“Were you watching the election last night?” the doorman asked me when I walked into work on Friday morning.
“Yeah, five more years of Tory cuts”, I answered disconsolately.
“They’re all the same”, he said.
A common enough view. Certainly the view of the left who stood for election, hoping for a vote while realistically knowing that they had no chance of being elected and discounting the effect of taking votes away from the Labour Party.
But not the view of others.
‘The Guardian’ reported that once the result became clear bank shares went up as the threat of more restrictive regulation receded and higher taxes on bankers’ bonuses loomed less large.
Around £1billion was added to the value of the energy company Centrica with the disappearance of the prospect of tougher rules in the energy sector. The share value of companies that provide outsourced services (privatisation to you and me) also rose, as did those of Sports Direct, whose shares rose by £95m without a Labour threat to their use of zero hours contracts.
“Enquiries came in just after midnight” said one London estate agent, from prospective clients who no longer had to ‘worry’ about Labour’s ghastly mansion tax. Even bookmakers did well, with Ladbrokes share value rising as the plan to crack down on fixed odds betting terminals, the ‘crack cocaine’ of the industry, disappeared, as Labour’s promise of a crackdown became a ripped up betting slip.
But the report in the ‘Financial Times’ on Saturday put it best, beginning its article like this. .
“. . as the surprise exit poll results came in shortly after 10pm on Thursday night, the mood in the Cavalry and Guards club on Piccadilly turned from funereal to one of incredulous celebration.”
“Earlier in the evening , diners at the Mayfair gentlemen’s club had wallowed in gallows humour as they declared that the election result could mark a fin d’époque for the wealthy in London. . . This stiff upper lip turned to genuine joy as it transpired that the fortunes of the Conservative party had exceeded both the opinion polls and the party’s wildest dreams.”
“This could turn into the biggest celebration ever”, said one Tory supporter. . “We can cancel the removal vans. Non-doms watching the exit polls are unpacking their bags”, said his friend.”
All overstated of course, but those who won’t acknowledge any truth in the report are blowing out of the wrong end.
In some ways I find such reports reassuring. The super-rich, the real capitalist class, are daily invisible and even the reports of their reaction to the result are through their minions who sell their shares for them or sell them houses or advise them and the rest of us that higher taxes for the rich are a jolly bad thing.
These reports reveal the existence and power of those behind the system, who benefit most from its inequality, and provide glimpses of the class structure within the capitalist mode of production.
While the thought of champagne-popping celebrations in London gentlemen’s’ clubs are valuable because they provide an instinctive and visceral view of what the election victory means it really is no more than that. The existence and power of the capitalist class, which can appear rather abstract and esoteric in Marxist analysis, is impersonal and largely invisible not only because we don’t run across the mega-rich every day but because it is the system itself which is the problem. The super-rich are just the personalised expression of the social relations of the system, just as the rich hangers-on of these people such as the estate agents, city dealers and tax advisors represent themselves as the appearance of their mega-rich clients.
Understanding the system and how it works and what the alternative to it is are therefore fundamental. Understanding the class nature of society and what side you’re on is what’s called class consciousness and it is oddly reassuring that at least one section of society understands theirs.
However the impersonal and systematic nature of capitalism makes this difficult for workers and in so far as they do recognise their own interests this is often expressed in distorted ways. Sometimes very distorted ways, as shown in the election results.
So a lot of the explaining of the election result takes off from the appearance that, for example, Miliband was a bit of a geek and Cameron much more Prime Ministerial. While Sturgeon, a career politician in the Scottish parliament since 1999, is genuine and sincere and not like the other career politicians; one who could be trusted not so much despite the record of the SNP in Government but sometimes in more or less total ignorance of it.
At only a slightly more sophisticated level of analysis it is claimed that the election was lost because Labour did not have a coherent narrative. They allowed the Tories to get away with lying that the recession was a ‘Labour recession’ caused by excessive Government spending instead of a financial crisis that affected the world. They had a confused message that promised to reduce the deficit but also to protect public services and they appeared to both stand for and not stand for robust social-democratic politics. All very true of course but hardly convincing by itself.
After all, if Labour sent mixed messages the Tory story was beyond belief. They waved the big scary deficit monster in everyone’s faces while promising to pass a law that appeared to prevent them from putting up taxes.
They were going to cut welfare, and not in a nice way either, but nobody would really get hurt, or rather they refused to say who would get hurt. They had done it before they said and therefore could be relied upon to do it again. Their record spoke for itself they said, except their record on welfare cuts didn’t at all support their claims.
While the deficit was their number one priority and hard choices had to be made they were still going to cut taxes and give the NHS an increase of £8 billion! Was anyone supposed to believe this rubbish?
If they looked like they were confident of winning, while almost no one believed they would, it had to be because Eton and all the other posh schools they go to teach smarmy self-confidence and born to rule self-belief, while their management of the economy would appear to reflect that PPE at Oxford now means a piss poor education.
At a more persuasive level it has been argued that the improving economy allowed the Tories to claim that their austerity policies were working, and Labour appeared to have no convincing rebuttal to such claims. In some respects therefore the Tories got lucky. The recent upturn is very likely to be very temporary as the most recent figures for economic growth herald the downturn to come. The recent upturn has therefore been based on short-term cyclical movements and one-off factors.
