creation or front of one or other, or even the whole collection, of political groups although they are deeply involved.

It is united in total opposition to the charges and to the tactic of non-payment and it should expect to be challenged by the State on both.  Concessions by the Government will be offered in the next days and afterwards stronger tactics will be employed against those who remain in opposition, if they can be sufficiently isolated.  This is always the way it works.  Every carrot is followed by a stick.

The various organisations involved in the campaign have put forward their own perspectives for the way forward.  By looking at the leaflets given out at the demonstration last Saturday I want to review what they are proposing.

Sinn Fein put out a leaflet ‘Stop the Water Charges’ which promises to reverse water charges when in Government, which rather admits it will be in some form of coalition with one of the capitalist parties after the election.  Otherwise it has little to offer those who want to see the charges scrapped.  Simply waiting for a new Government on the other hand is something that would paralyse and then kill the campaign.

Sinn Fein claims in the leaflet that it blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.  As Eamonn McCann noted in his article in ‘The Irish Times’ I referred to in the previous post – all four main parties in the North have claimed the credit for not introducing water charges.

Eamonn McCann claims “that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water charges by Stormont in 2007.” As someone who went round doors helping to organise meetings and speaking at them I know this is, unfortunately, not true.  There were numerous campaigns but none of them had a mass character and lots of signatures on a pledge of non-payment doesn’t make a mass campaign.  Meetings were usually small and when candidates from the Left stood on anti-water charges tickets they generally got the same derisory vote they always got.

The parties in the new Stormont regime did indeed refuse to introduce water charges because it was very unpopular with their own supporters, and it was something that they could manage without – so they did mange without.

The Socialist Party leaflet doesn’t mention it’s a Socialist Party leaflet but hides itself, as usual, behind some party front; this time it’s the ‘We won’t pay Campaign.’  Since it already dominates the Anti-Austerity Alliance, this method of organisation it appears wedded to wouldn’t seem to be useful even to the SP.

The leaflet is however very good at putting the case for non-payment and explaining the position of the State and the legal implications of the tactic.  It looks back to the successful water charges campaign in the mid-1990s but provides no indication that the lessons of more recent failures such as the anti-bin tax campaign have been assimilated.

The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet also argues strongly for non-payment and advises on the real situation that non-payers will face.  It is also honest enough to explain the counter-measures that the State could adopt to thwart the non-payment tactic, but then also points out the problems this would give to the State.

So the State could deduct the charge from wages or benefits but this would require a change in the law and would make it impossible to privatise Irish Water, which they say is the primary reason for imposing water charges.  On this I am unconvinced.  Charging is necessary in order to raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit, meet demands from the Troika and get the debts of the company and its future debts off the Government’s balance sheet so its debt ratio looks better.  Direct State intervention to make deductions from salaries and benefits go against this project whether privatisation is hoped for in the future or not.

That the amounts might today be relatively small does not invalidate this view but does raise the point that retreat on the issue by the Government would not involve an enormous monetary cost.

In any case we should not lose sight of the fact that it is under public ownership that this attack on workers is taking place and it is under public ownership that the water service has been a disgrace with flooding, poor water quality and leakage at atrocious levels for years.

Public ownership is a euphemism for State ownership and is misleading because the public don’t actually own it and don’t, as we can see, have any say over how it is managed or run.  There is no need to bum up the benefits of such ownership when it’s not the socialist alternative.

With this in mind, calls for a referendum to prevent privatisation might allow some to avoid taking a strong position on opposing the charges.  It is not that surprising that Jack O’Connor appears on the television supporting the call for a referendum while SIPTU fails to back the Right2Water campaign.  SIPTU members should challenge its leadership on this failure and anti-water charges campaigners should stand outside Liberty House demanding the union’s support.

The Socialist Workers Party issued a leaflet from its own political front – People before Profit, practicing the politics of feeble reformism that it condemns in its other publications.  It has its own euphemisms that it uses to straddle the contradiction.  So it calls for ‘people power’ instead of teaching Irish workers that the people are divided into classes and that the power and interests of the working class are different from those of the people who belong to the capitalist class.

This way of approaching politics allows the issue of class to be side-lined and, for example, the class nature of the state ignored, so that the State can be called upon to provide solutions; such as their leaflet calling for taking ‘Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership’.  Like Irish Water?

The leaflet also appears to call fort a general strike on 10th December but doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to say so.  On the usefulness of this demand see a previous post.  It calls for a ‘revolt’ but it’s not clear if this means revolution or is something short of it and what this might be.

The fear of using socialist terms to define socialist concepts and therefore a socialist programme and strategy sits in opposition to what appears as a hyping of the existing struggle.  So the leaflet says that ‘the battle against water charges is part of a wider revolt.’

If only it were.

Its importance however is not that it is part of a wider revolt, but that it is the exception to the rule of general working class passivity and acceptance of austerity.  Its wider political significance is actually that it might herald the start of a wider resistance.  But then the question is how do we achieve this, or can we?  Not that it already exists.

The article in ‘The Irish Times’ noted that one reason behind the anti-water charges campaign was that the people cannot “give any more” and “the people have been pushed too far.”  The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet notes that ‘hundreds of thousands of people are now saying ‘No More’”. In other words many workers have decided that they won’t pay this bill.  They have not decided to stop paying the price of austerity they are already paying or perhaps new ones that will heaped on them in the future should the new boom prove temporary.

