Crisis? What Crisis? part 3 – down, down, deeper and down

Sterling as a picture of the future

Sterling as a picture of the future

Tory lies over Brexit and the sunlit vistas of UK sovereignty that lie ahead are nothing new.  Uncriticised by the Tory press and a BBC that is both scared of them and shares their broad establishment understanding of society, they have been able to present themselves as the only trusted stewards of a successful economy, with only its fruits perhaps needing some fairer distribution, now that they are the workers’ friend.

But the Tories have lied to themselves and everyone else that the British economy is in rude health, especially when compared to the sclerosis of the rest of Europe.  They quote statistics showing that real Gross Domestic Product has grown faster in Britain than in the bigger EU economies such as Germany, France and Italy.  What they don’t say is that GDP per person was no higher in 2014 than 2007 and that the British are no richer compared to the EU 15 average now than they were 15 years ago.  In fact Britain lags behind Spain and France on this measure.

In order for Britain to grow it has needed to increase its population and workforce, including through immigration, and make the working class work longer hours while reducing their wages, which declined by 10% between 2008 and 2014.  Productivity relative to the EU average has fallen to 90% so that output per hour is 25% below French or German levels.  In only one other region apart from London is GDP per head in excess of the EU average.  This means only 27% of Britons are wealthier than the EU average; but we are expected to believe that the EU is holding Britain back.

The Tories (and Blair before them) have relied on a high debt, low wage and low skilled economy that compensated for poor productivity by increased exploitation, symbolised by zero hours contracts on the one hand and long working hours on the other.  Such a model has no need for a comprehensive education system that can provide a highly educated and skilled workforce for employment across a wide number of economic sectors.

Increased exploitation of labour substitutes for increased capitalist investment in technology, which is mirrored in less state investment in infrastructure.   One example of the result of this is the threat of the lights going out because of a shrinking margin of spare power generation capacity.  This in turn leads to huge subsidies to foreign states to supply nuclear power that may keep the lights on – in the shape of Hinkley Point C and the French and Chinese state companies involved in its development. The lack of infrastructure puts a further drag on the development of productivity and the growth of living standards.

Brexit is being sold as the opportunity to improve this far from outstanding economy but leaving the EU will discourage the foreign investment that helps bail out Britain’s chronic deficit in trade.  Exit from the EU will diminish the financial sector and its acquisition of profits from around the world as bankers already threaten to pull out.  Trade will face new barriers and even old Tories like Michael Heseltine have laughed that there are new markets that no one has so far spotted to replace those that will be lost in Europe.

Devaluation of sterling will hit peoples’ living standards, reducing the domestic market just as foreign markets become harder to enter, while lower economic activity will reduce the capacity of the state to spend on infrastructure. A poorer Britain with reduced foreign earnings will have pressure placed on its interest rates, which will rise to cover the cost of financing a state whose currency is falling.

This risk was made clear by a market analyst quoted in the ‘Financial Times’ as saying that sterling is behaving more like an emerging markets currency and that there is no idea what its true level is. If a foreigner lent £100 to Britain, costing them say $120 in their own currency, it will mean that when she’s paid back the pounds she receives could be worth only $100.  So how much more interest on the loan would she require to protect herself against this risk?  And what sort of investment could warrant borrowing at this rate of interest?

Britain has created an economic model based on sweating its workforce.  Karl Marx noted the limits to exploitation by lengthening the working day 150 years ago, limits again being exposed today by Britain’s declining productivity.  And anyone believing that the Tories will move to create a high wage economy that involves upgrading the skills and talents of the workforce will have to explain the latest genius idea of promoting grammar schools, which relies on improving the education of a few by shiting on the rest.

An economic logic will apply to Brexit regardless of whether the Tory party realises it or not just as we have already seen its political logic unfold despite what some might have believed it was all about.  In last Monday’s ‘Financial Times’ some ‘liberal’ Brexit supports complained that they wanted an ‘open’ Brexit and not the nasty Tory variety.  But this is just as innocent of reality as the supporters of a ‘left’ exit – Lexit – thinking that a decisive move to national capitalism could be anything other than reactionary.

