Some thoughts on the UK Uncut demonstrations

Some thoughts on the UK Uncut demonstrations

The UK has seen a wave of high-street demonstrations under the banner of the UK uncut campaign, many of which have been organised locally following call outs distributed through the internet. The protests have seen a number of stores associated with Tax-Dodging picketed, occupied and flyered in cities and towns up and down the country.

The targets of the campaign have been pretty specific. The most high-profile company to be taken on has been the UK-based telecoms giant Vodafone, which is the most profitable mobile phone operator in the world. Earlier in the year veteran investigative magazine Private Eye broke a story on Vodafone's successful tax-dodging, which had involved setting up a subsidiary company in Luxembourg purely to route profits from the company's acquisition of Mannesman through a country with a more agreeable tax regime. After a lengthy legal battle, which apparently was going HMRC's way, the taxman agreed to let Vodafone pay a tax bill of £1.2 billion, rather than the full £6 billion in estimated tax. Vodafone have since dismissed the £6 billion figure as a “urban myth”, despite the fact their accountants projected for it in their own bookeeping. Understandably, the story produced a groundswell of anger, of which these demonstrations are a product.

Target number two is head of the Arcadia group empire - and author of the Efficiency Review advising the government on how to shape its cuts - Sir Philip Green. Green, who made his fortune on the back of workers in South Asia working 12 hour shift for poverty wages, took home a paycheck unprecedented in UK history when in 2005 he paid himself £1.2 billion. This was paid to his wife, living in the tax-haven of Monaco so as to avoid tax.

The demonstrations have garnered a good deal of attention from the authorities and the media, both of whom have launched investigations into the “ringleaders” of the protests. On their own, the demos have caused a fair bit of disruption, and brought to light the fact that the same government seeking to impose historic cuts in the standard of living in the UK is also allowing its friends in business to avoid fulfilling their tax obligations, if nothing else shattering the great lie that “we're all in this together”.

There are evidently positive aspects to the protests, but some of their limitations are immediately striking. Fundamentally, the protests don't push beyond the logic of social democracy, in fact, playing devil's advocate one could go further and argue they are compatible with a right-wing populist analysis of the crisis: tax-avoiding multinational companies are sucking money from the country, unlike the hard done-by 'British taxpayer', forming another fundamentally alien parasite on the country's back – add it the the list with the EU, immigrants, etc…

Furthermore, the basic logic of the callouts is the need to uphold the rule of law – these companies have a legal obligation to pay their taxes, which they shirk. This much is stated up front by UK Uncut, who, styling themselves as “big society revenue and customs”, state that “if they won't chase them, we will”. Essentially, the argument as it stands is for the state to live up to it's promise and to actually deliver on the idealised face of its material function. The role of the state in capitalism is to underwrite the functioning of the capitalist market. The state is a prerequisite of capitalism in that the ability to guarantee private property rights and therefore the ability to buy and sell requires a legal and judicial system and repressive state body there to make those rights possible. What makes any property yours or mine, but much more importantly what makes the property of the capitalist his is ultimately the ability of the state to adjudicate and guarantee that he can dispose of his accumulated wealth as he pleases. In practice this means the need to mediate parties and maintain the social fabric in the face of potential unrest – translated into bourgeois ideology in its current, successful iteration as an even-handed regime of “fairness” where we are all taxed, prosecuted, and end up on the receiving end of cuts fairly. Witness every political party attempting to outdo one another by positing the “fairness” of their plans for the economy and attacks on working class living standards in the UK. The state is a subject of criticism because it fails to fulfil its promised role correctly, not because this promised role, along with the toleration of tax avoidance and the regime of austerity all step from its role as a key actor in the continued existence of capitalism.

However, saying this is not to dismiss these protests out of hand or deny they have positive aspects that can be built on, or that there is no space for growth and dialogue. To remain aloof to nascent movements and all the inevitable contradictions real people in the real world bring with them as they become politically engaged is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance.

