Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

What way forward for the Dublin Bus workers?

482013-dublin-bus-strike-members-of-siptu-and-3-630x484In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m.  Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.

From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative.  ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management.  It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.

This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves –  the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”.  But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.”  In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.

And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”

To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.

ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.

ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise?  Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?

ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society.  Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.

ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.

ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.

ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.

When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking.  But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves.  So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.

Do socialists have an alternative?

The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands.  The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.

In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party.  This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years.  And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed.  In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.

These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant.  If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian.  Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.

On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.

In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement.  Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do?  We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.

So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?

First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.

Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough.  As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans.  Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces.  In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.

Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?

The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done.  This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.

The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.

The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service.  Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions.  Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position.  Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented.  That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.

The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public.  Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days.  Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.

It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract.  Only a really existing movement could make them anything else.  Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine.  They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them.  Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at.  Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.

The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.

One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU.  The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.

Why have the Irish not revolted?

Public-service-workers-st-006The defeat of the opposition to the property tax and the ability of the Government to impose a second Croke Park austerity deal might lead many to conclude that resistance to austerity has been defeated.  Even before this many have commented that while Greece has witnessed violent protests and numerous general strikes the absence of such events from Ireland is notable and remarkable.  General strikes have also taken place in Spain and Portugal but not in the Irish State.

The relative electoral success of the United Left Alliance appeared to blind some to this but the collapse of the ULA has simply confirmed what is more generally understood to be the case.  More and more it is acknowledged on the Left that we have to face the reality as opposed to perennial false claims that an upsurge is taking place or is just around the corner.

Realistic assessments of the state of workers’ action have often been drowned out by childish claims that this shows one is insufficiently revolutionary, underestimates the workers , their ability to change their ideas quickly or that such views will not encourage workers to take action.  Not in front of the children appears to be the motto.  Workers are always ‘angry’ and all it needs is the right campaign, so long as it is active enough, to stir them into action.

Reality is imposing itself and no sound bites along the lines of ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ can hide the fact that the economic crisis has resulted in the imposition of austerity on workers without effective resistance.  Why is this?

First we must qualify the judgement that Irish workers are peculiarly useless.  Commentators have remarked in similar terms about the countries in southern Europe.  We have noted before that more or less spontaneous social explosions have not resulted in great advances by the working class.  Greek workers have been by far the most combative in terms of general strike action but in hardly anywhere has living standards plummeted so much.  I have also noted in one of my first posts that economic crises spurs growth in extreme reactionary forces and we have seen this is in Greece with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement.  So Greece is no model to seek to copy.

Secondly Irish workers have fought back albeit within very strict limits.  I can still remember the very large demonstration in November 2009 in Dublin, which had many working class people from outside the ranks of the trade unions taking part.  The following year public sector trade unions organised a successful strike.  At a local level in certain places and at certain times strong campaigns have developed against tax increases or hospital closures.  All this and more was reflected in the vote for ULA.

There is however an over-estimation about what workers can achieve within the limits of the capitalist system – a general misconception that workers’ struggles can overturn the laws of capitalism.    For example, if a company goes bust and attempts to close down, making all its workers redundant, it is pretty obvious that strike action will not achieve very much.

At this point many on the left propose that the capitalist state protect workers even though these same people have a part of their brain that tells them that the state is a weapon of the capitalist class that cannot be reformed and must be smashed.  They also believe that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by workers themselves but usually object to the idea that, instead of the state, the workers should take over and own and run these workplaces as workers cooperatives.

It is a similar situation at the level of society as a whole and at an international level.  The Irish state was and still is bankrupt.  It needed a massive injection of money to save the banks and put itself in a position to start reducing its mushrooming debt.  Austerity is a means of doing this.  Again the Left argues that the state can adopt policies of taxing the rich and spending money on investment that will restore the capitalist economy to economic growth, which will then deal with the problem of the debt.

This is not however the view of socialists.  The socialist view, confirmed once again by recent events, is that capitalism inescapably produces economic crises which are dealt with and resolved by the laws by which the system works, including through unemployment and destruction of unsuccessful capital whose markets and sometimes businesses are picked up on the cheap by those remaining.  It is not possible for the capitalist system to prevent such crises by adopting policies of more investment, as for example argued by left followers of Keynes.

It is not therefore possible for workers no matter how well organised to prevent the laws of capitalism from working.  This at least was the view of Marx and the evidence of history would again confirm this.  So workers resistance against austerity may be able to ameliorate austerity but, in so far as they are necessary to lay the foundations of a new upturn, it is not possible for workers to prevent unemployment or wage cuts or tax increases in their entirety or even to a significant degree.  In other words it is not possible within the system to prevent capitalism periodically disrupting workers’ lives.  That’s why we oppose the system and why we propose a different one called socialism.  If we thought capitalism could work better without its nasty effects we wouldn’t be socialists would we?

Yet the left presents austerity as simply one policy option of the Government which it could choose to reject and replace with their own proposals.  But even the Keynesian alternative requires ‘counter cyclical’ state action.  In other words the austerity measures are simply postponed.  All the left’s proposals involve actions by the capitalist state in one way or another – tax changes, public investment, nationalisation etc.

The point in terms of the current argument is not that the Left is misleading workers into accepting reformist solutions that won’t work and this is a reason why resistance to austerity has been such a failure in Ireland.  These ideas are more widespread in southern Europe than they are here.  No, the issue is that, absent a socialist alternative being created, as long as capitalism exists the laws of capitalism will continue to work and impose themselves.  Resistance to austerity will therefore fail and this failure is bound in turn to lead to weakening of the resistance.

We must be careful however not to qualify the problem out of existence when it contains more than a grain of truth.  When Greek workers chanted “we are not Irish” on their May Day demonstration in Athens in 2010 they weren’t imagining the relative weakness of resistance in Ireland.

Nor can the question be dismissed by saying Irish workers did fight back – they did, but nowhere near to the extent required for success.

Nor is it credible to blame the poor politics or organisation of the Irish Left.