If the strength of the campaign is its local organisation then an effective national campaign structure would help to leverage that strength to support activity in weaker areas or where no campaign currently exist.  Above all such a structure should provide for democratic accountability to the members of those speaking for the national campaign.  It would provide the means by which a collective view can be determined and publicised on such things as the response to whatever partial concessions the Government dreams up to stifle opposition.

At this stage it would not appear to advance the overall struggle against austerity to demand that the campaign take on wider objectives.  It is clearer however that at some stage it should.  The best grounds on which to do so would be success in defeating the water charges.  Such a step however needs preparation now for an extension of the objectives of the campaign down the line.

Fighting tax increases, cuts to public services and cuts to wages and welfare will not be easy and the tactic of sitting tight involved in ‘we won’t pay’ is obviously not an answer to these.  A debate on what we are for and how we might build it is also just as necessary, if not more so.

A second tactic is to stand in elections and electoral intervention is now the favoured method of moving forward by Sinn Fein and most of the Left groups.  The latter confidently argue that the former will betray the hopes of their supporters, and Sinn Fein’s support for austerity budgets in the North is all the confirmation one needs for this argument.

Unfortunately the Left’s own claims are hardly consistent either.   They regularly denounce the capitalist state but their programme fully relies on it doing what they want.  On this blog I have posted numerous times on how their support for capitalist state ownership and taxation of the rich are not socialist and won’t work.  In other words they would effectively end up betraying their supporters were they in office just as effectively as Sinn Fein.  Sincere intentions don’t enter into it.

At the more immediate level the Left does not provide an example to follow.  The anti-water charges campaign relies on unity and agreement on total opposition to the charges in any form.  Any sense by its supporters that it did not respond to their feelings and demands would see it lose support.

Unfortunately the Left has a culture of manipulation and a lack of critical and free debate within its ranks.  It regularly calls for workers’ unity while being utterly incapable of unity within its own ranks.  In fact in this respect it has gone backwards, with the demise of what limited unity there was in the United Left Alliance.  It is simply incapable of containing within its present organisation and politics any mass radicalisation of workers.

A potential for radicalisation arises from the sudden upsurge against water charges, posing the need for increased organisation and politicisation of the campaign.  A victory is possible, giving rise to the possibility of further advances and the need to debate now how these could be achieved.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued

Rape, Republicanism and Revenge

2014-10-28_new_4232679_I1A Belfast woman, Maíría Cahill, whose great-uncle Joe Cahill helped form the Provisional IRA in 1969, has claimed in a BBC programme that she was attacked and sexually abused by a much older IRA man from the age of 16 for a period of 12 months in 1997.

She has accused the Republican Movement of trying to force her to keep quiet about the rape and holding a “kangaroo court” in which she was interrogated about her claims.  “The only word I have for it is interrogation, because that’s exactly how it felt.” The IRA investigation lasted six months and included a face-to-face meeting with Cahill’s alleged abuser.  “They told me that they were going to read my body language to see who was telling the truth and that they were going to bring him into a room.”

She says that she was discouraged from going to the police, in line with Sinn Fein policy at the time.  When she did go to the police the prosecution authorities ensured that it was IRA membership charges that were first taken against the alleged rapist and those involved in the IRA investigation.

When these charges collapsed the prospect of conviction for rape also reduced so she withdrew support from the remaining trials.  She signed a withdrawal statement but maintained her claims of sexual abuse and her claims against the four people accused of subjecting her to an IRA interrogation. She also accused both the police and the Public Prosecution Service of failing her.

What we have then is the story of a rape victim who received no justice from the movement she supported and none from the state, which appeared, as usual, more interested in a political agenda than the concerns of a victim.

The case has become news just as an inquiry is to take place into child abuse at Kincora children’s home in east Belfast in the early 1970s.  It is widely suspected that the British security services colluded in a cover up of the horrific abuse that took place in the home in order to gather intelligence in pursuit of their dirty war.

The hands of the state when it comes to the North of Ireland are literally dripping with blood.

Not unexpectedly however most attention has been directed to Gerry Adams, who Cahill says she met to discuss her rape.  At this meeting she claims he suggested to her that abusers were so manipulative that they can make the abused actually enjoy their abuse.

Adams has rejected this and claims that he asked another female republican to tell Cahill to report her experience to the police.  Cahill in turn has argued that the idea that a senior republican would ask her to go to the police to give information against not only the IRA accused but also the IRA investigators as “absolutely ridiculous”.

The accusations against Gerry Adams come shortly after the conviction of his brother for abuse of his daughter, Gerry Adams’ niece.  Gerry Adams was again accused of doing little or nothing, failing to report the allegations to the police and of concocting a frankly incredible story regarding his own knowledge and actions.

Maíría Cahill continued to work for Sinn Fein even after her abuse and was briefly a member of the Republican Network for Unity, a political organisation very critical of Sinn Fein’s support for the police. She subsequently moved to support a campaign against former republican prisoners working in the new Stormont administration and she now declares her full support for the authorities and the police. She has also sought and received the public support of the leaders of Unionism and of the Southern capitalist parties.  As a result Sinn Fein has accused the latter of seeking political gain from her tragic experience.

