Populist measures used to hide a pat on the back for bosses and even the TUC turns against workers.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Who am I kidding? The weather sucks, plenty of us can’t afford to turn the heating on and to top it off George Osborne’s been smirking in the papers holding up his red briefcase containing all the evils of the world. (That’s Pandora’s box – Ed.)
So what does Ozzy have in store for us this spring to cure those winter blues? The headline being touted is an advanced delivery of the Lib Dems’ flagship policy: a raise in the Personal Tax Allowance to £10,000. This populist move appears to benefit everyone, especially people on low incomes. However, any support for the move should be critical. The impetus for the new PTA is to create effective demand, i.e. getting people spending, which puts the money we’ve saved through lower taxation into the pockets of businesses on the High Street. Furthermore, the package will act as a state subsidy for poverty wages, meaning businesses do not have to raise wages in line with inflation. Interestingly, our politicians of all stripes neglected to inform us of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s calculations that this year real wages (adjusted for inflation) are down 10% since summer 2010. Of course the tax break on earnings also deflects attention away from the hike in council tax, which helps the government direct the blame for cuts to public services onto local government.
Noticed your boss looking chirpy this week? It’s not just because he can afford 24 hour heating! Osborne has announced that bosses will be rewarded with a £2000-a-year cut in National Insurance contributions, amounting to a £1.25bn tax break. Bosses will presumably have the option of either pocketing the saving or putting more people to work on poverty wages to fuel the company’s profits now that everyone’s got a bit more to spend. Just in case bosses weren’t sure whether or not Christmas really had come early, Osborne ensured no mistake could be made by slashing corporation tax to 20%, which is the lowest rate in the G20.
And for the rest of us? 1p off a pint of beer. Cheers, George!
Sounds like a joke? Unfortunately it isn’t. This is George Osborne trying to show how in-touch he is with the plebs. Sorry, “Britain’s hard workers”. Wondering what the hell’s going on? Having ditched the ‘Big Society’ project, which I’m still not sure most of the front bench ever really understood, the coalition’s new rhetorical device is the ‘Aspiration Nation’. Catchy, eh? The idea as it’s presented is that if we all knuckle down, work hard, do ‘the right thing’, abide the law, marry suitors of the opposite gender and have well-behaved children (though not too many, you benefit scrounger), we can all be upstanding individuals with healthy bank balances. Who says politicians are out of touch with the real world?
First in the government’s blueprint for the ‘Aspiration Nation’ is to make us all property owners. As we may by now suspect, this is not the kind gesture it may appear to be. The government is shelling out £3.5bn over three years in shared equity loans – indicative of serious pump-priming. The idea here is to buck the trend towards private rents, which currently risks increasing demand towards social housing and deflating the housing stock. Of course it’s no problem that house prices are spiralling; the government will just help us take on more debt. This measure has an added bonus for the government; encouraging growth in the ‘home-owner’ demographic will pay dividends in years to come. Typically conservative, economically-stable and individualistic, who better to vote in the next Tory government?
Feeling up against it? Fear not, the trusty Trade Union Council is on our side. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “This budget is the wrong answer to the wrong question. We face a jobs, growth and living standards crisis.” Indeed, growth isn’t quite going how the government had hoped – halved to just 0.6% this year. However, let’s just have a little look at the TUC’s stance on jobs. Recently the TUC announced in relation to the ‘job guarantee’ programme for young workers, “Claimants who turn down a job guarantee job without good cause should face benefit sanctions”. It seems our friends at the helm of the union movement are all for Osborne’s ‘Aspiration Nation’ after all. We should be clear that advocating benefit sanctions supports the narrative of the unemployed as ‘workshy’ versus the ‘hard worker’. This is a shameful piece of divide and rule manoeuvring on the part of the TUC, which serves to reinforce the ideological advancement of theories about the “culture of dependency”, whereby unemployment is apparently a lifestyle choice. Clearly this does not account for the many valid reasons someone may not accept a job, whether ill-health, childcare issues, or indeed: not wanting that job!
I don’t think we should be surprised by anything in the budget. Clearly the government is adopting a pump-priming strategy of cutting taxation and stimulating the housing market, but with benefit sanctions, poverty wages, continued cuts to public services and the proposed welfare reform, it’s going to be another difficult year for the class and a busy year for class-war militants. Pint of beer anyone?
A court ruling deemed the government’s controversial work placement scheme unlawful. Cait Reilly, a recent geology graduate, and Jamieson Wilson, an unemployed HGV driver, took the government to court arguing that under the Department for Work and Pensions’ work placement scheme they were unlawfully forced to work for free for the retail chain Poundland. The court ruled in favour of Reilly and Wilson leading some to think that the government programme is now left in “tatters”.