It is also not adequate to simply say that capitalism wins unless we create socialism. This is obviously true, although its logical implications for reformist strategies and policies are often ignored.  But it doesn’t come near explaining why the reformist strategies for resistance have elicited such weak workers’ action.  It’s hardly that Irish workers can see through such strategies and are ready for something more radical.

Socialism is not an event or a situation but a movement. Workers will only become capable of building a socialist movement and carrying out revolutionary change if they are also capable of mounting strong resistance to the ravages of capitalism.  In Ireland this hasn’t happened and there has been a retrogression of the small socialist movement, although this in itself is not particularly new.

So in Ireland the state has been able to pursue austerity policies that increase unemployment and wage restraint in order to restore its solvency in very much the same way capitalist crises work to   restore profitability in the private sector.  It has been able to do so without much of the resistance shown in other countries in a very similar situation.  This remains to be explained.

To be continued.

Workers’ control of production Part 2

0425.1974_Portugal-newspapeIn my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure.  Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning.  If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun.  When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.

The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.

The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action.  The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces.  He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers.  “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.

Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry.  That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant.  This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development.  They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles.  One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.

By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically.  Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember.  This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives.  This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.

The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited.  Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry.  Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.

Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union.  The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008.  In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!

The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be  learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.

In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive.  It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination.  Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present.  This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class.  Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.

The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.

It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace.  In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle.  This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result.  Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.

For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution.  Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense.  Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.

In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves.  Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner.  Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage.  Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war.  On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market.  Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.

Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed.  I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises.  But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project.  In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.

In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state.  This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control.  It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state.  The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.

What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it.  This however is not the question and not the argument being put.  There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.

The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant.  More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.

What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism.  Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.

The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers.  On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party.  Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system.  A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’  Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.

The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.

In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings.  Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.

Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents.  A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left.  Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.

In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state.  In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.

Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power.  A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.

The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base.  This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.

The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation.  In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.

Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers.  Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.

But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles.  A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present.  The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.

Revealing the truth about Anglo-Irish Bank – RTE censorship and ICTU complicity

David BeggThe release of the tapes recording the Executives of Anglo-Irish bank conspiring to rob billions from the Irish people has led to a clamour for an enquiry so that the full truth can be revealed.  In my last post I argued that this truth includes the plain and obvious fact that it has been the State that has made the reckless gambles of Anglo the burden of the people.  These Executives showed no great concern that the organs of the State would prove any barrier to their plans.  In this they were of course proved exactly right.

I argued that what is required is that workers should fight for their own inquiry to reveal this and other truths that remain obscured, not least by the media that presents itself as the vehicle for revealing the truth.  I suggested that workers should fight in their trade unions to launch such an inquiry.

I have just received an email that throws light not only on the role of the media but also that of the trade unions.  In particular it shows that the leadership of the trade union movement in the person of its General Secretary, David Begg, has questions to answer over his complicity in the complete and utter failure to regulate Anglo-Irish bank.

The text below recounts the intervention of a reader of the blog into RTE’s Liveline radio programme, which addressed the Anglo tapes.  She questioned the role of David Begg, which subsequently led to a complaint by him and the removal by RTE of the podcast of the programme.  The alacrity with which Begg moved to defend his reputation can be compared to his apparent inactivity in ensuring the Central Bank performed all the roles it was responsible for and which he presumably was on its Board to ensure were discharged.

Anne has written a draft letter of complaint to RTE and has asked for signatures to a petition, both of which are set out below.

This episode highlights the need for a workers’ campaign to highlight the full truth of the banking collapse and hold all those guilty to account.  Not least the system itself.

————————————————————————————————–

On Liveline 27th June I got the opportunity to speak about my reaction to the Anglo tapes. I mentioned the protests organised each Sunday by ‘Dublin says No’ and encouraged people to attend protests that are organized around the country by the ‘Say No’ campaigns. So listen in to a podcast for the item. It is the first on the play list. Overall it was a good programme and showed the anger people feel.

I mentioned a few issues. Firstly that in Feb 2009 a group of teachers picketed Anglo-Irish bank in protest against the bail out of the bankers/speculators and to show our anger at the massive cuts that were taking place in our schools and in public services. I said a group of us went into the bank briefly to ask workers to tell us the truth about the real state of the bank as we were supposed to own this bank yet we were not allowed to even know what was going on.

I mentioned that David Begg head of ICTU sat on the Audit Committee of the Central Bank during the most damaging years of the credit bubble. He had access to what was going on in the Central Bank and that Mr Begg knows the true story and should make a detailed statement of what went on. He was supposed to be representing our interests.  Either he was happy the way the Central Bank was fulfilling its obligation to oversee the banks or he was sleeping on the job and knew nothing. Either way he should RESIGN. Begg then should have acted like the whistleblower Edward Snowden today, and in that case we might not have the present devastation to our lives.

I also mentioned that at the time of the Anglo take-over public services were being massively cut; huge cuts in education, my area of work, in our pay and pensions and that at the time Waterford Crystal workers were occupying the company as it was closing but there was no rescue for them. Mr Begg did nothing to organize a national campaign to save a flagship company while the nest of thieves in Anglo was being bailed out by the organisation of which he was a leading figure.

I contrasted what had happened to 1913, when Dublin workers stood up against the employers. They were able to gain their dignity and build the trade union movement as a real force while today when we are being ground into the dust and the trade union leaders are committed to working within the injustice and tyranny of the Troika programme. I said it was time to stand up for our right for a civilized way of life for ourselves and our children and that people should come out and join the ‘Dublin says No’ to the Bailout protests. I commented on our small numbers and the thousands of Brazilians who were protesting on O’Connell St 2 weeks ago against corruption in Brazil. It was time for people to act for themselves.

I also said that the contracts of public sector workers were torn up and emergency legislation enacted to steal our pay while nothing is done to take the massive pensions off the politicians such as Bertie Ahern. He should be stripped of his pension and the assets of the perpetrators of the crimes against us seized.

