Monday, 13 August 2007

Neither Lenin Nor Labour Update

I'm reading a lot about the Labour Party, and New Labour in particular, at the moment. I've just finished reading Noel Thompson's Political Economy and the Labour Party, which was an interesting discussion of how Labour's political thought has evolved over the last century or so. What struck me is how Labour abandoned decentralist notions of socialism, such as Guild Socialism, some time in the 1920s at the latest, and they have never been really revived. It seems to me that if a real Left is to revive on any scale in this country, a decentralising democratic form of socialism will have to be embraced. However, there appears to be little chance of that in the forseeable future.

While thinking about such matters, and thinking what I'd like to write about for both cash and kudos (if I'm lucky) in the years to come, I came across the piece below by the Independent Working Class Association. Of course I don't agree with them 100%. However, their plea for a democratic, decentralising socialism to combat both the post-Thatcherite consensus which is currently stifling politics and the ROROs (Racially Or Religiously Obsessed) who dominate those parties pretending to be "the resistance" to aforesaid consensus (ie the BNP and Respect), is spot on.

The neo-liberal consensus is dying slowly:1 August 2007

Since Gordon Brown assumed leadership, Labour have surged back ahead in the opinion polls, scored a major victory over the Tories in the Ealing and Southall by-elections and have re-established themselves as the bookies' favourites to win the next general election.

Having followed a traditional tax/immigrants/Europe line of attack for almost a decade – which, as Oliver Letwin has said, was very effective for getting up to 32%, the Tories are now trying a centrist approach, which seems to be having no impact. Even after two and a half terms, ten years of infighting and Iraq, the Tories still cannot overhaul Labour: indeed, Cameron is struggling to win over his own party. Confidence in the Labour party is now so high, and contempt for Cameron so deep, that they are referring to Cameron as the Tory Kinnock. (Observer, 22 July 2007)

Tories – mission accomplished

The Tory party is, in the truest, historical sense of the term, finished. This does not mean that the Tory party has failed. Quite the opposite: the Tory party is finished because it has succeeded. The historic mission of the Tory party has been to destroy the working class movement, and they have done this. All the gains in equality made throughout the twentieth century have been reversed, and are still reversing. Wealth and power are once again being concentrated at their rightful place: the top. The UK has become a tax haven for the super-wealthy, meaning the tax burden has been redirected towards low and middle income groups. The gap in male life expectancy between social classes I and V has increased from 5.5 years in 1972-6 to 8.4 years in 1997-2001.

So comprehensive has been the Tory victory that it has pulled the entire political centre of gravity over to its side: where twenty years ago there was only one Tory party, now there are three. As Nick Cohen recently pointed out in the Observer, there is no great clamour within Tory Britain to get Labour out of office and the Tories back in, because Tory Britain is doing perfectly fine under Labour: "Margaret Thatcher had inflicted terrible wounds on leftish Britain. She had destroyed the trade unions, presided over the closure of traditional industries and reduced hundreds of thousands of proud families in Scotland, Wales and the north [and London] to dependency on state handouts... On the contrary, in the past decade the classic Tory voter has never had it so good; never been so wealthy or so secure. His assets are growing, his children can be protected whether they do well at school or not and he can look forward to a long and comfortable life." (‘Tory voters have never had it so good’. The Observer, 22 July 2007)

The root cause behind the Tory party’s seeming unelectability is that there is no longer any need for it: it has won its war, it has achieved its goals. Having defeated the working class and established the neo-liberal consensus, all that remains is the administration of this consensus. And why should anyone vote for the Tories – who cost the country billions of pounds on Black Wednesday, who are dying of old age, who are hopelessly split between their liberal and authoritarian wings - when the other Thatcherite parties are younger, shinier, less racist, more modern and less ‘nasty’?

The neo-liberal consensus has been famously described as ‘the end of history’, the end of ideology and class struggle. So was the Keynesian consensus, and English Victorian liberalism. The consequences of the neo-liberal consensus are obvious to anyone unless they decide not to see it. From a post-war historical norm of around 75% electoral turn-out up to 1992, this has fallen to 60%.

Labour takes on the Tory mantle

The catalyst for this was not Thatcher, but Blair: it was the creation of New Labour in 1994, and the ending of any worthwhile democratic choice, that led to the collapse in electoral turnout. The consequence is that, so far, 15% of the electorate has withdrawn their support from the neo-liberal consensus. If the Tory party’s difficulty is that it has no historic mission left, Labour is facing difficulties of a different variety: having to manage, maintain and uphold this profoundly anti-working class status quo.

The combination of an increasingly regressive tax regime, growing utility bills and inadequate money wage increases are producing something that barely even happened under Thatcher, namely real wage falls: “In both the final three months of 2006 and the first three months of 2007, there was a decline in real disposable personal income (RPDI). In English, that means that when you take account of rising prices, the money you are bringing in each month buys less than it previously did.” (‘The signals say no to a snap election’, The Guardian, 23 July 2007)

Again, the consequences of this are apparent and obvious. The constituencies with the lowest turnout are traditional Labour seats in northern cities.

From 400,000 in 1997, Labour membership had fallen to half that figure by 2004, and has now fallen to it’s lowest ever. In 2006, faced with chronic funding difficulties, Labour had to reschedule loans from its major donors, acquire a bridging loan from the bank, sell its London HQ and cut its HQ staff by half.