The economic logic of Brexit suggests increased unequal competition with other much larger state formations, such as the EU and the US, not to mention China, a la Hinkley Point C.  One weapon of the smaller and weaker is a race to the bottom with reduced corporate taxation as one example, already signalled by the late chancellor George Osborne, but this is not a credible strategy away from the current model.

There are therefore no grounds for believing that an interventionist state acting on behalf of workers will arise from any change in approach by the Tories.  However it is not excluded that the inevitable crisis that Brexit will induce could give rise to a change in direction to a more interventionist approach in order, as we have said in the previous post, to allow “a Tory government (to) save capitalism from itself.”

Unfortunately the Tories have tied themselves to those sections of the electorate least supportive of this approach; those who support lower taxes and a less interventionist state, unless its intervention is into other peoples’ countries.  The best hope of such an outcome is the influence of those sections of British big business that are tied to the Tories who do provide a constituency for such an approach.

However the weakness of a stand-alone Britain doesn’t help such change.  So for example, it is reported that the Tories may be thinking of devising restrictions on foreign investment, which had more potential within the EU than outside, but this idea will conflict with Britain’s more isolated situation and greater need for outside funding.  Their idea of increased state intervention will also be restricted by budgetary pressures arising from the weakened tax base of an ‘independent’ Britain.

As Boffy’s comment to my last post made clear, state intervention in the economy is not by definition left wing, despite much of the left’s identification of Keynesianism with socialism.  There are all manner of right wing Keynesian interventions so a Tory lurch to increased state intervention in the economy is perfectly compatible with increased authoritarian intervention by the same state with both masquerading as the workers’ friend; or more pointedly as the British workers’ friend.

The Tories newly found working class agenda, such as it is, cannot accommodate any sort of workers’ identification with their brothers and sisters beyond their own nation.   Xenophobia thus unavoidably defines the anti-working class core of the new Tory ‘left’ agenda.  This rabid xenophobia is perfectly compatible with false concerns for British workers but utterly incompatible with workers’ real interests, British or otherwise.  The Tories can feign sympathy with all sorts of working class concerns but not with its interest in solidarity across nations.  This appears most immediately in the shape of immigrant workers and, as a member of the EU, in the shape of all those workers who have moved from the EU who have now almost become hostage to the wilder delusions of the Tory right.

The centrality of workers unity was recognised by Marx long ago when he noted the two principles separating the socialists of his day from others:

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

No matter how any right wing force attempts to portray itself as the workers’ friend this is always the one area in which they can make no pretence and, in this failure, expose their true character – that they cannot accept never mind promote the identity of the interests of the workers of their own country with the interests of the workers of others.

The nationalists in Scotland in the shape of the SNP have at least temporarily succeeded in fooling many that the interests of Scottish workers are somehow radically different from those in England and Wales, although the rise of Corbynism has demonstrated that in the rest of Britain there might be more of a fight against nationalist division.  It is noteworthy that this blog draws to our attention the SNP’s approach to immigration set out in its White Paper for independence, which was a points based system, rather like that of those British nationalists like Boris Johnson.  But then nationalism is nationalism, innit?

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Crisis? What Crisis? part 2 – the Tories become the workers’ friend

theresaSome people might object to the view expressed in the previous post that the Tories are intent on even more drastic austerity – after all hasn’t the new Chancellor scrapped the target for achieving a budget surplus by 2020?  And as one Tory official is reported to have said – “perhaps only a Tory government can save capitalism from itself.”

And hasn’t Theresa May gone even further than this?  Hasn’t she said she will make capitalism fairer for workers, crack down on corporate greed, promote state intervention, provide for more workers’ rights and put “the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people.”  Hasn’t she criticised uncaring bosses, tax-avoiding multinationals and directors who took out “massive dividends while knowing the company pension is about to go bust”?

Yes of course, she has gone further, but none of these steps are necessary for a Tory government “to save capitalism from itself” and the chances of a Tory government putting “the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people” is zero.  So what is going on?  Is it just a case of ideology being employed, not to unconsciously blind the beholder, but consciously to blind those naive enough to believe Tory lies?