Letter of Complaint to RTE

I wish to formally complain to RTE regarding the disclaimer statement carried at the beginning of the Liveline programme 28th June 2013. It stated that RTE accepted that comments on the Live Line programme of 27th June relating to ICTU General Secretary David Begg were wholly untrue and without foundation and we also accept that Mr Begg was never a member of the Banking Regulatory Authority. We want to make clear that there was no suggestion on Live Line part that David Begg  is or was responsible or aware of any of the wrongdoings of Anglo Irish Bank which he condemned in the strongest possible terms.

RTE in acting in the manner in which it has are neglecting their duty to deal with a perfectly legitimate call from me. They are curtailing an important discussion on the role of people who held senior positions on the Board of the Central Bank leading up to and during the nationalisation of Anglo. A major scandal has blown up regarding Anglo Irish Bank where we are learning day by day of the deeply scandalous behaviour of senior executives at the bank.

Mr Begg made his complaint on the narrow base that he was not a member of the Banking Regulatory authority but I made no reference in my comments on Live Line to this.   It is a matter of record that Mr Begg had a number of major responsibilities as a member of the Board of the Central Bank, of which he was a member between 1997 and 2011. These are outlined below and as such he should have been aware of what was going on in Anglo.

Report of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland for the year ended 31 December 2006

Board Procedures (Page 62)

The Board holds eleven regular meetings each year. A quorum of seven normally applies for all meetings. The Governor approves the agenda and papers, which are circulated to the Directors one week in advance of meetings. Additional Board meetings may be called by the Governor at short notice either on his own initiative or at the request of any two Directors.

The Secretary of the Bank keeps minutes of meetings.

The agenda for meetings typically includes:

_ Reports on monetary and financial developments;

_ Reports on various issues relating to the Irish economy, the European economy and the international economy;

_ Reports on regulatory developments to keep the Board informed on policy issues and where decisions by the Board are required;

_ Management of the investment assets of the Bank;

_ Substantial financial contracts to be placed by the Bank for the procurement of goods and services;

_ General management, planning and budgetary issues;

_ Quarterly and annual financial statements and results.

Board Sub-Committees

The Board established three sub-committees on 30 June 1994 as follows:

_ The Audit Committee; The Remuneration and Budget Committee; The Investments Committee.

Board regulations detail the terms of reference of each sub-committee and membership in each case is comprised of Directors — of whom one is appointed as Chairman — and a further member of the Regulatory Authority with observer status. The Secretary of the Bank, or a nominee, minutes all meetings of the subcommittees and, when approved, these minutes are circulated to the Board. The members of the sub-committees, as at 31 May 2007, were as follows:

The Audit Committee members; David Begg (Chair), Martin O’Donoghue, Deirdre Purcell*, Alan Ashe**

( *Members of both the Board and the Regulatory Authority. **Members of the Regulatory Authority who are not also members of the Board but who participate at meetings of the above CBFSAI Board committees with observer status.)

It is clear from the agendas of the meetings that the Board members had a responsibility in overseeing the state of the banks which would have included Anglo Irish Bank, the 3rd largest lender at that time.  It is inconceivable that Mr Begg was completely unaware of whether the Central Bank was fulfilling its obligation to oversee the banks considering the agenda of Board Meetings and also given that he was Chair of the Audit Committee.

As General Secretary of the ICTU he is expected to represent the interests of workers/ordinary tax payers and I called Liveline as a long time trade union member concerned at the devastating consequences of the bail out of Anglo and the shocking revelations in the tapes.

RTE as a public service broadcaster should be to the forefront in lifting the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the bail out of Anglo, instead it has in this instance censored an important discussion and is failing in its duty to investigate or allow discussion on how the members of the Board of the Central Bank have fulfilled their role the role.

The refusal to podcast the programme is a further example of failing in its duty

Furthermore the disclaimer statement is an attack on my integrity and the truthfulness of my contribution to the programme. As you can see from the above excerpt on the operation of the Central Bank, I did not stray from the facts surrounding Mr Begg’s role on the Board of the Central Bank.

I request a copy of the transcript of my comments on the Liveline programme as my good name has  been brought into question by the disclaimer.

I expect an apology for the aspersions cast on my character on national airwaves.

 

Statement condemning RTE censorship on the role of General Secretary of ICTU David Begg in his capacity as a Board member of the Central Bank

We the undersigned strongly condemn the censorship of discussion by RTE of comments and questions raised as to the role of the General Secretary of ICTU David Begg in his capacity as a board member of the Central Bank and chair of the audit committee of the Central Bank during the period covering the boom years and the subsequent collapse of the banking system.

This gross self censorship by RTE on these legitimate questions and the subsequent erasure of the podcast of the Liveline programme of 27th June 2013 is a shameful and disgraceful episode for RTE as national broadcaster.

The role of the ICTU in demanding a disclaimer on the narrow basis that David Begg was not on the regulatory authority, (a claim that was never made) is an issue of concern for trade union members and all those affected by the criminal activity within the banking sector.  The role of a senior member of the trade union movement in these catastrophic events should not be and cannot be censored.

G8: The Mafia Empire Part 2

obama in sunglasses

By Belfast Plebian

In 1967 LIFE Magazine published an exposé on organized crime in America. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover admitted publicly for the first time that the Mafia did in fact exist and that the Gambino and Genovese families exercised ironclad control over the Waterfront Unions in New York and New Jersey.  Director Hoover had for thirty years refused to publicly acknowledge that the Mafia existed, his conviction was that organised labour in America had much more to fear from Communist and Socialist control than from mobsters. President Nixon stayed true to the FBI spirit when he commuted the jail sentence of Teamster President and Mafia candidate Jimmy Hoffa.

