Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Interview on Unhitched posted by lenin
Thursday, May 02, 2013
The revolt of the petty bourgeoisie posted by lenin
Thursday, April 11, 2013
The Evil Dead: An Obituary from Below posted by lenin
I've written a fairly long and 'admiring' obituary of Thatcher for Jacobin:
"Obituaries are typically concerned with the accomplishments and worthwhile qualities of the deceased. Thatcher’s achievements are undeniable. She was a “Modern Prince” of the Right, intervening at a moment of crisis and great danger for the Conservative Party, taking control of the elements in flux and recomposing them. She utterly transformed the state, party politics, and the economy, institutionalizing a form of neoliberal statecraft that is almost unassailable from within.
"To describe Thatcher’s accomplishments in this way, though, is already to hint at the problem with the obituary format. Thatcher’s most important achievements were also what made her so vile, and reprehensible. Her energy, her ruthlessness, and her political guile were harnessed to such bigoted, class-supremacist ends, that it is hard to admire them. Reviewing the wreckage of those years, it is difficult not to be transfixed by horror.
"There is also the danger, in focusing on Thatcher’s qualities and successes, of overstating the role of an individual leader. Thatcher’s efforts depended not just on a wide coalition of popular and business interests, with the petty bourgeoisie and “new middle class” as its lynchpin, but on a series of institutional powers – from the popular press to the International Monetary Fund. Her strengths, as often as not, derived from her opponents’ weaknesses, divisions or downright cravenness.
"Yet, there is no denying Thatcher’s leadership qualities. And this obituary will pay close attention to the factors that made Thatcher the most successful politician in the post-war period — in the spirit of learning from the enemy, the better to defeat them in future."
Monday, April 08, 2013
Ding dong, the witch is dead! posted by leninThis is going out to all the munchkins, and their descendants:
Saturday, April 06, 2013
Vilifying welfare posted by lenin
The Right's attempt to construct a moral panic about welfare from the Philpott case has been just a little bit too clumsily and visibly executed to be totally effective. Nevertheless, the manner in which a certain political language is being forged here is instructive.
Set aside the falsifications and 'colour' journalism. These are the elements of the story. Mick Philpott is a man with a history of domestic violence, terrorising and manipulating spouses and progeny. He is a habitually violent individual, a bampot who - when he embarked on a plot that would result in six of his children dying - was on bail for having beaten a man for pulling out in front of him in his car. His accomplices were his wife, Mairead, who left a previous abusive relationship before meeting Philpott, and seems to have been to all purposes a domestic slave; and a mate, Paul Mosley, who - for all the attempts to paint him in the shades of lucifer - appears to be a weak-minded sidekick. Together, they embarked on a plot to set fire to the house with six of Philpott's children in it - not to kill them, but to 'rescue' them, claim the credit, frame his recently departed ex, and win custody. This resulted in the six children being burned to death.
The judge, in the traditional homily, suggested that the actions of this group are 'incomprehensible' to 'right-thinking people' - the conventional mystification, which draws a wholesome screen between the functioning of normal society, and the shockingly aberrant. Actually, the plot itself may be extreme, but the context of domestic servitude, patriarchy, violence, petty criminality, and so on, isn't all that incomprehensible. The newspapers, for their part, have been absorbed by the hedonistic 'lifestyle' of Philpott and his associates since he was first turned into a comical hate figure for requesting a larger council house to accommodate his eleven children back in 2006. What have they dug up? Lots of sex, including 'dogging' and threesomes, drugs, and numerous children. Much of it made up, some of it exaggerated. Oh, and benefits. No one seems to know exactly what benefits the very large Philpott family claimed, but it's assumed that with working tax credits for his two female partners, child benefits and housing benefit, the maximum total sum could have been something like £54,000 per year - by far the larger component coming from tax credits (which is a 'good' benefit which working people get, as opposed to one of the 'bad' benefits that layabouts get). With a family of eleven children and three adults, that would have amounted to less than £4,000 each which seems scandalously low to me.
So far, so familiar. Osborne and the Daily Mail stand accused of drawing a crude connotative connection between the welfare state and the 'lifestyle' thus described. The opportunism is jarring: there is no obvious link between the payment of welfare and the conduct of these people. They are using dead children, or the affect invested in them, as battering rams to topple the remaining pillars of the welfarist consensus. There are real 'issues' here if one wants them: domestic violence and servitude, low wages, the lack of adequate provision for children, etc. But these are only of interest as symptoms of a 'lifestyle', a pathology of the welfare state.
This is the reflex critique, anyway. The problem is, it doesn't supply us with the means to counter the rightist ideological assault on welfare; powerful though it is, it only leaves us with an alternative moralism, and that is a terrain that is heavily pre-structured in favour of the Right. The other problem is that in focusing on the manipulative discursive strategies of the Right, it neglects the reasons why these discourses resonate, with the result that either one overstates the power of these discourses and their presumed authors, or one must borrow an ideological stop-gap from the stock media representations - e.g., they resonate because of a disreputable minority who abuse the system, blah blah blah.
If we stand outside the force-field of our culture for a moment, aloof from its dominant assumptions, some things about it suddenly become very obvious. We are used to the fact that when we talk about welfare, we talk about desert rather than rights; this is so familiar that it hardly makes an impression any more. It is in fact far more of an oddity if someone actually defends the idea that welfare is a right, not a reward for good behaviour. This is the point of reintroducing Victorian ideologies about the 'deserving' vs the 'undeserving' poor - it is a deliberate shift away from a universalistic, rights-based language of welfare of the sort which was commonplace in the post-war era.