Before I answer this it is useful to make two observations. First, the language of the Tories shows how bankrupt the anti-Corbyn forces in the Labour Party are – afraid to mention class while the Tories outflank them from the left.  Just how much of a future would the Labour Party have if it stood permanently exposed on the left by a Thatcher Mark II?  What future would it have to endlessly repeat an approach symbolised by allowing cuts to disability benefits to go through only for the Tories to then scrap them?  Would the Labour right have wanted to abstain on scrapping them as well?

The second point is that this Tory rhetoric is described, by the same political commentators who got Brexit wrong, as the Tories moving against the Labour Party by ‘moving to the centre ground’.  This is almost as funny as their voting for Cameron while opposing Brexit.  Since when did promoting workers’ rights and cracking down on corporate greed, even if only verbally, been the centre ground – surely this is moving to the left?

And to answer the question – of course it’s moving to the left, and its only became the centre ground since Jeremy Corbyn arrived from Mars to become leader of that part of the British people regarded as swivel-eyed-mad-lefties by the media.  But of course it is also claimed he leads an ineffective opposition – despite him causing the ‘centre ground’ to shift leftwards.

It’s difficult to know whether this ridiculous view of the Tories’ approach is unconscious ideological self-deception – that the political battle is always fought on the centre ground –  without pausing to think just where this ground might be; but I tend to think that it’s more likely to be cover for the fact that the political commentators who write such rubbish know that it’s all Tory rhetoric without any chance of being implemented.  If the Tories have moderated austerity it is only because they fear they have to because, as we have seen, a Tory government is necessary “to save capitalism from itself”, or rather a new Tory government is necessary to save the country from the last Tory government.  But then, even the last Tory government carefully implemented austerity and extolled its virtues only to ensure it could continue as a political weapon and as an economic policy option that fitted an ideological agenda.  They were well aware, or at least some of them were, of the limits of a policy that involved bleeding the patient to death.

The case for this new Tory tilt to the left being a conscious attempt to blind those naive enough to believe Tory lies is supported for two reasons.  First, a ‘sovereign’ UK outside the EU will slip down the global power rankings like a stone.  It will be too big to ignore but too small to decisively shift its environment to its benefit.  The EU cannot afford to indulge its delusions of greatness because it’s big enough to matter but not big enough to influence the EU to submit to its claims or demands.  Some Tories might believe it can trade with the rest of the world while turning its back on those next door – that it already has almost half its trade with – but it requires outside investment to pay its way and this can only come through modelling itself as an attractive centre for foreign investment.

To do this will not entail the reassertion of British sovereignty but will expose its weakness and expose its lack of sovereignty.  The inability of relatively small and even medium sized states to interact in the world mainly to their benefit is precisely why larger economic blocs like the EU were formed.  The world will not change its rules because the British don’t like them.  The British state will therefore become weaker with less capacity to intervene and the economy it has to intervene into will be even more in need of assistance.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Crisis? What Crisis? part 1 – blinded by ideology

cameronOne of the very few things that has made me smile in the whole Brexit debacle has been the leader writers and columnists of the financial press, including the ‘Financial Times’ and ‘The Economist’.  Brexit is almost universally regarded by these people as a disaster and some have blamed David Cameron for being a reckless gambler and bringing them to their current predicament.

Yet it is these same commentators, who represent some of the most class conscious spokespeople for capitalism, who supported the Tories in the last election and who, when they did so, supported the only people who could make this whole disaster for them possible.  It is normal for these self-regarding experts, who prize their analytical capacity and steely objectivity, to damn the Left in any of its forms for being ideologically driven but in this case it is abundantly clear that they have been blinded by the own ideology.  If Cameron gambled, they gambled on the gambler – one derivative they shouldn’t have bought.

These commentators and the markets they service are now being dragged kicking and screaming to a ‘hard’ Brexit while their Tory favourites declare, in complete stupidity, that there is no such thing as a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit.  Not only are the Tories not pushing for as open a trade relationship as possible and selling the importance of this to their electorate, while making vaguer and vaguer promises on limiting immigration; they are doing the opposite – signalling the primary importance of halting free movement of people and acceptance of worse trade terms from the EU as a result.  The drastic restrictions on immigration floated by some Tories are also not in the interests of big capitalists, who want as wide a labour market as possible from which to hire and fire.

