Recognising Unionist rights?

A Belfast bus burning on the Shankill Road

The recent riots in the North of Ireland have been described as the worst for some years.  It is not that they are particularly large or violent.  In fact, they have been localised and rather small, many rioters being not much more than children. Some have arisen from loyalist groups more involved in criminality than politics and kicking back at policing too effective for their liking.

So why the concern?  The first is that they might get out of control and gather momentum.  The summer is the traditional unionist marching season so there will be plenty of opportunities for disturbances.  This is especially the case now that the state is going to have to relax the Covid lockdown.  A second is concern that the Boris Johnson Government is not considered to have the skills to pacify the situation, or may even have reasons to keep the pot boiling.

It is his betrayal of the unionists in his ‘fantastic’ – ‘oven-ready’ – Brexit deal that has been the main reason for the eruption of unionist anger.  If the definition of stupidity is believing anything he says then the Democratic Unionist Party has shown itself to be the dumbest of the dumb.  Yet even now their leaders call on him to do the right thing and scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union; something with much bigger ramifications for the British state than riots in Ireland.

The placing down the Irish Sea of the inevitable trade border arising from Northern Ireland staying in the EU Single Market is, as unionists claim, a clear separation of it from Great Britain, even if nationalists and others claim it has no constitutional significance.  Its maintenance would be a reverse for unionism and cause for demoralisation.  While the same barriers are in place between Britain and the Irish State, the effect is to encourage further North-South economic integration.  This, however, is of most significance from a longer term perspective and the Brexit deal excludes services, where it might be expected that the British and EU economies might diverge, with possible similar effects between the two states in Ireland.

The leader of the DUP Arlene Foster started off the year more or less accepting the NI Protocol and pointing out that Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets gave it certain advantages in terms of trade and foreign investment.  The more bitter DUP MPs, such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, nevertheless continued to denounce the betrayal, perhaps all the more so because they had been personally associated with being taken for fools.  Leaked minutes of a DUP meeting appeared to indicate that at least some DUP members had about as much respect for these figures as many of us outside.

Which brings us to one of the more immediate causes of unionist agitation.  As pointed out in a previous post the main cause for the swift change of direction by the whole DUP and its titular leader was an opinion poll showing significant loss of support to the even more rabidly militant Traditional Unionist Voice.  When the NI Director of Prosecutions recommended no prosecution of Sinn Fein members following their attendance en masse at an IRA leader’s funeral, and their apparent breach of Covid-19 restrictions, it proved to be the spark that lit the fire.

But this too, while causing understandable unionist anger, is largely a confection.  Unionists condemned the DPP decision but blamed the police when it was the police who had recommended prosecution.  Unionists have lighted upon liaison between the police and Sinn Fein before the funeral as a reason given by the DPP for likely inability to prosecute, but such liaison is not unusual.

The other reason given by the DPP was the Covid regulations themselves and their unfitness for the purpose of successful prosecution.  But it was the DUP (and Sinn Fein) who were responsible for drafting these regulations and if they could not be prosecuted it is yet another example of their incompetence.  Much of the consequences of Brexit and of the fall-out from the Bobby Storey funeral can therefore be laid at the door of the DUP. Far better for someone else to be the target of loyalist anger than themselves.

Arlene Foster called for the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to resign and refused to meet him, although then did so since she had previously met the loyalist paramilitaries; while the leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party joined in calling for his resignation but could not explain in a radio interview what he had done wrong.  Meanwhile, the first loyalist riot in Belfast against this failure to prosecute lack of social distancing at the republican funeral took place in the same area in which a loyalist funeral in September had failed to do exactly the same thing.

In a sense none of this incoherence matters, reactionary causes don’t have to be coherent, they just have to be reactionary. The charge levied by unionism is that everyone else doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate their anger, and doesn’t acknowledge that their ‘British identity’ is being undermined.  Since this amorphous charge is without any clear definition it becomes whatever unionism says it is. What is being claimed is that anything unionism doesn’t like is undemocratic, and the more it is upset the more undemocratic it is, and the less everyone else understands.

