Where does the current political crisis put the left? I can’t remember a time when it has been so divided, not only over the causes of a crisis but what to do about it. Brexit, Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war have all contributed, as have years of printing money. Yet many on the left have supported Brexit, demanded more severe lockdowns, supported war and western sanctions, and it even has its fair share of proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.
Even the minimum of policies raises division: against austerity includes opposition to energy price increases, which can be solved by ending support for war and removing sanctions. Opposition to the threats to workers living standards, and attacks on democratic rights opened up by the threats of removing EU laws, can be advanced by opposing Brexit. This means giving focus to the awareness of the majority that Brexit has failed, by explaining the purpose of re-joining the EU.
The Labour Party isn’t going to fight for these because it has, like some on the left, supported all the steps that got us here. Some on the left have therefore said that it is better to face a weakened Tory government than a stronger Labour one committed to more or less the same agenda, so we shouldn’t call for a general election.
There are things wrong with this, although it has the merit of admitting that the left is chronically weak. This should give it pause to recognise just how close, or rather how far away, it is to leading any revolutionary change, and to considering just what the preconditions for this would be.
Opposition to the call for a general election may reveal the belief that your alternative is weak but the weakness of your enemy will not make up for it. Labour support for ‘balancing the books’, and therefore austerity, can easily permit their implementation by Sunak if he introduces the odd seemingly ‘fair’ implementation of pain, which would also prevent Labour from shouldering the blame. The effect of further Tory mistakes and division could either be to encourage opposition to austerity or usher in a Starmer government essentially wedded to the same project.
Calls for a general election to kick out the Tories should not be opposed but since we know that it’s not nearly enough the left should concentrate not on this but on what Marx would have called the momentary interests of the working class as well as its future.
This means supporting and generalising the strikes workers are taking to defend their living standards. It means politicising them, including with the demand to bring down the Tories with the purpose of also setting the expectations that will be placed on any alternative Government, including a Labour one. It means organising in the trade unions to make them more democratic, which is easier to do when workers are engaged in union activity, and building the grounds for longer term rank and file activity. It means similar activity in the Labour Party, and since this is mainly a defensive struggle against the leadership, it means defending existing rights and supporting the very few potential candidates who will get to stand in an election that support working class action.
If it is argued that the Labour Party is dead then such a view must be tested by the activity that can be organised within it; by the possibility of activating members and recruiting others through the strikes that are taking place, and some proof that the lessons of numerous attempts to organise a party outside it have been learnt. It’s not enough to say that numerous battles have been lost if it is not clear to thousands of Labour members that the war inside it is over and definitively lost. It’s not enough to propose some party that does not exist to something you claim is dead but will in some way have to be recognised as very much alive for millions who will vote for it.
Unity on the left is not enough. There is no point blindfolding ourselves to Brexit, which cannot, like Starmer hopes, simply be parked, but has to be opposed. Those who have supported it show no sign of recognising their mistake when it stares them in the face. Likewise, what is the point of demanding protection from the enormous increase in energy prices while supporting war and the sanctions that make it inevitable? The political struggle against these disastrous positions must continue.
The left, both in Britain and Ireland has put forward actions that the state must implement to address these problems: through nationalisation of energy companies, windfall taxes or price caps, increased state spending and taxation of the rich. All of these rely on the state doing what the working class needs to do itself, and the state doesn’t exist for this purpose. We have all just been given a huge lesson on who really controls society and what they are prepared to do even to a pro-capitalist Government that doesn’t play by its rules.
Nationalisation will not gain control over the supply of gas and oil so nationalising retail companies (known as suppliers in the industry) will not reduce prices; and you can’t nationalise companies in other countries. This is also the case in Ireland, where much of the industry is already nationalised. You certainly can’t nationalise Russian gas, but you can pay a lower price for it, if you argue it’s generally good practice to buy from the cheapest supplier.
You can’t continue to increase workers income from state payments to make up for inflation when the financial markets won’t even support unfunded tax cuts for the rich. While it’s an acceptable propaganda demand to increase taxation on the rich you won’t be able to make this the answer to the crisis. The underlying weakness of British capitalism is set to continue worsening, especially outside the EU, and redistribution of the tax burden isn’t going to change this.
The Tories have already overturned proposals to reverse corporation tax increases and there comes a point where significant increases would simply amount to a form of state capitalism, and one that is to the benefit of workers! That’s not the society we live in, or one that could possibly exist. Income taxes on the rich require a government to legislate it; require a capitalist class to accept it without shifting its incomes abroad, and a state willing to implement it. The British tax authorities have proved time and time again their willingness to indulge tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and the rich. Tax incentives are as much a part of the code as levies and these always apply to the rich; workers don’t need an incentive to work since it’s the only way they can afford a tolerable or decent standard of living.
The recent crisis of the British state’s creditworthiness was caused not by proposed tax cuts for the rich but by increased debt caused by income payments during the pandemic, and early predictions of a £150 billion bill for energy supports to energy companies in lieu of consumers paying. The idea that the financial markets will accept lending money to fill any gap left after screwing Britain’s rich, so that the incomes of the working class can be protected, ignores the political interests of the players involved in these markets. At the very least increased interest rates would be demanded if steps along this road were taken, which means they would get their pound of flesh one way or the other.
It makes no sense to offer alternatives that depend on actions by the state when you also argue any possible government won’t introduce them. To paraphrase Marx again, the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself. So must the fight against austerity, the defence of living standards and against war.
Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services. If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.
This means that the income of the working class comes overwhelmingly from wages and if these are being reduced through inflation the correct response is to increase them, including through strikes. The working class in many countries is now in the fortunate position of being in a period of low unemployment where it can take advantage of its position in the labour market to organise, demand wage increases and fight for them. The longer term perspective is to take ownership of the means of production, and thus of the goods and services produced, so it can determine the distribution of the incomes derived from their use and sale. In this it will obviously come up against the state determined to defend the rights of existing ownership.
It should be axiomatic for the left that the benevolence of the state is not the answer. It takes the workers’ own money and then decides how much of it to give back, to whom and for what purpose. It also borrows, then taxes workers to repay the borrowing. In all this it buys the goodwill of workers with their own money, pretending it is that of the government. The problem of lack of income then becomes one of demanding that the state gives you more, in the form of lower taxes, higher welfare and pensions, payments for not working (as in Covid) or subsidies to pay energy bills.
This analysis derives from very basic understandings derived from Marxism that many of its adherents accept in theory only to forget in practice. The failure produces a phenomenon not unknown to Marx.
It produces an inverted reality in which workers seek salvation in actions by the instrument of their subordination. It illustrates the grain of truth in accusations of the right that welfare dependency creates a culture of dependency, of which the politics of much of the left is a demonstration. It is indeed ironic that the right often betrays a better appreciation of the role of the state than many self-described socialists.
This state-centred socialism has resulted in support for Brexit because it is believed that somehow the British state can be relied upon to be more progressive than any European one, and can become the vehicle to introduce socialism.
It fuelled demands for more stringent lockdowns during the pandemic because the state can miraculously give people money to buy goods and services it then prevents them from making and providing.
It now results in support for a notoriously corrupt capitalist state and its armed forces because it supposedly embodies the interests of Ukrainian workers; indeed the workers of the world, even while it acts on behalf of the most powerful states, together forming what is customarily called imperialism.
From all this we can see that the task of the left in assisting the British working class in the current political crisis needs some work itself. A lot of work.
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