In reality the programme is still quite safe.
If you look at the outcome more closely, you can see that the court did not have a problem with the government forcing people to do unpaid work. The Mandatory Work Scheme was deemed legal, but the court decided the scheme had been dishonest about the terms of work within it. Reilly and Wilson – and many others still on the work scheme – were not told that the work placement is voluntary or what their rights are under the scheme. In other words, the case was won due to them being misled
into forced work rather than being coerced
into it under the mandatory work schemes. This ruling is hardly the “huge victory for ordinary people” it’s being billed as,
and it is inevitable that the government will rewrite the legislation in order to get around the court ruling, continuing to force unemployed people to work for free.
There are two immediate things that are alarming about the events surrounding the ruling. Firstly, that it was considered a victory in the first place and secondly, the limitations of the anti-workfare campaign – not mutually exclusive, of course. Fighting to get people off forced, unpaid work is important and I don’t want to belittle the campaign for what it is trying to do. But we should remember the fundamental nature of the court ruling: it continues to support the concept of unpaid labour as long as you’ve consented to it. The vital and necessary questions we should now be asking are whether this is actually a victory, and importantly whether calling for an end to workfare is really enough.
The obvious argument in defence of those claims could be that defeating the workfare programme will build class confidence and weaken the Tory government. This could be true, but is undermined by the anti-workfare campaign's lack of building workplace and community resistance to the state or capitalism more generally. The anti-workfare campaign has never pushed its message beyond unpaid labour and has failed to raise the anti-capitalist argument that paid labour is forced
just as much as unpaid labour is. Daily we are forced to work for the financial interests of others for minimum pay. With this message the campaign could hope to gain wider class solidarity by demonstrating that what is happening on the workfare programme is the most extreme expression of the exploitative relationship we workers must endure under capitalism.
Direct action has been credited for the successes of the campaign despite the campaign being willing to call a court
ruling ‘the death of the workfare schemes’. This begs the question of the nature of direct action today. Increasingly direct action is being used as a militant form of protest, ironically to achieve reformist political objectives. There is nothing wrong with using methods of direct action to achieve reforms that improve our lives or help improve the lives of other working class people per se
, but these reforms should not be the end in and of themselves. For anarchist communists, direct action is used in opposition to reformist and parliamentary tactics and against reformist and parliamentary objectives so that we can achieve broad, transformative economic and political objectives. Winning reforms through direct action can help build that class confidence and solidarity, but it is only useful if it has the aim of growing into a collective transformative process for society.
- Albie 
For our international readers the SWP (Socialist Workers’ Party) is a Trotskyist organisation, associated with the International Socialist Tendency based around the ideas of its founder Tony Cliff, and is widely considered to be the largest (and possibly also the most influential) Leninist party in the UK.
The SWP has been in the grip of an internal crisis since the beginning of 2013 when an allegation of rape was levelled against a senior member of the party Martin Smith (referred to as “Comrade Delta” in internal party communications). This allegation was handled by the convention of a kangaroo court – a disputes committee consisting of senior party members and friends of Martin Smith – who subsequently dismissed the female member’s claims. As the allegations, and the party’s handling of it, became more widely known, a number of SWP members have very publicly left the party
. Following this there have been accusations of a culture of misogyny within the organisation
. A former Socialist Worker
(the party’s paper) journalist has also claimed that “feminism” was “used effectively as a swear word by the leadership’s supporters”
. The ensuing revelations have been well covered by the far-Left blogosphere – on Penny Red
, Harry’s Place
and the Communist Party of Great Britain
blogs – and makes little sense to rehash the content of these here. Suffice to say we share the bulk of rank-and-file SWP members’ revulsion at the way the central committee handled the allegations and, like many on the Left, express our unreserved criticism towards such misogynistic practices and the stark hypocrisy of individuals who claim to stand for women’s liberation.
It is not the intention of this article to seek to twist the knife in a little further in the same ways other Leninist sects have done, revelling in the demise of a much despised rival, when their own democratic practices leave much to be desired and are equally hidden from public scrutiny. We also reject the commentary of the mainstream media and liberal commentators who claim these revelations spell the end for a tradition of revolutionary politics in the UK. Such statements rely on the often repeated mischaracterisation that revolutionary change necessitates the imposition of dictatorship and party diktat. This does not speak to the true character of the revolutionary struggles carried out by the popular classes, nor does it speak to the real and living revolutionary alternative to which we identify – that of libertarian socialism.