So what unionism wants is what it wants and deserves to get.  The Northern State was set up for them and it should fulfil its role of satisfying the majority whose existence it is for.  Since its position has historically been one of sectarian privilege and supremacy this should continue to be bolstered, and any attempt to undermine it is undemocratic and sectarian itself.  The nationalist demands for respect, tolerance and equality apply to unionism in equal measure, which means respect for its reactionary culture, tolerance of its sectarian practices and obeisance to its supremacist demands.  The current political arrangements in the North of Ireland are supposedly based on these values, to be shared by nationalists and unionists alike, making it obvious why they aren’t working.

We who live here however are expected to bow down before unionist demands and recognise the failure to offer unionism what is its due, so that we must sympathise with its turmoil and incoherence.  We are supposed to accept the democratic rights of bigots on the basis that there are a lot of them.  Fortunately, the world is a much bigger place and it is possible to imagine that the limits of political change are not defined by sectarian reactionaries, no matter how locally numerous they may be.

While forecasts of an imminent border poll and of a potential united Ireland are premature, the already existing growth of the non-unionist defining section of the population no longer allows unionism to constrain all political development and change.  Even the attempt to share out resources, privileges and rights along sectarian lines has proven unstable, although without yet the maturation of forces to make it fall over.

Socialists should acknowledge that the death of sectarianism, and the forces that defend it and promote it, will not be painless and will not be entirely peaceful.  In the next post I will look at renewed proposals to conciliate this sectarianism.  In the meantime we should not support compromise with sectarian reaction, if only on the grounds that it does not work.  What progress there has been even within Northern Ireland, has come from denying unionist demands and opposing its demonstrations and threats.  Socialism or any sort of democratic settlement will not come without the defeat of unionism, the more demoralised it is the easier and less violent its demise will be.

The basis of socialist internationalism

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – part 34

The previous post argued that capitalism continues to develop the forces of production while at the same time, in a contradictory process, continuing to fetter their development. This process opens the road to a new society of completely socialised productive forces, or socialism.  In order to reach it a certain level of development of the productive forces is necessary, which requires that this transformation take place internationally.

This is so because capitalism has long ago developed not only a world market but also, through the continuing socialisation of production, developed an international division of labour.  It therefore follows that the development of socialism in any single country cannot be achieved from an inferior level of development and cannot do so on its own.  While the overthrow of capitalism may first occur in a single country, the creation of socialism will face insuperable barriers and without further international development will fail.

Many analyses treat the development of the forces of production as a technological question or from a purely economic perspective, separate from consideration of class struggle or politics, divorced from the latter to the extent that they form a purely background enabling condition long since achieved.  This arises partly from the influence of Stalinism, for which purely national roads to socialism are already part of the ‘theory’, and partly from those Trotskyists for whom this constraint is no longer strictly binding because of a one-sided application of the theory of permanent revolution, positing that the tasks of capitalist development may and can, rather unproblematically, be taken forward by a working class regime due to the weakness of native capitalism.

The theory of permanent revolution is taken to have relaxed somewhat the constraint on possible socialist progress at a purely national level, while the decades of capitalist development since its first elaboration have actually tightened the constraint on the potential evolution of a country separated from the capitalist international division of labour.

In this theory the development of productive forces must be considered as a whole, at the level of the world, and at this level capitalism is ripe for socialism.  It is correctly recognised that for any revolution in a single country to survive it must spread.  However, because this revolution is considered mainly in political terms the grounds for socialist revolution as a social transformation engendered by the social power of the international working class is not fully appreciated.  The social power of the working class includes its role in the international division of labour, which provides the grounds for its political as well as economic unity, and is the basis for overcoming the much more uneven and volatile development of political struggles across the world that might otherwise leave working class political revolution isolated in a single country.

For many, socialist revolution is wrongly considered as implying that the task is simply one of destroying a system that is already historically decaying without consideration of the implications of its continuing development for a working class that is far from being able to impose its own solution.  This approach believes that capitalism is declining in a historic sense, evidenced by economic crises and general stagnation, along with other pathological conditions that are all held to be derived from decline.

Such conceptions become a dogma that is a given, and within which every malignant social and political phenomenon is interpreted and becomes an example thereof and not as more or less endemic expressions of the system.  While the laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx have produced results, ironically they are treated as if they no longer operate, which means his analysis in effect no longer applies.  So capitalism is no longer considered to revolutionise society by developing the forces of production and, despite all evidence to the contrary, is conceived as being in stagnation or perpetual crisis.  What we are left with is a dogmatic Marxism that ironically facilitates a political practice seemingly at odds with such an approach.