It is now part of common folklore that workers’ unions in the United States were often controlled by Mafia figures, films such as on the Waterfront have confirmed the idea . However what is less well know is the fact that Mafia figures were often encouraged by the spooks and right wing politicians to take control of the labour unions, indeed it is in this division of social life that they came together on mutual terms.  In July 1936 Luck Luciano was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. In 1942 the US government struck a deal with him, in return for a commutation of his sentence his union agents would monitor subversive activity on the docks on behalf of naval intelligence.  Here’s a report from a more recent study of the special relationship between the Mafia bosses and the right wing political bosses: 

‘Among the most unusual Federal Prosecutions during the 1980s were the weapons trafficking and murder solicitation trials of a rogue retired Officer of the U. S. Intelligence community, Ed Wilson.  As detailed in Peter Maas’ book MANHUNT, Ed Wilson’s career offered a rare glimpse into the interactions between the CIA and the labour union movement.  Recruited by the CIA while in college back in the dark days of the Cold War, the CIA first sent Wilson through the School for Industrial and Labour Relations at Cornell University in New York City.  After graduation Wilson convinced Paul Hall, the President of the International Seafarers Union to hire him as an Organizer. Hall sent Wilson to Belgium, where Wilson infiltrated the Communists involved in the Union movement and performed various ‘dirty tricks’ against Labour leaders. Wilson then returned to the United States where he obtained work in the International Department of the A.F.L. – C.I.O. Wilson’s biographer relates that while the Seafarers were not aware that Wilson was in fact working for the CIA, the AFL-CIO was aware. This organization has long maintained close ties to the U. S. Intelligence community and to this day labour activists in the United States will jokingly refer to this organization as the ‘AFL-CIA!’ The AFL-CIO then sent Wilson to Latin America to infiltrate the various Communist-dominated labour Unions.

The only point I am making here is that the labour unions are penetrated and controlled much more comprehensively by all sorts of political gangsters than from mobsters, entire union federations have been lost to independent workers. 

Next we come to violence and murder. Let’s compare G8 leader Obama with the very worst of the Mafia killers, Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter. Who the heck was he you ask?  Well he was another close associate of Lucky Luciano who back in the day controlled the garment unions of New York.  In the 1930’s Lepke was a pioneer labour racketeer and he wasn’t even Italian, he was in fact Jewish. What made Luciano stand out from the other mobsters was that he wasn’t a nationalist, he learnt his trade from New York’s Jewish mobsters especially Arnold the brain Rothstein and many of his long time friends Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky, who were also Jews. It was this willingness to associate with mobsters from outside of the Sicilian-Italian community that set him on a collision course with the traditional Bosses like Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano.  Since all of the G8 leaders come to Fermanagh acting solely on the so called national interest, they walk at least one step behind the more open minded crime boss.

Lepke had another string to his bow apart from labour racketeering – hiring mobsters that he knew to kill people on contract.  In the early 1930s, Buchalter joined Charles “Lucky” Luciano and other Mob bosses to form the “National crime syndicate”.  Luciano’s associates Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky formed Murder Incorporated a name applied to them by the media when the first court cases came to light. Originally a band of killers, they were used to fulfil many non-Mob related contract killings. Buchalter and his partner, Albert “the Executioner” Anastasia would take control over Murder Inc. when Siegel and Lansky’s business endeavours became respectable. Buchalter was responsible for contract killings throughout the country, including the killing of the Mob hit man and bootlegger Dutch Schultz.

In 1935, law enforcement estimated that Buchalter and Shapiro had 250 assassins working for them, and Buchalter was grossing over $1 million per year in profit. They controlled rackets in the trucking, baking, and garment industries throughout New York. It is believed the corporate Jewish killers may have killed nearly a thousand people on contract before they were stopped.  The killers were put on a retainer fee and paid an extra $5,000 when the job was done; the most prolific of them Harry Pittsburg Phil Strauss notched up over a hundred burns. If the killers were caught the best Jewish lawyers, money could buy would represent them, and their families were looked after.

Their most famous hit was on one of their own; Dutch Schultz was planning to bump off special prosecutor and later to become a Presidential candidate Thomas E Dewey. The crime syndicate decided that Dutch needed to be taken care of as he was just so reckless.  Lepke the best organiser of Murder Incorporated was eventually caught and executed in Sing Sing prison  in March 1944.

Now this is all very serious stuff but in terms of well-organised killing it is still small-scale stuff.

Obama is openly referred to, even in a few of the mainstream media outlets, as the drone killer, the assassination President, and the police surveillance President.  One person who’s been working hard to expose what he has been sanctioning is investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, a long-time war correspondent for the Nation and the writer, producer of the startling new film “Dirty Wars,” which hits the cinemas in America just this week. “Dirty Wars” documents Scahill’s exploration of the campaign of drone strikes outside the recognized battle zone, in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.  He also found, after digging, the existence of the secret military strike force called the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which literally became famous overnight after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

He says ‘because Obama is who he is, an incredibly brilliant man who has the trust of the overwhelming majority of liberals — and probably a significant number of traditional conservatives, at least on these issues — he is going to go down in history as creating a systematized embrace of assassination as a central component of U.S. security policy. It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t been engaged in assassination basically from the beginning, but we now have this Nobel Peace Prize-winning transformational president, who is a constitutional lawyer, making it a permanent part of the national security infrastructure. While saying, ‘We don’t want a perpetual state of war,’ he’s building the machinery for a perpetual state of war.”

Here’s an exasperated review of a segment of the new film by journalist Andrew O Hehir  ‘Scahill’s film also spends quite a bit of time exploring the story of Anwar al-Awlaki the radical imam who was born in Las Cruces, N.M., and killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. (His teenage son Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen, was later killed, apparently by accident or as collateral damage.) While the moral and legal quandaries posed by killing an American citizen without any pretence of due process have been much discussed – and we may never know exactly why the Obama administration deemed Awlaki such an imminent threat as to merit summary execution – “Dirty Wars” reminded me of the larger and more disturbing narrative that led up to that drone attack in the desert. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki, who was then the imam of a Washington-area mosque, frequently appeared in the media as a voice of moderate Islam. He spoke out against terrorism, decried the 9/11 hijackers as Muslim renegades and was invited to speak at the Pentagon on the role of Islam in the contemporary world. The lunch menu that day, Scahill says, included bacon sandwiches. “Which gives you a sense of how awesome the Pentagon’s intelligence was? You invite an imam to come and speak about Islam, and you offer him a bacon sandwich.”