To really be able to rebut the Tories on this point would therefore have required a more advanced understanding of economic development than Labour was ever going to argue for, and frankly a more advanced understanding than many workers show themselves ready for at the moment.
It is nevertheless true, that despite these problems, the fact is that for many austerity has not ‘worked’ and has still led to the longest period of falling living standards for a very long time regardless of the latest limited improvement.
Finally it has been argued that the Labour party was caught between competing nationalisms in Scotland and England. This would appear obvious but if you really believed the claims of the SNP it’s not. This is because the SNP stated that the general election was not about independence. They stated this because despite all the hype, the SNP lost the referendum, they might lose it again if they tried to have another one soon and they know they have perhaps only one more chance. The sharp drop in the price of oil since the last one means the independence sums don’t add up.
Dear Irish Marx,
I am responding to your ‘alternatives to capitalism”, not to the election 2015.
Problem: the conundrum of working class consciousness: as old as Marx, Lenin, Mao and Fidel etc., yet tantalizing.
More problems with consciousness: spontaneity or vanguard Marx-Leninism? Also, as old as the hills…Marx collapsed the First International because of Bakunin’s anarchists determination to label Marx a ‘dictator’ and a ‘statist’ etc.
More problems with working class consciousness: Engel’s softer parliamentary road, evolutionary Bernsteinism, Kautsy’s social democracy. Or must there be real revolutionary vanguard agitation ? Or, will capitalism just collapse under its own contradiction pushed by way of sluggish working class resistance?
More problems: Philosophers and politicians and many well meaning Marxists ‘interpret’ the world, but we all know that it must be changed by deeds! Where does the working class fit into this? It seems its suffering from permanent ‘trade unionism’ and voting for insane wars, ruling class leaders etc..
It seems to me, the present economic crisis requires more creativity, determination from left leadership. The working class does not require any more ‘misleaders’ than it already has.
I like your careful and studied analysis of Marx. You try to get Marx right!
I think the careful and studied Marxists like yourself need to form international corresponding societies (not just blogs) to carefully learn to co-ordinate ‘international’ working class strategies and actions. (the internet may not be the safest and best tool: Snowden’s revelations come to mind.)
An Idea: a Universal List of grievances, a la the cahiers prior to the French Revolution. The cahiers would be collected and constantly presented to ‘national’ governments and the U.N.
Workers need to learn that their demands can be a force, that they can create demands that will be universal and applicable to workers internationally in their struggles: not just wages, hours etc, but also ‘revolutionary’ demands.
I am going to stop here but maybe your can give me a response?
Thank you for your comments which I am sure you understand cover a lot of ground I couldn’t possibly give a comprehensive response to. However to take up two of your points.
I am in favour of collaboration on this site and am open to other contributors. I do not want to be the only purveyor of articles on Marx street!
As regards compiling a list of grievances, my articles on Marx’s alternative are precisely to argue that the left’s emphasis on grievance, on opposition – to austerity for example – does not encompass what is central to Marxism, which is precisely his idea of an alternative. One that is contained in current circumstances but that should be developed as the positive alternative to capitalism.
One example of the application of such an understanding is the current right wing claim that the British Labour party is not the party of the aspirations that most workers have. It is characterised as the party of the lazy benefit recipients. All right wing nonsense designed to divide the working class but it is also a completely inaccurate view of the socialist view.
The socialist alternative is not bigger benefits but jobs and not just good jobs but workers ownership of the workplaces they have those jobs in. It means bigger and stronger trade unions so that wages can be defended and reliance on welfare top-ups reduced. It means real workers parties that are seen as part of the community.
The early workers movement was precisely the movement of workers aspiring for a better life through new unions, cooperative societies, friendly societies and educational structures. The early workers movement provided the opportunity for workers to develop not just politically but also culturally, also providing means to protect themselves from the ravages of the boom and bust economic system through their own insurance. The socialist movement contained the aspirations of the working class.
Much of these services have been taken over by the capitalist state and workers have become dependent on this state – the grain of truth in right wing claims of a dependency culture – so that the workers movement is forever demanding that the capitalist state do all sorts of good things it could not possibly do.
Marx’s alternative was that workers should liberate themselves. He rejected illusions in the capitalist state and did not believe socialism could arise from it. If only many of those today proclaiming to be Marxist understood this the socialist movement would be a lot stronger.
The point is not therefore to find the right demands of the state but to build an alternative to it that can one day be strong enough to overthrow it.
