BM Blob's postscript to Once Upon A Time There Was A Place Called Nothing Hill.
Under the guise of restoration, the last decade or so has witnessed the inversion of the revolution glimpsed so dramatically in 1968. Reaction has in the process laid hold of the revolutionary themes and redefined them for its own ends. The 'idea' whose time has come, has been turned inside out and the language of revolution monopolized for conservative ends, even taking credit for coining the word "revolution", (Thatcher's recent talk of a "cultural revolution") because, what is under attack is some vague 'sixties permissiveness' which substitutes for the spectre of a total social revolution, too fearful to be ever openly acknowledged.
It has not, in the UK, been an easy task engulfed during the 1980s from time to time by titanic struggles, threatening to sweep away the slow progress-in-alienation engineered in the opposite direction. But meantime, an ill-thought-through anti-statism is twisted out of recognition to support cut backs in welfare payments and promote privatisation, which parrots the ideology of nationalization (public control) and is also a false critique of bureaucracy at the same time. A wish for genuine liberty is deflected into a resuscitated doctrine of entrepreneurship, the right to exploit others and, most recently of all, the proposed right to scab, protected by the law, even if their is a 99% majority in favour of strike action. And on a subterranean plain, desire has been caught by the tail, on the trading floor of the Stock Exchange promising dreams money can buy. And what adventure could be more fabled than the rise of the Saatchi Brothers advertising firm, in a position, only recently to threaten a take over of one of Britain's top five banks, the Midland? Or Revlon, the cosmetics firm, mounting a table turning bid for Salomon Bros, Wall Street's leading brokerage house! Whilst against a backdrop of mass unemployment and mounting poverty, anti -work combined with a freedom for want - not long ago the hope of millions - is what drove many a city whizz-kid along, looking to retire at thirty, having made a pile. Not forgetting the multiplication of exotic services whose endless variety catering to the tastes of the connoisseur consumer have 'enriched' the meaning of work, changing the spirit of capitalism from a work ethic to a work aesthetic. It may one day be useful to draw up an exhaustive list, but let these items suffice to give some idea of its scope and breadth. Until Black Monday its onrush was so powerful as to render "the work of the negative" almost a spent dream.
What is exciting about the biggest most international stock market crash in history, is that their piece meal ad hoc innovation adding up finally into a total strategy of containment, has been left stranded in mid-air. Particularly in the UK the leading exporter of "popular capitalism" slavishly imitated, even by an emergent super-power like Japan, there is now a gaping hole, a populist vacuum which is exceedingly dangerous for power. The bourgeoisie were the first to build a bridge to 'the people' and in all subsequent phases of its political domination, particularly in the 20th century where the presence of the masses was keenly felt, all government whether Liberal, Social Democratic, Fascist, Bolshevikh, Post Second World War Consensus Politics and latterly Monetarist, had to appear to embody a popular will, for at least some of the time. Once this consensus had broken down irretrievably and could no longer be conjured out of thin air the rulers were in mortal danger.
With the crash a central plank of monetarism in the UK immediately snapped. After the disastrous B.P. share issue the Tories privatisation programme is now in ruins. For the foreseeable future, the small investor (ideologically of supreme importance) will be scared off. Even the marketers of share issues began to have qualms - an indication of just how far and wide and quickly disillusion can spread, because advertising is a leading glamour industry that has flourished like never before under the Tory government. A post BP flop article in The Financial Times (November 12th 1987) remarked -"critical assessment of the creativity of privatisation advertising has been superseded by questions about the morality of it all"- going on to say "City observers are concerned with the increasingly dogmatic tone of advertising - in three years the slogans have moved from "you can share in BTs future" to "If you see Sid tell him" for British Gas to "now its your turn to say yes" for the Trustees Savings bank, to BP's "Be part of it".
This hectoring tone born of an unshakeable conviction, that if you follow the instruction to the letter, it will be to your great advantage, will now turn into government diktat without even the glimmerings of popular ratification. In a volatile stock market, one cannot command people frightened for their state pensions to buy unit trusts or frightened for their lives, to take out costly medical insurance paid for out of stock market winnings. And what happens if the froth already knocked off the des. res. property markets effects less desirable residences? And the average house owner accustomed to vicariously enjoying their locked-up assets, start to see property values decline wholesale? This could happen both as a result of renewed inflation or lower wage settlement if a recession really starts to bite. But whatever, such people feeling they have been had are going to cast around for a political lifeboat.