Gerry Adams has subsequently given a very general apology on behalf of the IRA for its failures in the area of abuse, acknowledging that it had, on occasion, shot alleged sex offenders or expelled them.  The latter has raised a storm of protest from Southern politicians that the republican movement has in effect repeated the crimes of the Catholic Church by moving abusers about the country, free to abuse again.

The publicity surrounding the Maíría Cahill case has also brought out numerous allegations of IRA protection or leniency towards abuse by their own members in comparison to brutal treatment of others.

For Adams the disbandment of the IRA means there is no “corporate knowledge” to draw on in the Cahill case while he admits that the IRA was “singularly ill equipped” to deal with sexual abuse, although it presented itself as the alternative state for long enough.

So what are we to make of this?  One take on it is that what we are seeing is the politics of vengeance that does society no good.  The political ‘zig-zags’ of Maíría Cahill may obscure the political significance of her case but its significance is salient not only because of her own demands but also because of the other cases which the publicity she has generated has brought into the open.  In other words we are not simply dealing here with one person’s tragic experience that has no wider social significance.  This wider significance goes beyond the political impact of her case on the fortunes of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.

With regard to the latter we can lament her reliance on the state and any illusions on the justice to be received from it but in this respect the political significance of Maíría Cahill’s pursuit of justice through lobbying establishment politicians and the state, and her criticism of the handling of her case by Sinn Fein, is immeasurably less than the republicans own capitulation to the state and their embrace of it as the providers of justice.  Their treatment of Cahill is also of greater political significance given that they are a major political party seeking office, and the fact that this treatment appears to have been meted out to others.

Even in terms of her own particular situation, she was and is obviously caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.  She initially sought justice from the movement she supported and was betrayed.  The most charitable interpretation is that they let her down but having let her down they stand condemned for having abused and betrayed her.

And now she wants vengeance? As Leon Trotsky said “the feeling of revenge has its rights.”  It is not the case that she has no demands other than this.  She wants others put in the same position by the Republican Movement to come forward. She wants republicans to admit the truth of her claims and she wants help for her and other similar victims. These goals appear to me to be entirely supportable even if her road to achieving them is not. But, as I have noted, she initially chose a different road.  It is not difficult to understand how, given her circumstances, she chose the course she is now on.

The Socialist Democracy article noted above correctly argues that justice “can only be asserted by the self-organisation of the working class and oppressed” and that “to win justice we have to rebuild the self-organisation of the workers, not give backhanded support to the state and the mechanisms of class oppression.”  But this is hardly a task that one woman could be expected to take on board herself and if she did not see it as an option this reflects the current near invisibility of it as a practical option for her.

Which brings me to the political lessons that socialists must learn from this and similar episodes. The article states that “the IRA was a revolutionary nationalist army . . . the idea that it could effectively investigate rapes is ridiculous.” Yes indeed, just like the idea that it could defeat British rule.  Except it claimed it could do both and organised an armed campaign that assumed responsibility for both, a responsibility it has not properly accounted for. Instead the Republican Movement has rewritten the past (it fought for ‘equality’ not for ‘Brits Out’) and has relied on the British state to place it into its new arrangements for imperialist rule.

But let’s pause for a second to ask ourselves how an army, even an ‘army of the people’ could possibly represent an alternative state?  What sort of state would it be that is defined by, conditioned by and ruled by an army?  It’s not that the Republican Movement couldn’t help itself when it came to dealing with questions routinely addressed by the capitalist state, including rape allegations, but that Irish Republicanism has always elevated armed actions above political struggle, the liberation of the oppressed by the oppressed themselves.  When it has stopped doing so it has stopped being in any real sense republican.  It reminds one of the saying that you can do everything with a bayonet except sit on it.  Guns are no answer to fundamental social and political questions.  The singular in Adams’ “singularly ill equipped” can only truthfully refer to republican militarism that it embraced until it was defeated.

For Marxists it should be a salutary lesson that political programmes defined by what they are against; defined by ‘smashing the capitalist state’ are only progressive to the degree that the working class has built itself a democratic and viable alternative.  Too often this is not at all the case and justification for particular political positions is often reposed on the argument that it will split, weaken or smash the state while doing nothing to advance the organisation or political consciousness of the working class as the alternative.

Whatever political weaknesses that Maíría Cahill may have, they pale beside those of her abusers who must ultimately be held responsible for the trauma of which her political odyssey appears as an expression.

The Left against Europe 4

david cameronThe question of membership of the European Union has loomed large because of the recent successes of UKIP in Britain.  Many of the questions raised by it also underlie the recent Scottish ‘independence’ referendum: questions of nationalism and internationalism.  Both are or might be settled in referenda.

Thus many of the points I have argued in the posts on the Scottish referendum apply to the debate on Europe, which I was addressing in a series of posts before I interrupted them to post on Scotland.  This post continues to look at the issues that are thrown up for the Left by looking at the ‘great debate’ generated by Britain’s potential membership of the Common Market (as the EU was called then) in 1971.

In the previous post on the question I looked at the views of the International Socialists (IS), which was the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party.