I listened to the response of a handful of people to the election victory of the Tories. The common theme was that the English are selfish and immoral, lacking a social conscience. This of course is the expression of a Irish nationalist prejudice, one that my well include the opinions of many Scots and Welsh. I attempted to refute the opinion by pointing out that the vote for the Labour party went up in London. My acquaintances responded with the line that the London vote was largely an ethnic minority vote and they don’t count as English. I said, well the vote for Labour in the North East of England held up, the response was that the people of Newcastle and Sunderland are a bit more like us but they are a disappearing minority. What the conversation shows is a nationalists prejudice but also something just as important, a lack of political conscientiousness. I say conscientiousness rather than the Marxist class consciousness which is something else. There is a reluctance to go beyond the merest impression, to question and investigate the truth of the matter. This kind of thoughtlessness is rife with the working class. A third of the population, mostly drawn from the working class would rather not bother to vote so as to avoid having to conscientiously think and investigate important things. There are those on the far left who are already putting a positive spin on the fact that so many did not bother to vote( world socialist web site). It is a sign of the decay of bourgeois democracy, those who did not vote or participate in any way are the street wise. I think the working class will have to become a lot more conscientiousness and thoughtful about many everyday things before it is capable of taking on in struggle the capitalist ruling class. The working class should not be above criticism when it is deserving of it.There have been times in the past when the working class was more thoughtful than it is today.
1. Labour lost this election in 2010. They lost it when Gordon Brown stood down like a football manager whose team had failed to win the championship, rather than the leader of a political party. Harold Wilson suffered a surprise election loss in 1970, but stayed on to win two elections in 1974. They lost the election in 2010, when they allowed themselves to be blown along by the austerity message that the Tories had only just discovered. That together with the fact that Labour was engaged in a prolonged period of navel gazing to elect a new leader, meant they could not counter the developing Tory narrative that the crisis had been caused by Labour overspending.
2. Even after Miliband was elected, there was no attempt to seriously challenge the overspending narrative. If you allow the opposition to blame you for the past, and fail to challenge fairly easily exposed lies, then you will be in a very weak position to develop a narrative of your own, because you will spend all of your time on the defensive responding to the narrative of the opposition. The lies needed to be nailed and kept nailed five years ago. Labour should do that now, or face the same problem over the next five years. They have made that more difficult by Miliband standing down.
3. A similar situation exists in relation to Scotland. You could not deal with the problems for Labour in Scotland in a few weeks before the election. Nor can the problems in Scotland be resolved in the way social democracy usually does, by creating a diplomatic solution. The problem Labour has faced is that workers in Scotland have generally been attracted to a more traditional left-wing stance than workers in England, or more specifically South-East England. Blairism responded to that not by devising a robust social democratic strategy that based itself on aspiration for workers to improve their condition whether they lived in Scotland or Surrey, but by retaining a right-wing social democratic stance for England, whilst buying off Scotland with devolution, so that it could pretend to be operating under a more traditional social-democratic regime. Instead it simply encouraged the idea that the interests of Scottish workers could then be furthered even more, by a more extensive separation.
4. Cameron and Osbourne got lucky with the timing of the current downturn of the short run cycle. It started late last year, and the full impact has only just begun to appear. However, let me be clear about what I see in the immediate future. The short run cycle is due to turn up again around September, giving another two years of more rapid economic growth. The measures the Tories have taken have undermined Britain’s ability to benefit from that, and if they were to actually follow through on their austerity measures, they will send it further into the tank. However, if the economy does begin to turn up towards year end, especially with a more general global upturn, even if the Tories carry out austerity measures, the economy could still grow. But, my guess is that, as Andrew neill said yesterday, now elected, if the economy does start to grow, a lot of the austerity measures will be quietly dropped. The IFS has already showed that Labour could have balanced the budget by the end of the Parliament, without making ANY further cuts.
My belief is that the underlying long wave global boom creates the conditions for growth. Its the imposition of austerity measures that have held it back over the last five years. I expect the underlying objective conditions to force their way through. Britain will perform poorly compared to more dynamic economies – as it did in the 1950’s/60’s – but it is still likely to grow. I believe another global financial crash, much bigger than 2008, is inevitable, not because of economic weakness, but because of economic strength. A growth in the real economy, will increase the demand for money-capital, at a time when the supply of money-capital is declining for various reasons – the loss of surplus profits in oil and primary product producing countries, a slow down in productivity as the new technologies developed in the 1980’s stops being able to replace labour on the same scale, and start being a cause of increasing demand for labour as capital expands extensively rather than intensively, a consequent rise in wages (already being seen in the rise of wages in the US even in places like Wal-Mart), all of which reduces the realised rate of profit.
The rise in interest rates, some of which has already been seen in sharp rises in bond yields in various emerging market economies, and is now being seen in US and European bond yields, and has prompted talk of the bursting of the bond bubble, by people like Bill Gross, and so on, necessarily causes a crash of the prices of financial assets, because yields and asset prices are inversely related. For the same reason, property prices crash, because the price of land is based upon capitalised rent. A collapse of financial asset prices has happened on every previous occasion at this point of the long wave cycle, for the reasons set out above. The crisis of 2008 was not resolved, because instead of addressing the question of capital and solvency, it was simply postponed by the infusion of liquidity. That has just made things worse.
In 2007/8, UK official interest rates were at around 6% and rising. Today they are near zero. The option of disguising the crisis by printing money and slashing official interest rates no longer exists. A financial crash that craters property prices etc. will completely undermine the material base upon which the money capitalists, and conservatism rests. But, that collapse will create the conditions for a growth of big industrial capitalism, and of social democracy resting upon it.