- Created: Thursday, 16 December 2010 10:46
- Written by Robert Clough
The ruling class has declared class war. The resistance has started, with the huge student demonstration on 10 November and the subsequent walk-outs, marches and occupations on 24 November, this time involving both higher education and secondary school students. As sections of the working class are driven to defend themselves against the assault on state welfare and spending, socialists and communists need to send out a clear message: socialism has to be central to building a new movement. Robert Clough reports
From the outset we have to reject the ruling class lies about the crisis. Determined to deflect attention from the fact that this is a crisis of the system as a whole, the ConDem coalition and the Labour government before it have claimed the solution lies in cutting state spending. Chancellor Osborne has gone so far as to claim that public spending was so high that urgent action was needed because Britain was on the verge of national ‘bankruptcy’. The fact is that Britain’s total accumulated public debt as a percentage of national income is lower today than for much of the last 200 years. The average public debt from 1688-2010 was 112% of national income. In September 2010 it was 57.2%, below that of the US, France, Germany and Japan. So unless Britain has been in a constant state of national bankruptcy this is simple deceit. It is a deceit perpetuated by all the political parties and their media allies.
We also have to reject the widespread notion that these policies simply result from the right-wing ideology of the Tories, that they are ‘Tory’ cuts. The onslaught on the state sector is a very material question as far as the ruling class is concerned. The long-term survival of British imperialism depends on the City of London maintaining its position as the world’s leading financial centre against its imperialist rivals. The City cannot tolerate any fetters on its operations whether they are political or financial. From the British government of the day it expects unquestioning support. When Labour bailed out the banks in 2008 it was in fact bailing out the City and British imperialism as a whole: it had no choice but to do what it did in order to save the system.
From its election in 1997, Labour’s entire monetary policy was driven by the City’s need to continually extend its rapacious plunder of the world’s wealth. In 1997, British imperialism’s overseas assets were £1,976bn, 2.4 times GDP; at the end of 2008, a year after the start of the banking crisis, they were £7,135bn, 4.9 times GDP. The principal beneficiaries of this plunder have been the rich and super-rich, in what BBC journalist Robert Peston calls the ‘really striking social phenomenon under New Labour’, that of the ‘triumph of the super-rich’ (Who runs Britain? p7). In 1995, there were 37,000 millionaires in Britain; by 2009, there were 448,000. In 1997, the richest 1,000 people in Britain were worth an estimated £99bn; in 2010 they were worth £335bn. The wealth of this handful of parasites, the core of the British ruling class, is bound up with the future of the City of London.
The City’s ascendancy over the past 30 years has specific origins in the crisis of capital accumulation that hit the imperialist heartlands in the 1970s. Its dynamic and aggressive expansion overseas was driven by the search for new sources of profit. Today, faced with increasing pressure from imperialist rivals, the British ruling class is forced to attack the state sector, as state spending is mainly financed out of profits, and to hand over state services to private companies to be used as further sources of profit. The ruling class is acting out the logic of capitalism in crisis.
The state spending cuts therefore reflect the needs of the entire ruling class, not just one ideologically driven section. Labour started the ball rolling with its proposals in autumn 2009 to cut state spending by £70 billion. Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg told The Guardian (19 September 2009) that Britain needed ‘bold’ and ‘savage’ cuts in current spending to bring down the public deficit, including a long-term freeze in public sector pay and cutting future public sector pensions. In early 2010, the then Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling told the Financial Times that halving the public deficit in four years was ‘non-negotiable’. In a letter to the Daily Telegraph on 17 October 2010, just before the announcement of the ConDem’s Comprehensive Spending Review, 35 millionaire and billionaire business leaders urged the ConDem coalition not to draw back from its proposed spending cuts: ‘The cost of delay could be even greater…As recent events in some European countries have demonstrated, if the markets lose faith in Britain, interest rates will rise for all of us.’ The ruling class had spoken.
We therefore need to be clear that the crisis is one for which the working class has no responsibility. The working class did not create the enormous credit bubble that burst in 2008, nor did it participate in the speculation which reaped billions of pounds for a handful at the expense of millions throughout the world. The working class has no obligation to pay one penny of the public sector debt, a debt that in the end is paid to the rich and super-rich.
The crisis proves once and for all that capitalism cannot meet the needs of the working class. Indeed, it can only survive at the expense of the working class. The ruling class solution – cutting state spending, accelerating the privatisation of health care and education, driving up unemployment and slashing state benefits – is to make the working class pay. The politics of this is grotesque. A government of millionaires, backed by the millionaire and billionaire press, is telling us that we are all in this together. As if! 18 out of 23 ConDem cabinet ministers are millionaires (even under Labour 10 cabinet members were millionaires). They will not lose their houses, they will not suffer from food shortages, their children will not be denied good schools or a university education.
Meanwhile, a huge media campaign against the ‘undeserving’ poor is underway, those who according to the multi-millionaire Osborne have made life on benefits a ‘lifestyle choice’. They – the disabled facing a year’s limit on Employment and Support Allowance, or facing removal of mobility cost allowances if they are in residential care; those facing eviction because of housing benefit cuts – are a drain on resources and should be punished for their poverty. Not that the ‘deserving’ poor, what Labour called ‘hard working families’, will fare any better: millions have already lost out through the wholesale destruction of occupational pension schemes and millions will lose their jobs, or be forced to work in casualised conditions for poverty pay or be kicked out of social housing because they earn too much.
Because capitalism can only survive at the expense of the working class, socialism must be the conscious goal of the resistance to the cuts. There is no third way or half-way house where capitalism can somehow be tamed to meet the needs of the working class and oppressed. In the end, the working class must take political power and set about reorganising society to meet its own interests, and the movement should not disguise these aims to garner respectability. Class against class: that is the reality, and socialists should say so openly.
If socialism is to be the aim of the resistance then the movement needs to create a new leadership which reflects this and stands unequivocally on the side of the working class. This means that it cannot sit back and let the leadership pass into the hands of the rump of the Labour left. Labour is a ruling class party. Its shadow chancellor Alan Johnson thinks the 50p tax rate on incomes over £150,000 should be only a temporary measure. Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Douglas Alexander is proud to claim that ‘many of the government’s current [welfare] reforms build on what [Labour] set in train’ (The Guardian, 9 November 2010). Labour, he said, would support cuts in housing benefit, reduced access to disability living allowance, temporary changes to the uprating of some benefits, and testing the availability for work of incapacity benefit claimants. It is impossible for anyone to remain a member of this ruling class party and yet lead a movement whose purpose is to defend the working class.
Nor can the movement hand over leadership to the trade unions. Already in January 2010 there were 25,000 council job losses taking place as a result of Labour spending policies – yet the trade unions have not done anything to fight these early cuts. Council after council has announced thousands of redundancies, but still there has been no trade union action. Up to September 2010, total days lost through industrial action were a mere 563,000, half of them due to a two-day walk-out by civil servants in March. Threats of further rolling action did not materialise. So far the only proposed action remains the TUC protest in March 2011.
Newly-elected Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has recently warned that ‘There is an anger building up the likes of which we have not seen in our country since the poll tax. I can feel something stronger than that building...’ but then positions the unions so as to prevent this anger from getting out of control: ‘...it is the responsibility of the trade unions more than anyone else to give some guidance to that anger and put it in a manner that will hopefully make the government take a step back.’ We need to remember that Labour councils implemented the tax, the Scottish TUC opposed non-payment, and the British TUC opposed the mighty anti-poll tax demonstration of 31 March 1990. It was the mass opposition of ordinary people in their communities which defeated this hated tax, not the trade union movement.
The trade unions are not the only force seeking to police the movement. National Union of Students President Aaron Porter called the Tory headquarters’ occupation ‘despicable’ and opposed holding further actions on 24 November. Up and down the country sections of the left have also sought to limit and control the spontaneous protests, preventing political propaganda from being distributed on actions against Vodaphone’s tax evasion (Newcastle) or student demonstrations (Glasgow); marching students away from city centres and into isolation on their campuses, opposing any possible confrontation with the police (Glasgow and Manchester), and limiting school student protests on 30 November to candle-lit vigils after the end of school (Newcastle).
None of these opportunists want to understand the specific parasitic character of British capitalism, let alone confront it. Instead they are determined to prevent any actions from jeopardising their relationship with the Labour Party. Thus the SWP-led Right to Work Campaign and the Tony Benn-sponsored Coalition of Resistance have recently concluded an agreement which included a statement that ‘both campaigns would work with Labour Party members who supported the aims of the campaigns’. It is only to members of this ruling class party that such a guarantee is offered and it expresses the determination of the opportunists to bind the emerging movement to Labour.
We have already seen the effectiveness of direct action in igniting a movement against the cuts – the occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters and Vodafone stores, the walkouts by school, college and university students. Such direct action will develop in working class areas: against evictions arising from cuts in housing benefit, against those organisations engaged in assessment for benefit eligibility, against companies using the ‘sliver of time’ contracts for casualised employment like Tesco, against redundancies and so on. Such actions will develop spontaneously. The role of socialists will be to involve themselves in these struggles and challenge the opportunists, stopping them from heading off the movement or tying it to the Labour Party or diverting it into channels harmless to the ruling class. It means giving out a clear message: this is class war, and the fight for the working class is a fight for socialism!
FRFI 218 December 2010/January 2011