In fact, if you look at the way in which the welfare state has developed, it is very clear that it is not universal, and that it is not concretely experienced as a right in many cases. The most obvious example is the benefits systems itself. Recipients of Jobseeker's Allowance know very well they are not the bearers of rights, but intruders who should be chased out of the Jobcentre Plus as rapidly as the bureaucratic machinery will allow: "Why are you here, and how can we encourage you to fuck off as rapidly as possible?" This is conveyed to them in every way, from the interrogative 'appointments' to the demand for proof of seeking work, to the referrals to useless training sessions, and so on. Similar pressures have been applied to the recipients of Disability Living Allowance. Means-testing has eroded universality in other benefits, with the presumably intended effect of deterring many claims. There is no need to say how and why the benefits system came to function as if it were a vast machine that would work perfectly well if it weren't for all the claimants - it's sufficient to note that it is not experienced as a right, but as an alm to be begged for, a petty resource to be struggled for, or lied for if need be.
However, it goes well beyond this. In every public service there have long been geographical and social maps of privilege and exclusion, frontlines of competitive struggle over resources. Take schools. Even before all the mania of league tables and 'naming and shaming' 'failing schools', there were these hierarchies and little informal ivy leagues - middle class parents already knew how to adjust their future home buying habits according to catchment area, to get a decent C of E school for example. The so-called 'postcode lottery' in the NHS is much the same, particularly when it is governed by internal markets - to say nothing of how things will be now that the effective dismantling of the NHS has begun. Local council provision has always been structured along class lines and segregated by race, tendencies accentuated by the centralised suppression of local budgets and the quango-isation of local administration in the neoliberal era. Moreover, with ever larger areas of provision rationed by pricing (rather than the traditional method of queueing), there is no question of 'rights' in those areas.
Labour's role in this is quite important, since it is supposed to be the main author and defender of the welfare state, and its constituents are its major beneficiaries and supporters. What were at first retreats from a social democratic consensus have long since become thorough evacuations. New Labour, for example, did not merely grudgingly accept the involvement of private capital in the public sector; it avidly sought to build capital, and market-like structures, and pricing for services, into the fabric of the public sector. It did not simply acquiesce in a reactionary narrative about scrounging welfare queens. It started by cutting benefits for single mothers not to woo the Murdoch press, but as part of a consistent outlook that saw the benefit as one that fostered dependency. As I recall, Blair won plaudits from the Observer for his 'feminist' stance in trying to 'empower' women by coercing them to join the labour market. It was actually a New Labour government that first embraced the idea of 'workfare' in the UK, on the assumption that, far from accessing their rights, claimants of welfare were becoming dependent on freebies that they should be forced to earn.
And it is in the texture of this experience, in the spaces evacuated and reconfigured by neoliberal praxis, that the claims of the Right have achieved some resonance among people who are not in other respects right-wing. All right-wing axe-grinding to one side, there is a very real seam of experience of state provision as a competitive struggle for resources won from an oppressive, intrusive and often serially incompetent and inhuman agencies.
In that context, it may be correct to speak of welfare rights, it may indeed be essential to do so, but it just does not resonate with people's experiences of the whole system. There is very little, even in the best of the welfare state, that has led people to expect anything other than a vicious, competitive struggle for scarce resources and services in which most people lose, most of the time. This must of necessity generate tremendous social resentment: every little bit that anyone else gets is suspect; it has to be interrogated, the beneficiary's worthiness tested. If there's the slightest suspicion of a character flaw, never mind a huge 'dodgy-as-fuck' neon sign that hovers over a vicious wife-beater who inadvertently burns his children to death, the most convenient assumption is that something went wrong with the system - there's a scam somewhere, or political correctness has gone mad, etc. Eventually, there is a point at which a number of people - again I'm speaking of a section of people who are not natural Tories - start to ask whether the business of paying taxes into a costly, inefficient, oppressive system is even worth it, and whether it wouldn't just be more sensible to 'treat people as adults' (meaning, as rational consumers) and let them buy whatever healthcare, pension or 'safety net' provision they choose.
It may seem odd to place so much emphasis on neoliberal subject-formation in an era when neoliberal ideology is in serious crisis. It may seem over-stated when there are millions of people who defiantly refuse to think like this. But this is the point: 1) there is a crisis, but what is being offered as a remedy is its deepening and radicalisation, and this is most popular where it activates a language of social resentment; 2) the catalyst for the acceptance of this language is the practical experiences of millions which, paradoxically, are in many respects the product of earlier waves of neoliberalism, as well as the traditional failings of state bureaucracies; and 3) if we are to defend the welfare state in this context, we cannot simply adopt a defensive strategy (which is another problem with moralism) - to conserve it, one would have to propose a sweeping reform of the whole ensemble of institutions we call the 'welfare state', and really seek to create a system of universal, free and equal provision of services and benefits as a matter of right.
Friday, March 29, 2013
We've been waiting five years for a coherent left-wing response to the recession. We've been waiting three years for a coherent left-wing response to the cuts. Two years ago, I was asked at a talk how we could communicate the socialist solution to the crisis; I said it would be nice if we had one. It would still be a step forward today. If the extant strategies, groups or alliances were sufficient to deliver this, we would have it by now.