One positive feature of the demonstrations is the fact that protesters in many cases are willing to create disruption as a tactic. Effective direct action, be it in the form of strike action, demonstrations or occupations is effective by virtue of its ability to disrupt the normal functioning of society. In a society entirely based on the accumulation of capital, this means the disruption of the economy. Occupations of high-street stores have the capacity to inhibit buying and selling and affect directly the normal working of parts of the economy. If we are to effectively resist these cuts, we will have to recognise that ultimately symbolic protests and petitioning representatives to manage capitalism differently isn't going to cut it. The rowdier of the UK Uncut protests have involved high-street linchpins like Topshop being effectively shut down and unable to trade. Such disruption needs to take the form of mass action, and links need to be built with shop workers – the vanguardist paradigm of a few activists on an “action” supergluing themselves to things is no basis for a mass movement.

Another positive aspect of the protests – with qualification - is the fact that the line spun by the government, opposition and media on the ultimate inevitability of the cuts agenda is being rejected. Clearly, the “there is no alternative”, “Britain is bankrupt” line on cuts to public services isn't washing with people, and with good reason – it's hardly a convincing argument when HMRC is haemorrhaging billions in unpaid tax. This rejection is obviously positive. However, this needs to be qualified. Ultimately, if those on the receiving end of these attacks feel the need to balance the state's books on capital's behalf by offering alternate solutions to Britain's deficit there is a problem. Firstly, because we can question the degree to which public debt is a “problem” for capital anyway, as opposed to an integral part of the functioning of states in today's world which is neither inherently “good” or “bad”.1 Secondly, the overall subordination of everyday life and our needs to those of the economy needs to be questioned. Many attacks on tax-avoidance take the desirability of a healthy national economy as a given, with tax-dodging companies being seen as at least in part to blame for capitalism's present difficulties.

Of course, nascent movements are going to be full of contradictions. People don't develop a perfect analysis (if such a thing exists) overnight, and any mass movement against the cuts that may appear is going to be full of all kinds of illusions in social democracy, the labour party, the petitioning of our representatives, the rule of law and order and so on. Communism is the real movement against things as they are, and role of communists is to draw out the elements of movements like this which have potential, and agitate for their development and advancement. There remains the possibility of escalation and radicalisation, that participants in such campaigns can move beyond the initial limitations they have. There are a number of positives to such protests which can be built on without tempering criticism, and the role of communists should be constant engagement and dialogue.

Comments

Spikymike
Jan 3 2011 16:18

This post is most welcome as it represents the first attempt by an AF member and regular on Libcom to address this campaign critically ( which is what I was trying to get from my earlier post on the AF threads).

I can agree with all the negative criticism made here but the positive elements seem to boil down to little more than ' well at least they are involved in direct action'. I am not convinced that this in itself warrants any active support from libertarian communists as it seems to divorce content from action and without demonstrating how this actually provides any real basis for a positive development.

Did any of these criticisms end up being made to the participants of this campaign by the AF or SolFed or others, who seemed to be favourably disposed to these protests, as part of the 'dialogue' recomended here?

Joseph Kay
Jan 3 2011 16:57

there's been a big row on Twitter, which is the new real world. A SolFed member contributed Why looking to John Lewis for inspiration is a mistake. The event in question has now been cancelled due to the controversy ("JL event was cancelled because there was not consensus on the action.Consensus and solidarity are everything for any democrat.")

i think simultaneously championing consensus and diversity of opinion is a recipe for paralysis, but i don't think consensus is meant literally there (since there's no voting or blocking mechanism via twitter it's a case of the controversy causing the organisers to rethink, imho).

john
Jan 3 2011 16:59

well, some of the more positive aspects of this, for me, are that it appeals to a mass sense of injustice - on terms that are almost irrefutable (no-one is going to argue that it's right for a mega-corporation to avoid tax at present) - and presents direct disruptive action as the only means by which this injustice can be responded to

this seems like a pretty good reason to be involved to me

some have argued that this is basically 'direct action social democracy' - and this seems to be essentially the line of the argument above - but the point of social democracy is that it rejects direct action for parliamentary action, so I'm not convinced that the move from parliamentary social democracy to 'direct action' social democracy is quite so trivial as some have argued (i.e. the move does transgress a key element in social democratic thinking).