One of Cameron’s allies in Cabinet is supposed to have said of the referendum that “it will be all about jobs and the economy and it won’t even be close.”  Now it’s all about immigration.  Except of course that beneath the political fog lies a reality that will bite regardless – and it will still include jobs and the economy.

Not that this reality is understood by everyone on the left.  In a monumental tribute to how ideology can also blind some ‘Marxists’ to reality we can turn to the most recent considerations on Brexit from the Socialist Workers Party.

This organisation supported Brexit and thought that, if it was all for the best possible reasons, changing one letter and calling it Lexit would make a difference.

It defends, if that is actually the right word, its support for Brexit by saying this was for two reasons – “first, and as a matter of principle, we oppose the EU as an engine for imposing neoliberalism. . .” – although it doesn’t then go on to explain just how this ‘principle’ did any good.  Or how one of the most neoliberal states in the EU – Great Britain – was an alternative.

The second reason is that “Brexit would cause a major crisis for British and, to a lesser degree, world capitalism.  This latter judgement has been vindicated.”  So it would appear that the SWP is happy it called Brexit right.

Regular readers of the blog will note that this view of crisis is one that I have criticised over a number of posts, starting with this one.  It is based on a view that since capitalism will be weakened and exposed by crises, and crises provides the opportunity to overthrow capitalism, we should be all in favour of such crises because we can demonstrate that we are right to condemn capitalism and right that it must be overthrown.  Such a view starts from what is bad for the system, not what is good for the working class; from what you are against and not from what you are for; does not understand that we have had plenty of capitalist crises and will have plenty more and none of them have so far brought about socialist revolution; that for crises to be the catalyst for socialism there must be some prior conditions in existence, including the level of the working class’s social power and class consciousness.  Failing all this, the desire for capitalist crisis is just light-minded political vandalism, a million miles from working class people who do not want to be the victims of such crises.

But the SWP can’t even get this story right.  They claim that Brexit will cause a major crisis for the British and also, to a lesser extent, for world capitalism but believe that this may or may not have an impact on economic growth; in other words on the accumulation of capital and everything that goes with it – profits, wages, jobs and standard of living etc.  So we are expected to believe that Brexit will cause a major crisis but it may not have any economic impacts!

It’s as if they don’t want to admit to the consequences of their actions, in so far as they bear a tiny responsibility for Brexit, but don’t want to appear as delusional as the Tory xenophobes who claim there will be no bad economic results.  For the SWP, their light-mindedness sticks out a mile when they simply state that “the truth is that one can argue the toss about this.”  Well maybe they should have argued the toss before Brexit and told their supports just what the economic consequences of Brexit might be.

Denying reality now involves ignoring falls in the value of sterling, which increases the cost of living for workers.  The external current account deficit is running at 6 per cent, the largest since the second world war, illustrating the impact of higher import costs on workers and also the funding needs to cover it that might drive up interest rates.  On top of this we can consider the effects on jobs of disruption to trade and investment arising from reduced access to exports, dearer imported inputs and reduced foreign investment.

Once again it’s important to state that there is no point ignoring the realities of capitalism and the harmful effects on workers of its difficulties if you don’t have an alternative to defend workers’ interests when these difficulties occur.  Socialists do not declare ‘bring it on’ to capitalist crises, not least because capitalism has never lost the knack of ‘bringing it on’ all by itself.

If the working class had strong, militant union organisation ready to challenge companies making pay cuts or ready to sponsor the take-over of companies declaring redundancies then it would be in a better position to defend itself.  If the working class had developed its own cooperative, worker-owned sector and was in a position to extend its scale when capitalism suffered a setback then a major crisis might herald radical change.  But it isn’t and it faces economic dislocation with a capitalist state headed by a governing party hell-bent on increasing neoliberal policies.

to be continued

The scripted reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory

corbynwinsimages (12)The scripts say it all.  Boffy’s blog has recorded two Tory spokespeople giving identical responses on television to the victory of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party.  Looking at the BBC web site the SNP leader gave two identical answers to two different questions.  They’ve worked out their script beforehand and they’re sticking to it and it ain’t that impressive.

