Friday, 28 September 2012

A new culture needed

I have just been listening to a Spanish woman interviewed by a reporter on the Radio 4 Today news programme.  She was a demonstrator in Madrid this week. She said -

'The banks are to blame. The politicians are just their puppets.' The reporter was puzzled though. He wondered aloud why the Spanish marchers had posters protesting at the City of London and the laissez-faire of the Bank of England.

Just after that item, came news about a report on the latest 'scandal' in the City of London - when all the top bankers fiddled the Libor Rate for personal and for institutional gain.

'Maybe it is already illegal' opined the business correspondent, commenting on the proposal from a new report - that the banker's vast fraud, involving setting false interest rates for £3 Trillion's worth of business across the globe, should be dealt with by passing a new law against this sort of crime.

'What actually has to be done,' the correspondent went on in an insider tone 'is to change the banking culture.'

No messy court cases and prison sentences then. Just a return to the golden days when a banker's word was his bond.

Hang on a minute.

Most of the top notch bankers went to Eton, Harrow, Westminster, St Paul's public schools, like their dads. Most of them ended up at Oxbridge. A few had the luck to join Cameron and Osborne in the Bullendon Club, throwing bread rolls at waiters. You don't get more culture than that in today's Britain. These aren't ill-bred Russian squillionaires who bullied and robbed their way to power and money. Their great, great, great grandfathers did all that. No. This is as good as it gets, culture wise. Yet it turns out that even this elite, even these young Adonises, suckled by their silver spoons, are grubby, vicious, greedy, money loving liars and thieves. The had all the 'culture' - and privileges and insider leg-ups going. Look what they did with it.

For culture; for profound understanding coupled with the expression of simple truth and the courage and moral strength to back it up in her real life, the anonymous Spanish woman has it all.

Monday, 17 September 2012

You say you want a revolution ...

The ruthless redistribution/reduction of wealth inside of the world's working class (see 15 September) - via profit - via global finance - from west to east - chasing the goal of 'equal poverty for all ' - sets the conditions of struggle, of upsurge and of revolt and revolution, for us all. The US worker is now at levels of wealth comparable to their position in 1961. 12 million 'illegal' latino workers take whatever an employer is prepared to pay them under whatever conditions. European workers are being driven backwards. This is the resource that global corporations is using to build the frugal incomes of the millions they are bringing into production for the first time in China and India.

The economic condition of the working class in Western Europe is still buttressed by key pillars of the welfare state and, to some extent, by a vast layer of unproductive workers, either attached to state functions like civil servants, teachers and health workers of all varieties, or who do the electronic spade work for the finance industry. In Britain for example, the share of people in these occupations is 44% of the UK's total workforce (12.7 million now described by government as being in the 'professional, managerial and technical category.) Official reports have taken to describing these workers as 'knowledge workers' as though they produce 'knowledge' rather than types of services. (See 'Britain at Work ...', John Phillpott, Chief Economic Advisor, CIPD, February 2012.)

There is a whole argument to be had (including with some notable Marxists like Negri and Zizek - see 'The Year of Dreaming Dangerously.' Verso 2012) about the increasingly popular (and mystifying) idea of 'knowledge workers.' But we already know - whatever people call them - that this sector in the west  often lead many of the main trade union struggles that take place. Nevertheless, It would be easy (but not inevitable) for these layers to cut themselves off from their class by insisting on privileges over others in accord with their perceived professional status.

Certainly for some time the political elites in Europe (but not in the US) regard this group of workers as providing, ultimately, some of the same safety from revolution that they used to believe came from the massive subsidy and support that they provided for their peasantry and latterly, small farmers, (a view which was the origin of the Common Agricultural Policy - which still accounts for nearly half of EU spending.)

When we look beyond western Europe and the US - lurching as they are towards their own multiple crises of economics, of politics, of identity - at the upsurges, revolts and revolutions that are happening in the world today, there are common themes emerging which hold up a window to the future for us all.

Throughout the rebellions in North Africa, in Venezuela, Mexico and Greece there has been a living assumption among those who take to the streets that they are entitled to conditions of life which, they believe, are common among the advanced western countries. There is a definite image alive among the protestors. They do not believe that the conditions of their own nation or nationality provide the boundaries for their hopes or for their rights. They want modern hospitals and schools available to all. They want economies that provide jobs, reasonable incomes and security. They do not believe that anybody is more entitled than they are to these things because they live somewhere else. They are the first rebels in history who have a very concrete image of what they think is possible. That image is of course a distortion of the truth in that the economies of the west are built to serve the rich but under different conditions than their own. They are imagining that an economy can be built that would serve the majority. They are dreaming of an economy built, not for its own sake, but for human progress. They have, as they see it, a global standard to aim for.

Disenfranchisement is a vital component of current revolutionary thought and action. In North Africa the form it takes, against autocratic regimes, is obvious. In Venezuela and Columbia it is the disenfranchisement of the indigenous (majority) Indian population. In Greece it is the `troika's' role in internal Greek affairs. At its revolutionary best, the fight against disenfranchisement leads to democratic and universal demands rather than a fight for one ethnic or religious group supplanting another.

The political focus in all these cases, in 'democratic' Greece as much as totalitarian Egypt, is for a new government. New leaderships are defined by millions engaged in these battles as a precondition for progress. There is an implicit, and sometimes explicit rejection of older oppositions and traditional objectors. They seem to be as much tied to the old conditions as the ruling groups, parties and juntas. It is as though only the whole people can decide who will lead - not history - not prior records. Everything must be judged with fresh eyes. (Which is not to say that when whole societies do get to vote there will not be more conservative social strata who make their judgments based on much more limited perspectives of immediate self interest.)

There are deep social and political processes at work in countries where global trends meet and blow previous societies apart. We must come back to them, over and over again. But are there some lessons that the anti-capitalist left, here in the west, might draw initially?

In parts of Western Europe (Greece, Portugal, Ireland and now Spain) the national-democratic issue takes the form of opposition to the IMF's, the EU's and the World Bank's austerity programmes and stimulates active, mass opposition. In Britain the degree to which popular sovereignty is overwhelmed by the drives and ambition of the City makes for an economic-democratic thread among those who actively oppose austerity. It is exactly the same issue. Who has power over the direction of the economy and therefore over politics? Given the global face of the capitalist system there will always be a national-democratic flavour to its opposition, especially among peripheral countries (which opens its own dangers.)

The desire for a different political leadership is utterly mainstream throughout the West. The left needs to find ways of linking this deeply held and well judged attitude, held by tens of millions, with the basic right of a secure, comfortable life. For example in Britain, the organised left outside the Labour Party have long seen a potential National Government as a key political instrument of the right, a result perhaps of the historical experiences in that field. A national government is still a fall back position for Britain's rulers even now, should there be another stage in the economic collapse. But it perhaps for the left to call for a 'new National Government', where the political leadership can be completely renewed in order to reorganise, renovate and re-power the economy, save the NHS and reverse inequality.

Studying real facts and testing the conclusions. There is no alternative.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

What dominates the world?

Easy. Capitalism.

But the paradox is that the system of economics and politics created by capitalism has lost its forward momentum. At its peak: a few countries; a few banks; controlled most of the world. Those power relationships, at their imperialist height, have broken up. Vast new lands, territories, countries, and billions of people, have been able to break out of the crushing the backwardness imposed by someone else's empire. New markets have spun away from the traditional metropolitan centres in the west and torn millions from backward and backbreaking labour on the land. Those millions have subsequently been funneled into new forms of servitude in the city slums for sure. But with that transition potentially came a new sort of hope - and power.

Previous blogs (see September 3 and 8) asked why the left that stands for the overthrow of capitalism has not therefore become stronger? The fact is, it barely exists in the mainstream of our society.

Let's start with basics. Let's start with who will lead the overturn of capitalism and why. Not in abstract. Not in theory. In reality. Who are the actual people that, in the bitterness and struggle of their actual existence, will act, will need to act, to put an end to the way we live now?

A massive economic redistribution across the globe is currently underway. Nothing to do with better shares of wealth between different classes. No. Redistribution of wealth between classes is in a worse condition than it ever was. The economic redistribution going on is virtually entirely within the subordinate classes. There is both an horizontal and a vertical aspect to this redistribution; both a geographical movement and also an internal economic shift between different layers inside the working class. Marxists used to write and say about the British Empire in the 1900s that it 'exported' its domestic social violence and repression to its empire. Just as some eastern and southern countries have broken out of some of the historical restraints through which imperialism forced their under-development in the past, so certain third world conditions are now being 'exported' back to western countries and producing a mass movement of millions of labour within the global working class.

Part time workers, agency workers, short-contract workers; those in service, in care support; new slave labour in the sex 'industry', in domestic drudgery, that need to flit between criminal employers or who get chained to them, are the underbelly of the new western economy. Overwhelmingly, these workers are immigrants. They often exist outside any legal framework. Estimates vary but these forms of labour constitute between 10 and 30% of many western countries' economic activity. In 2000, the euphemistically named 'informal economy', averaged 41% in developing countries, 38% in transition countries and 18% in OECD countries. (Friedrich Schneider, July 2002). Capitalism - red in tooth and claw. And the drive for more and more 'labour flexibility' by the dominant classes against indigenous workforces is, in essence, designed to push bigger and bigger sections of the western working class into what people used to call 'third world' conditions. And it is small businesses that are at the centre of all of the political and economic establishment's 'drive for growth'. Why? Because they are the engine room of labour 'flexibility.'

In Britain an RSA and Community Links report (September 13) found that twenty per cent of small business owners had traded 'informally' (read illegally) when they started their company. Of these: nearly half (48 percent) of all respondents cited red tape as one of the biggest individual factors in preventing entrepreneurs from being able to register their business. Thirty-four per cent identified high business and personal taxes as a major barrier to getting legal. The report argues that 'learning from countries overseas' authorities charged with tackling undeclared work 'should take a radically different approach and that more should be done to support people to register their businesses.' The report (and there are two more to come) does not mention labour conditions - but that is what employers mean by 'red tape.'

Also in Britain there are now 4.7 million workers providing 'personal services', nearly half a million in 'sport and recreation', nearly a million in call centres, 1.2 million in bars and restaurants, over 4 million are self employed and nearly half a million in 'human relations'. (There were 20,000 in 1952.) This segment of the workforce amounts to nearly 12 million workers (out of 32 million).  7 million workers in Britain now work for small businesses. And, as a recent report comments, despite a massive increase in the population and in the number of workers as a proportion of the overall population since the 1950s, (77% of the population are in work today as compared with 60% in the 1950s) the share of wealth of all workers has gone down by 5%, particularly since the 1980s. The share of wages in the UK's GDP is now 53% compared to 58%, 50 years ago -
"with profit earners (sic) rather than wage earners taking a bigger share of the national income." And the level of inequality between different groups of workers has also dramatically increased in the last 30 years. ('Britain at Work ..."John Phillpott, Chief Economic Advisor, CIPD, February 2012.)

Meanwhile, and not by coincidence, trade union membership has dropped to 6.5 million (out of 32 million workers) to 20% of the workforce.

This pattern of employment, and of under-employment (19% of households are 'workless' in Britain., see above report) looks, on the surface, much like the patterns of work that used to be found in traditionally under-developed economies. A small manufacturing base, a huge 'service' sector, no employment or under employment, a large informal/illegal sector, a highly mobile workforce, deeply unequal conditions and wages within the working class, even the large, low grade white collar sectors are typical of some of the traditional economies of south east Asia like India and Sri-Lanka. This structure and shape of the UK's economy does not yet share the same content of the similar structure and shape to be found in colonial and semi-colonial countries. Living standards are still far higher in the west - albeit in relative decline. Considerable parts of a welfare state and pension system remain to be toppled. Nevertheless, a massive redistribution of wealth within the global working class is going on, coupled with a similar process between different sectors of workers within countries.

What does this tell us?

The main task of those still within organised labour is to find the routes into a recomposition of the working class as a whole under its new, often desperate conditions and to foment basic organisation. New basic economic organisation may, or may not look like traditional trade unions. Casual workers on the docks and in the building trade found unofficial ways to organise for the best part of the 20th century. Huge white collar political unions organise hundreds of thousands of white collar workers in Sri Lanka. In the past the Chartists organised Hand Loom Weavers in their village cottages and families digging out coal as well as early cotton mill workers from the new towns around 6 political reforms.

Tentative steps have been made by forward thinking unions, for example the RMT's campaign to organise the agency cleaners and Unite's union for the unemployed. But great opportunities have been missed. The last TUC could have turned round the idea of unity of all, in action, for a minimum wage of £10 an hour and the right of all above 16, whatever their employment status, to join a union of their choice, with statutory rights, at a minimum fee.

Much bolder measures are required. And this is the key leadership that the left in the west in general and the UK in particular, must offer. There will need to be a radical re-foundation of what already is. Current TU organisation will not itself do. And there has to be a drive towards new types of organisation suited to a new working class. More than anything else, new ideas for social change will spring out of the battle to build basic organisation of a whole class, based on the concrete conditions of its concrete existence.

Next, we turn to what actual upsurges, real revolts and regime overthrows, are telling us about the content of revolution and the potential for transformation of society today.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Thinking aloud (allowed.)

By the organised left I mean that part of the left outside the great, empty, shambling relics of European Social Democracy. (See 'Where are we when you need us?' - September 3.) Since 1989 that organised left has to include the remnants of the communist parties that are still in shock following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, but which have remained semi-active - albeit often leaning on their legacy of outworn formulas from their pre-1989 history.

The political left, now including the CPs, and the various groups that have tied themselves in the past to Trotsky, has either become, or as in the case of Britain, remained, marginal to the mainstream of politics and society - especially in Europe -  for the last 65+ years.

In the course of 65 years every political tactic, from 'entry' into Labour Parties, to the creation of new anti-capitalist parties, to unity of all the left groups and every possible tactical variation in between, has been tried by one or other of these formations. They have all been designed to allow said group, party or league 'to fill the vacuum' left behind by social democracy as it has collapsed to the right and become, at best, a modernised version of a second rank, ruling class party. Sadly, 'the vacuum' has not been helpful enough to suck up any of these left organisations into the political space now apparently deserted by what were once seen as the main mass parties of socialism. There are of course partial exceptions for limited periods. The Dutch left are a still a powerful force. Rifondazione and Izquierda Unida in Italy and Spain have had their moments - inheriting what remained of the left base of the defunct mass communist party tradition in those countries.

From time to time left organisations do play a leading role in what genuinely become mass campaigns - even in Britain. The Anti-Nazi League and the Poll Tax rebellion were two such moments.

But notwithstanding these valuable efforts, the fact is that even in the western European countries with a mass communist party tradition - let alone countries and continents where there are popular upsurges (Venezuela, parts of Mexico, parts of North Africa,etc,) - none of the old formations of what we have known as the organised left play a significant role in mainstream politics.


Some of it is undoubtedly self inflicted. An old comrade said in a meeting recently. 'Britain may have a shortage of socialists, but no shortage of Lenins ...' Behind the joke is a sad sectarian, not to mention ego-centric truth. More broadly most of the left outside Social Democracy is organised around the idea of transformation of society which owes everything to the extraordinary example of the Russian Revolution. This triumph for humanity teaches much - but not necessarily in its types of political organisation, or the permanent nature of the revolutionary classes of the time. These are the features of the situation of the least importance to revolutionary theory and practice 100 years later. In the 1960s and 70s some of the left in the west and Latin America turned to China, to the the peasantry, to rural guerrilla warfare and to Cuba. They wanted to repeat their version of the Cuban example. Same mistake. The genius of Cuban revolutionaries was to find their own way - starting from addressing the very concrete needs of the Cuban people.

In Britain and the US we see another feature of this dependence on interpretation of revolutionary history - just as religious scholars discuss the meaning of verses in their holy books. There is a vision of the forces that will carry forward the change of society which owes more to nostalgia than anything else. The global transformation of the working class, demographically, culturally, politically has bypassed the now traditional left. It is ignored or denied.

But these mistakes only hint at the problems the traditional left face.

What do we learn from Lenin after he 'hit the books in 1914 and 1915?' (See above.) Start from the beginning. What was needed to change the world? Where had the international contradictions created their weakest link? Russia. What sort of change was needed in the Russian Empire?  The overthrow of Czarism and feudal relations in the country. Which Russian classes would actually be prepared do that? A peasant revolt supported by a worker's revolt in the cities. How could they be joined together? A workers and peasants government. Which class would lead? That would be decided in and by the revolution itself. From that moment onwards the Russian revolutionaries studied and supported, in the minute detail, every movement, every change, every flicker of life in the struggle of the classes that they had identified. The concrete analysis of the concrete situation.

How were mass parties of labour formed in the West, in Africa, in Latin America? They were not summoned into existence by abstract declarations. They were part of a tremendous upheaval (of the sort we have all witnessed in the last 25 years) in the fundamental organisation of the working class. By the 1880s and 1890s a series of countries, mainly in western Europe had created vast new concentrations of labour, with regimes of labour discipline and contracts to match. Trade unions went from being the expression of collaborationist skilled groups of labour defending their relative privileges from dilution, to mass formations, representing all who laboured, industry by industry. The new Labour Parties were an integral part of that process - of basic organisation of newly organised layers of a newly recognised working class. In some countries the parties formed the union federations. In Britain it was the reverse. But the parties were an organic part of a huge new development inside the working class. They gave a certain political expression to that new reality.

Where is any sense in the left today of how it fits in with need to renew basic organisation of the class that it aspires to lead?  Where is the reflection on the weaknesses in size and role of traditional trade unionism and proposals and action to reach out to newly 'proletarianised' people? Where is any sense of how social transformation fits into the modern world; how it will come about; which social classes will lead it?  

Next: some suggestions about a new 'concrete analysis of the concrete situation.'


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Let's get 'flexible.' Start by bending your knee.

George Osborne may have been booed by the crowd at the Paralympics, but Britain's economic performance has received a rare accolade from the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum, which says the UK is now the eighth most competitive country in the world.

The UK's flexible labour market – making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers – is singled out as a strength by the WEF, which says "the country improves its performance in several areas, benefiting from clear strengths such as the efficiency of its labour market, in sharp contrast to the rigidity of those of many other countries." (WEF Report 4 September.)

Next day Save the Children announced on its website
"Right now, in this country children are going to school hungry because they don't get a proper breakfast. They go through winter without a warm coat or a decent pair of shoes. Some even have to sleep on a damp mattress on the floor because they don't have their own bed. This is child poverty in the UK today. But together we can make sure children get a better deal. Support our work here at home and help us give every child in Britain a chance." (StC website 5 September.)

The same day the Troika that run Greece decided that it would be good if the Greeks were 'more flexible' too.
"Greece's international lenders have suggested measures that include increasing the working week to six days. The unofficial proposal is reportedly contained in a leaked document from the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank." (ABC News 5 September.)

It was explained by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC'c economic correspondent (BBC News 5 September) that this was just a step in the direction of greater labour flexibility. Greek workers could now 'choose' to work 6 days a week. (Greeks already work, on average, 2000 hours a year compared with the 1400 that German employees work. All Greek employees - including part time - work an average of 42.2 hours a week. The EU average is 37.4 and Germans work 35.6 hours.) (Guardian December 2011.)

But after all, Greek people only have to look at the UK to see the benefits of further bending the knee.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Where are we when you need us?

I left on a gloomy note at the end of my last blog. Here comes the symphony.

I've been banging on for months about capitalism's great crisis and its serious, even historical, weaknesses - the possibilities if you like, of a fundamental change of direction for human civilisation. If anything I've minimised the system's structural weakness. But, of course, the real issue is the crisis of the left.

The facts, as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (look him up) used to say, are revolutionary. What he meant was that reality, sometimes in all its stark awfulness, insists on being faced. It faces down all theories borrowed from a book, all empty slogans and posturing. If you have a mountain to climb, best to know how high and how difficult the damn thing is.

Just look at three recent facts. 34 striking South African platinum miners were killed by a South African (SA) police force which is run by the ANC. In Brazil a new mass workers party, whose victories opened the current left turn in Latin America, has and still is turning, inexorably, to the right. The Chinese Communist Party has let the market rip at home and, along with South Africa (and Brazil) has created one of the most unequal societies on earth - and the greatest social unrest of any society in the world - according to UN figures. (SA is second.)

I could have picked a hundred examples of 'failures' of the left since 1989. Social Democracy appears finished - organising its own suicide - in its home continent of Europe, leaving behind millions who are defenseless. And I am not ignoring new struggles - in North Africa and the Middle East - except to say that the organised left as we have traditionally known it is completely absent from those events. But I picked the three above because all of them have an avowedly revolutionary leadership. All of them see themselves as part of, and trace their own history from, the revolutionary traditions of the 20th century. And in case any followers of Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (look him up) are reading this, you should know that most of the currents that followed him were represented, in one form or another, close to the central leadership of Lula's workers party in Brazil. But, you say, it was your particular brand, with its unique grasp of what the great leader meant, that was absent. Perhaps. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, you share the honours. The organised left, as most of us know it in most continents in the world, has 'failed to grasp the opportunities' as they would say, of the end of the period opened by the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s.

Don't worry. There have been previous collapses and deep failures of the organised left. Nothing new.

Since 1789 and the onset of the French revolution there has been one, overwhelming object of most of  the political activity, of most of the people, of most of the planet, for most of the time; the desire to create a society that serves the interests of the people rather than any (and every) ruling class. It has rarely been made that consciously explicit. But a momentous effort has been made, since then, by millions and billions, under every variety of banner, to make the world a better place. It remains the major unresolved issue of human civilisation. It can be held back, it can be broken up but it will not go away.

There have been two occasions in the last hundred years where this thirst by humanity, a thirst created by the very triumphs of capitalism, was made most explicit, most clear and most direct. These were the  revolutions in Russia in 1917 and the Chinese revolution of 1948. Billions took direct action to end the curses of feudalism, landlordism, famine, the pogroms and of capitalism. One failed and the other is failing. And now the greatest crisis of a weak and flailing capitalism system faces a left that appears to be congenitally unable to represent the next mass surge of action and hope of the toilers of the world for for a new society.

When the huge, mass socialist parties of europe walked into their national parliaments in 1914 and voted in favour of their own nations at the start of WW1 the handful of socialists that remained and who still stood for the pre-war resolutions to call general strikes against any coming conflict, felt as though they had been submerged by a tidal wave. Seemingly everything that they had helped build had been shattered to dust.

What did they do?

Faced with catastrophe - in their own camp - and the inevitable disasters that would (and did) result for millions, they hit the books. That's right. Vladimir Ulyanov went to a Swiss library to (re)read Hegel. He changed his views about Hegel, about Marx, about the coming revolution, about everything.

Now as everybody knows that is not it. These were among the greatest and most successful revolutionaries that the world has ever known. They thought - in order to act. But they thought and rethought - from the very start of things. As the left needs to do now. Quickly. From the very start of things. In order to act.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Can it get much worse?

In the last few days we've been told that The Bank of England's Quantitative Easing programme (QE), where the bank has shoveled more than £325bn into government loans by buying government bonds, has meant that the wealthy do 240 times better out of the process than the poor.

'With 2.5 million households in the poorest 10 per cent and the same number in the wealthiest 10 per cent, that means the richest households gained by an average of £350,000 each from quantitative easing, while the poorest benefited by an average of £1,400 – more than 240 times less.' (Independent 24 August.)

Meanwhile the IMF and its 'advisors' have been issuing reports all summer about the possible nasty effects of government austerity - where is Keynes when you need him? (Last report,'Today' 22 August.) Britain for example, that model of good housekeeping, has seen an annual value of £37bn per year wiped off the value of its economy since the Coalition's policy started. No wonder that the Bullendon boys have doubled George Brown's national debt from £525bn (2008) to £1039bn (2012.)  (

Greece's right wing leadership are asking its paymasters for more time. More time for what? More time to turn a disaster into a tragedy ('Greece does not need a breathing space; it has stopped breathing' - Yanis Varoufakis, Professor of economics at Athens University, 21 August 2012.)

These latest facts and responses to them are hints of a new stage in the crisis. We'll turn to than next.