I am not going to pursue the Obama and murder theme any further, if you still need to be convinced, try watching the film ‘Dirty Wars.’

I think I have done enough to show there is a correspondence between the wicked ways of the Mafia Bosses and the self serving ways of the current crop of Political Bosses currently meeting as the G8 in Fermanagh.  I never claimed that they were identical and I would have to admit that the Political Bosses often have to face more complex dilemmas.  There is a serious case for the justification of Machiavellian politics which states that it is much easier for an ordinary person to refrain from doing bad things than it is for a Political Boss to do so.  This implies that a Mafia Boss can simply decide to abide by the law without prejudice to themselves while a Political Boss has no such luxury, if he did he might well bring a heap of trouble onto the citizens of his country.

The natural circumstance of politics is so extreme that the breaking of every moral convention and constitutional law is a sort of fait accompli for every potential the Political Boss. If you can’t stand the heat don’t even get into the kitchen.

Machiavelli is the political philosopher most often associated with training the political bosses to think and act in away that is incompatible with ordinary decency.  Leo Strauss once said he was inclined to the view that Machiavelli was a teacher of evil. This is what he said :

“What other description would fit a man who teaches lessons like these: princes ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory they wish to possess securely; princes ought to murder their opponents rather than to confiscate their property since those who have been robbed, but not those who are dead, can think of revenge, men forget the murder of their fathers sooner than the loss of their patrimony; true liberality  consists in being stingy with one’s own property and in being generous with what belongs to others; not virtue but the prudent use of virtue and vice leads to happiness; injuries ought all to be done together so that, being tasted less, they will hurt less, while benefits ought to be conferred little by little, so that they will be felt more strongly; a victorious general who fears that his prince might not reward him properly, may punish him for his anticipated ingratitude by raising the flag of rebellion; if one has to choose between inflicting severe injuries and inflicting light injuries one ought to inflict severe injuries; one ought not to say to someone whom one wants to kill ‘give me your gun, I want to kill you with it’ but merely, ‘give me your gun’ for once you have the gun in your hand, you can satisfy your desire. If it is true that only an evil man will stoop to teach maxims of public and private gangsterism, we are forced to say that Machiavelli was an evil man.” 

We will take it as evident that the political designation ‘Prince’ has wider application than just to a traditional Monarchy – it can refer to States, Heads of States, political parties, heads of political parties and so forth.  The Italian Marxist Gramsci sometimes abbreviated the revolutionary workers party with the designation Prince in his prison writing. In the same study above Professor Strauss referred to the modern alternative to the Politics of the Prince. He quotes Thomas Paine : ‘The Independence of America was accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of  Governments…Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the Government of the sword revolved from east to west.’( Thomas Paine Rights of Man second introduction) 

Professor Strauss seems to be indicating that the new Democracy of America was founded on the basis of a moral and political law that had no room for Machiavellian style dirty politics. The politics of the new democracies were intended to be different from the Roman politics Machiavelli had studied. The G8 seems to point to a higher standard by excluding China, the second economy of the world from their deliberations presumably on the basis that it is not a democratic State.

Professor Strauss is famous for refuting what he called historicist accounts of political and social thought. What he meant by that was the thesis that the political philosophy of a certain historical period was necessarily bound to that period, so much so that it was an expression of it. So the harshness of Machiavelli political philosophy was merely a reflex of the division of Italy into warring city States and foreign kingdoms.  The political thought of Thomas Paine was a reflex of a middle class capitalist development and the political thought of Karl Marx was just a reflex of the early exploitative industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century.

He thought of political philosophy in terms of permanent alternatives rather than passing ideologies always to be superseded by historical change, and he thought of Machiavelli politics as one permanent alternative that could rise up in any era.  He thought of Marxism in terms of historicism and argued it was self- refuting because it predicted its own passing away due to necessary historical change.  How he asked could Marxist thought still claim to be relevant when the nineteenth century conditions that produced the ideas of Karl Marx no longer existed nearly 150 later

We will not seek to rule on Marxism and historicism here but suffice to say that we don’t think Machiavellian or its alternative Marxist politics has been superseded by necessary historical developments.  Machiavelli belongs to the long history of capitalism that includes the Italy of the city state and the merchant capitalism that originated in these very City States.  The politics of imperialism are linked by the capitalist economy so private and public gangster politics are as relevant now as they were in Michiavelli’s time.

The G8 comes to Northern Ireland

DSC_0394The leaders of the G8 group of the wealthiest countries are meeting this week in rural County Fermanagh.  That some of the most powerful political leaders on the planet are visiting us is yet again another opportunity to demand of the local population the most obsequious and embarrassing homage to our betters.  Deference normally required only for royalty.  A columnist in a local paper reported that claims had been made that the visit would boost the local economy by something like £700 million, a figure so outlandish it does not even deserve ridicule.  More sober estimates have come in at less than £100 million but if the experience of Scotland is any guide the costs will easily exceed this and today I saw first-hand evidence that this will indeed be the case.

As is usual the media have been on overdrive to sell how wonderful this all is, normally in some vague and unspecified way, for example ‘it puts us on the map’, as if we weren’t already on it, and it gives us the opportunity to sell Northern Ireland. How often can you sell something that never gets bought?  It was the occasion for yet another economic package, announced by David Cameron, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.  But again it was déjà vu all over again.

The local Executive, it was announced, will be able to borrow an additional £100m for capital projects for shared housing for example.  But the Executive has just confirmed that it is incapable of providing shared housing through its handling of the old Girdwood British Army base in North Belfast.

And no one will be able to tell you what golden opportunities were being missed until now by absence of this money .

More measures to boost lending to business was promised but it has been reported in the financial press that the ConDem coalition has totally failed in its attempts to achieve this goal with its own schemes in Britain.  Borrowing just when bond yields are rising across the globe, even after countries have printed money like never before – heralding an end the recent era of low interest rates and an interest rate rise that may have devastating economic consequences – does not look the cleverest policy in terms of timing.  Projects to be financially profitable will have a higher hurdle to jump over than before.