Our criticisms of Leninism are clear and principled. If you wish to understand more about them you can read our political platform
or our literature
or consult the library available on Libcom.org
. The intention of this article is to put forward two alternative propositions – firstly, that the vision projected by the SWP of the need to build a popular and revolutionary working class movement is not one exclusively tied to the ideas and organisational practices of that party, and secondly, that an alternative exists to contemporary Trostskyist politics that both embraces dissent and democracy while arguing the benefits of political coherency and unity in the form of social anarchism.
We recognise that for a great number of people the SWP is a first base for their development within revolutionary politics. Many in the anarchist movement got “into politics” as a result of the lively and visible campaigns that organisations like the SWP organise. It is understandable why this happens. The SWP is an organisation that places a great stress on recruiting and mobilising its active membership. Many of us, isolated within a country with little to no far-Left tradition, are attracted to the vision that SWP organisers project of a popular working class movement able to push revolutionary politics to the forefront.
These ideas of building a popular working class movement, however, are not exclusively tied to the SWP. They are also not exclusively tied to the organisational structure that the SWP argue are necessary for their realisation – that of a strict organisational hierarchy and democratic centralism.
Marx argues that ideas and history have an important relationship to each other. We should heed these words when we consider the arguments made by a faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (known as the “Bolsheviks”) in 1903 who called for a loyal and disciplined cadre of “professional revolutionaries.” This organisational practice came to define the structure of revolutionary organisations across the world for the next hundred years. Some argue that these were the necessary operating practices for a revolutionary organisation in the repressive climate of the autocratic regime of the Russian Tsar. When the Bolshevik model proved ultimately successful in overthrowing both the Tsar and the following Provisional Government these subsequently became promoted as a successful model of revolutionary praxis worldwide.
Yet the reality was that it was the Bolshevik party’s pseudo-libertarian ideas, those laid down in Lenin’s “April Theses” and State and Revolution, that were able to attract a mass base of support for the party so critical in the months leading up to the October revolution (ideas libertarian enough that many of the anarchists were fooled at the time). It was slogans such as “All Power to the Soviets!” and those that spoke to the existing organs of working class power that harmonised so well with the increasingly confident and autonomous practices of the Russian workers and peasantry, not cries for party discipline nor the practices of revolutionary terrorism or the repressions and execution of dissidents carried out by the Cheka.
Democratic centralism is less to do with the legacy of a “successful” revolution than with the monopolising influence of the Third International (the Comintern) over the ideology of international communist and trade union movements following the Bolshevik capture of state power. The prestige, practical and economic support offered for affiliation with Russia was a huge bargaining chip in securing adherence to the “Twenty-one conditions” Lenin laid out to the international socialist parties. Following Stalin’s rise to power these centralist principles were easily abused to ensure that sections of the international were acting in conformity with USSR foreign policy ambitions. Even opponents of Stalinism, like Trotsky and Bordiga, held to the essential organisational principles that Lenin laid down here. This is likewise the same tradition that Tony Cliff and the IS (later the SWP) was to spring from.
Now undoubtedly there is a degree of flexibility to the extent that democratic centralism is practised. For some Marxists these ideas are simply a means of operating a healthy organisational unity. With this particular vision we’d likely have little quarrel. The point is that the strict, hierarchical party model has little, if anything, to do with the mobilisation of popular working class movements and even less so with the process of revolution. Returning to the days in October, it was Lenin’s flexibility and the open and autonomous quality of the party sections thrown open by the influx of members that marked Bolshevik political practice over this decisive period (see Rabinowitch’s excellent history of the Petrograd Bolsheviks, “Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising”). For these few months the Bolshevik party was transformed from that tightly-knit cadre organisation into a mass party acting in common with the most advance sections of the workers movement. It was the ability of members at the grassroots to use party press and internal structures to push for an ever more radical position from the centre that characterised the shift in the comparatively conservative attitudes of the leadership at this time, not the other way around.
Revolutionary practice does require leadership, but this is not a leadership exercised through committees and party lines. It is a leadership that emerges through a dialogue and relationship of constructive activity within workplaces and communities. It is a relationship that emerges through small victories, patient work and an increasing level of trust. This is a process that specifist anarchists call “social insertion”. We aim to push social struggles on a revolutionary course while also recognising the practical lessons and ideas that evolve from it. Centralism, on the other hand, is unable to listen and anticipate these changes because it denies the critical influence of the grassroots. It is also, as the allegations involving Martin Smith clearly demonstrate, easily open to abuse from a tight clique at the centre. That is not to say that organisational unity cannot and should not exist. Rather it is a unity, much like social leadership, that evolves through an open and democratic culture of self-criticism and debate. In both cases we believe that our own tradition of specifist or "Platformist" anarchism
offers viable lessons and guidance on how to build both influential and united political movements while embracing a culture of democracy and internal debate.