As it is, the only interruption to our "pervading dysphoria and utter perplexity" was brief, if giddy - followed by the briefer tumult of the riots and the panicked reaction from the Party of Order. The trade union movement fought, not an expansive struggle allowing it to hegemonise a wider movement against the cuts, but a typically narrow 'economic-corporatist' battle for a pensions deal roughly equivalent to what a Labour government would have offered. The last year was one of uninterrupted, quiet defeat for the most part. Labour continued to adapt to forces to its right. The government promised more cuts. The left-of-Labour forces remained fragmented, with each group championing its own 'united front' project. As for a left electoral project, a look at TUSC is enough to die a little inside.
Why have things been so bleak? We continually hear that the system is in 'crisis'. This should be great news for us, surely? We hate the system. This should be the moment when the Left advances and begins to prise open the integument...?
We have a number of apparently self-serving, but ultimately self-defeating, consolatory lines about this. For example: the Left is weak, yes, but the system is weak, and so is the ruling class and its governments: their hesitating, divided response to the crisis shows us this. However, the Euro-American ruling classes, whatever divisions and uncertainties have inhibited them in their short-term, tactical orientations, have displayed extraordinary unity on the long-term strategy of 'austerity'. And such has been their success in colonising the dominant parties, that parliamentary opposition to this objective is negligible, and almost entirely provisional and technocratic in articulation. And as much as the resources of the bourgeoisie have been tested, they have yet to a lose a serious fight.
Another, subsidiary, example: an underlying weakness on the part of the ruling class may be inferred from the fact that 'they' attack us in such a ferocious and indiscriminate manner. The logic here is that if the government and employers have to launch a sweeping, frontal attack on the living standards of the whole working class, this itself proves that the system is losing its ability to support the traditional bases of consent. Okay: there is an element of truth in this. But a prima facie ground for distrusting this logic is that if and when 'they' attack us with anything less than full, sweeping force, that too is interpreted as a sign of weakness. The government's early complacency led many of us to underestimate its technical virtuosity. Yet there is no sign of a simple, indiscriminate attack. In fact, the attack is not so frontal; it is a phased assault, deploying a diverse array of techniques which affect layers of the population in an uneven fashion. This is more sophisticated than simply 'salami-slicing' the working class, and defeating one section then the next, and so on. It involves mobilising residual and active elements of discourse to constitute new social categories, who are targeted in discrete ways. Consider, in addition to the greedy union member with gold-plated pensions, and the skiving benefit scrounger, the new phenomenon of the bedroom scrounger, the welfare recipient who is under-using space in her flat and should be removed to a pebble-dashed cupboard in Thamesmead. There are also, let us not forget, 'our people', 'the strivers' who are opposed to 'the skivers', and who are being offered certain material incentives even as their overall standard of living stagnates or declines.
A third example is the idea that because the cuts "can't work", the project will begin to collapse. In a sense, this is true. If the objective is GDP growth, then in the short run, austerity will just keep undercutting investment and growth. And of course it is also true that, in the long run, even if a new source of dynamism is found, these measures will just store up further pathologies. As a result, we can presume that both Marxists and left-Keynesians are 'proven right' in a different way every time the economy starts to dip again: the cuts 'aren't working'. This will undermine the authority of elected governments, just as much as unelected central bankers. It will produce incredibly bitter class struggles which it would be prudent to anticipate in our strategies. Yet, we find that the government actually benefits, to an extent, from a 'crisis' mindset - linked to a set of articulations about deficit, overspending, living beyond our means, etc etc. We find that by invoking the crisis, blaming the scroungers and systematically lowering expectations - they aren't promising us high times, but years of grim belt-tightening before the good old days return - the government gives itself a very long leash. Like Mrs Thatcher, the coalition government says 'iron times', 'backs to the wall', etc., and achieves a degree of quiescence as a result.
All of this is hardly to deny that the system is in crisis, or that this crisis will continue to produce bitter class struggles. I have defined the current situation as one dominated by an 'organic crisis', meaning a long-term, structural, multi-layered crisis that calls into question the ability of the whole system to reproduce itself. However, it is to say that this much over-used term 'crisis' has been doing a lot of covert intellectual and propaganda leg-work, which obscures what is really happening. Let us dissect it a bit. What exactly do we mean by a 'crisis'? In terms of the capitalist system, the dominant image from mainstream economics and bourgeois social science is of a state system that more or less efficiently reproduces itself until some imbalance or bad behaviour causes it to have a temporary rupture. In most cases, this is plausible, because the recession passes, and dynamism resumes. But in periods like the present, it loses even this surface resonance. That is why attempts to conserve the status quo end up having to be projects for its fundamental overhaul and renovation.
There is an obverse view which is not much more useful. This is the 'fundamentalist' catastrophism according to which capitalism is always progressively moving toward its worst crisis yet. At the base of this is a valid marxist insight, which is that the elements of a capitalist crisis are not exogenous or heteroclite, but actually integral to the reproduction of the system itself. That is, the system is reproduced through class struggle and intra-capitalist competition, which are the basic antagonisms that, through various mediations, tend to result in crises. These are the antagonisms behind the so-called 'law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall', through which marxists explain the most basic drive toward crisis: put crudely, capitalists in competition with one another strive to cut labour costs and reduce prices; they overaccumulate capital in doing so; they also reduce the total pool of potential profit, so that while individually they might hope to maximise their market share and thus profits, in the long-run they tend to create a crisis of profitability across the system. In the 'fundamentalist' version of this theory, the successive stages of capitalist development show a marked tendency to 'sharpen' crisis tendencies; the 'resolution' of each crisis, unless it involves a truly cataclysmic destruction of capital, merely stores up more pathologies. At last, the concept of 'crisis' is stretched so that it comes to cover a certain stage of capitalist development. The whole system, since a certain threshold, has been in a permanent state of crisis.
