Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives, March 2014 congress


British Perspectives 2014

1. This document should be read in conjunction with the 'Thesis for the World Situation' agreed at the 2013 meeting of the International Executive Committee and circulated for discussion at our national congress, alongside other party material, including the last two years' British Perspectives documents. The background to developments in Britain is the continued global crisis of capitalism. In the face of capitalism's inability to meet its needs, the working class has struggled heroically in many countries. We have seen mighty mass movements, dominated by the working class, in Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere. At the same time the working class of Greece has continued to defy the life-destroying misery being heaped upon it, which an incredible 31 general strikes to date. Europe as a whole remains convulsed by struggle.

2. Right-wing Labourite commentator Nick Cohen blurted out, during his rant against Russell Brand for calling for revolution (Observer, 26 October 2013): "Today's crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation." It would be more accurate to say parts of Europe are in a pre-revolutionary situation, but Cohen's throwaway remark is an inadvertent admission of the profound changes in consciousness that are taking place continent-wide, and for that matter worldwide, under the hammer blows of the continued capitalist crisis. This year's Davos World Economic Forum has concluded that inequality is the most pressing threat to the world economy because of its impact on stability. In the same week Oxfam published a report stating that the richest 85 people in the world have the same wealth as the bottom half of the world's population. In one article on the Davos summit, the warden of an Oxford college creates the picture of an imaginary 1914 equivalent, in which the civilised discussions would have taken place without any understanding of the war and revolution that lay ahead, except from a few "keen observers - such as obscure Russian journalist Lev Trotsky".

3. The number of articles in the capitalist press expressing vague fears about revolution is not accidental but represents the growing fears of the most far-sighted sections of the capitalist class. Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, has also warned about the threat posed by income inequality. Her statement that it is not "a recipe for stability", is a coded warning of the danger of uprisings and revolutions. Klaus Schwab, the founder of Davos, warned that capitalism will not survive if wealth is concentrated in too few hands. As Larry Elliott has pointed out, however, the only reason there was a decrease in inequality in the middle part of the 20th century was because the capitalists, "feared the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the West" (Guardian, 20 January 2014). Elliott goes on to point out that the discussions on inequality at Davos will be filled with representatives from the big corporations such as "Google (UK 2012 turnover: 3 billion; UK profits: 900 million; corporation tax: 11.6m) pretend[ing] they are good global citizens". The growing inequality of modern capitalism is inherent in its very nature. Karl Marx famously described capitalism as: "Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole." In the past this claim was derided by capitalist economists, but today Time magazine (25 March 2013) quotes it as proof of Marx's prescience.

4. In Britain, too, consciousness is beginning to be transformed under the impact of events. The popularity of Russell Brand's call for revolution, one of the UK's ten most watched YouTube clips in 2013, is an indication of how the outlook of millions is changing. Another is the campaign by economic students for Marx and Keynes to be taught on their courses. Of course, consciousness is very far from homogeneous. At the outset of the crisis a considerable proportion of the working class was stunned. Others hoped that, if they kept their heads down, life would return to 'normal'. For some, the flickers of this hope will have been fanned into life, as we go onto explain, by the propaganda that the economic crisis is coming to an end.

5. However, for the majority austerity remains endless. Workers are on average 1,600 a year worse off than they were when this government was elected. At the same there has been a polarisation of the labour market, mainly as a result of the loss of public-sector jobs leaving increasing numbers of working-class people forced into low-paid, insecure work. So from 2008 until today the lowest skilled section of the economy gained 190,000 jobs, while the highest skilled gained 140,000, but the middle section of skilled workers and 'professionals' lost 170,000. The headline figures showing a decrease in unemployment mask the reality that it is only in London and the South East that the number of jobs has increased - and there the extortionate cost of living leaves many workers in dire poverty. Average rents in London are now an astronomical 1,100 a month. There has been no increase in jobs in the North East, North West, Wales or South West. In the West Midlands, where there has been a recent pick-up, the long-term decline in the number of jobs has not been reversed. It is also a question of the kinds of jobs that are available. Britain now has over five million workers on zero-hour contracts, many of them working only a few hours a week. In reality this is a disguised form of mass unemployment.

6. Enormous visceral class anger is developing towards the super-rich, the bankers and the capitalist politicians. In an opinion poll on 27 December 2013 respondents were asked 'how or what you instinctively feel about politics and politicians' - 47% responded with one word: "angry". Yet this anger has been far from fully reflected in strikes or protests during 2013. On the contrary, in the first part of 2013 in particular, strikes remained at the same very low level as they had been in 2012, with less than a fifth of the number of strike days lost than there were in 2011, which had the highest number since 1990. It would be extremely superficial, however, to conclude that therefore workers in Britain are unwilling to struggle. The legacy of the period before the crisis means that the working class was largely unprepared for the economic tsunami it has faced. This is beginning to change, particularly for the most class conscious layers, on the basis of the hard experiences of the last five years. Nonetheless, given the woeful role of the majority of trade union leaders, the vast majority of the working class cannot currently see a viable outlet for their anger. Whenever a lead has been given trade unionists have responded enthusiastically, as was demonstrated by the rash of strikes in the latter stages of 2013, including the fire-fighters, teachers, and higher education workers. However, in the battle against austerity the leadership of the TUC, and in many cases of the individual trade unions, have shown themselves utterly incapable of organising a serious, determined struggle against the government and employers. Faced with eye-watering government attacks, and increasingly hard-nosed employers, the majority of the leadership of the trade union movement have responded, at best, with hesitation, vacillation and retreat.

7. The capitalist class at least partially understand that the seeming calm on the surface of society will not last. The revelations about police spies infiltrating the anti-racist and environmental movements in the 1990s and 2000s, including our party, have shown the character of the capitalist state. Today, however, it is being dramatically beefed up. The Snowden revelations, along with attempts by the police to be given permission to bring water cannon onto the streets of Britain for the first time (they have up until now only been used in Northern Ireland), on the basis they are needed to control protests resulting from "ongoing and potential future austerity measures", are indications that the capitalist class in Britain, as in other countries, is trying to create a repressive apparatus powerful enough to defend its rule from uprisings by the working class. This does not mean that they are able to use the full weight of the state apparatus against the workers' movement at this stage, given the class balance of forces, but is nonetheless an indication of their fears for the future. Democratic demands are an important part of our programme, and can mobilise a new generation as the pre-Christmas 'cops off campus' movement demonstrated. That movement was also an indication of the political limits to the state's ability to act against movements at the moment. Having initially enraged students by using brutal methods against students protesting in support of striking workers, the Met police were clearly given orders to stand back from later protests, even turning round and driving off when students tried to attack riot vans outside the Mark Duggan inquiry. No doubt this showed the government's fear of sparking a new mass student movement, which in turn could trigger a broader movement. A new upturn in the student movement could take place, not just over democratic rights but also on economic issues, including selling-off the student loan book.

8. Under capitalism the legal system, like other aspects of the state, has never be a neutral arbiter, but always ultimately acted to defend the interests of the capitalist class. Under this government, however, the legal system has become dramatically more biased against the working class. The cutting of legal aid and the recent rises in employment tribunal charges, plus the swift introduction of retrospective law to nullify court rulings against Poundland's extensive use of workfare contracts shows the increasing difficulty faced by workers trying to make use of the legal system to defend their interests.