By the time of the ‘great debate’ among the ruling class in 1971 over joining the Common Market the majority of the International Socialists appeared to have dropped their previous attitude, which recognised the positive features of the capitalist European project (while still recognising that the working class had to assert its own position).

Instead the majority position appeared to be represented by a Chris Harman article in their journal ‘International Socialism.’  In this article Harman provided an analysis of what the European Economic Community was – “The Common Market is essentially what its title says it is – a business arrangement, an agreement between different capitalist ruling classes, relating to the way in which they organise their markets.”

“The second aim of the Common Market has been to move beyond being merely a unified arena within which different competing national capitalisms compete, to the beginnings of a positive integration of the rival capitalist classes.”

“There are a number of steps which would have to be taken for such a merging of interests to occur.”  These included that:

“ Impediments to the free movement of capital from one country to another would have to be done away with.

Legislation and tax policies in different countries have to be made homogenous with one another.

Exchange rates of the different European currencies with one another should be fixed immutably,

and preferential treatment in the allocation of governmental contracts to national rather than other European firms would have to be overcome.”

Today some of these steps have been taken while others are still the subject of controversy, such as harmonisation of taxation.  Others have been surpassed, such as the creation of a common currency.  All are steps that a state must take to advance a unified European capitalism.

Harman maintains that “paradoxically, the very internationalism of capitalism is an important factor enhancing the role of the national state.”  The problem then is to create a European state that can do at a European level what national states have been unable to do for their national capitalisms:

“The failure of the nationally based capitalisms to begin to merge with one another does not, however, do away with the need for them to do so. Resources have to be mobilised and production organised on a continental, rather than a merely national basis, for survival in the most advanced industries. Europe’s failure to integrate has been paralleled by a failure to keep up with the international leaders in such fields.”

So the problem becomes a political one: European capitalism “wants a ‘Europeanisation’ of capital – but this continually clashes against national state boundaries. The only way out would seem to be to somehow reduce the dependence of firms on the national state by developing some sort of European state.”

Harman sees the mechanism to achieve this as the European Commission, which he states was the original intention of the Treaty of Rome, officially the Treaty setting up the EEC.

“The Commission, it was implied, would represent a political projection of the economic trend for national boundaries to be superseded. What the international companies were accomplishing in economic terms, the Commissioners would accomplish politically. Eventually they would concentrate in their hands the budgetary and monetary prerogatives of national governments, and oversee on a European scale the economic and social needs of the system as a whole. At this point the present national governments would be effectively redundant. Such was the dream of the more extreme ‘Europeans’ [13] – and the nightmare of those who criticise the Market from the point of view of ‘national sovereignty’.”

“However, there is little evidence that the Commission has been able to fulfil this role at all, even in an embryonic form. So far the European institutions have not begun at all to rise above the squabbles of opposed national interests.”

“The failure of the Commission to develop as an autonomous power has effectively left real power with the separate governments. But these remain under the sway of different national economic interests and political orientations. Their interaction so far has failed completely to produce the sort of single minded direction that would correspond to the needs of the advanced sections of capital seeking integration.”

In part this would seem to be a failure of the institutions to take on the most essential role of the capitalist state:

“Above all the state remains the chief means by which the capitalist class exercises its political and ideological control over the rest of society. This does not only mean repression, although it remains of crucial significance. Also involved is guaranteeing the conditions under which subordinate classes can identify with the status quo.”

“Left to themselves the rival capitalist concerns would tear society apart in their relentless search for profits. The state prevents this, in so far as it can, in the interests of continued capitalist domination. It tries to integrate the middle classes into the system by all sorts of privileges for them; it attempts to placate working class discontent by ‘welfare’ policies and the like; budgetary and other measures are used to impose some restraint on economic fluctuation and to ensure some evenness of economic development in the different regions of the country.”

While the seemingly natural workings of the capitalist market, and the widespread view that there is no alternative, is the primary ideological force imprisoning workers, nationalism is the primary means by which the subordinate classes identify with the status quo.  This allows support for a variety of policies that the state can pursue but none that involve breaking the bounds of what is defined as the national interest, and certainly none that threaten capitalism or that point to a socialist alternative.

It is the national state that continues to tax and spend and so continues to pull the levers of privilege sought by the middle class and which also form the basis of welfareist measures to placate workers.  It also still has powers to ameliorate economic fluctuations endemic to the capitalist economy and which today’s EU has been so criticised in the ‘Euro crisis’ for being unwilling or unable to introduce, at least to the extent some consider necessary, (such as quantitative easing, Eurozone debt instruments etc).

It is not quite true today that, as Harman said over 40 years ago, “the European institutions have not begun at all to rise above the squabbles of opposed national interests” but it remains true that the European project has not won the workers of Europe to identification with its institutions or ultimate objective of a European state.  This means that national political forces continue to promote nationalist solutions, or solutions premised on nationalist assumptions, which therefore create difficulties for everyone when they need to take steps that go beyond the framework of the nation state.

These difficulties can become quite acute.  In January the ‘Financial Times’ carried a long article – ‘Torn in two’ – about the Tory leader David Cameron and his decision to call an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU by 2017.  ‘The British prime minister’s ‘in-out’ EU referendum strategy  looks like it is backfiring as he is caught between the anti-Europe faction of his Conservative party and powerful business groups.’