No brand of political populism is ever quite the same. And no Chesterfield Conference of Trotskyists, left Labourists and re-nationalizers opportunely held only days after the crash can ever hope to suddenly catch fire in the hearts and minds of the masses, though it did attract a lot of media coverage. (Had there been no crash, it probably would have gone unnoticed). Nor will the rainbow of issue politics (co-ops, radical music, fundamentalist feminism etc) ever be like it was because populism doesn't work like that. It needs time to cohere into something that little bit special temporarily pulling the rug from beneath the feet of the canniest observer. The crash has opened Pandora's Box and pondering the shapes of the future almost in spite of themselves, city commentators were moved to quote Mark Antony: "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish, a vapour like a bear or lion."
This shadowy foreboding may indicate there's a falling rate of populism, a nearing of the bottom line when it comes to drawing up a credible alternative. Nationalization is probably a more durable form of modern capitalist organization than monetary privatisation (the British government is obviously deeply embarrassed by the Kuwait raid on BP shares amounting to a 20% stake) but to acquire 1990s sex appeal it's going to have to work hard on its public image, enough to waylay a workers' onslaught. Perhaps the coming period may only serve to show that all the old options, no matter how glammed up with hi-tac, are worn through and out of Pandora's Box there springs a revolutionary period. But after so many disappointments and outright failures, there is a danger of getting carried away into wishful thinking. (The miners for all their optimism up to Christmas 1984 were plunged into a year or more of utter gloom after their strike).
The ramifications of the stock market crash are to put it mildly, perplexing. It is the view of most 'experts' with any specialist grasp of the "dismal science" (Ricardo), which again shows how useless specialists are generally when confronted with a threatening event. No one knows for certain what is going to happen, especially as each tentative measure causes more red signals to flash in another quarter.
The politico/banking fraternity had after the initial shock to give the appearance of being on top of things. Liquidity was injected into the system and bank rates reduced eventually, worldwide. Strenuous efforts were made to talk-up business confidence and the message was since 1929 we have learnt a thing or two, meaning there was going to be no return to trade protectionism, higher interest rates and bank failures.
But the system ultimately cannot be manipulated just like that according to the will of powerful individuals armed with the best advice there is. Capital acts behind the backs of people and with the best will in. the world everything points to an interest rate hike in America.
There is the ever-present danger Third World debt will be triggered once more especially if there is a severe recession. And though banks are making a provision against bad debt in the Third World what happens if the threatened debt moratorium becomes a fact? Not only Third World countries become evermore a bad risk to lenders, but also every borrower, large or small (but especially the latter) could take it upon themselves to unilaterally cancel debt. And the impact that could have upon the mechanisms of exchange is nobody's business. So much of 1980s glitz was dependent on borrowing - a banking response to Third World indebtedness going into overdrive – wooing customers like never before, because small ticket credit multiplied a million times was judged sounder than awesome loans to developing countries. 1980's individualism was largely defined by the rediscovery of individual banking. And the consumption aesthetic made more available by the credit card revolution - pretending to be beyond money - concealed the awesome reality of Third World and corporate debt.1
What the crash has provoked is a grudging return to economic interventionism on a massive scale, even though at the moment it is largely restricted to the central banks. But it is only that- there is no insistent demand for a new order. However the most farsighted members of the bourgeoisie are thinking along these lines, which should it ever arise must be something more than an economic event. It is in this respect instructive to recall that Roosevelt's New Deal was not some predetermined plan but a series of temporary measures largely determined by an increasingly restless American proletariat which eventually turned out to be good for capital as well.2 No matter how severe the recession, the bourgeoisie will try to develop Latin American countries and certain countries in Africa and Asia, creating a modem consuming proletariat. And depending on the level of the fight back in the highly advanced countries it will need to have a convincing doctrine that what is good for one is also good for the other, possibly expressed through an ideology of internationalism tailored to suit both proletariat and bourgeoisie. There could even be a state directed, more self-interested version of Geldof's Live Aid and this time at developing countries not right-offs like Ethiopia. Capital's control would be just as vice like though appearing more just.
