Paul Mason's response to BAE job losses has been to promote a 'left-wing' brand of militarism, summing up many of the problems facing the UK left as it coalesces around the Labour Party, and the limits of this politics as it approaches the reality of state power.
BAE systems this week announced 2,000 job losses, with 750 posts to go at plants in Lancashire,which manufacture parts for the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The response to this news from prominent left wing commentator Paul Mason and others sums up many of the problems facing the left in the UK as it coalesces around the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, and the limits of this politics as it approaches the reality of what state power might actually look like.
Just hours after the announcement from BAE, a Comment is Free article by Mason appeared in the Guardian arguing that a Labour government would be more effective than the Tories combatting the twin threats of 'Jihadi terrorism' and 'Putin', by reversing spending cuts, decrying the Tories' defense policy as 'austerity reaches the armed forces'. While that article didn't mention BAE (and may have actually been written before the news broke), Mason then took to twitter with the following:
BAE Systems job losses: UK only country that has neoliberalism as defence procurement strategy. Tories & Labour/Blair sold crown jewels ..UK should offer state aid to BAE to keep majority of jobs, fast-track Hawk replacement. Northern powerhouse? Dire news for Lancashire.
Mason himself wrote about the bombing of Yemeni hospitals by Saudi Arabia last year. That the exact same Typhoon bombers used to bomb medical facilities are made by BAE, and that the job losses were due to a lull in orders for them, didn't get a mention.
This is not out of character for Mason, who elsewhere has argued to retain the UK's nuclear weapons capacity via the renewal of the Trident missile defense system , for a permanent paramilitary police force based on the French GIGN , and to prevent immigration to the UK for people earning under median wage.
These arguments from Paul Mason barely merit critique on their own - they represent a nationalist, militarist 'leftism' which pits the British working class against both itself and those in other countries via the violence of policing, border regimes and war. Positions Rosa Luxemburg described in 1915 as 'Social Imperialism' when the right wing of the German SDP was tearing itself apart over support for WWI. Rather than question the purpose of jobs at an arms manufacturer, Mason immediately called for the intervention of national capital to save them as-is, mirroring similar calls from the main union at BAE, Unite. Mason says himself he's a social democrat and not a revolutionary (although he was once a member of British Trotskyist group Workers Power) , and he's clearly an apologist for British imperialism, constantly decrying the decline in the UK's military power, while making geopolitical prescriptions for British intervension into everywhere from the Middle East to North Korea.
At the same time as trying to push Labour towards even more militaristic, pro-police and anti-migrant policies than those of even the leadership of Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell, Mason still claims a spot on the 'radical left'. He dived deep into the history of the workers movement to put on a play about Louise Michel in London this year. Mason has also made several appearances on Novara Media, both online and in-person events, including a panel on 'Technology and Post-capitalism' which also featured academic Marxist David Harvey at The World Transformed last month, and he occasionally goes on holiday to have his picture taken with protestors in other European countries.
Mason got a lot of push back on twitter for his comments on BAE, including from those who have been supportive of the Corbyn project. Ash Sarkar from Novara Media pointed out:
Here's something that really confuses me about Paul's politics. More than most, he's incredibly well-informed about the Paris Commune as in, he's written extensively on it. What's more, he has a great deal of familiarity with transformative worker's initiatives. For Marx, the rejection of a standing army model by the Commune was an indispensable basis for forming "really democratic" institutions.
While no explanation is offered for this incongruity, it at least points it out quite starkly.
However, Sarkar's colleagues at Novara were less critical of Mason, leaping to his defense in a couple of places. Aaron Bastani, who describes himself as a 'Libertarian Communist' with a book on 'Fully Automated Luxury Communism' expected out this year replied to to Akala's criticism of Mason with the following:
Serious Q[uestion] of strategy. Would Brit deep state allow transformation of UK econ/military in 1 term? (I'm pro BAE becoming civilian company btw)"
Then later to Ash Sarkar
Sure but in world with a state system it means revolution dies... There are considerations of NATO, deep state, US...I'd want military neutrality & new foreign policy but > If you try & transform 2 pillars of uk state: military-security apparatus and neoliberal political economy, at same time, I think you'd lose.