The other key element in the above critique seems to be that UK Uncut is essentially campaigning for a 'fair' state - which is rejected on the grounds of its impossibility? But, again, I'd say this is a pretty good strategic move - who can disagree with the idea that the state should be fair? the fact that it isn't, and isn't likely to be, will obviously (and is obviously) emerge (emerging) from the struggle.

Quote:
the vanguardist paradigm of a few activists on an “action” supergluing themselves to things is no basis for a mass movement.

I think I'd apply the same argument to an analysis of UK Uncut - theoretical purism is also no basis for a mass movement; using popularly attractive arguments to mobilise a mass movement can be useful.

mons
Jan 3 2011 18:25

john:

Quote:
some have argued that this is basically 'direct action social democracy' - and this seems to be essentially the line of the argument above - but the point of social democracy is that it rejects direct action for parliamentary action, so I'm not convinced that the move from parliamentary social democracy to 'direct action' social democracy is quite so trivial as some have argued (i.e. the move does transgress a key element in social democratic thinking).

I think 'direct action' social democracy is exactly what it is. As the article notes, the protests do cause economic disruption, and in that sense they are direct action. But the dominant political content I think can be summed up as: 'things have got so bad that we resort to 'direct action'; the final refuge of protest for people in a democratic society'. I've heard this line spelled out numerous times, by people involved in UK Uncut type things, as well as in the student movement - by the UCL occupation especially. That means that the aim is still primarily to lobby, through a stunt, as well as to 'raise awareness'. I think this content negates the fact that they are causing economic disruption; economic disruption is coincidental and not the aim for many involved with UK Uncut.
Having said that, there are others who are saying that the point of these protests is to hit them where it hurts. That understanding is a much more militant one that we should be engaging with, but from my experience and what I've read it seems to be a minority position.

Quote:
The other key element in the above critique seems to be that UK Uncut is essentially campaigning for a 'fair' state - which is rejected on the grounds of its impossibility? But, again, I'd say this is a pretty good strategic move - who can disagree with the idea that the state should be fair? the fact that it isn't, and isn't likely to be, will obviously (and is obviously) emerge (emerging) from the struggle.

Because if you we start talking about what's 'fair' we are accepting the language and terms of social democracy. What would a fair state look like? If by fair you mean equal in a communist sense, then it can never be fair, since its role is to defend capital, and capital can never give us equality, only wage slavery. We should be saying this, not joining calls for a fair state; calling for a state maintains illusions in social democracy. Saying that criticisms of social democracy will emerge from the struggle is fine, but surely as anarchists/communists we should be pointing the fact out from the start! If we have any role to play it is not in cheer-leading social democratic politics but challenging them.

Quote:
I think I'd apply the same argument to an analysis of UK Uncut - theoretical purism is also no basis for a mass movement; using popularly attractive arguments to mobilise a mass movement can be useful.

This article is a good contribution to a debate about the value and content of UK Uncut to communists. It is not trying to substitute itself for a movement, but trying to argue for a perspective on and within a movement. If we as communists just go along with the liberals in using "popular attractive arguments to mobilise a mass movement" then what's the point in being a communist?
Liberalism and social democracy are pernicious and anti-working class, and I'm sorry if I've misinterpreted you, I may have, but you seem to be saying we should support the liberal and social democratic content of the movement, rather than posing our own politics.
But I do agree with your first paragraph and that we should be involved, as a critical tendency though.

Spikymike:
They're not only direct action of a sort, they also do a good job of exposing the class division. I think that is enough for us to engage with to be honest.

Joseph Kay:
Do you mean the John Lewis mutualism event got cancelled?! That would be mental.

Mike Harman
Jan 4 2011 02:04

Cancellation was posted here http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/01/less-than-mutual.html

Can't see the event on the UK Uncut site now but also didn't look that hard.

Joseph Kay
Jan 4 2011 02:38
mons wrote:
Joseph Kay: Do you mean the John Lewis mutualism event got cancelled?! That would be mental.

according to Twitter, yeah.

Steven.
Jan 4 2011 09:58

Great blog Django

Caiman del Barrio
Jan 4 2011 10:21

Good article, although surely the most logical line of argument to make with UK Uncut folk is for engagement with the workers at the stores they're targetting.

Ramona
Jan 4 2011 13:41

Love this article!! Anything that helps argue that we don't just want capitalism and the state to work for "us"/work better, but to be overthrown entirely is always great. The UK Uncut protests have got loads of people I know really interested, but it seems lots of people just want the bosses to play nice.

Chilli Sauce
Jan 5 2011 17:31
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
Good article, although surely the most logical line of argument to make with UK Uncut folk is for engagement with the workers at the stores they're targetting.

Diddo.

I know in the States when the IWW has had actions outside of Starbucks where they don't have a member inside, they go in first, explain what's going to happen (and that they're here to support employees and that the protest is directed at the bosses) to a regular employee or two then leave enough cash in the tip jar to make up for any lost tips during the demo.

Of course the ideal situation is to do outreach and/or have sympathetic employees inside any shop that is being picketed for any reason. If the student movement (it does seem to be the same folks involved in the student demos who are now getting involved in UKUnCut, from what I tell) learns that, it could really change the dynamic of struggle.

Greenline123
Jan 8 2011 22:15

Why is it necessary to use the labe "anarchist" to describe the UK students protest against higher tuition? This have been an on-going problemin the US for decades where the government has moved way back form the position of universal education that was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. It is obvious why: the uneducated have fewer opinions of their own and are easier to control. The are also some economic benefits - the undeducated require less of a salary. This tendenacy is not restricted to the developed world or to capitalist counties: Russia for decades has resisted educating the populice in Kashistan on the premise that farm workers will be more satisfied in thier work if they are not eductaed, and they really do not need to quote Plato at the same time they are harvestisng beets.. The UK did the same in Cuba, destroying what was a progressive society at that time (1850s, approximately). So this is not something new. But it must be opposed, on that I agree. But the adjective of "anarchist" is misplaced and counter-productive. To be in favor of educational opportunities is not to be in favor of anarchy!

radicalgraffiti
Jan 8 2011 22:54

what the fuck are you talking about? no one (on this site) has call the the students protests anarchist, but this is an (mostly) anarchist website, and most of the posters are anarchists, as is the writer of this blog post, so it is natural form people to talk about anarchism, and what anarchists can and should do, especially as some of the anarchists are students.

Greenline123
Jan 9 2011 01:39

radical graqffiti: I misplaced my comment - it belonged at the end of a differenct blog. It was in that blog that the students were labelled as anarchists. I always thought that anarchists was a label applied to people by those who were opposed to change. This is correct, yes? I am not sure why anyone who is seeking change would apply that label to themselves?

radicalgraffiti
Jan 9 2011 01:59
Greenline123 wrote:
radical graqffiti: I misplaced my comment - it belonged at the end of a differenct blog. It was in that blog that the students were labelled as anarchists. I always thought that anarchists was a label applied to people by those who were opposed to change. This is correct, yes? I am not sure why anyone who is seeking change would apply that label to themselves?

I'm not quite sure what you are saying here? if you think anarchists are opposed to change then you appear to have confessed anarchist with conservatism. If you mean that it is just an insult then, well it is used as an insult, but many people have considered them selves anarchists for a vary long time, and really what ever we call ourselves we will be demonised.
To learn more about anarchism this isn't a bad place to start, http://libcom.org/thought/anarchist-communism-an-introduction
or this for something more general (but longer) http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/index.html

Chilli Sauce
Jan 9 2011 10:19

Yeah, Greenline, you should def read those links RG posted up.

But briefly, anarchists are anti-state socialists who believe in worker control of industry and direct democratic control of all aspects of social life (communities and educational institutions for example). We believe in collective struggle (strikes, mass direct action based protest like Millbank or the anti-poll tax movement) to improve the lot of the working class under capitalism and to ultimately create a world based on total political, economic, and social equality.

So Jesus man, if that's not a movement that demands change, I don't know what is....

no1
Feb 21 2011 17:32

Now in the US too:
http://www.usuncut.org/