The Tories now know they have an opposition as opposed to competition.  Warning about the dire consequences of some things that many people actually agree with opens up the debate beyond the previous claustrophobic confines of what passed for politics.  They, the Labour Party, are a “serious risk” say the Tories.

Well so much for having no chance of being elected.

Watching the BBC and its litany of Blairite talking heads warning of the problems ahead isalmost amusing – picking a shadow cabinet, prime minister’s questions – how will he cope?; no experience – like has he ever helped pump up a credit bubble; and – the bit I’ve just watched – printing money!!  “The voters don’t understand the technicalities but they know it doesn’t make sense” says a Blair advisor, and you can be sure he doesn’t want them to know either.  Let’s just forget the Blair government’s presiding over a deregulated city that allowed banks to create massive amounts of money that dwarf the Corbyn plans for useful investment.

The BBC questions his ability to keep the Labour Party together after getting almost 60 per cent of the vote, while letting the potential right wing splitters off the hook.

The answer of the SNP leader was also scripted and like all good career politicians she stuck to it, regardless of the question.  She wants a progressive alliance with Labour against Tory cuts, which admits the initiative is really with Labour and only it has the power to defeat the Tories.

Still, while saying she wants an alliance she manages also to say the opposite – “it is clearer than ever that the only credible and united opposition to the Tories, actually north and south of the border, is the SNP”.

Does anyone think that makes any sense?  United – north and south of the border? The Scottish National Party?

All talk of the SNP wanting the Labour party to succeed in opposing the Tories is obvious nonsense. Where would the nationalist platform stand if the Labour Party actually defeated the Tories?

To be fair Nicola Sturgeon explains why it’s nonsense in the short 1 minute 18 second interview – “if Labour cannot quickly demonstrate that they have a credible chance of winning the next UK general election, many more people in Scotland are likely to conclude that independence is the only alternative to continued Tory government.”

Which is of course exactly what the SNP wants.

What about the SNP quickly demonstrating that it will oppose austerity once in office in Scotland?  Or are we to forget they have actually been in it for over 8 years?

So “we no longer have Red Tories” the journalist said – ouch! So Sturgeon repeats the BBC line – “the reality today is that, at a time when the country needs strong opposition to the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn leads a deeply, and very bitterly, divided party.”

So does the SNP want Jeremy to defeat the right wing of the party?  Or would it suit its purposes better for it to remain divided?  But since only a British Labour Government could scrap Trident as opposed to just shift it down the road where does that leave the apparent radical credentials of the SNP?  If nationalism sees itself getting stronger on the back of the working class movement failing isn’t it maybe time the left supporters of nationalism had a rethink?

Texting away to my daughter today I warmly welcomed the election of Jeremy Corbyn, said there was hope and quoted an old socialist slogan ‘lotta continua’ –the struggle continues.  But perhaps this is not quite right.

Jeremy Corbyn is not a revolutionary and his platform of ‘people’s quantitative easing’ is not that radical (see here and here) as he himself admits, and getting corporations to pay their taxes while saying the current taxes on the banks are about right, is not earth shattering.

But what it may be is eye opening and the beginning of something bigger.  So it’s not that the struggle continues but that in an important way it is beginning, and beginnings always bring hope.

Of course the left is always characterising whatever it does as the beginning, often to hide the fact that what it is doing is the same as before and it is failing, or it is actually the end and has already failed.

But you can’t really say that about the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour party.

 

 

The UK general election part 2: DIY austerity

8841963_origDuring the election, instead of selling themselves as a vote for independence the SNP presented themselves as the leaders of Scotland’s opposition to austerity who would make the new Labour Government keep true to its word of opposing austerity.  As I have and others have said, this was a lie.  The SNP opposed a vote for Labour in England and Wales since they supported the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  So where was this Labour Government to come from?

The SNP vote cannot therefore be characterised as any sort of left vote except in the sense I mentioned earlier: that workers often express their interests in very distorted form.  In this case in the form of nationalism that put forward the idea that Scots are uniquely opposed to austerity and the English not.  The SNP vote can also be said to be a nationalist one because a nationalist solution to austerity was proposed, even if it was supported by some who would not want to go as far as independence.

If the Scots were uniquely opposed to austerity they would also have demonstrated opposition to the cuts transmitted by their own Scottish parliament led by the SNP.