We should note that unlike Mason, Bastani doesn't want BAE to continue producing weapons for an expanded British military capability indefinitely. In October 2016 Bastani wrote an article for Open Democracy calling for nationalisation of BAE and a transformation to a civilian company, borrowing heavily from the ideas of the Lucas Aerospace plan. While we agree that the Lucas Plan was a model for demilitarisation, Bastani's assessment of why it failed, and how it might be applied, falls flat.
And yet shop stewards suspected that their daring blueprint would be insufficient in an increasingly hostile economic climate.
So it proved – while the Plan represented a plausible answer to de-industrialisation and rising global competition, it floundered without political support.
Bastani's position now has retreated further than the fairly conservative one outlined in that article: even with political support from a Corbynist Labour Party in power, the transformation would have to proceed over at least a decade, with Labour first tackling the 'neoliberal economy', then later reforming the 'military/security apparatus'. Pressure from markets, NATO and the 'deep state' would prevent tackling both at the same time.
The shop stewards at Lucas who put forward the plan, had been involved in a thirteen week strike in 1972 at Burnley for higher wages, in an atmosphere where 'workers self-management' of industry was on the cards everywhere. However towards the late '70s, in the face of job losses, while the plan showed the potential for workers' to run things themselves and to envisage a complete repurposing of a harmful industry to something producing dialysis machines and other liberatory and life-saving technologies, it also marked a retreat from the direct action they'd previously undertaken; relying on lobbying of management and the Labour Party, neither of whom took them up on the offer. Rather than failure on the part of the Labour Party to take up the plan, we locate the failure in having faith in Labour in the first place, in workers not trusting their own ability to seize control of production directly.
For precursors to the Lucas Plan, we can look at the actions of US workers in World War 2, who despite their union having signed a no-strike agreement to patriotically support the war, launched hundreds of wildcat strikes in factories, most notably the car factories unionised by the UAW. Post-war, the wildcat strike wave continued, with massive strikes at Renault in Paris, and production control in Japan, where workers from newspaper to mine workers wrested control of companies from their bosses, and either increased or redirected production altogether to meet the immediate human needs of food and goods shortages in the aftermath of the war, an effort which was only stopped when the US state abandoned its programme of mild labor reforms to combine with the Japanese conglomerates (Zaibatsu) and government in crushing the movement, with all three agreeing that putting Japanese fascists back in control was preferable to communism.
Capital's response to this massive upsurge of class struggle was twofold. Workers councils in Hungary 1956 could only be crushed by soviet tanks. The black uprisings in the US, which in Detroit and other cities were closely linked to the wildcat movements in the factories, were met with assassinations and false arrests under the COINTELPRO program, coincidentally also inaugurated in 1956. Meanwhile, capitalists shifted production overseas to at least temporarily more compliant workforces, in a move Beverly Silver has described as the 'spatial fix'. As we've seen in the past decades, workers in India, China and Vietnam have been no less militant than their US counterparts, but these moves crushed many of the militant movements in the US which had previously been taking on bosses, the state, their unions and leftist parties simultaneously.
The Lucas Plan showed the ability of workers to run things themselves, but the potential to self-manage and the realisation of it remained distant. Self-management within a capitalist economy, while it can point towards a break with existing property relations, does not overcome those relations.
Even the workers who did expropriate their bosses and run factories themselves still had to deal with the realities of capital and the commodity form, such as those at the Lip watch factory in the early '70s or in Argentina from 2001. Self-management in industry, without questioning the nature of the firm as an entity, commodity production as such, or destroying political power (as opposed to the Corbynist project of assuming it) has run up against these limits over and over again. The call for nationalisation also ignores that Labour did nationalise arms companies just one year following the Lucas Plan - The British Aircraft Corporation, the Hawker Siddeley Group and Scottish Aviation were nationalised and merged in 1977 to form British Aerospace, further mergers and privatisation formed BAE in 1999, none of the proposals from the Lucas workers were incorporated of course.
Bastani mentions the incorporation of self-management into capitalist work processes elsewhere in glowing terms:
If anything the flat structures its engineers wanted four decades ago prefigured work practices that have since emerged in IT and software development, themselves increasingly replicated in MakerLabs and larger businesses such as X (formerly Google X) and SpaceX.