On a strictly economic plane The Economist is already proposing a world economy that would get rid of altogether the damage caused by fluctuating exchange rates. Maybe this is the next logical step on from the Bretton Woods agreement effectively abandoned by governments in the early 1970s. In this Economist editorial (Jan.9th 1988) their lurks the phantom of World Government ("until real co-operation is feasible - i.e. until governments surrender some economic sovereignty") and a price control mechanism that appears to end capitalism in the form we know it: (The law of one price - that an item should cost the same everywhere, once prices are converted into a single currency - will increasingly assert itself"). Is this Glasnost gone forever because suitably doctored, it could have come from the pen of Joe Stalin himself. Note also the loan words from another epoch: "co-operation", "control", the stress upon unity not free-wheeling division, are words that also could be employed to trip-up a threatening workers' revolt in this coming period.
The UK remains a weak economy despite manufactured illusions stating the contrary. The Treasury is in surplus, but it would have a budget deficit as bad as America's, if it weren't for once and for all sales of state assets. The currency is fundamentally weak, only appearing strong in contrast to a declining dollar. A huge balance of payments problem is postponed only by North Sea Oil (now running dry) and an exceptional imbalance between financial and industrial capital, partially reflects the growing South/North divide.3 Then there's a pattern of wage drift combined with low productivity ( though in some sectors this is no longer true) and a feeble manufacturing base, which has only just begun to reach the levels of the late 1970s again. Any, or all of these chickens will be coming home to roost and then watch out! Of all highly developed capitalist countries the UK is still the diciest. This in large measure explains the ferocity of the Thatcher government, whose chief task has been to try and curb the country's turbulent inhabitants and having to stamp on more bourgeois responses in the process.
Though resting on a re-jigged class alliance, the Thatcher government is likely to become even more of a power state that can only foam at the mouth - almost parodying those of its inhabitants beneath it whom it really has sent mad. It will fight like a cornered rat pressing home its monetarist version of the final solution the more it becomes surrounded so to speak. It has stood firm against wave after wave of miners, print workers, health workers, rioters etc. Any other European country would have sort to placate but the grotesquely unfair political system in Britain which has continental cephologists guessing - means a landslide can be conjured out of less than 40% of parliamentary votes. To more enlightened apologists for bourgeois parliamentarism in W. Germany, Ireland, Italy, Denmark etc it appears an offence against reason. Obviously this must not be taken as a plea for political reform but it does point to, along with many other instances, the basket case characteristics of UK society.
However, all is not doom and gloom. The signs are we could be heading into a period of great social unrest that the disturbances of the last few years may prove finally, to have been the forerunner. The total shutdown of Ford UK, the seafarers strike, the nurses strike action, and, as the tocsin of revolt spreads, the threat of trouble here, there and everywhere. And who knows what marvellous blooms are being nurtured by the determination to avenge past defeats?
The attack upon work conditions, the carnage resulting from ignoring health and safety, the introduction of casualism and contract work over a wide sector of society, the intention to replace the NHS by a system of private health insurance, the phasing out of the dole - all this is creating the conditions of negative unity. And it is important this draconian government is destroyed in inner-city-streets, the offices and the factories and not electorally. If the Iron Lady suffers the same fate as Wilson, Heath and Callaghan – all brought down by a rebellious proletariat - that will be excellent for a morale that has got jaded throughout the 1980s. It destroys the mythological aura that will surround Thatcher's name if she is permitted to retire gracefully at a time of her own choosing. No more heroes, especially not political heroes.
This movement now underway will undoubtedly have its moments, creating a fruitful legacy future movements can draw on. But the weakness of the proletariat vis-à-vis a sound critique of the state will most likely mean an attempted re-creation of a providential state promoted by various oppositional political racketeers. Even so, it means a post-festum state paying lip service to this ideal will have to be more respectful towards the people it governs and 'helps'. In that sense the destruction of a particular government rebounds upon the state as a whole having to use more manipulative methods until it feels safe enough to put the boot in once more. The state will have to do this fairly quickly - after any initial breathing space - because capital's room for manoeuvre in the UK is very limited.