We understand that for many disillusioned SWP members the apparent alternatives of the warring Trotskyist sects may seem unappealing. The even smaller anarchist movement even less so. It seems highly unlikely that the central committee will ever revisit its handling of the allegations against Martin Smith and the SWP will likely continue operating in a state of recurring crisis and ensuing splits. It may be that there currently is no alternative on the level of their projected vision of a popular revolutionary party. The SWP itself certainly fails to live up to this, both politically and practically. That doesn’t mean that such an alternative cannot exist. In fact in the current political context such an alternative is more pressing than ever. What is required at this conjuncture is a convergence amongst all those interested in such an alternative on the need for a resolutely feminist, democratic and constructive movement able to look beyond the politics of both Leninism and democratic centralism towards the organisational tasks and social struggles that face us at this time.
At the heart of the re-emerging conflict concerning sovereignty over the Malvinas is old fashioned mercantile capitalism with the potential to be an electoral boon for political elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
An ICM poll released on 21st January 2013
put Labour's lead over the Tories down to five points. Cameron's vision of the "big society" is ringing increasingly hollow in the face of persistent negative press coverage, which has highlighted his government's attacks on the most poor and vulnerable sections of British society. As cuts begin to bite, the line that austerity is the only way out is also undermined by the news of staggering profits amongst the country's billionaires.
This is while politicians call for a 32% salary increase (to £86,250)
at a time when workers take real-terms cuts.
This is beginning to be reflected in the polls.
Foreign affairs issues, however, always benefit the party in power and a combination of posturing over the EU, the Algerian hostage crisis and the dispute over the Malvinas could see Cameron claw back his support.
The real prize in the conflict is, of course, the islands' oil (which triples UK reserves
). Sovereignty over the islands also encompasses territorial claims over Antarctica (British and Argentinian claims overlap). The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty currently bans all mineral resource activity in Antarctica. However, since the 1970s the UK has expressed an interest in commercial exploration into the oil, coal and mineral deposits below the Southern Ocean.
Should the energy crisis deepen, it's likely that this issue will be opened again (with disastrous environmental consequences). This is what lies behind these territorial conflicts over large swathes of ice.
In spite of the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Argentinian premier Cristina Fernandez the conflict over the islands is fundamentally a dispute between two colonialist states. Both used the (initially uninhabited) island primarily as a penal colony and for periodic, largely unsuccessful, settlements. The declaration of independence that claimed the Malvinas for Argentina was made by the colonial settlers and based on a European liberal model. Indigenous populations in Argentina have been consistent losers in this state and subject to land grabs and extermination campaigns by the immigrant population throughout their history.
British victory in the 1982 conflict (neither side officially declared war) proved to be a huge electoral boost for an increasingly unpopular Conservative government in 1983. In Argentina, the invasion was launched by a beleaguered dictatorship hoping to utilise conscription and a populist irredentism to dampen increasing dissent to the regime. The unpopularity of the conflict and corruption within the professional military eventually proved to be their final undoing.
In contemporary terms both Cameron and Fernandez have been doing a fair bit of political posturing. The British government has been making big publicity of its intention to drill Malvinas' oil. It also recently named the disputed Antarctic land in honour of the Queen.
The conservative press in this country have also been ramping up the Jingoistic sentiment. Most notable was The Sun
, which published a "hands off" letter in an Argentinian newspaper.
Meanwhile the Argentinian premier wrote a letter of protest to The Guardian
and is utilising some pretty bombastic rhetoric on the international stage to condemn Cameron. This is clearly to curry the favour of her populist left base, particularly the youth movement, a key section of her support.
In both cases it is a distraction from the politics of austerity, increasingly unpopular cuts and draconian attitudes towards political opposition. Both Fernandez and Cameron are facing trade union opposition to their policies with threatened national strike days. Fernandez's term technically expires in 2015 but it is alleged that supporters hope to change the constitution to allow her to run again.