It's true that software engineers often have a lot of latitude about how their work is organised and the specifics of how problems are solved. However autonomy in this regard is nullifed by the fact that, as wage labourers, they are not able to influence the content of their work. The engineers at Uber likely have a lot of choice about which open source technologies they use to build Uber, but they're still building Uber, a product designed to remove autonomy from the drivers who work for it, and eventually replace them with robots. To not build Uber, they'd have to either quit individually or engage in industrial action such as shirking, work-to-rule, sabotage, or expropriation.
What Bastani praises here is not workers self-management borne out of class struggle, but Toyotism - the self-policing of skilled workforces in manufacturing that developed out of reactions to Fordism, imposed from above. Toyotism was born in Japanese companies in collaboration with US management consultants in those same companies that came close to full expropriation during production control following the war. It allows workers a lot of choices when at work, but within limited constraints, with increased responsibility for failure, and in return for productivity gains and casualisation - it is the end of working class self-organisation, not its beginning. Coincidentally, when Uber's operating license was revoked in London last month, Bastani also called for it to be nationalised, in order to eventually turn it into a fully automated public taxi system, the wildcat strikes against Uber internationally, from Kenya to Indonesia were absent from this analysis.
While Ash Sarkar sees Mason's politics as really confusing, there's a simple explanation. Despite a knowledge of the history of the workers movement and revolutionary ideas, Mason has rejected their methods in favour of 'socialist' management of national capital, a political project not of Marx or anarchism, but the right wing of the second international, the original Social Democrats that supported World War I and colonialism while crushing revolutionary workers at home in the uprisings that followed. Bastani might not enthusiastically embrace the police and militarism, but is forced to support the status quo (under a shift of formal ownership) while looking towards a horizon a decade or few ahead where state direction of capital has led towards 'luxury communism'. This represents a politics borne of the retreat from class struggle by figures like Virno and Gorz. The 'non-reformist reform' which nevertheless is granted by the state and capital. A socialism absent the worker but with state and capital intact. Decades before Gorz and Virno, Malatesta addressed reforms minus any reformism at all:
In the order of things, reforms are then introduced or they are not, and once introduced either consolidate the existing regime or undermine it; assist the advent of revolution or hamper it and benefit or harm progress in general, depending on their specific characteristic, the spirit in which they have been granted, and above all, the spirit in which they are asked for, claimed or seized by the people.
The oppressed, either ask for and welcome improvements as a benefit graciously conceded, recognise the legitimacy of the power which is over them, and so do more harm than good by helping to slow down, or divert and perhaps even stop the processes of emancipation. Or instead they demand and impose improvements by their action, and welcome them as partial victories over the class enemy, using them as a spur to greater achievements, and thus they are a valid help and a preparation to the total overthrow of privilege, that is, for the revolution.
While we'd love to see a communist revolution tomorrow, we don't expect it. However to get to full communism - the abolition of capital and the state, we must attack both capital and the state - the relationships of wage labour and the commodity form.
Beyond the vision of a nationalised arms industry, there remains the positive example of the Lucas plan, but we reference also the attacks on sales and supply chains we see such as the physical destruction of weapons such as the BAE Hawk aircraft hammered beyond use by the Ploughshares Four in the '90s or the strikes and blockades that prevented a satellite launch from French Guiana this year.
Opposed to Mason's nationalist immigration regime, there is the direct action of groups like Kent anti-racism which prevented a deportation flight last month when the pilot refused to fly with a refugee on board, or Schools ABC organising parents and school staff to refuse the 'hostile environment' collection of immigration status via the schools census, which feeds the detention and deportation regime.
Instead of calling to nationalize everything that moves, we look to the Deliveroo strikers in Europe and the Uber strikers in Africa and Asia confronting directly the human consequences of increasing automisation and casualisation in sectors ignored by traditional trade unions. Rather than calling for more social housing, we look to groups like Brighton SolFed and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth as they confront both private and social landlords around issues like repairs, deposit theft and gatekeeping.
These don't represent a hypothetical communist society, but are concrete, pragmatic activities that people are engaging in right at the moment, often ignored by mainstream and even radical media as attention is focused ever narrower on a news cycle dominated by parliamentary politics.
image credit, facebook/theworkersbomb