More peace money is promised while the local paper’s front page reported this week that there had been  a 25 per cent increase in paramilitary intimidation; sanctioned by the local police who have approved the loyalist UVF’s marking of territory in East Belfast by their flying of their paramilitary flags on anything that doesn’t move.  Meanwhile the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders hatch an £80m slush fund for these same paramilitaries.

We are promised yet another investment conference while having witnessed the utter failure of previous ones and most recently been treated to the farce of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s ‘investment-promoting’ visits to China and Brazil. Again we are promised another look at devolution of powers to reduce corporation tax as if a different result might be expected.  The example of the Republic across the border should demonstrate even to the terminally stupid that low corporation tax is perfectly compatible with bankruptcy.

It is simply impossible for anyone with any appreciation of recent events not to be cynical because no matter how jaundiced a view one takes of this event it is exceeded by the malignant contempt shown by the visiting leaders and their local satraps.

Obama has sanctioned spying powers that make George Orwell’s 1984 look like a photograph of the future and he approves drone attacks that murder dozens if not hundreds of civilians.  We have Russia’s Vladimir Putin whose wars in the Caucuses have involved utter devastation on an enormous scale. Then we have the Japanese, attempting to lay the foundation for a new nationalist militarism by rewriting its murderous imperial history. These are the leaders we are asked to welcome as if we are blessed to breathe the same air.

But reality intrudes and the real character of their visit is revealed by the security clamp-down that looks like and feels like a police state. Roads in Fermanagh have been blocked for a month, causing problems for small businesses in the area, while young people doing their year-end exams have been told to get to school at an unearthly hour to do them.  Fences have been built and thousands of security personnel brought in.  Belfast city centre on Monday morning looks like it is to be closed down.  Sixteen miles of the M2 motorway into the city is also to be closed so that Obama can speak at the Waterfront Hall in praise of the peace process that never ends and never ends promising the end of strife.  Government workers have been told by email that they may have difficulty getting to work but should therefore plan to travel longer, get in earlier and leave later – section 3.11 of Annex 2 paragraph 4.1 of the HR policy is referenced.  With no hint of irony the responsibility to maintain services to the public is repeated.

The reality of the visit is revealed by the fresh painting over of empty shops in the county town of Enniskillen to make them look like they are open and full of people. Oh, and the hotel complex the meeting is in isn’t really in administration, not being a casualty of the Irish property boom.  The plan is obviously that the hype will cover up the reality and, well, if it doesn’t, we’ll be outa here soon anyway.

Holding the G8 in Northern Ireland was seen as a bold step.  Wasn’t this the scene of decades of trouble and didn’t the G8 risk occasioning more?  Hadn’t previous summits been the cause of widespread protest wherever they were held?

Well today, Saturday, was to be evidence of the scale of the opposition to the G8 leaders and their crimes.  A demonstration had been called by trade union leaders and assorted NGOs.

Unfortunately this opposition proved that it wanted to show, not that a different world was possible, but that a slightly different world would be nice.  The hype of the G8 cheerleaders was replicated in the ICTU Northern Ireland Committee’s leaflet, which promised ‘what is sure to be one of the largest mass mobilisations of peoplepower Belfast has seen.’   The demo was in fact no more than 2,000 people – maximum – and not much different than the usual May Day demonstration.  The annual 12 July Orange bigot-fest is many times larger.  The slogan of the demonstration that ‘they are G8 – we are 7 billion’ looked very hollow. Belfast City centre was unusually quiet.  The alternative of having the demonstration through some working class areas would never have crossed anyone’s mind, certainly not that of the trade union leaders.

As I walked the less than half mile to the demonstration starting point through Belfast city centre I must have passed about 70 police land rovers, and that was just on the route that I took.  Most of the coppers were English – they looked like they weren’t natives and were very much more po-faced than the local cops, despite the overtime.  There were hundreds of them.  A bigger case of over-kill it would be hard to imagine.  It might even be embarrassing for their top brass, were the media to make anything of this OTT display of the state’s repressive power.  This was a demo called by ICTU for god’s sake!

This is the same ICTU that has for years either been in partnership with the state, as in the South, or seeking partnership, in the North.  Its leader was a member of the Southern State’s Central Bank, the Regulator that allowed the ‘wild west’ financial system to accumulate so much debt it bankrupted the country.  This is the trade union movement responsible for the Irish being renowned throughout Europe for their ability to accept austerity that has caused riots in Greece, Spain and Portugal.  It wants a ‘better and fairer way’ to inflict the pain of austerity.  It doesn’t actually want to overthrow capitalism and socialism was not a word I heard at the rally at the end of the demonstration.

DSC_0416 Instead the speeches were declarations of opposition to bad things and support for good things and appeals to moral values such as fairness and justice.  Unfortunately the world is only as fair and a just as we can make it and in the meantime it is as just and as fair as the capitalist class considers it should be based on how it defines both.

What was missing was any strategy to change this situation and any agency that could enact this strategy.  What we were left with were appeals to the governments against whom we were actually demonstrating; appeals to the same states whose job it is to defend the system, not change it – the same state that put on show such a massive show of force to justify its hyping up of dire threats of violence.

As I and my friend left the rally and went into Boots for a short cut my friend was told to take down his hood – it had been pouring down for hours.  An older woman with grey hair was also told to take down her hood although she demanded to know why?  Was she hiding her identity so she could trash capitalism and then run into the street and avoid the hundreds of cops outside?  (Most of the bigger shops had massively increased security on their doors, another example of the hype surrounding the visit of the leaders of the ‘free’ world.)

One footnote: the rally outside the City Hall at the end of the demonstration was jeered and heckled by a group of perhaps 50 loyalists from the Shankill Road who were continuing their own protest against the butchers’ apron no longer being flown 365 days a year.  Ironically it was flying today, it being a ‘designated day’ because it was the Queen’s birthday – she has two don’t you know. These reactionary bigots sang sectarian songs including the ‘Billy Boys’, i.e. they were ‘up to their necks in fenian blood’ – a favourite of supporters of the now deceased football club Glasgow Rangers.  They waved the Israeli flag when the Palestinian cause was mentioned, booed loudly when the ‘Irish trade union movement’ was referenced and jeered when Derry was called Derry.

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For some on the left being anti-sectarian means pretending that Irish nationalism is just as sectarian as loyalism and there exists by definition a sectarian equals sign between the political expressions of the catholic population and the Protestant one.  That, in my 35 years of political demonstrations, I have never come across contingents of loyalists on trade union and socialist demonstrations while republican contingents, just as they were today, are commonplace and unremarkable, might therefore seem strange.  If I believed what some of the Left do this fact would be inexplicable. The loyalists however know they are reactionary and today they knew that they hated those on the demonstration.  They felt safe in the knowledge that the demonstrators were either ‘fenians’ or, even worse, ‘rotten prods’.

One other footnote:  there was no Sinn Fein contingent on the demonstration.  Even a few years ago they would have sent a youth contingent to keep up pretence of some radical credentials.  Now instead they parade the hope of corporation tax cuts and multinational investment beside the DUP and a British Tory prime minister announcing imperialist intervention in yet another country, this time Syria.  Their non-participation is one welcome clarification of what was otherwise unfortunately not much more than an exhibition of weakness before power.

Workers say NO to Croke Park 2

5178_54_news_hub_5200_328x250Commentators across Europe, indeed the world, have marvelled at the ability of the Irish to suffer punishing austerity without strikes, riots and political convulsions.  Local commentators have basked in their acclaim as the austerity poster-boy – in damning comparison to those Greeks and other southern Europeans.  Instead the Irish voted for a European austerity Treaty and voted in a Fine Gael-led coalition with politics no different from the previous Fianna Fail led one.   If opinion polls are to be believed, many have gone back to supporting the utterly discredited Fianna Fail.  The recent Meath by-election saw the Fine Gael candidate handsomely returned and the particular local circumstances do not adequately explain it.

Irish workers accepted the tearing up of the existing social partnership deal and voted for a new one called Croke Park, which inflicted cuts in services and conditions, including yellow pack terms and conditions for younger workers, in return for no compulsory redundancies.

Unemployment however has soared, reaching over 14 per cent officially and, according to the IMF, over 23 per cent if the underemployed are included.  This is despite emigration of tens of thousands of the younger generation to destinations across the world.

Yet still the ‘fighting Irish’ showed no signs of fighting.

Until now.

This is the significance of the vote on a new Croke Park deal.  Irish workers have said NO.

If it has been a surprise to many on our side it has been a shock to the Government who thought their threats, bullying and intimidation would work.  Above all they thought the rotten leadership of the Irish trade union movement, which supported the new deal, would pull it through.

Its mouthpieces in the media reacted with denial.  The ‘Irish Times’ journalist said “it was so close”, “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote – there was an extraordinarily low turnout of 45 per cent – the deal would have sufficient support to be ratified.”

There is a grain of truth in this but we will come back to this.  Let us first note that the press and media betray once again their class character by agonising about how the democratic wishes of the workers can be subverted by ‘tweaking’ the deal to get it through.  You will search in vain for commentary deliberating over how the workers’ majority can assert and validate their democratic decision.

The deal has been rejected but the vote is a mere inconvenience.  It doesn’t count.  The workers can say anything they want and will be listened to, but only if they agree.  Like European referendums voting is to allow worker s to approve the plans of the capitalist class and its state.  Again and again Irish workers are taught this lesson – voting is not a choice, it’s a stamp made of rubber.

Instead we are fed rubbish that a vote that saw the deal decisively rejected by a majority of two to one, 115,000 to 55,000, could somehow have been passed “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote.”  The votes of those who didn’t vote are ‘virtually’ counted to support austerity while in fact the vote against will have awakened the many workers who didn’t vote to the possibility of voting against the Government, the State, the mass media and their own rotten leaderships.

But even these propagandists of the system couldn’t help but recognise that many workers voted no, not because they were personally affected very badly by the deal, but because they didn’t think they should vote for other workers to take a pay cut.

The grain of truth – that the result could have been very different – is a reflection of the bureaucratic nature of the trade union movement, where a majority of 60,000 might be reversed by 1,000 voting differently in the biggest union.  This is only one illustration of what is now the biggest question that is to be answered, which is not the one asked in the media – of what will the Government do?  The real question is – what will, or can, the workers do about their leaders who recommended and argued for and censored the opposition to this rotten deal?

The problem is neatly encapsulated by a report on the Irish National Teachers Organisation Conference at which delegates wanted to put an emergency motion calling on the leadership to have a strategy in place if there was a No vote.  This was ruled out of order but a weaker one was allowed.  Only when delegates booted this out was a compromise motion passed that called “on the central executive committee to urgently liaise with the executives of other public service unions with a view to promoting and planning a public service solidarity alliance of trade unions across the public service.”

What this episode reveals all too obviously is the restrictions placed on workers by union bureaucracy and this bureaucracy’s intention of relying on the Government to ‘tweak’ the deal so it can be imposed on the membership.  It shows the awareness of trade unionists that a strategy is required and one that seeks the maximum unity.  The obvious weakness involves relying on the same union bureaucrats to provide this strategy and implement it.

Putting together a convincing strategy will not be easy but the vote itself is a massive step forward, as is the appreciation of the need for a strategy and for this to be based on unity within the union movement.

Very early on in the current crisis the then Government relatively easily divided workers through claiming those working in the public and private sectors had separate and opposing interests.  The union leaders seemed only too happy to walk into this trap.  Their willingness to sacrifice services for short-term and increasingly illusory benefits for public sector workers has failed even these workers as their pay has been slashed and the deal they signed up to was torn up with union consent.  Meanwhile the workers who use these services have had some confirmation that the quality of these services may suffer to defend the conditions of those who deliver them.

The initial reaction against this disastrous approach was recourse to an even more divisive one, with the creation of a Frontline Alliance that saw narrow trade unionism prioritise the interests of some workers who are on the frontline of some services, implying a common interest not shared across all workers.  However I’ve yet to meet a frontline service that could operate without the support of rearguard(?) workers.