The effect is to reduce analysis to the level of immediate political struggle with an empirical approach to events.  As all the fundamental factors for socialism are considered to already be in place it encourages short-termism and an opportunist approach.  This does not necessarily mean that the wrong position is taken on any immediate political question but it does mean that even when the right one is taken it is not securely grounded.

If we consider the reality of the continued development of the international forces of production, we are forced to reject the nationalist perspectives of earlier left conceptions and their more recent expressions and inspirations.

For example, in this corner of the world there is no ‘British road to socialism’ and no way forward through attempts to constrain the dynamic of class struggle within national limits through a ‘left’ Brexit.  There is nothing progressive about some sort of Scotland of a ‘common weal’ that is common only to a select nationality and which believes social equality can be created within the boundaries of this small European country.  There can be no emancipation and liberation of the Irish working class – through pursuit of some mythical ‘real’ independence of the Irish nation in a Workers’ Republic – that is not part of a successful international revolution.

What all these have in common is that the international development of the forces of production makes all their struggles for national separation on supposedly progressive grounds utopian, and if they are utopian they will fail.  Whether they apparently achieve short term political success or not doesn’t matter in the end, fundamental economic and social forces will crush their promises, although these promises will long be abandoned by its sponsors before this happens.  The apparent victory of nationalism in the twentieth century and its defeat of its great ideological rival socialism hasn’t prevented the continuing International development of capitalism against which nationalist measures are impotent.  Only an international political arrangement can adequately address the governance of an international economy as capitalism already acknowledges (through the IMF, WTO, UN, NAFTA, G10, EU, ASEAN, BIS, OECD etc.)  and the only consistent International ideology and political programme is socialism.

If the Soviet Union could not develop a superior society to capitalism despite its size and resources, and if Britain cannot develop a superior capitalism to the EU, today bleeding from a thousand cuts that are barely reported, then the idea, for example, of Ireland or Scotland creating oases of social equality are fanciful.

The conditions for social equality cannot exist because the forces of production necessary for them, for socialism, must exceed the development of these forces under capitalism.  The productivity of labour and the most advanced techniques of production must go beyond that currently achieved by capitalism through its particular socialisation of production at the international level.  It is not a question of resisting and turning back what is now called globalisation but transforming the relations of production and the political determinations of these globalised productive forces.

The productiveness of any single country can no longer encompass all the goods and services considered as necessary consumption in the most advanced capitalist countries, in fact in all countries.  Inferior productivity than the most developed capitalism will see workers in any isolated regime buy goods and services from capitalist countries, so undermining their own economy and empowering capitalist industry to out-compete it.  It will see workers seek higher levels of living standards in capitalist countries, which their higher productivity delivers, by moving to these countries.

Only increased productivity can undermine the requirement for differential reward as an incentive to work, while this incentive will meanwhile exacerbate inequality.  Whatever the intentions, or the more democratic relations of production in any progressive departure from capitalism, superior capitalist forces of production will destroy such a departure if based on a narrow nationalist basis.  This is but a negative formulation of the earlier posts in this series emphasising the role of the forces of production determining – by bringing about, or in this case preventing – the development of new relations of production.

Of course, attempts at preventing all this can be made by administrative measures.  By curbing the entry into the country of cheaper goods produced by the more advanced capitalist countries and by reducing the supply of their new products and services.  By preventing investment in the country by capitalist firms and by restricting freedom to move to these countries of workers seeking a better life.  But how would this be possible if this society is ruled by the workers themselves?  How could they restrict their own freedoms if they are in charge?

These administrative measures would have to be imposed from without, and the mechanism for doing so is the state.  Since some workers would already have partially bought into this – if the project they supported was to create a new and separate ‘progressive’ state – they might at least initially support sacrifices and restrictions on freedoms, while others would not.  Those who would support them would seek reward for supporting the new state. Either by compulsion or reward the new ‘progressive state’ would generate its own inequality and its own restrictions of freedoms required to support this inequality – all in the name of progress and equality!  We have seen this film before and we know how it ends.

It is more than unfortunate that this understanding of the grounds for socialism elaborated by Marx and Engels have to be argued for again today, rather than having been forgotten, ignored of wilfully distorted or rejected by many of their so-called adherents.  The importance of internationalism and of embracing the interests of the working class as a whole was set out over 170 years ago:

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”  (The Communist Manifesto)