This party has slipped seamlessly from standing in order to put a backbone into a new Labour Government to the election being “a vote to make Scotland’s voice heard loudly” in Westminster.  Those who think there isn’t really any difference should read the last sentence again.  They should also consider if the SNP in any way contributed to getting the Tories out.  As I have also said before the only Tories they wanted out was the ‘red’ variety.

The absence of Labour in Government, which they said would be reliant on them, now means their real reliance on those in power in London is exposed.  Like the nationalists that they are the SNP demands privileges that they would not even consider for others.  So the new Tory Government has to listen to the ‘voice of Scotland’ even though they are 50 per cent of Scottish voices with 1.45 million votes.  UKIP on the other hand won 3.88 million votes, over two and half times the SNP vote. Should their voice not be louder?

However, now that the Conservatives are in Government the SNP will be seeking to cut a deal with them to increase devolved powers – so much for excoriating Labour and their promises not to do deals with the hated Tories.  The Guardian on Saturday reported an SNP advisor saying that Sturgeon will now negotiate with the Tories and that all the repeated promises that the party would never work with the Tories were based on the Conservatives forming a minority coalition government – not an outright majority.

Perhaps this approach seems obvious to SNP supporters but it isn’t at all obvious to anyone else.  If, as it claimed, it stood in this election against austerity why isn’t it trying to cut a deal on reducing austerity instead of more constitutional powers?

The election demonstrated that the SNP and Conservative Party were good for each other.  The inherently anti-English message of independence produced an anti-Scottish response led by the Tories and UKIP who were able to argue that a Labour Government in hock to a party bent on destruction of their nation was a mortal danger.  Both the Tories and SNP knew what they were doing in this mutual loathing.

Now, as the mutually beneficial conflict between the rival nationalisms continues to play itself out, it will become clear that English nationalism is bigger and uglier – because England is bigger and nationalism throwing its weight about is always ugly.

Boris Johnson has advocated giving the SNP greater devolved powers for the Scottish parliament – “some kind of federal offer”.  This is not such a novel departure since the Tories were already more radical than Labour before the referendum in what they promised as devolution in place of separation.

An offer by the Tories of full fiscal autonomy would call the SNP’s bluff since they know full well that Scotland could not afford such an arrangement given the fall in oil prices.  In effect it would be DIY austerity.

The SNP will argue that it wants any new arrangement to maintain current levels of financing.  In other words a settlement that allows Scotland the benefit of higher oil prices should they return but no down side when they don’t.  The English oppressors in the meantime will have to subsidise higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland.

When the Tories make mincemeat of these demands the SNP can then make the case that the dastardly anti-Scottish Tories are at it again and only independence will allow them to borrow more, make savings on Trident and make the independence sums add up again irrespective of the oil price.  Something they haven’t been very convincing at doing so far.

In the meantime increased tax and spending powers may allow the SNP led Scottish parliament to cut corporation tax, as will the Stormont administration in Belfast with the new tax varying powers that the Tories have already promised.  They can then unite with their Celtic cousins in the Irish State in a joint project of cutting each other’s throat.

The debate has begun on what the lessons are for Labour with the Blairites already dominating the media agenda that Ed Miliband was too left wing.

Such an argument hardly squares with the Labour rout in Scotland and nor with Labour gains in London.  It was obvious when Miliband became leader that he had to distance himself from the Blair legacy of the Iraq war and the obsequious defence to the city of London and the financial interests behind the crash.  We’re now asked to believe that a return to this politics is the way back.

Such a policy would have led the Labour Party into an even more confused message than it already had and would have left it with little or nothing to distinguish itself from a Tory Party promising deficit reduction, tax cuts and more money for the health service.

Even the rise of UKIP and the part of its vote that was taken from Labour cannot be seen as an endorsement of a move right.  In this case just how far right would you have to move to rival the xenophobic policies of that lot?

I remember two weeks ago listening to a vox pop on radio 4 from a constituency in the North of England.  A young man was saying he was voting UKIP as a protest against Labour even though he did not at all agree with UKIP policies because he wanted Labour to be more left wing!  I’m not for a moment suggesting that the working class UKIP vote is a left wing protest but some of it is a working class vote that is Labour’s to win.  These voters are not all irredeemably reactionary.  It is rather another example of some workers expressing their class interests as they see them, in a very distorted and disfigured way.