The Eurosceptic wing of the party has grown and is now making demands that Cameron cannot satisfy and which therefore threaten British membership of the EU and the vital interests of big business that are associated with it.  It is making demands that would mean, according to former Foreign Secretary William Hague, that “the European Single Market would not work” and other demands on restricting immigration from Eastern Europe that would be illegal under EU law.

The article quotes a spokesperson for a right-wing think-tank saying that “the party is going to split, there’s no doubt about it.”  It quotes former leader John Major saying that “calling three of my colleagues bastards was absolutely unforgiveable.  My only excuse is that it was true”.  The number of bastards has grown and some in big business have become concerned.

“Bankers attending last year’s Tory conference were startled by the pervasive mood of “rabid” euroscepticism.  “It seems to me they are bending more and more to Eurosceptic concerns because of Ukip, and the more they do that , the more unhappy business will be,” says a City worker.  “Companies want better outcomes from Brussels but you don’t get it by shouting insults from the sidelines.  City lobbyists are gearing up for intensifying discussions with senior Tories.  The Square Mile realises that if it waits for the referendum to be called, it could be too late to influence the debate.”

Contrary to the Tory policy of seeking big changes to powers given over to the EU, the City of London has taken the “view that there was no need for a “repatriation of powers” but that Britain should strengthen its ties with Brussels, for example by boosting the number of UK officials working there. “There is no prospect of negotiating a better deal for Britain of any significance” says a leading City manager.”

The split in the Tory party reflects the division in its support between big business which has Britain as its main base, but Europe and the world as its field of operations, and small capitalists and reactionary middle class who need not or cannot see further than the British market and for whom a ‘little Englander’ mentality is perfectly satisfactory for their position in the world.

The dynamic development of capitalism continues to disrupt all class and political relations just as much, if not more, than its revolutionary effects so vividly captured by Karl Mark over 150 years ago in ‘The Communist Manifesto.’

This development causes problems not only for the right but also the left.  Harman writes that “of course, the development of the forces of production demands the creation of a European state. But then the development of the forces of production also demands a socialist revolution. It may well be the case that the former will take place after the latter.”

If only this were true the problems posed by it not being true would not prove such a barrier to an internationalist policy.  Harman appeared to believe that the European capitalist project would fail but so far it has not:

“Indeed, it is an important fact that there seems to be no historical precedent for the peaceful integration of different bourgeois states. A minimum of physical force has always had to be used. The examples of Germany, Italy and the US bear this out. In the modern world national ruling classes are more closely linked to national state structures than ever before. There is no certainty that such an obstacle to unity can be removed.”

On top of this the prospect of socialist revolution in Europe looks further away than it did in 1971.  The view that the problems posed by the continuing rapid development of capitalism can somehow be ignored through the immediate alternative being a programme of socialist revolution is obviously mistaken.  But how is it mistaken and how does this relate to a socialist approach to the EU?  In the next post on the ‘great debate’ I will look at what policy Harman advocated and the alternative put forward in the same issue of ‘International Socialism’ by his comrade Ian Birchall.

Two films: ‘Pride’ and ‘Tony Benn: Will and Testament’

JS45320465When Margaret Thatcher died my daughter asked me if I could recommend any books that would explain who she was and why she raised such strong views on her death.  I struggled to think of one that would convey the political issues and the raw emotion that she generated.  Even the youngest who are semi-interested in politics know that in some way that Thatcher helped shape politics today, not only in Britain but much more widely, and that at the very least she symbolises changes we are still living through.

In the last week I have watched two films that provide some way of appreciating Thatcher while also immersing one in the feelings generated at the time.  The first – ‘Pride’ – tells the story of a lesbian and gay group in London, which raised more money for miners in a South Wales valley than any other group, during the miners’ titanic strike in 1984-85 against Thatcher.  It’s rarely sentimental, the performances are wonderful and if you don’t walk out of it feeling proud that this is the side you are on then there’s no hope for you.

If you’re older then you’ll remember the struggle with pride and not a little bit of sadness.  If you were in any way involved in solidarity in this side of the Irish sea then you’ll now appreciate the importance of the struggle and perhaps realise you didn’t quite understand its importance then.  You’ll also appreciate the need for unity and solidarity of the oppressed and that only when we fight together do we make real the unity that underlies our oppression and our liberation.

Of course what you take out of any artistic creation partly depends on your own experience and you will only learn from a political film what your political understanding will allow.  Some things will stand out more than others – for me the performances of the actors, including Ben Schnetzer who plays Mark Ashton, the spokesperson for the gay and lesbian solidarity group and originally from the North of Ireland – brave and tender;  or Paddy Considine as the miners spokesperson Dai Donovan, who welcomes against opposition within his own ranks the support of the gay and lesbian group with understanding and appreciation for the bravery of the miners’ new supporters and the value of their own struggle.

Uplifting and inspiring as it is the significance of the miners’ struggle was illustrated for me by the miner’s banner that proclaimed their adherence to international workers unity and the struggle for socialism.  Of all the reference points that they had, as Welsh, as miners, workers and brothers they stated on their banner that what would always define them was international unity and socialism.  Through the strike they demonstrated in their solidarity with gay and lesbian activists from London a unity that went beyond nationality and sexual orientation to recognition of their shared and common interest in fighting oppression.

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And a miner’s banner also featured in another film – ‘Tony Benn Will and Testament’ – a documentary covering his life and political activity, including the miners’ strike and his inclusion on a new Miners’ banner.

It showed Benn narrate his personal and political life and his acceptance of his death that must have followed shortly after the film.  It shows his journey through politics and his affirmation that he moved to the left through joining government and not, as everyone else does, to the right.

He explained his determination to become an MP and change the world because of an encounter with one of the Americans involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, eventually becoming the minister responsible for the civil nuclear programme in Britain.  In this role he explained how he was completely kept in the dark about the fact that the plutonium waste used in this civil power generation was sent to supply the US nuclear weapons programme.   More widely he explains that he came to realise that while in Government he didn’t have any real control and that the Labour Party became simple managers of the system when it achieved office.

The film covers many of the class struggles in Britain over the latter half of the twentieth century, from the campaign against nuclear weapons, to  the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in, the ‘winter of discontent’ provoked by attacks on workers by the labour Government, the miners’ strike and the anti-Iraq war movement in our current century.

His bid for the Labour Party deputy leadership in 1981 against Denis Healy, which he very narrowly lost by barely 1%, does not get the attention it deserves but it does turn the spotlight on Neil Kinnock – the so-called left who abstained in the vote.  He later became leader and was leader during the miners’ strike, which he more or less also betrayed, later being rewarded with a place in the House of Lords.  A fighting leadership of the British labour movement could have made the difference between defeat and victory.  Watching the film I found myself getting angrier with him than with Thatcher, but isn’t that always the way with traitors?

He brings to attention the possibility, since the 1970s, of using North Sea oil to modernise Britain but identifies the failure to do so in the pro-big business policies of Thatcher.  Some on the left today see the possibility of modernising Scotland based on what’s left of North Sea oil. However they base this not on any lesson drawn from recent decades but on nationalist division.  The political leader they in effect followed, Alex Salmond, proclaimed that his SNP “didn’t mind the economic side so much” of Margaret Thatcher, while claiming that “the SNP has a strong social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself.”  So that puts the rest of us in our place.

I remember listening to Tony Benn speak and someone asked him about the idea that socialism could be brought about through parliament and whether the capitalist class and its system would allow such a transition without mounting a violent coup to prevent it.  Ah, he said, the Chile question, referring to exactly such an attempt to introduce reform in Chile at the beginning of the 1970s, which led to the least politically interfering military in South America mounting a coup, deposing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and murdering thousands and thousands of workers and socialists.

Unfortunately having identified the question he didn’t give an answer to it and this might seem to be the major point to highlight in a Marxist review of a film of his political testament.  And so it is.  But by his own experience and through his own words he demonstrates these lessons and the film is valuable for showing them.

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After recounting how he wanted to become an MP the film a few minutes later shows him speaking in the House of Commons – to row upon row of empty green benches.   Having had the experience of Governmental office noted above he later announced, in a line provided by his wife, that he was leaving Parliament to spend more time in politics.  We then see him on the campaign trail at meetings and demonstrations until his death this year.

So whatever his reformist words his practice in this way became the opposite of the fetishism and ‘cretinism’ of parliamentary activity for which Marxists would criticise reformist politics.

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Unfortunately today , it is the so-called Marxist left who argue that the big question is the ‘crisis of working class representation’ and pursue one electoralist intervention after another, like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fed on the most piss-poor politics that they otherwise condemn in other times or in other places.

So it is not just the young that could learn from these two films.  Very straightforward as they are in political terms, there are basic lessons to be learnt from them – the need for unity of the oppressed, workers internationalism, the futility of seeking fundamental change through capitalist parliaments or the capitalist state, and the need for class struggle.

The defeat of the miners’ strike and the experience of social-democratic politics cast a long shadow over the working class and socialist movement today.  We can learn vital lessons from them and their failure.  That we do not do so is partly because we cannot see the shadow, since it is overcast by an even darker one – that of Thatcherism and the rampage of what is now called neoliberalism.  To come out of the shadows we need to come out of both.  These two films can help us.

Thousands demonstrate for abortion rights in Ireland

DSC_0185In August it was revealed that a young rape victim had been denied the abortion she requested while apparently being led to believe that this was possible.  It came after the horrific death two years ago of Savita Halappanaver who died when she was refused an abortion.

Yesterday thousands demonstrated in Dublin to demand for abortion rights and repeal of 8th amendment to the Irish State’s constitution which enshrines this denial of women’s rights.

The march was organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign and was mainly composed of young people, overwhelmingly young women, who represent a new generation that is not prepared to quietly accept the denial of the most fundamental of rights to control their own bodies.  They are aware that increasingly they speak for the majority of people in the State and that the barrier to the vindication of their rights is the State itself, behind which stands the reactionary forces long associated with the Catholic Church.