The neo-liberal consensus is dying slowly. A consensus built upon 60% approval –at best- is inherently unstable and in the long-term unsustainable. Barring a disaster of Black Wednesday proportions, Labour will win the next election and become established as the natural party of government, and all the trends in turn-out and political participation that have been apparent since the birth of New Labour will continue. The question is, what will happen next?

At present, the only organised opposition to the neo-liberal consensus is coming from the right: having averaged almost 15% across 750 candidates in May’s local elections, the BNP took 9% in the recent Sedgefield by-election (alongside significant votes for UKIP and the English Democrats). The Tory party has always been a coalition, held together by its ability to win elections. If it can no longer do this then the coalition has no reason to exist. Failure to win the next election, having exhausted every tactical path open to it, may well see the Tory party atrophy, with its liberal wing re-aligning itself with Labour and the Lib Dems, and its authoritarian wing forming a hard-right bloc with the BNP and UKIP.

The left, as it stands, is nowhere: it is stuck looking at the past, to 1917 or some supposed golden era of Old Labour. The undemocratic nature of Leninism is now well known. Less well known is that Attlee’s Labour party came out against workers control of the nationalised industries in 1944-5: Fabian socialism is as elitist and top-down as its capitalist counterpart. The rising working class showed its willingness to fight capital and the state during the Miners strike, Wapping and the Poll Tax revolt. The Labour party sat back and did nothing.

Neo-Liberalism as a political Strategy

This is no great loss: the working class is better off without the ‘leadership’ of the middle class left, whose only motive for being on the left was that the working class was seen as a potential ‘winning horse’, albeit one that required the guidance of a middle class jockey. Ultimately, the working class can only win its own battles, and the present period offers the opportunity – in fact, requires the necessity- of re-thinking and re-strategising. The victory of neo-liberalism was not historically inevitable, but neither was it an historic accident: it was the product of decades of effort.

Neo-liberalism as a political entity was formally born at the Mont Pelerin conference of 1947, although there had been some piecemeal efforts prior to the war. A group of intellectuals, led by Hayek and including Milton Friedman, identified what they saw as a collectivist consensus –encompassing Keynesianism, socialism, communism and fascism- and consciously set out to destroy it and replace it with free market liberalism (conveniently ignoring the fact that capitalism, like any form of industrial economy, is largely collectivist, and the ‘market economy’ largely a myth, purely through technological and organizational necessity. To give one example, the internet and the computer you are reading this on would not exist if it weren’t for decades of publicly funded R&D by the US military), using ‘freedom’ as their major conceptual, philosophical and ideological weapon: competitive market capitalism safeguards individual freedom, collectivism invariably restricts it.

Hayek set out to win the hearts and minds not of the masses, but of the elites: the decision makers and intellectuals who were enthralled by collectivism, and who Hayek saw as marching to their doom. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any original thinking from the left these ideas have gained a wider currency. It took until 11 September 1973, when Pinochet came to power in Chile, for the neo-liberals to see a tangible return on their efforts (this can be seen as the date the neo-liberal era of history began). The economic ideas put into practice in Pinochet’s Chile were born under Friedman’s stewardship at the University of Chicago. These ideas were then exported to Britain –as senior Thatcherites have openly admitted-, and are now increasingly dominant worldwide.

How we can revive working class politics

If the twentieth century has shown us anything, it is that authoritarian socialism does not work, does not deserve to work and does not deserve the loyalty of the working class. That the left resorted to undemocratic methods allowed the right to paint itself throughout the twentieth century –not without justification- as being the best guarantor of freedom and democracy, something the neo-liberals fully exploited. If a progressive and democratic alternative to neo-liberalism is to be constructed, then the work of developing a counter-philosophy has to begin now, as Hayek did in the 1940s. Where Hayek sought only to win the hearts and minds of the elites, our job is to win the hearts and minds of the masses. The difficulty in this is more logistical than intellectual. Like Hayek, we have historical and intellectual precedent. Lionel Robbins urged the implementation of neo-liberal measures in Britain in the 1930s. He lost out and Keynesian measures were implemented instead for one simple reason: a few short years after the General Strike, the working class was too strong to take on.

We have a long and honourable tradition of thought to draw on that advocates what James Connolly called ‘working class democracy’, or economic democracy: the placing of the economy under genuinely democratic control from the bottom-up and ending coercion of the individual from above. This is the final, and ultimate, goal for all progressives, for anyone committed to equality and democracy. It is the only ideological tradition that is in keeping with, and worthy of, the best and most natural democratic, anti-authoritarian instincts of our class.

This tradition was largely –although never completely- obscured by 1917 and everything that followed (almost perversely, Robert Dahl, professor emeritus of political science at the US’s most exclusive university, Yale, is a prominent contemporary advocate of this tradition). It is this tradition of thought that must be revived if neo-liberalism is to be overcome in a humane manner. Failure to do this will leave the field open to fascism and militant Islam as the only ideological alternatives to neo-liberalism, a dynamic that is already in effect. Economic democracy, and the working class, must return to the ring. The two are inextricably linked, and are now the exclusive property of each other.

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