Such an approach occludes what is truly relevatory in Marx's account of crisis, which is that permanent crisis tendencies are part of the system's health and its dynamism. Of course there will be symptoms of ongoing crisis while the system is booming! Of course it will be rotting away in parts even while it is engorged, hypertrophic, in others! Subsuming long periods of reproduction and growth into the concept of crisis erases its specificity. Linked to this approach, sometimes, is an economistic reflex according to which the resulting class struggles erupt first on the terrain of industry, the direct capital-labour relation, which then results in a straightforward feedback from an economic crisis into a generalised political crisis of the system. The result of such an approach is that, when a real crisis does occur, far from preparing one adequately to act on it, it produces an apocalyptic complacency: this is, if not the final crisis of capitalism, certainly one of the last death convulsions, which will produce many symptoms along the way. We can tick them off as they arrive: industrial militancy, political instability, the revival of left reformism, the rise of fascism, etc. Eventually, the 'contradictions' will be sharpened to the extent of producing a revolutionary situation. The task of marxists in such circumstances will be to assist in this sharpening, through propaganda and interventions, while trying to provide the political leadership workers will need as they progress to that final battle.
If you don't recognise the above (only slightly caricatured) sketch, by the way, you could conclude that it isn't aimed at you. But I assert that such fatal tendencies do exist and are discernible in the way that revolutionaries have responded to the current crisis.
I have argued in a previous post that the ruling classes are usually best situated to respond proactively to a crisis, and to take advantage of it. The obvious corollary of this is that the institutions of the working class, and the Left, are usually not so well situated. Stathis Kouvelakis made the point that a real crisis of capitalism is also a crisis of the Left, both revolutionary and reformist. This is only logical. For while reformist parties get comfortable with governing in a particular way - maintaining a client base in office; cultivating their popular base by mobilising them against the government when out of office; sustaining their links with the trade union bureaucracy at all times - revolutionary parties get used to a certain method of self-reproduction, a certain routine, a certain balancing operation between different components of the party, and a certain set of perspectives that either guide their concrete actions or (as is often the case) soothe the symptoms of aimless drift and sharp, barely explained turns, with a general theoretical anaesthetic. A crisis upends all of that. The reformist party has to re-define its base, as traditional constituencies and political identities are shaken up; old methods of governance, be they welfare-capitalist or neoliberal, must be radicalised or abandoned. The revolutionary party likewise finds itself in need of new perspectives, a new base, a break with routines and entrenched dogma.
This brings us to the SWP. Must we? Yes, we must, and not for the last time. I have no desire to spend the rest of my political life writing about the party I have just left, but there is a necessary process of political clarification following such a break. I have until now defended the party's general lines and strategies, notwithstanding my Syriza heresy. But in the course of an acute crisis triggered by an unbelievable and unforgiveable rape cover-up, the contours of a chronic crisis linked to the lack of democracy, congealed dogma and strategic vapidity became clear(er). An accounting of this is called for, if the right decisions are to be taken now.
'It is no accident', as we used to say, that the SWP's protracted crisis has overlapped to an extent with the capitalist crisis since 2007. The credit crunch coincided with the manifest failure of an old method of leadership, and an old set of perspectives, and with a degree of turbulence in the party's base. The cuts are also going to exert a long-term impact on the party's means of self-reproduction. The SWP has one part of its base in an ageing public sector workforce, and another in an increasingly class-divided student body: austerity in practice has meant that the public sector workforce is going to be decimated, while a larger part of the student body is going to be made poorer and chained to debt. Given that the party didn't grow at all during the years of antiwar radicalism and constant discontent with New Labour, this is serious. An obvious response, supposing we are unable to prevent the cuts to massive neoliberal cull of the public sector, might be to ask how one builds in the unorganised working class, which is the overwhelming majority of it - indeed, it is one of the few growth sectors in capitalism right now.
However, austerity poses the more immediate dilemma: what do we need in order to reverse, halt or at least slow the cuts, and what can a revolutionary socialist party contribute to that? The current SWP leadership vaunts a 'rank and file' strategy in response to the cuts - although on inspection, one finds neither a 'rank and file', nor a strategy. The idea of a 'rank and file' strategy is based on the simple insight that, there needs to be a fight; the public sector unions have the means to lead the fight, but are always going to be betrayed by union bosses; and therefore we need to build a 'rank and file' network of militants capable of acting independently of and against the bureaucracy where necessary. In reality, what this amounts to is the creation of a party front that seeks to build influence over the left union bureaucracy in order to hopefully generate strike action, thus substituting (hopefully temporarily) for the initiative of the non-existent 'rank and file'. In theory, one could say that the appeals for action are formally directed at the union bureaucracy, but are actually addressed to rank and file workers, whom it is hoped will pressure the bureaucracy for action. In practice, it's probably more the other way about. Insofar as this produces results, one can cynically overlook the problematic character of relying on such operations. And indeed, some averagely intelligent people seem to have convinced themselves that the bureaucratic mass strikes of 2011 were effectively a fight between the SWP and the Tory government, in which the party was a tiny cog turning the massive cogs of the union bureaucracy. (I assure you, it's true.) All cynicism aside, SWP members played an important role in building support for such strike action as did occur - but as footsoldiers in a program of controlled confrontation devised by the trade union general secretaries, whose aim was to get the Tories to offer them roughly what Labour would on the pensions issue.
Aside from being a substitutionist strategy based on influence-peddling, which placed a ridiculous amount of prestige and authority on the shoulders of the man who could peddle such influence, the 'rank and file' strategy had other demerits. First, it left the leadership shrugging and mumbling vacuous generalities when it came to answering how the strategy hadn't delivered. After the sell-out of the pensions dispute, there was a long period of sobering defeat. But the CC's contributions to 2013 preconference bulletins offered no analysis of why. Of course, if the implicit answer was "the SWP isn't remotely the decisive factor in these struggles and cannot determine how the bureaucracy will behave", that would be true and sober: but such an answer would also sit uneasily next to the earlier triumphalism, and would evade the real question of why the strategy yielded nothing.
Second, aside from being substitutionist and elitist, the strategy was also an alibi of sectarianism. It was obvious early on that a unified anti-cuts movement was needed - a point I'll come back to. Many of the most effective challenges to the government were coming, not from the industrial coalface, but from the social movements, and it made sense to coordinate them sustain them beyond the immediate upsurge of rebellious frenzy. The party leadership knew this, and indeed claimed to be interested in helping build it. But, pursuing the 'rank and file' strategy, it actually preferred to maintain an ineffectual party front which could fill out a London meeting hall, but achieved little else. Partly this is reflects the pathology of splits: the party leadership obsessively avoiding the 'movementism' of the recently departed groups, and anything that smacked of it.
It was also obvious that there would be a space for some sort of radical left party, as Labour councils implemented the cuts and Ed Miliband shifted to the right. The party leadership sounded sensible notes on this. It responded appropriately to George Galloway's victory in Bradford, and lauded the Front de gauche. I recall the national secretary admitting, in a meeting set up by Socialist Resistance, that it wasn't enough to bang on about the struggle as if everything would be resolved on the picket line - we need a form of political representation, he said. It is true that the party newspaper reflected a sectarian line on Syriza, but not with any real conviction on the part of the leadership as far as I could tell. Even when I was lightly bollocked over coffee by Bishop Brennan and Father Jessup for my strident Facebook missives on the issue, they seemed far more worried about the offence to the Greek comrades than the argument itself, which I was permitted to spell out in more measured terms for the ISJ. Despite all this, the height our exertions on this terrain was TUSC - a misleading moniker insofar as it evokes anything other than a blunt instrument, and apt only so far as it recalls 'husk', as in 'chaff'.
Why did the party leadership plump for this hardly ideal situation, as if TUSC was the basis for anything? In part, I suspect this is because sections of the leadership opposed the whole idea of left realignment. But I suspect it is also because, to actually contribute to the process of realignment, the leadership of the SWP would have to deal with a massive lingering burden of mistrust. This pall resulted from our disastrously nuclear response to criticisms within Respect, some of which were obviously well-founded in retrospect, and the sectarian logic of our behaviour in the subsequent Respect break-up. It would have to be capable of demonstrating remarkable humility and good faith, which it was not. The party's official stance remained that George Galloway was overwhelmingly responsible, and we had at most made some regrettable errors in responding to reformist treachery. And it hadn't really broken with the 'punching above our weight' modus operandi that had led to the party's mistakes in Respect, the assumption that we should try to be in charge of everything. It wasn't capable of abandoning the dreary lash-up with the Socialist Party that was going nowhere, and striking out for something better, because that might involve accepting a subordinate position in a much wider formation, in coalition with forces that we would be unable to control.
This litany of complaint may seem overly harsh. In truth, when a struggle broke out in the last few years, the party acquitted itself reasonably well within its modest means. It did a good job of 'relating to' (a phrase for the stale cliches amnesty, perhaps) the student revolt. It was helpful in building support for mass strike action. It was also important that the party continued to take the right stance on the Arab Spring as it spread to countries that were the targets of US imperialism; but it also threw itself into the Gaza protests, for example. It stood up against a certain leftist moralism about the English riots. It has continued to take a hard line against Islamophobia, when some sections of the Left would be happy to capitulate to the Muslim-baiting under the rubric of a vulgar, idealist 'atheism'. And it carried out important work in UAF: in my opinion taking the right line on how to most effectively defeat the EDL in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. And I think the paper struck a good line on Assange in a piece written by Tom Walker, who is now despised by the hacks more than I am. But generally insofar as the SWP proactively sought to shape the response to austerity, it largely failed, and instead succumbed to delusions of grandeur. Members of other parties and groupuscules can explain their own failure, of course - they have to, if they want to participate in this discussion. But I can only speak of the SWP.
We need to change course, badly. To be more specific, I think we need:
i) an anti-austerity movement capable of mobilising a hegemonic majority against the cuts. The 'crisis' will not do our work for us. It will affect people and relations in all sorts of ways, but our opponents will be working hard to construct a particular 'lived relationship' to the crisis that favours them. There is an article in a recent issue of the thrilling Parliamentary Affairs about the 'Winter of Discontent', which you might want to read in order to see how this is done. It demonstrates how the Right operated on lived experiences of hardship, violence and social breakdown in order to produce the imagined experience of a crisis produced by union power, nanny-statism and tax-and-spend 'socialism'. Remember that this in an era when workers were suffering massive de facto pay cuts and the Labour government was cutting spending and embracing monetarism to appease the IMF. Many workers were won to the Tories on the basis of this mythology. The point is that the alignment of forces can by no means be taken for granted because of the assumed historical pattern of capitalist crisis: political subjectivities have to be constructed, assiduously, along the main lines of antagonism. In the UK at the moment, there is no generalised political, cultural, social or industrial counterpoint to the Right's efforts. That's one reason why it was so easy to demonise the riots: there was only a weakly entrenched narrative that the cuts were probably going a bit too far, but a far more deeply rooted narrative that there was not enough discipline in schools, too much immigration, too much easy welfare for 'chavs', and too much freedom for 'feral youths'. That's why the most dynamically growing force at the moment is UKIP. We need a campaign that prepares the terrain around existing struggles and ahead of coming struggles and outbursts, that explains them in advance as responses to unbelievable class aggression and brutal state violence, not as the criminal actions of social deviants.
