The paradox of reformism: a call for economic blockades

Road block in Caen, France, during the strikes against raising retirement age.

Statement from Brighton Solidarity Federation on the crisis, popular protest and why 'being right' will not be enough to stop the cuts.

Neoliberal ideology is a crock of shit and everyone left of Labour knows it. Critics have pointed out its flawed assumptions regarding perfect competition, consumer access to information, human nature and a host of other factors that nowhere apply in the real world. They’ve also pointed out that where neoliberal policies have been applied, the results have often been disastrous and rarely matched the promised outcomes of prosperity for the rich and trickle down for the poor. One famous example was the so-called J-curve model for transitioning the former USSR to Western-style capitalism. The ‘J’, a small downswing in transition followed by a long upswing when neoliberal policies worked their magic, turned into something more resembling an ‘L’, plunging millions into worse poverty than before.

And then there’s the cuts.

Here too it is pointed out how neoliberal deregulation in the financial sector led to the kind of speculative antics that triggered the financial crisis – yet more neoliberalism is prescribed as the cure. The PCS union and UKUncut activists point out the massive £120bn or so ‘tax gap’ that if collected could easily save more than austerity (instead, the government is cutting tax collectors). It is pointed out that the welfare state was founded at a time when Britain was bankrupt and heavily indebted from WWII, but is now being dismantled in the upswing from a relatively minor recession and a modest national debt. In short, there’s no shortage of arguments as to the ineffectiveness or unreasonableness of neoliberal policies. So why aren’t we winning?

The reason that reason gets us nowhere is that politics is not based on good arguments but on power relations. Democracies institutionalise power struggles to a certain extent, since it’s rather disruptive to have periodic coups and civil wars every time there needs to be a change of government. But only certain interests are institutionalised. Here’s a clue: they’re not ours. Thus none of the parties anywhere near power oppose the cuts (Labour included). The Lib Dems are a textbook example of what happens when previously minor parties get near power – they become all-but indistinguishable from the rest. Since our interests do not figure in this system, reasoned argument gets us nowhere. We win the argument, the cuts go ahead anyway and at best we can feel a sense of righteous indignation.

If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn’t cut it. It’s a matter of power. A case in point: it is true that the British welfare state was founded at a time when the national finances were in a far worse state. But it’s worth looking at what the ruling class were saying when the welfare state was founded. For the avoidance of any doubt, let’s hear from a Tory: “We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution”, said Quintin Hogg in 1943. When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever's in government. They'll no doubt claim it was their 'responsible' protests which got them there.

It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. We might have right on our side, but might will determine the outcome. For the fight against the cuts, there are several implications. Symbolic protest won’t cut it. If actions like UKUncut move from largely awareness-raising into the realms of economic blockades, then we’ll be getting somewhere. And the state will react accordingly, we must be prepared for more police violence if we’re serious about winning. No doubt such tactics will also be condemned by those notionally on ‘our side’ just like Aaron Porter condemned the Millbank Riot which kick-started this movement. The irony is without such a movement, they’re powerless too. But given the TUC is in thrall to the Labour Party, and the lack of independent workers’ organisation, sustained, co-ordinated strike action against austerity looks unlikely. On the other hand economic blockades have been used to great effect in France both as a standalone tactic and in support of strike action.

The essence of the idea is to blockade economically significant targets from shopping centres to commuter hubs to fuel depots in order to inflict economic damage comparable to a strike. To be effective, these must be mass actions, otherwise the police are adept at arresting the participants, especially if d-locked or glued-on in the activist fashion. We don’t need martyrs, we need results! We’ve already seen that large crowds can be capable of defending themselves against police attacks, especially if they go prepared knowing what to expect (like some of the protective clothing that has appeared on London demos). Winning the arguments and making reasoned criticisms is all well and good, but it won’t stop the cuts. As a man who spent most of his life making criticisms said, "not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history".* When the ruling class fear us, we’ll start winning concessions.

* Karl Marx, The German Ideology – his philosophical attack on those in his day who thought ideas alone drove the course of history.

Taken from the Solidarity Federation website.


Jan 23 2011 19:02

I think this is a great article, but I don't think the view it puts across on strikes is enough. I don't think it should say that just because the TUC won't do it, we should do other things like economic blockades. It should also say that we should try to push for strike action wherever possible, and that where action takes place we try to take as much control over it as possible.

Also, we should try to expand the use of occupations to take over public space, to disrupt the economy and to physically prevent closure of public service buildings like children centres, day care homes for the elderly, schools and hospital wards.

Maybe a slight rewrite for some point would be in order?

Joseph Kay
Jan 23 2011 19:29

i agree with all those points, but the brief was 500 words and this is 800+ already!

really it's a draft knocked up in one go and then lightly edited - it can definitely be improved. i think it might be worth splitting into two parts - the paradox of reformism bit expanded slightly with some more examples, then a second part on tactics covering economic blockades and the stuff you mention.

Jan 23 2011 21:20

Good work.

Jan 24 2011 13:05

Decent. Better than anything being written around here.

Boris Badenov
Jan 24 2011 16:22

Good as a pep talk, but a bit light on analysis.
First of all, who are the critics of neoliberal economics referenced in the first paragraph? Some examples of further reading would help the reader understand the problem better than "it's all a crock of shit innit" will.
Second of all, the case for the welfare state being put in place to advert revolution in post-war Britain is made very spuriously. One out-of-touch Tory MP making an overly dramatic statement does not mean that the entire British ruling class saw the welfare state as a "concession" to the working class. Certainly some saw it as a natural extension of the interventionist war state into previously non-integrated areas like healthcare and education. Many Labourite politicians saw it as a series of moderate nationalizations meant to "modernize" the state of the working class and thus allow Britain to participate in a post-war global capitalist economy.
Many ordinary Britons probably saw it as a just recompense for the war effort, and it is not at all clear how revolutionary they would have been in the case of the NHS' failure. There certainly wasn't a revolution when Lloyd George's "homes fit for heroes" plan failed in the interwar years.
In fact it's very likely that only earnest Labourite dupes or reality-divorced Tory reactionaries saw the welfare state as the triumph of socialism/way to stop a revolution.
This may seem trivial at first, but it's not for two reasons 1) the welfare state was always, as the name implies, for the welfare of the state, and not for that of the working class. If it increased the general living standard of the working class, which it clearly did, it was only because the post-war economy required it. 2)the struggles of the working class should not be reduced to responses to government policies (or lack thereof). The General Strike in 1926 was not over the failure of "houses fit for heroes" (just as a revolution, had it actually occurred post-1945, would not have been in response to the failure of a welfare state), it had its own momentum and internal logic, and it had to do with the structural disasters of capitalism rather than the absence of this or that state regulation mechanism.
Similarly the movement against the cuts today, I would argue, should not be conflated with an effort to save the welfare state, as eager as Labourites are to do otherwise. The classic welfare state is a policy that had its time and place and did its job in protecting the interests of capital; this is clearly no longer the case, which explains the apparent paradox of why the current government has decided to go ahead and trim whatever's left of it even though times are not as bad now as they were in 1945.
Indeed demands for "education free for all" are patently anti-welfare state in its current condition. Ditto on "healthcare free for all" or "dignity for the disabled."
The article is clearly not advocating Labourism but there is a self-conscious imo attempt to not challenge the "evil tories vs. good welfare state" myth, from which only Labour have anything to benefit.
As for blocking access to supermarkets or fuel stations as a substitute for mass strikes, I'm not sure how well that would work. In France the attacks on fuel stations were part of a larger, at least nominally class-conscious, movement. I'm not saying such a campaign of disruptions would not work on its own, but in the absence of an organized strike effort, it is likely that it would degenerate into vague, and easily vilified, "riots" or would simply peter out. But I agree that it is definitely more worthwhile than just wallowing in righteous indignation or, worse, giving Labour and their bankrupt mythology another try.

Steven wrote:
to physically prevent closure of public service buildings like children centres, day care homes for the elderly, schools and hospital wards.

A very important point I think. Although it seems much more defensive than an "economic blockade", these are the kinds of battles that are actually winnable in the absence of a strong strike movement.

Mike Harman
Jan 24 2011 17:09
Indeed demands for "education free for all" are patently anti-welfare state in its current condition. Ditto on "healthcare free for all" or "dignity for the disabled."

I don't think these are anti-welfare state at all, while taken to their full logical conclusion they might be, they aren't explicitly.

Anti-tuition fees , even where people are arguing for no fees at all, would just be rolling things back to before fees were introduced (let alone '80s style grants etc.). Also there has been very little action against the universities themselves including the occupations - most criticisms of the universities have only been around their treatment of the occupations themselves.

Save EMA - so, so much of the discourse is emphasising that it keeps people in college due to the tie to attendance, stops people 'dealing drugs on the street'. There has been next to no mention of it's massive disciplinary role (turn up late or skip class once and lose the whole £30). When I did mention the disciplinary role on twitter, within about 3 minutes someone piped up telling me to "do your research it is great for keeping working class kids in college" - any criticism of the benefit was seen as support for scrapping it.

Contrast this to the anti-JSA campaign in the '90s. It feels a bit like we could end up with a 'Save JSA' campaign if the government tried scrapping it.

This doesn't mean I don't think there will be any critique of education coming out of the protests, or that people are only interested in defending the status quo, but there has not been much of this, yet. It might also be that I'm a very long way away and relying on libcom and other 'net sources for all my information, would be great to be contradicted.

Jan 29 2011 20:46

When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it.

The withering of the welfare state came with the withering of the Soviet Bloc. It wasn't revolt at home that worried western Govts but who had the potential to back it and exploit it.

Rob Ray
Apr 15 2011 14:21

Tis good, but never start a piece with "crock of shit" or similar - it comes across as childish.

Apr 15 2011 17:14
Rob Ray wrote:
Tis good, but never start a piece with "crock of shit" or similar - it comes across as childish.

I agree

Awesome Dude
Apr 16 2011 00:18
Rob Ray wrote:
Tis good, but never start a piece with "crock of shit" or similar - it comes across as childish.

Fucking typical of Stalinist journalism...remind me which rag do you live from wink ?

Tom de Cleyre
Dec 17 2012 03:51

The lesson of the pension movement in France (which, by the way, was not successful), which saw unions call and maintain the blockade of reffineries (despite the threat of military intervention), and also saw the same unions stop blockading them with very little pretense of democracy of any kind, was that "blockading the economy" can be a purely reformist tactic. It does not in itself carry any radical meaning.

What is important is the type of organisation that decides on the action (union-led or extra-union assemblies) and the demands (reform or radical change).

It has been an observable shift, especially with the wave of sequestrations of bosses by unions: You can have 'radical' tactics for reformist purposes.

To fight reformism is not to call for a specific tactic, but to fight for a decision-making process independent from union and political affiliation and demands that are not reforms (therefore not "anti-cuts" or "anti-austerity" or "for a nicer capitalism" or "for a welfare state").