They are demoralised workers who blame immigrants, foreigners or Europe, or simply the establishment understood in some vague way, for the precarious position they find themselves in.

These people did not vote Tory and they did not do so because demoralised or not they don’t confuse their interest with those of the Tory classes and their smarmy representatives.  They just can’t identify their position with an uninhibited and robust defence of their class interests from a socialist perspective.  Perhaps because they haven’t been presented with it or because they have grown cynical with promises of it in the past that haven’t been delivered on.

There is no Blairite answer to workers who blame immigrants for lack of affordable housing, low wages, unemployment and failing health and education services.  There is a left wing answer and however weak it may be from a Marxist perspective it certainly makes more sense than voting UKIP.

The parliamentary arithmetic looks very bad for Labour, behind the Tories by almost 100 seats and suffering almost complete wipe-out in Scotland.  But that is only half the story.

Their vote increased by more than the Tories, and that despite the losses in Scotland.  They may trail by 99 seats but they lag only by 6.5 percentage points of the vote.  The Tories are not in as strong a position as they appear.

First they have a small majority and second they are about to go through a debate about Europe that has the potential to split them extremely badly.  This will take place most likely against the backdrop of gloomy economic news and growing unpopularity as the reality of their election promises come home to roost.  Cameron may seek to provide raw meat to the most Thatcherite elements of his party in order to provide himself with some room to keep the UK inside the EU.

Right now the opportunity exists to have a debate in front of working people about the wide range of policies that they need to advance their interests.  This arises from the debate on who will be the replacement leadership of the Labour Party.  It will not of course be a debate pitting a pure revolutionary programme (however understood) against a cowardly watered down Keynesianism.  But what could ever lead anyone to expect that?  This is where the working class is at and no amount of wishful thinking will make it otherwise.

Will those organisations claiming to be Marxist be able to place themselves in the middle of this debate?  Will they even want to? The debate will happen anyway and many will look to it for a new way forward beyond the despair that the new Tory regime will inevitably create.

The UK general election – part 1: ‘they’re all the same’

images (9)“Were you watching the election last night?” the doorman asked me when I walked into work on Friday morning.

“Yeah, five more years of Tory cuts”, I answered disconsolately.

“They’re all the same”, he said.

A common enough view.  Certainly the view of the left who stood for election, hoping for a vote while realistically knowing that they had no chance of being elected and discounting the effect of taking votes away from the Labour Party.

But not the view of others.

‘The Guardian’ reported that once the result became clear bank shares went up as the threat of more restrictive regulation receded and higher taxes on bankers’ bonuses loomed less large.

Around £1billion was added to the value of the energy company Centrica with the disappearance of the prospect of tougher rules in the energy sector.  The share value of companies that provide outsourced services (privatisation to you and me) also rose, as did those of Sports Direct, whose shares rose by £95m without a Labour threat to their use of zero hours contracts.

“Enquiries came in just after midnight” said one London estate agent, from prospective clients who no longer had to ‘worry’ about Labour’s ghastly mansion tax.  Even bookmakers did well, with Ladbrokes share value rising as the plan to crack down on fixed odds betting terminals, the ‘crack cocaine’ of the industry, disappeared, as Labour’s promise of a crackdown became a ripped up betting slip.

But the report in the ‘Financial Times’ on Saturday put it best, beginning its article like this. .

“. . as the surprise exit poll results came in shortly after 10pm on Thursday night, the mood in the Cavalry and Guards club on Piccadilly turned from funereal to one of incredulous celebration.”

“Earlier in the evening , diners at the Mayfair gentlemen’s club had wallowed in gallows humour as they declared that the election result could mark a fin d’époque for the wealthy in London. . . This stiff upper lip turned to genuine joy as it transpired that the fortunes of the Conservative party had exceeded both the opinion polls and the party’s wildest dreams.”

“This could turn into the biggest celebration ever”, said one Tory supporter. . “We can cancel the removal vans. Non-doms watching the exit polls are unpacking their bags”, said his friend.”