The leaflet given out at the demonstration by its organisers pointed out that the Irish state has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.  That if a woman seeks a termination it can only be on the grounds that there is an imminent and substantial risk to the woman’s life, including suicide.  Rape is not legal grounds for an abortion, nor is the fact that a foetus will not survive outside the womb and the restrictive grounds that do exist require an assessment by up to 6 doctors.

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Many of the demonstrators pulled wheelie luggage with tags for LHR and LPL, recording the fact that 159,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1980. The latest legislation by the State is not a solution to this infamous ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’ – the temporary export of women to Britain.

The demonstration signposted the need for a new campaign to repeal the 8th amendment on the 30th anniversary of its passing, with speakers noting that most of those attending would have had no opportunity to participate in this decision.

The repeated exposure of the criminal abuse by the Catholic Church has robbed this body of much influence but it continues to retain its power though its alliance with the state and many demonstrators demanded their separation.

The campaign and others have correctly decided that the demand for repeal of this part of the State’s constitution is not a policy of reliance and dependency on the state but an effort to remove shackles on their rights and that direct, first-hand action has and will continue to be taken to provide women with real choice during unwanted pregnancies.

 

The Scottish referendum result – Part 2

ftdownload (1)In the first part of this post I noted that some ‘Yes’ voters said that their decision was not a vote for nationalism.  I said that in one sense this is very important but that in another it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because, as I explained, the objective significance of an action is often very different from the subjective intention of the person acting it out.

On the other hand subjective intentions are important because if these voters were really for social justice, and saw independence only as a means to this, then these voters are open to arguments that there is a very different and much better road to take in order to fight against austerity and for a new society, one based on internationalism and not on nationalist division.

It must be clear to such people that the referendum was deeply divisive not only between Scotland and England and Wales but also within Scotland itself.  Much has been made of the bullying of the British establishment and big business, and I will come to this, but it is also clear that big sections of Scottish nationalism ran an aggressive campaign that is incapable of seeing political questions in other than rancorous and bitter nationalist terms in which the Scottish people are either courageous or fearties, confident or scared, proud or filled with low self-esteem.  Many No voters claim to have felt intimidated.

The nationalists have lost the vote but they clearly believe the relative success of their campaign may allow them to continue to push the nationalist agenda.  Already Salmond is claiming the promises of the ‘No’ parties are a trick, and by implication calling into question the basis of the referendum result.

The promises of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were one of two factors at the end of campaign which appear to have made some difference to the vote, with this one being the most important in this respect.  It is also therefore important that the promises of these parties are carried through and that additional devolution is given to Scotland.

The purpose of this is not to make the lives of Scottish workers better.  The SNP and nationalist movement have made much of getting increased powers for the Scottish parliament but such is the political shallowness of Scottish nationalism that it hasn’t even used the powers it already has.  The SNP has refrained from increasing taxation, and spending more on state services, for the same reason the Tories in England have opposed it.  Political attitudes are not so very different north of the border.

This is not the sign of a popular movement bursting with ideas to transform Scotland into a social democratic nirvana but a cynical populist one that damns Thatcherism while stating “we didn’t mind the economic side so much”; condemning Labour for sharing platforms with the Tories while the SNP relied on them as a minority administration to stay in office, and now demanding more powers when it hasn’t used existing ones.

The main purpose of ensuring the promises are kept is to confirm the validity of the result and to stymie the nationalist project.  This project has already engendered division within Scotland but has also fanned the flames of English nationalism.  That there is nothing inherently progressive about devolution is demonstrated by the Tories attempt to compete with the nationalism of UKIP by demanding ‘English votes on English laws’ and a diminution of the role of Scottish and Welsh MPS at Westminster.

The plans being hatched by the Tories have implications for the spread of resources across the UK and most of them aren’t good.  The demand for redistribution of such resources demanded by Scottish nationalists is a game that can be played by English nationalists, although of course the former can easily see through the greed, selfishness and divisiveness of the latter.  Other people’s nationalism always looks narrow-minded and egotistical.

For Scottish workers, and for their English and Welsh brothers and sisters, the fight against austerity and for improvements in their position cannot be won either by relying on the combined promises of the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties on devolution or by deepening nationalist division within and without Scotland.  An entirely different road needs to be taken.

If, for example, the Radical Independence Campaign is sincere that independence was not a goal in itself, but only because its supporters believed it made social justice and equality easier to achieve, will it now fight as equals with workers in the rest of Britain against austerity?  Or will it divide these forces by seeking change only within Scotland?  Will it argue that English and Welsh workers should join them in a campaign or will they maintain that these workers should remain separated and do their own thing?

Do they believe that justice and equality relies on independence or that such ideals are by their very nature international ones?  Do they really believe that further nationalist demands will further workers unity or will even be successful?

Is self-determination only the right to say ‘Yes’, and just what sort of self-determination would this amount to?

If they maintain the demand for independence as a necessary part of their work against austerity then they not only cut themselves off from English and Welsh workers, they also cut themselves off from half of Scottish workers.

The second new element in the latter days of the campaign was the prominence of threats by big business in the event of a Yes vote.  The pound sterling fell in value, dropping over 2 per cent against the dollar in the days following an opinion poll showing the ‘yes’ campaign with a small lead.  A fall in the value of the currency would mean that Scottish workers would pay more for imported goods.

