James Butler analyses both the poverty of the TUC's 'alternative', and of radical theory divorced from questions of organisation and tactics.
October 20th will see hundreds of thousands of people marching in the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ demonstration, billed widely as an anti-austerity march. Somewhere near its head, or at least waiting on a stage in Hyde Park, will be Ed Miliband. This would be a farce, if it weren’t so eminently predictable: enough of a nod to the unions to give the perennially Pollyanna-ish Labour left some notion that the party might (this time, honest) be swinging their way, while retaining a policy trajectory entirely consonant with the austerity imperative. Plus ça change, and all that.
Do such events matter? This march is the belated sister to the TUC’s first demonstration against austerity, on March 26th of last year. That march was notable for the cheering sight of a couple of thousand Black Bloc demonstrators smashing in some quite deserving windows, and UK Uncut’s enjoyable, well-chosen occupation of chi-chi grocers Fortnum & Mason’s. No one – least of all any participant – believes that either of those activities are likely to achieve mass political change, but you might find quite a few who believe they make it rather harder to fold the anti-austerity demonstrations into the narrative of polite (but resigned) disagreement. Many would likely suggest that the immediate sense of solidarity in action is some degree more inspiring than the long trudge to boredom in Hyde Park, which achieved less than an atom’s change of direction in economic policy.
In fact, the concerted campaign of police and judicial pursuit in the wake of March 26th make even such minimal forms of direct action seem ever less likely; the TUC itself will make every effort to damp enthusiasm for any kind of unsanctioned deviation from the Great Trudge. In that respect, it is heartening to see call-outs for both Education and Radical Workers’ feeder blocs, and Solidarity Federation & Boycott Workfare’s invitation to continue the struggle against workfare on the day. But certainly, one-off days out ought not to be our measuring rod for the likelihood of political change, or even the strength of anti-austerity sentiment; worse, if they are our major vehicle for political struggle we have already lost. If they loom so large in our minds as to obscure other forms or strategies for struggle, they can begin to hobble us when we are already enfeebled.
Marches are supposed to be shows of strength. Indeed, they often are most effective when they signal the possibility of anger spilling over into generalised excess or violence, unpalatable though that might seem. Certainly, sheer numbers seem no reliable measure of efficacy: the march against the Iraq war being the oft-cited example in this case. They can certainly build some much-needed sense of solidarity for those opposed to austerity, but even those who find themselves buoyed by listening to the usual parade of damp dignitaries are likely to admit that it won’t, in itself, do much good. Of course, the TUC speaks about marches like this as a kind of three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure on politicians to serve the ‘real’ interests of their electors. This reduction of political activity to a system of lobbying via moral shame is more widespread – many also talk about strike action or more targeted protest action in the same way. But it’s a rare case where mere moral embarrassment can avert economic policy or force a capitalist employer to behave better – were it otherwise, we’d already be living post-capitalism.
It might be sufficient, then, to say that marches are fine (and the angrier, the better), but diluting them of any political potency by putting the smiling mug of Ed Miliband at the front, and seeing them in isolation as the only action available to us is dangerous, and, worse, ineffectual.
It’s rarely advisable to see the tenor of party conferences as cast-iron guarantees for the coming year in politics; they play invariably to the party’s base, or to jaded political editors. Still, the jettisoning of the already flimsy guise of compassionate conservatism and gurning about ‘one nation’ politics suggest that the major political parties are not just tacking to the right, but likely to become even less distinguishable in the coming year. In a sense, Labour’s commitment to austerity (‘deeper and tougher than Thatcher’) ought not surprise us, partly because of the shrinking discretion given by international economic organisations and civil service infrastructure to individual chancellors, and partly because of the long hold of the post-Thatcher consensus among those in power. But it also ought not surprise us if we take a longer view of the current crisis as the consequence of a series of cyclical crises deferred for the last forty or so years – we’ll return to this.
It’s worth noting some of the trends in formal politics over the last few decades, as they suggest something about the way in which people conceive of how to act in political grievance. The membership of mass political parties is in irreversible decline. This haemorrhage is usually attributed to the fragmentation of the working class after Thatcher, and the rise of an aggressive, acquisitive individualism. Doubtless that may be so. But it’s worth thinking about what membership signifies, too: it doesn’t seem to be a natural consequence of expressing political grievance any longer, but rather a category reserved for people who think of themselves as political operatives, a signpost for which faction of administrators you’re part of, whose ranks you want to climb. This is unsurprising – it’s a consequence (not a cause) of the shift in formal politics towards professionalisation. The picture ought to be sobering:
That to one side, formal politics is right-shifting, and this is where the real nightmare lies. The Tory conference revealed the growing influence of the hard-right, free market, anti-working class ‘Free Enterprise Group’, whose manifesto is the kind of stuff that keeps one awake at 3am. These people have been biding their time in the policy wilderness for the past few years, but recognise the current crisis as an opportunity to assert the ruthless logic of capitalism in its current global context. The reason they are seductive is partly their appeal to self-interest on the part of those who might get ahead in their framework, but also because they express some uncomfortable truths about the likelihood of wage repression and further gutting of social security to remain in competition with emerging global economic powers. It is hard to find flaws with this merciless logic if one is committed to capitalism as a way of organising production – and the poverty of this imaginative horizon is why Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’, here in full swing. We might also put it thus: an attempt to make a nicer capitalism will always, in the long run, lose to this kind of full reassertion of the internal logic of capitalism itself.
Some of the serious responses to the TUC’s callout for their demonstration have been to quarrel with its implicit politics: either the assumptions about the dignity of work, the desired return to some previous golden age, or the problems of a promised future itself. Certainly, if our best political project is a return to some pre-crisis state (pre-2008? pre-1973? pre-1968?), a promise of being only somewhat less miserable for a short time, or a desire to ameliorate the very worst effects of a disappearing welfare state, then to scream ‘No Future!’ is very much justified. Nonetheless, the future has a habit of arriving anyway, and to refuse the future they lay out should not be a way of excusing oneself from the difficult political work of establishing a different one. It is not a call to a political nihilism.
Still, this is not an endorsement of the TUC’s position, nor the position that permeates the soft left, that the crisis can be ascribed to the ‘greed’ of a small number of bankers, or a split between a ‘parastic’ financial services sector and the ‘real economy’ of working people, who (presumably) produce things. In fact, the service sector (including financial services) is central to the UK’s economy, though of course the notion of ‘services’ is itself a broad and imprecise one (is a short-order cook doing the same kind of work as a broker?) There is an important short-term argument to be had about taxation, but it is myopic to think that alterations in the tax regime will stem the crisis as it trundles on.
The longer-term picture here is of a state that supported its social democratic interval with huge innovations in industry, a post-war glut of global credit, and the opening up of now saturated global markets. Changes to economic activity (automation, global outsourcing, diminution of markets in new consumer goods) mean this is harder to sustain, though this trend has been made less visible by the unexpected movements of capital and its ‘financialisation’ over the past forty years. However, it is also important to state that when we talk about ‘crisis’, we shouldn’t just mean the various cyclical crises, or even a crisis in real wages masked by credit, but a permanent crisis gradually sharpening over time, centred on the defining features of capitalism itself: the dependency of the vast majority of the world on the sale of their labour-power for the means to subsist, the necessary precarity of that relation, and the paradox that even among an unprecedented ability to produce, people still starve and die. Are we encountering the limits of this mode? It would be foolish to adopt an easy catastrophism and claim so: the movement of capital is often unexpected, and there may be a series of financial and productive innovations just over the horizon. Nonetheless, it seems incontrovertible that we are currently seeing a serious return of immiseration. This is not a crisis that goes away by sighing wistfully and thinking of better days.
POVERTY OF THEORY / THEORY OF POVERTY
To adequately tackle the current situation, we ought to be doing some serious thinking about the way in which the economy works. The withering away of serious critical reflection on the form of the current crisis means we are often presented with a limp kind of ameliorative social democracy as the only ‘real’ alternative to the current state of things – that is, an alternative that differs in no substantial way from capitalist consensus, save for a series of assertions about socialised public goods and the need for a safety net. That is: a nicer capitalism.
How have we got here? How have we got to a point that the limits of our political imagination are so constrained? It might be one thing if this alternative seemed remotely sustainable in a global context, but it doesn’t – and premising it on the possibilities of outsourcing production to a more grotesquely exploited working class elsewhere is an obscenity. This poverty of options is compounded by an ever-shrinking range of political expression and thought in media, where expressing a mild form of socialism, once unremarkable, now brands one as a leftwing firebrand. Serious analysis of where we are, and where we might go, is essential to the political work we have in front of us.
Yet political activity is not a question of having the better analysis, or capturing the right portion of the media – it requires action outside the confines of the debate chamber or the broadsheet pages. An analysis without action is the worst kind of political quietism; a hankering after righteousness without the willingness to achieve change. And it seems, at the moment, that analysis need not be solely abstract and economic, but a serious attempt to address the questions of organisation and tactics in concert with that.
We are faced with a political imperative that seeks to destabilise what little remains to us: workfare represents the first assault not solely on the unemployed, but on all who work as a whole, erasing employment guarantees, driving down wages, upping working hours. Adrian Beecroft’s insidious recommendations on the removal of workers’ rights will work their way into policy – the niche suggestion of giving up rights in return for a minuscule share in company profits is merely its nicest face. Meanwhile, housing is in crisis, debt weighs on all of us, utility and service bills are rising steeply – to promise merely more of the same is not enough. Some future, that.
Immiseration is the order of the day – in sweetened or unsweetened form. Marx once suggested that the generalised trend to immiseration would tend inevitably to revolution. Perhaps that’s so, but the notion of enduring immiseration of the worst kind for some distant resolution is also insufficient. I will be out on October 20th, of course, but it is nowhere near enough – where next?