All overstated of course, but those who won’t acknowledge any truth in the report are blowing out of the wrong end.

In some ways I find such reports reassuring.  The super-rich, the real capitalist class, are daily invisible and even the reports of their reaction to the result are through their minions who sell their shares for them or sell them houses or advise them and the rest of us that higher taxes for the rich are a jolly bad thing.

These reports reveal the existence and power of those behind the system, who benefit most from its inequality, and provide glimpses of the class structure within the capitalist mode of production.

While the thought of champagne-popping celebrations in London gentlemen’s’ clubs are valuable because they provide an instinctive and visceral view of what the election victory means it really is no more than that.  The existence and power of the capitalist class, which can appear rather abstract and esoteric in Marxist analysis, is impersonal and largely invisible not only because we don’t run across the mega-rich every day but because it is the system itself which is the problem.  The super-rich are just the personalised expression of the social relations of the system, just as the rich hangers-on of these people such as the estate agents, city dealers and tax advisors represent themselves as the appearance of their mega-rich clients.

Understanding the system and how it works and what the alternative to it is are therefore fundamental.  Understanding the class nature of society and what side you’re on is what’s called class consciousness and it is oddly reassuring that at least one section of society understands theirs.

However the impersonal and systematic nature of capitalism makes this difficult for workers and in so far as they do recognise their own interests this is often expressed in distorted ways. Sometimes very distorted ways, as shown in the election results.

So a lot of the explaining of the election result takes off from the appearance that, for example, Miliband was a bit of a geek and Cameron much more Prime Ministerial.  While Sturgeon, a career politician in the Scottish parliament since 1999, is genuine and sincere and not like the other career politicians; one who could be trusted not so much despite the record of the SNP in Government but sometimes in more or less total ignorance of it.

At only a slightly more sophisticated level of analysis it is claimed that the election was lost because Labour did not have a coherent narrative.  They allowed the Tories to get away with lying that the recession was a ‘Labour recession’ caused by excessive Government spending instead of a financial crisis that affected the world.  They had a confused message that promised to reduce the deficit but also to protect public services and they appeared to both stand for and not stand for robust social-democratic politics.  All very true of course but hardly convincing by itself.

After all, if Labour sent mixed messages the Tory story was beyond belief. They waved the big scary deficit monster in everyone’s faces while promising to pass a law that appeared to prevent them from putting up taxes.

They were going to cut welfare, and not in a nice way either, but nobody would really get hurt, or rather they refused to say who would get hurt.  They had done it before they said and therefore could be relied upon to do it again.  Their record spoke for itself they said, except their record on welfare cuts didn’t at all support their claims.

While the deficit was their number one priority and hard choices had to be made they were still going to cut taxes and give the NHS an increase of £8 billion!  Was anyone supposed to believe this rubbish?

If they looked like they were confident of winning, while almost no one believed they would, it had to be because Eton and all the other posh schools they go to teach smarmy self-confidence and born to rule self-belief, while their management of the economy would appear to reflect that PPE at Oxford now means a piss poor education.

At a more persuasive level it has been argued that the improving economy allowed the Tories to claim that their austerity policies were working, and Labour appeared to have no convincing rebuttal to such claims.  In some respects therefore the Tories got lucky.  The recent upturn is very likely to be very temporary as the most recent figures for economic growth herald the downturn to come.  The recent upturn has therefore been based on short-term cyclical movements and one-off factors.

To really be able to rebut the Tories on this point would therefore have required a more advanced understanding of economic development than Labour was ever going to argue for, and frankly a more advanced understanding than many workers show themselves ready for at the moment.

It is nevertheless true, that despite these problems, the fact is that for many austerity has not ‘worked’ and has still led to the longest period of falling living standards for a very long time regardless of the latest limited improvement.

Finally it has been argued that the Labour party was caught between competing nationalisms in Scotland and England.  This would appear obvious but if you really believed the claims of the SNP it’s not.  This is because the SNP stated that the general election was not about independence.  They stated this because despite all the hype, the SNP lost the referendum, they might lose it again if they tried to have another one soon and they know they have perhaps only one more chance.  The sharp drop in the price of oil since the last one means the independence sums don’t add up.

The Left against Europe 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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