Even this signalled not some reduced form of trade union unity but the plaintive cries of the ‘special case’.  I remember listening to an interview some months back on ‘The Last Word’ on Today FM with a group of union leaders from this Alliance.  What was most striking was that when they were interviewed one-by-one there was hardly the slightest hint of a common grievance.  They seemed totally ignorant of how narrow their complaints seemed and how stupid a strategy is which is based on claiming special treatment when such an all-engulfing attack is being meted out.

There are other courses of action and what might seem like alternative courses for workers looking to fight back are in fact the same struggle.

The view that it is impossible to get the union movement to fight back without first kicking out its rotten leadership replaces a task on which workers have just voted – rejection of Croke Park 2 – with one they have not had placed clearly before them, debated and decided upon.  There is limited traction in simply claiming ‘betrayal’ and saying these leaders must be replaced now before a real struggle to give effect to the No vote can be realised.

The entirely justified and valid view that the current union leaders must be replaced can be achieved by demonstrating to the majority of members the practical effects of these leaders supporting attacks on their interests while frustrating any resistance.  In the course of mounting this resistance the task of replacing these leaders can be posed but not as a precondition or prior requirement for such resistance.

The related questions of whether workers should demand that their leaders hammer out a united strategy or should unite at rank and file level to achieve this themselves are also not opposed.  While rank and file workers must unite across unions to create their own structures this can only be in addition to the established ones. In this way they might demand that their separate leaderships take action and also advance towards an end-point where, if they do not, workers are in a position to pose this task practically themselves.

In doing so workers might learn that replacing the current leaders is not enough and that what is really required is an entirely rejuvenated trade union movement.  One that is open, democratic and not in thrall to either bureaucratic leaders or bureaucratic structures and rules.  A big step forward has been taken with the No vote and the Government is faced with the threat of resistance.

As this post is finished it is reported that the Government does indeed intend to ‘tweak’ the deal in what is called a “carrot and stick approach”.   Since it still intends to make the same amount of cuts what won’t change are the pain and divisiveness of the tweaked deal and the threats that will accompany it.  Like donkeys workers are expected to look at a carrot paraded in front of them while what they feel is the stick.

Support the ICTU demonstrations!

frame-1-ictu-protest-march-over-the-governments-four-year-austerity-plan-assembling-at-christchurch-in-dublin-irelandThe Irish Congress of Trade Unions is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of organising a series of demonstrations across the Irish State in opposition to austerity and debt.  It has issued a press statement outlining its reasons; in particular it is targeting the issue of debt and has indicated that demonstrations might take place in a number of towns and cities including Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Limerick and Waterford.

The possibility of these being organised should be welcomed but more important, if they take place, they should be supported.  It gives working people an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to austerity, to demonstrate the scale and anger of their opposition and put forward what they think should be the alternative.

It gives the small socialist movement an opportunity to campaign in the working class to make these events as large as possible so that the demonstrations can convince and give confidence to others to also oppose austerity and oppose the crippling debt.  It gives it the opportunity to speak to workers to take action outside as well as inside the trade union movement and in the private sector as well as the public sector.  The purpose would be to begin reuniting workers who have been successfully divided into union and non-union and between public and private sector by the propaganda of the State, employers and media.

A real campaign at union and community group meetings, at workplaces and in the streets including door to door leafleting and canvassing should aim to mobilise as many as possible to turn out, should the demonstrations be called.  Right away attempts should be made to extend the numbers building the demonstrations through meetings organised to discuss the demonstrations and how they could be made as large as possible.

These meetings should not simply be organising meetings but should also discuss why we oppose austerity and the debt, how they are affecting the lives of working people, how we should organise against them and what our alternative should be.  What for example is our position on debt default?  What role does strike action have in a campaign against austerity and default?

There are many issues facing workers and socialists have the opportunity to give them the possibility of coming together beyond the existing union movement to unite and discuss all these issues.

In this blog I have addressed these questions here, here, here and here.

What have been called as one-off demonstrations should be supported in order to make them an on-going campaign both before and after they take place.

All this is primarily the task of the socialist movement but it is not limited to it.  There are many opposed to austerity and many campaigns against its effects that should take the opportunity to better organise and unite with each other to discuss what should be the alternative.

An additional onus is however placed on the socialist movement.  It claims to stand for the interests of the whole working class and has a special duty to take every step to unite it in defence of its own interests.  This has two aspects.  First it must unite itself to carry out the task of uniting workers.  Otherwise it is weaker and opens itself to charges of incompetence, hypocrisy or political sectarianism.  The second is to create a campaign which is open and democratic and which at the very least offers the possibility, if not yet the certainty, of uniting the most militant workers.

The unity of the socialist movement in such a task should in principle be easier since it has theoretically already achieved some level of unity through the United Left Alliance.  The ULA should immediately discuss how such an opportunity can be utilised to build an anti-austerity campaign, on what basis it should be built and what policies it should fight for.  This is, after all, something which the ULA said it was going to do when it got elected and it would not do to renege on promises, just like the Labour Party and all the other right wing parties, once elected to the Dail.

Complete agreement should be no barrier to taking this action.  A democratic campaign would in any case allow everyone to argue its particular view on the way forward and the alternative.  In a democratic campaign of action there would be no role for vetoes.

The objective on the day would be a united left contingent, united around an agreed programme and demands, offering an on-going campaign to everyone at the demonstration who didn’t just want to go home afterwards to watch themselves on the RTE news.  The size and resonance of such a contingent would testify to the potential to build real and lasting opposition to austerity.

There is of course a flip side.

To borrow from management-speak: for every opportunity there is a threat and for every potential strength a potential weakness.  To fail to take opportunities threatens the effectiveness of resistance to austerity and to fail to strengthen the resistance will result in weakening it.  The ULA through its minor electoral success has given itself some responsibilities which it should relish as opportunities to help workers build a movement against austerity.

Support, build and go way beyond the ICTU demonstrations!