Five Scottish banks said they would relocate their headquarters south of the border in the event of independence.  The chair of the BT group, deputy chairman of Barclays and president of the Confederation of British Industry said independence would destabilise investment in Scotland and Aegon and Standard Life also said they would move their registered offices.

The ‘Financial Times’ (FT) reported that funds data provider EPFR had said that $672m had left UK equity funds during the week, the second biggest since its records began in 2001, and one of Germany’s biggest asset managers was going to reduce its holdings of UK equities and bonds.  Share prices were therefore falling.

The FT also reported that Trusts with investments in fixed assets in Scotland such as wind farms had been engaged in an investment strike and that corporate investors had pulled more than $14bn from 36 funds with primary operations in Scotland since January.  The FT also pointed out that big Scottish companies have more customers in England than in Scotland, such as Standard life, which has 90% of its British clients south of the border.  Seventy per cent of Scotland’s external trade is with the rest of the UK and in a survey, 65% of 200 of the City of London’s top investors believed Scotland’s economy was ‘at risk’ if it voted Yes.

The message was that in the event of  a ‘Yes’ vote big business would stop investing, would move out, tax revenues of the new state would fall, its currency would devalue and jobs would be lost.

The reaction of Alex Salmond and the SNP was revealing.  Just like its response to the UK-wide parties’ claims that they would not participate in a currency union, Salmond and the SNP did not accuse big business of bullying and threatening behaviour but of ‘scaremongering’ in a campaign orchestrated by David Cameron.

In other word big business didn’t really mean what it was saying and there was nothing to worry about – an independent Scotland would be good for them.  Of course they didn’t address the problem that it wasn’t just a matter of big business were saying but of what they were actually doing.

Salmond and the SNP could not directly challenge big business aggression because their whole case is that an independent Scotland would benefit it.  The leadership of Scottish nationalism is not anti-business, it is not ant-capitalist.  Its reaction to opposition by big business to their plans demonstrated that they are pro-capitalist, hence the weakness of their response.

The capital that supports the SNP and Scottish independence is generally small sized and there is nothing more progressive about small business with its more parochial political outlook and big business with its more global concerns.

Only one prominent independence supporter took up a different response.  Jim Sillars, a left nationalist, stated that the oil company BP would face a “day of reckoning” and nationalisation because of its opposition to independence.  However by and large the mainstream nationalist movement left him on his own and the last thing the SNP wanted were threats to business in its campaign for a business-friendly Scotland.

Not that Sillars threat was any sort of alternative.  Nationalisation would either be limited or it would produce a flight of capital.  In itself, unless there is fixed assets in the country, investment and money can move quickly out of the country and avoid nationalisation.  The Scottish State is in no position to pursue such a strategy to utmost effect and would sooner rather than later back down in the very, very unlikely event it pursued any sort of nationalisation.  The Scottish state cannot manage and operate the Scottish economy.  It would be the Soviet Union writ small.

In any case the nationalisation of the Scottish economy would not be the introduction of socialism but would rather represent a move towards national autarky with a more and more internationally isolated economy.  This is the road to regression, not to the future.  State ownership is not socialism; it is not the exercise of workers’ power.  Look at the activities of the State today?  Do Scottish workers run the state currently?  Do they have any hands –on control of it now?

The state is a strictly hierarchical structure with a bureaucracy and it is this bureaucracy that would manage and run state-owned industry under such a policy, not its workers.  That’s how all nationalised industry has worked.  In effect the state becomes the capitalist.

Real socialism on the other hand would mean BP workers owning and managing the company just as workers across the economy would own and manage their own workplaces and firms, joining together to reproduce the cooperative character of their company outside it across the wider economy.

Unfortunately the cooperative movement is currently too small and politically undeveloped to step up to the challenge of running society and the labour movement has not taken upon itself the task of making this its goal.  The sabotage of big business and the strangulation of bureaucratic state control would both produce disaster but the working class is not yet in a position to put its own rule forward as the solution.

This is nevertheless the real solution to the problems posed in the referendum debate.  The alternative to austerity is a new social system that priorities the satisfaction of social needs and not private profitability.  The answer to the demand for a democracy that satisfies the demands of the majority is a society where this majority controls society itself, not seeks the promises of career politicians to do it all for them.

Only a state structure and apparatus that isn’t separated from workers but whose management and control is a part of their working lives can end the subordination of working people to the bureaucratic state.  A country that really is ‘ours’ can only exist where the productive infrastructure of society that satisfies it varied needs is owned directly by society itself and directly managed by it.

The possibility that such a society can exist is demonstrated by existing cooperative production.  What such production needs is its extension, its politicisation by socialists and the creation of a new workers’ cooperative State that protects this form of production.

It is ironic that Monday’s ‘Financial Times’ contained an article in the Fund Management section of that paper which was headlined ‘power to the (working) people works’.  This provided evidence that even financial asset investment it is firms that are majority owned by their workers or have some form of workers’ ownership that perform best.

Rather than seeking a new capitalist state as the answer, the lesson of the referendum is that the most impressive power comes from working people themselves when they begin to organise.  Instead of falling in behind any variety of nationalism working people should set out a programme that advances and develops their own power so that one day it is their own independent power that becomes the alternative.