Of course, this very threatening movement now underway is not certain of even limited success. However the indispensable checks and balances provided by the trades unions have (as mentioned previously) been so hamstrung by legal requirements that power is slipping towards the shop-floor in a an amazingly unmediated fashion. It is just so nice, for instance, to hear a boring, legal historian of labour law, Lord Wedderburn bewailing the inability of trade unions to control their members now that finally, trade union law has produced the opposite of what was intended. "And how", he worriedly asked, "do you negotiate with a leaderless mass? It's the law of the jungle". Of course, it's nothing of the kind; rather it is a basis for autonomy. However it is still not as clearly articulated as in Italy for instance where, over the past year or so, base committees (the COBAS) have sprung up in various sectors all, more or less, independent of control by the major trade union confederations. But what movements in the UK lack in consciousness they make up for in elemental power and, a sheer mulish brilliance among a minority of strikers to willingly stay out on strike forever, if necessary.
It does seem with the decline of America, Thatcher is crazily mad, hell-bent on creating a new super-power in the West to match that of Japan. To do this, she wants practically the whole of society on its knees -from the unemployed, to jobs-for-life civil servants, to skilled engineers, and even professionals like hospital consultants. However to be successful in her megalomania, Thatcher would have to go some way towards allaying the fear and insecurity of the base. In fact ignoring the lessons of history she is doing the opposite. Also, she would have to curb the outward expansion of British capitalism and become more of an aggressive economic nationalist, harnessing the mighty financial institutions to an indigenous industrial base. And that is a complete anathema to her. But she will go out for a crushing victory (even though it could take a few years to achieve) and, if she does succeed you can bet your life it will be due to widely held beliefs in trades unions and obeying trade union leaders.
If that happens: WATCH OUT! Because life truly will not be worth living at all. What has been sketched out on a local scale here could be magnified onto a far broader terrain, and a psyche catastrophically damaged by defeat and repression vent itself in hideous acts which wind-up legitimating power. It won't just be dog eats dog. If ever the potential behind hooliganism is driven into a permanent psychotic fit, the urge to kill everyone who just happens to be in the way will be over-riding. Or if not that, mass suicide as a more developed, progressive form of The Final Solution, one offering choice. Before it is too late, let us seek to combat this threatening nightmare with an optimism of the will and a practical and imaginative intelligence.
Paddington Bear, Spring: 1988
- 1It is just so hard to imagine Oxford St denuded of commodities -with soup kitchens rather than January sales - but even if it did happen it wouldn't last long. Either a reconstituted bourgeoisie or a revolutionary proletariat doing away with shops would end man impossible state of affairs. The final drop of water being rung from the falling rate of profit is always tendentious. Whatever substance and merit there maybe in Bordiga's economic fatalism we cannot really know until the best of his writings on the critique of political economy are published into English.
- 2It is impossible to condense the welter of legislation produced by the New Deal into a paragraph or go into the opportune nature of some of the acts forced onto a reluctant Roosevelt Administration to divert a workers' revolt in America – even though some of his placebos encouraged that revolt - (the USA was incomparably more strike torn than the UK in the 1930s and 40s) .But through the Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, labour received guarantees on wages and hours and industry permitted to raise prices to get out of a deflationary spiral. To aid the redistribution of income (and hence distribution of commodities produced by industry) corporation tax was raised as were taxes on high earners. However in an apparent about turn in 1937, Roosevelt attempted to cut deficit spending by mainly curtailing Federal funding of the gigantic construction programme. There was an instant economic collapse and unemployment rocketed. In late 1937 the cuts were rescinded and extemporisation gave way to habitual policy.
- 3Celebrating the advent of Big Bang. The Financial Times (29.Oct 1986) wrote. – a year and seven days to Big Crash -"continental centers have hardly been in the picture – the idea of a free wheeling financial centre is not to continental taste .Continental financial markets have been constrained to save industry or finance governments and tight regulations has been part of the framework - the dangers of conflict are seen to be great."