I think we need a generalised, 'nationwide' campaign encompassing various levels of initiative. We presently have a series of localised fights, such as the impressive struggle in Lewisham over the hospital closure, and the heroic fight by Sussex students and staff against privatization, but by themselves these are not sufficient. The 'unevenness' of these campaigns reflects the unevenness of the effects of austerity, as well as the way in which the coalition is trying to isolate certain groups. This is obviously not good for us. Strategically, its a priority that we overcome it. Of course, we do not need a nationwide campaign with little or no democracy, where a general strategy is set by a small steering committee, and local campaigns have to accommodate it. The point of a nationwide campaign should be to federate existing struggles in a democratic way that is led by the grassroots. Any general 'line' that emerges has to come from concrete experiences of activism not from a coffee-flogging cognoscenti. For that reason, any such campaign probably needs a broad elected national leadership composed mainly of people who have earned the right to lead in campaigns, and a relatively federal structure with a great deal of autonomy for local groups. The slightest whiff of hectoring phone calls, back-room lobbying, finger-wagging from the lectern, presenting fait accomplis worked up behind closed doors, etc., will be the ruin of any organisation aspiring to be the institutional basis for an anti-cuts movement.
ii) a realignment of the left-of-Labour left. I think in this case we need a narrower form of organisation that is capable of concentrating the experiences and perspectives of anti-cuts activism in a way that a broader movement could not. An anti-cuts movement would probably have to be open to participation from right-wing Labourites who favour prudent, slower cuts, as well as anarchists who want to picket the offices of those same Labourites; as such its line could not be too defined. We need to popularise not just a moralistic rejection of the cuts, but an alternative analysis of the crisis and a serious, detailed set of solutions. These solutions wouldn't be based on a 'neutral' measure like how effectively they contribute to GDP growth. There is no socially neutral way of resolving a crisis. Not only do such solutions have costs which must be borne differentially according to class, race, gender, etc. They typically involve transforming, attacking, inventing, reorganising, or annihilating the institutional and relational bases of particular types of class power. A left-of-Labour party would have to identify a number of in principle achievable measures that would a) plausibly gain mass support, and b) alter the balance of class forces if implemented. For example, nationalising the banks and turning them into public utilities, would be a popular measure and it would also hit at an institutional nerve centre of the dominant form of ruling class power today. It would also, in principle, give any government tremendous leverage over the economy, a resource with which to plan green investment, job creation, etc. We do not have to kid ourselves that an elected government could just wave a wand and make this happen; the point is to develop an analysis and a set of concrete objectives would help the sorts of social struggles that would make it possible.
Now even if it were once possible, it is no longer realistic to expect the Labour Left to fulfil this role. It is recovering a bit, and will continue to do so for a while, but it is far too weak relative to the dominant forces in the party to be able to take a leading role in articulating a radical left response to austerity. As for the Greens, they have made it clear: they oppose austerity in principle, but will do nothing stop it if given control of a budget. Something else is needed. So, is this a recommendation for a 'British Syriza' or, worse, a 'Seymouriza' (as some bastards have suggested) or 'Sino-Seymouriza'? Yes and no, in that order. I am not in favour of abandoning the project of independent revolutionary organisation, as I'll explain momentarily. Further, as I favour Scottish independence, the 'Syriza' I propose wouldn't exactly be British. Nor would it look very much like Syriza, as the social and political forces available for such a project in the UK are totally different and reflect different historical experiences and different immediate challenges - we don't have to address the problem of the eurozone, for example, in a population that has generally been pro-euro. But everyone notices that the SNP, the Greens, George Galloway and any plausible alternative can take big chunks of Labour's base away at a moment's notice. We all know that Labour's electoral recovery is extremely tentative. It's obvious that the break-up and break-down of its base is part of a secular process in the neoliberal period that is also affecting European social democracy. So, if we're as smart as all that, we should be doing something about it.
The creation of a radical left party has been slower and more hampered in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. I do not believe this is because of the mistakes of the SWP. If you look at the constituents of some of the successful groups, I suspect you'll find a lot worse by way of authoritarianism, sectarianism and opportunism. Rather, as I've said in a previous post, it is because of the greater difficulties in generating a significant split in social democracy due to the serious defeats inflicted on the Left in the UK, and particularly the defeat of the militant wing of the labour movement. No other Western European labour movement experienced defeats like this. The result was Labour's wholesale capitulation to neoliberalism well before any other European social democratic party. After this, there was simply no general political basis from which the remaining rump of the Labour Left could mount a challenge to the leadership: they could oppose the policy consequences to New Labour's neoliberalism, but had no plausible alternative political-economic basis for their opposition, much less to lead a split as did Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. Only the 'war on terror' produced such a split in the UK, and that was too small and narrow.
Nonetheless, it remains a compelling fact that Respect didn't have to crash and burn in the fashion that it did; and that, even after the launching and crash-landing of previous left formations, small, committed and talented groups of people with sometimes gaping flaws seem to have been able to surprise Labour in its former heartlands. All it takes is a name, or a local campaign with resonance. Now, if left at that, they would simply be vanishing, 'last gasp' blips of resistance to the further neoliberal takeover of politics. But the current conjuncture is one that will be formative of a generation or so. Whatever stable political forces can be forged now are likely to last.
iii) a realignment of the forces of the revolutionary left, which are hardly in an optimal state of organisation. There is no historical or conjunctural need for the 57 varieties of revolutionary socialism to be distributed in twice as many sects, groupuscules and minorities of one. But to unite them in an effective organisation has never been a simple matter of stitching together the existing fragments. They are too committed to their trademarked orthodoxies, their turf, their routines, their hierarchies and their internal cultures. Any serious new party or formation would have to be heterogenous, open to heterodoxy and far less bureaucratically centralised than the existing revolutionary sects. Realignment requires the old fragments to be shaken up and, in a sense, radicalised: this is the potentially productive aspect of the crisis.
But let's be honest: such realignment will also require a discursive process akin to a Truth and Reconciliation commission. If we need realignment, it's because there has been a general failure. To a large extent, and self-righteous protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I think what is wrong with the SWP is also wrong with much of the wider left. It's not good enough for a bunch of revolutionary socialists to try to unite around the lowest common denominator of agreeing about the SWP's latter day treachery. Every participant, particularly if they come from an existing sect, would have to be capable of a minimum of honesty about why their own political tradition did at best no better in practical terms than the SWP. Those who aren't capable of that much honesty probably wouldn't get us very far anyway, whereas those who simply want to strip the carrion from the carcass may as well stay away.
Shall I start the ball rolling? What mistakes did I personally make as an SWP member? Not making my objections to our hosting of the antisemitic crank Atzmon, and the preposterous rationale for doing so, explicit - particularly when it was made clear to me that the paper wouldn't host a letter on the subject. Party members can attest that I and others took this up within the party, and that I trolled Atzmon's talk at Bookmarks, but it really wasn't enough. Next? Defending our stance on Sheridan uncritically, which meant defending Sheridan uncritically. I still think it was right to defend him against the state and News of the World, and wrong to cheer his being imprisoned. But surely by now we can admit it was wrong, whatever you think of the SSP leadership, to defend his right to bring this disastrous case in the first place? And then let him off the hook for lying his arse off, hanging Katrine Trolle out to dry, and contributing to fucking up the Scottish far left for years? Can we at least admit to an element of bad faith in taking such a stance, and then pretending to be strictly extraneous to the subsequent meltdown of the SSP? For my part, I was wrong to rationalise all this, wrong to defer facing up to it, wrong to cop out when the truth of the matter was obvious. What else? Defending the party uncritically during the Respect debacle on the basis of who I trusted, circulating unhelpful gossip, allowing myself to be a conduit for lies and misdirections coming from Rees's office, and living in denial when the latter started circulating slimy rhetoric about Muslim 'communalism'. Then only tentatively and gradually facing up to the truth once it dawned.
That will do for now: ball = rolling = now in your court. Also, to mix this metaphor in a properly Cliffite fashion, that court = surrounded by a glass house. If you have never, as a socialist activist, found yourself defending a line you later regretted, kept quiet about something you shouldn't have, rationalised away a feeling of unease, then you're either still deluded or a fucking liar. I know that sounds harsh, but this is the terrain. And the point of facing up to this stuff now, is that you don't want to repeat that situation.
Grim though this analysis may seem, there are three possible causes for optimism in the next year. First, a horrible scandal is also the occasion of a form of radicalisation on the left, particularly the revolutionary left, in which many people are literally re-evaluating their root assumptions. This percolation is itself indicative that people are wrong to simply assume this is yet another stage in the ongoing mitosis of revolutionary groupuscules. There's a feeling - don't you share it? - that as nasty and depressing and shaming as this crisis has been, something has been unblocked by it, and new possibilities have been created. Second, is the People's Assembly idea, which has achieved a lot of media coverage and has the support of sections of the Labour Left, the trade unions, celebrities, and obviously Counterfire. The People's Assembly is attracting some criticism for the fact that its big 'arrival' is marked by a celeb-driven rally in a swish Westminster venue at a cost of £25000, rather than a democratic conference where actually existing campaigns participate in decision-making. But it would be churlish not to get involved and try to change it in a democratic direction. And third, is the Left Unity initiative for a new left party, which I think has achieved 6,000 signatures thus far. (I have signed and, for what it's worth, I think you should too.) The fact is that if half of that many people joined a new party right now, you would have the basis of a reasonable sized radical left party. Clearly, there's a lot still to work out. It's still a nebulous initiative, and the basis for individual and group affiliation is not yet clear. Nonetheless, local Left Unity groups are springing up with plenty of support after just a couple of weeks or so. This suggests a degree of initiative and energy that hasn't been seen on the Left for a while.
There is your hope, if you like. It's about as far from bland, upbeat can-do puffery as it's possible to be, but it is hope.
Monday, March 18, 2013
The crisis in the SWP, part IV posted by lenin
A CC member, affectionately known to the party faithful as 'Bishop Brennan', was heard to say to the Central London aggregate, "If you can't argue the line, you should consider your position in the party."
This was several days after the leak, on Monday 7th January, of a transcript of the Disputes Committee session at conference. In one way, the leak was shocking. Certainly, documents had been circulated in hostile publications, email threads leaked, bulletins excerpted on blogs. Prior to conference, even some of the discussions of the Democratic Opposition faction had been leaked to the Weekly Worker. During conference itself, I noticed individuals in the online gossip mills who had demonstrated knowledge of the case, and even mentioned the r-word. But taping and transcribing about ten thousand words from a lengthy and emotional discussion took either resources or commitment.
In another way, it fit in entirely with an increasingly demented situation. Even before the leak it was clear that there was no way that this story wasn't getting out, and soon - and from there, it would spread. Not everyone understood just how far it would spread. I well remember trying to persuade even sensible comrades that the tabloids would indeed care about such a story. The trusty, consoling line that "most people aren't thinking about what the SWP gets up to" had been bandied about: a streak of bullshit that I remembered from the Respect debacle. But it was clear to anyone who had their eyes open that this was going to come out in some form. The question was how the party would carry it. And the answer, evidently, was by retreating to the bunker. As in, Archie Bunker.
Brennan was not alone in his dispensation. Other CC members had conveyed the same message. Generally, this was conveyed with the preferred imprecations of the CC member in question. So Father Purcell might remark that "Conference voted for an interventionist leadership, not federalism!" Sister Assumpta might claim that the accused had been 'exonerated', and no one would be suffered to say otherwise. Or Father Macduff might mention that people in the parochial house had been behind the factions, and it had to stop. Whatever: the coup de grace was invariably the suggestion that we might think about getting on with the important business we had to attend to in "the real world". Of which, evidently, the CC knew fuck all. Indeed, there were signs of Jesuitical distinctions being drawn on this front. One of Brennan's acolytes - who for the sake of consistency we'll call Father Jessup - was heard to have said that it was a duty of members to defend the line even in private relationships. The brittle defensiveness of the leadership's posture had evidently only been exacerbated by the leak.
There were some of us having email and Facebook exchanges. Our collective attitude was that we weren't going to waste a single breath trying to 'defend the line', or make life easier for the lunatics in charge. But each new twist of absurdity throughout that week produced another collective round of forehead slapping and despairing cries of 'fuck sake'. For example, it quickly became clear that 'Comrade Delta' was being finessed back into full-time politics. This, days after the Disputes Committee transcript had been leaked. Then it emerged that full-time party workers were being called into individual meetings with CC members, and made to swear loyalty oaths: you defend the party line, or you're out. Those who didn't either quit, or were sacked. Members who had supported the faction at conference were being isolated or treated like dirt in some branches. The two CC dissidents had decided to stay in the leadership rather than resign. Two affiliates to the international tendency had quit. The results of elections for the National Committee (NC), or the 'House of Lords' as it's known, came in: it was more dominated by loyalists than usual, and certainly didn't reflect the support the factions had achieved at conference. On top of this, of course, the two new entrants to the CC, replacing those who were dropped, were both ardent loyalists of the accused.
So we had a CC that was even more nuts than before, a slavish Lords, a purge of the full-timers, a fracturing tendency and, amid the leaking of the party's shameful business, an attempt to restore the accused to full-time work. Magic. Even so, most people didn't want to say anything publicly, and risk giving ammunition to the right-wing press. Such a decision would, anyway, simply entrench the 'circle the wagons' mentality that had already spread to sections of the party long before conference. I had personally told anyone who would listen that I wasn't going to defend this, and had words with worried comrades, who urged me not to get myself expelled. I didn't have to lie about my views if asked, but I should not make any kind of public statement either: this would require a long fight in the party, and we would have to dig in and maintain discipline. The perspective, even at this stage was, see if it would be within our rights to get an emergency conference, or see if we can legitimately form a faction.
Tom Walker's resignation statement changed everything. First of all, because it expressed concisely and eloquently what the rest of us had been thinking and saying to ourselves. Secondly, because within hours of publication, it had been re-tweeted by @pennyred to 56,000 followers. Articles were coming. The Independent's journalist was tweeting Andy Newman looking for a quote. Laurie Penny was writing. I spoke to China, as I had throughout the crisis. He had long since passed the point where he was willing to toe the line: to do so was to be a chump as far as he was concerned. The party name was already irretrievably tainted. Only open defiance could save it. He was ready to give a statement to Penny, who had emailed an enquiry. I read his statement; it was good. I passed it round to some friends; they agreed that it was good. China was ready to be expelled. I said that for me, the idea of maintaining a muted dissent without openly saying what I thought was becoming impossible. I would wait for a bit, because I wanted to see what others wanted to do, but it was a question of when, not if.
By the evening of Friday 11th January, when the New Statesman article came out, I and several others were already deciding what to say in response. The crisis had gone public; it was not because of us, and there was no way that we could avoid responding to it. But it was when the Independent's version, with its nasty line about 'socialist sharia courts', came out that the wider political stakes became glaringly apparent. This story was going to be about the SWP, certainly, but the conclusions people would draw from it could be much more general: this is what those Muslim-loving lefties are like; this is what political parties lead to, they're all the same, etc; this is what revolutionary socialists are like, stay well away, they're extremists... In contrast with the Independent piece, Penny's article was principled, left-wing and on the side of the party's opposition. So, we made definite decision, probably a dozen or so of us at first, to intervene in the public mess and back up Penny's version of events.
I wrote, furiously, but cathartically. It was a big kamikaze dive right into the cult's lair. An enormous relief descended, for about three days. I expected the expulsion email to come over the weekend, or by Monday at the latest. 'Fine: let them expel me for telling the truth. If it comes to that, I'll appeal.' Soon, however, it became clear that the leadership was paralysed. We heard that they were stunned, devastated, literally in mourning. And that meant there could be a fight for the party.