As anarchist communists our perspective is informed by a commitment to both anti-imperialism and opposition to capital and the state. The neoimperialist practices of the UK state and its accompanying capital interests should be criticised. We need to be clear that it is the old and familiar colonial interest of resource extraction that is behind the British state’s alleged concern for the fate of the islands' inhabitants. As a centre state the UK also plays a continuing role in keeping itself at a competitive advantage to peripheral states like Argentina by utilising the contemporary disciplining mechanisms of the international market and its institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. At the same time, we acknowledge the cynical way that elites on both sides are exploiting the dispute for their own ends. In both cases the politics of nationalism and irredentism present a distraction from social and political issues that bring class inequalities to the forefront.
Credit: (PA) Mirror
So the news this week is the now-familiar story of High Street titans going into administration, with only Deloitte set to gain from their collapse as thousands of jobs are put at risk. Joining the long line of has-beens (remember Woolworths, JJB, Our Price, Comet…) and the recent closure of Jessops (costing 1370 jobs), HMV and Blockbuster have declared their insolvency. They have between them around 8700 jobs at stake.
Cue a series of bizarre claims about the situation from the ‘loony left’. Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy claimed the demise of HMV was due to letting Amazon off the tax hook. Nothing to do with rising rents, a stagnant customer base, and online competitors having superior distribution models and lower costs of variable capital then… Unfortunately this type of delusion is the result of viewing the economy through the newly-popular lens of ‘tax justice’.
‘Traditional’ models of retailing such as those found in so many High Street stores are fast becoming outmoded by their online counterparts, which have cheaper prices, fewer staff to employ and are able to provide quick, cheap and hassle-free distribution. In just five years internet sales have increased from comprising under 4% of national retail sales (excluding petrol), to over 10%. Last annum, internet spending grew 25%. This week as Blockbuster went into administration, online streaming websites Netflix and Lovefilm were pointed at as the main source of the rental store’s struggles, alongside cheap DVD prices provided by supermarkets.
Similarly, while HMV was initially able to cash in on the demise of Woolworths, Virgin Megastore and Zavvi, the only surviving national music store now has nowhere to go and missed the online boat a long time ago. The Financial Times said this week that HMV’s closure would have an “irreversible negative impact on the entertainment industry” with record labels and distributors particularly concerned. In the last 10 years, online downloads of music and film have rocketed from 6.5% to 73.4%, without taking pirate downloads into consideration. The blame is particularly being aimed at iTunes, which by far has a monopoly on music downloads, and Amazon, which is most popular for DVDs, CDs and books, as well as electrical items. Such is the anger directed at Amazon from the High Street, that recently even James Daunt, Waterstones boss, labelled the online company a “ruthless, money-making devil”.
While there has been limited speculation that HMV’s decline could benefit independent retailers, the headline story has been the 4500 jobs at risk as long as there exists the threat of closure. Notably, there has been a silence from the majority of the ‘left’. Aside from Mr Hundal’s (ahem) insightful input mentioned above, the most significant contribution came from the Socialist Party youth campaign, ‘Youth Fight for Jobs’, tweeting: “Govt should nationalise #HMV to save jobs… Invest in #job creation & make the 1% pay for it!”
Yes, really, the nationalisation of a CD shop.
The ‘1%’ reference and re-hashed and irrelevant Keynesian sentiment aside (transglobal companies often have the means to avoid potential constraints nation states may place upon them), we should be aware that while these mass redundancies are being threatened, those who claim to be on the side of the workers (anarchist communists included) are too often either coming up with bizarre solutions or remaining silent. The case of HMV is becoming typical, which is all the more reason for it to be of interest to us. What would be the best option from the workers’ point of view? Strike action in this instance could seem self-defeating as it would potentially bring the closure date forward. Indeed we cannot ignore that HMV is insolvent. Perhaps the most appealing option would be to strip the company’s assets and redistribute the surplus to the workers? There is no clear cut answer, but these are the kind of discussions we need to be having if we want to relate to the real problems we are presented with.
Furthermore, we might ask how, as communists, we relate to this shift in distribution model. Clearly it is successful in satisfying an existing desire, as can be extrapolated from the rise in internet retail spending; however it also requires fewer workers in the process, and compliments the UK government’s ambitions of making Britain more ‘competitive’ by undercutting labour standards. Given that union density in the traditional retail sector is already sparse, how do we need to augment our ideas now that retail is moving online? It is worth noting here that current attacks on postal workers are often shrouded in the guise that mail is becoming ‘outmoded’ – interesting as online retailers rely on it. Currently, it seems that leftists are unwilling to move out of their comfort zone, particularly when it comes to supporting workers in the service sector (which makes up over 78% of the economy – ONS) where work is so often especially precarious. We need to overcome this attitude if we genuinely want to make communist ideas a leading alternative in public discourse.
Video below shows HMV workers in Limerick taking direct action to recover their wages: