23 December 2008

Is socialism relevant today?

The first question is: what is the defining principle of being a socialist? My answer is:

to work for a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families.

This definition does not exhaust the aims of socialism, nor does it highlight the various policies and struggles in favour of socialism. It does, however, tell us that New Labour and many of the ‘socialist parties across Europe are not in reality socialist.

The second question is: how relevant is socialism today? We live in a society of vast and growing social inequality, whose financial crisis is throwing many working people into destitution. In such circumstances socialist goals and purposes are clearly relevant.

The key problem today is to work towards the articulation of socialism and then to create organisations which can struggle for socialism.

20 December 2008

No agency for progress

The problem is that there is no agency to bring about social progress; New Labour is not going to become a social democratic party again, and Cameron’s Conservatives are even worse. The best one can expect from Brown et al are a few publicity palliatives. Working people will suffer in the financial crisis at least until some of them fight back politically and challenge the power and interests of capital.

16 December 2008

New Labour's Economic Mis-management

New Labour promoted a regime in which capital flowed into Britain, bolstering the value of sterling, to fund working class spending. The houses, cars, etc. were paid for in part through wages, but consumption was hugely supplemented by unsustainable borrowing. One effect of this high level of expenditure was to inflate the economy and drive up house prices leading many to re-mortgage in order to fund further expenditure, which in turn drove up house prices further. (In the early 2000s, 40 percent of mortgage advances were not to purchase property but to fund consumption)

This credit-fuelled boom was marketed as New Labour’s success. Yet, credit for consumption makes little sense unless the consumer believes that his or her income will continue to rise. The myth of eternal economic growth was peddled by New Labour in the 90s and early 2000s who argued that a flexible workforce and low wages were boosting the economy. What in fact was boosting Britain just as much was the inflow of capital to finance consumer credit.

The boom ended in 2008 when finance capital saw the value of its security (the house, earning potential of the worker) could not guarantee the credit advanced. The inevitable withdrawal of credit plunged Britain into recession: spiralling unemployment, collapsing property prices and wide scale bankruptcy. Workers face mortgages and other credit bills they can't pay as their income and assets devalue. The end of the road is re-possession and destitution. The few palliatives from the Brown government hardly make any difference.

In 2007 Britain’s income per head was USD 44 000. The real pain is not caused by even a ten percent in that figure, but by the effects of Britain’s vast social inequalities. Those once surviving on stream of credit which has now dried up now have nothing but debts. Today and in the coming years many working people have, and will continue to have, absolutely nothing, or less than nothing.

Frank Field & National Government

Vindictive, nasty and authoritarian though Frank Field undoubtedly is, his advocacy of national government is inopportune. National government arises - in peacetime at least - only when there is a need for a coalition of the ruling establishment against an adversary. Unfortunately today socialism presents no challenge to Brown and Cameron.

Jean Charles De Menezes

From what I understand of the facts, police officers walked up to a sitting suspect and shot him repeatedly.

No doubt the officers thought he was a terrorist bomber, but the police could have overpowered and arrested him, but chose assassination instead.

Capitalist power conquers Labour

Labour’s original purpose was to overcome capitalist power. The reality is that capitalist power has overcome Labour.

Falling sterling & the suggested collapse of the Euro

Some have argued that the falling value of sterling will not have an inflationary effect. I do not believe this to be so because import led cost-push inflation is compatible with recession in the British economy.

It is sometimes argued that the Eurozone will collapse in the current economic crisis. Yes, it will come under severe strain, but two things will probably hold it together. First, there would be the will to avoid the political humiliation of being forced out of the zone. Second, departing the zone would be an economic disaster. National public debt for the leaver would be denominated in euros and would therefore inflate against the ‘new currency’, while the whole population would hold euros in the transition period to make a gain at the time the ‘new currency’ floated free of the euro.

10 December 2008

The Liberal Democrats offer no solution

Some have argued that progressive politics, briefly defined as personal freedoms protected and rampant capitalism curtailed, could be carried forward by the Liberal Democrats. I do not think so.

The nub of the problem is this: New Labour has lurched to the right in attempt to deny the Tories anywhere to pitch their tent. For the Liberal Democrats to adopt progressive politics, they would have to place themselves to the left of Brown and Cameron. Such politics could never be imposed on the Liberal Democrats across the country where often the local party is a catch-all surrogate for protest or tactical voting Tories or Labourites.

Believing that the Liberal Democrats can become a consistently progressive party will only lead to disappointment.

9 December 2008

Censorship of the net

It is a statement of the obvious that free expression is under attack when a self-styled Internet Watch Foundation can censor the web at will.

Many things have been wrong in the past decade, but one positive aspect has been a very real expansion of individual freedom especially for those with specialised sexual tastes. The net has allowed the more-or-less free exchange of information and the semi-autonomous creation of virtual communities. (I am speaking here of the exchange of sexual fantasy and portrayal of consensual activities, not of crimes such as the abuse of children which I believe are rightly the object of the criminal law)

We now live in an era where those in power fuel moral panics and seek to demonise unorthodox sexual fantasy, including images even remotely resembling it. They seek to transfer the understandable revulsion at child abuse into areas which have nothing to do with paedophilia. Fear is a means of controlling a society in crisis.

8 December 2008

Brown is not moving leftwards

Against those who argue that New Labour’s response to the financial crisis of October 2008 has sifted the party leftwards.

Brown et al have moved to part nationalise financial capital in Britain, not because they are moving leftwards, but because they need to stave off a meltdown of British capitalism.

It is wrong to define left politics simply in terms of borrowing and spending. A polity moves leftwards when three things happen: first, a significant lessening of social and economic inequality; second, a strengthening democracy and working class power, and third, the power of capital and traditional elites are reduced.

None of these things are happening in Britain.

A dose of pain is needed?

Against the journalist Max Hastings who argues that a dose of hard government and pain, akin to that inflicted by Mrs Thatcher, should follow a probable Cameron victory at the next general election.

Mr Hasting casually talks about a British society which is pampered and unaccustomed to pain.

The truth is that since 1979 under Thatcher and her pupils Major, Blair and Brown many working people have been plunged into and never lifted out of pain: pawns in a flexible workforce, unaffordable housing only available on credit, insecurity over financing their education and retirement.

These, too, are the people who will suffer most in the current crisis.

If Mr Hasting believes that salvation can only occur through pain, then lets have an equality of suffering; an appropriation of the better off (for funds to invest in the collapsing economy) until their pain equals that of ordinary working people.

5 December 2008

Totalitarian logic as a propaganda tool

The totalitarian minded Home Secretary deployed the same propaganda tool in her justification of the arrest of Green as with 42 day detention.

In the case of six week’s pre-charge incarceration, the argument was: “perhaps it’s not necessary now, but there are possible circumstances in the future which would render necessary this oppressive measure.”

In Green’s arrest, the argument became: “though the leaks in question do not threaten national security, repressive police action is required because there might be leaks in the future which do.”

Quite clearly the notion of the “pre-emptive strike” is now to be directed at the “enemy within.”

4 December 2008

Two aspects of New Labour Authoritarianism

New Labour authoritarianism has two aspects.

First there is the restriction of individual rights against the state: enhanced police powers, longer pre-charge detention, identity cards, etc. The diminution in these rights means that when the individual or civic groups are in conflict with the state, the balance has been tipped further in favour of the state.

The second strand of authoritarianism limits the freedom of people in the private sphere: buying and selling sex, viewing internet pornography, further restrictions and punishments of drug taking.

Capitalist crisis and New Labour

That capitalism - left to its own devices at least - periodically causes economic crises has yet again been demonstrated. Also proved is that government will intervene to prevent in so far as it can economic collapse and the impoverishment of whole layers of society.

Yet the fact remains that bailing out the banks and attempts to re-mortgage Middle England represents only a shift in tactics and not of strategy for New Labour. In the absence of working class and progressive pressure (now totally lacking) there will be no shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of the worst off in society, nor will anything reign in the growing authoritarianism in Britain.

3 December 2008

The arrest of Damian Green

Every serious person can agree that, regarding political freedoms and rights, Britain is not Stalin’s Soviet Union. But because Britain is not a totalitarian society does not mean that democracy and personal freedom are not under threat.

The arrest and detention of the Conservative Parliamentarian, Green, is undoubtedly more serious for what it represents than the physical and psychological harm done to Green and his family. The two key issues are: the police causally violated MPs offices in Parliament; and it would appear that the Government prompted anti-terrorist police to intimidate the opposition. Neither to these things should happen in a liberal democracy.

1 December 2008

Community Service Order vests

Punishments (the stocks, ‘community pay-back’ bibs) which are devised with the direct intention - whether admitted or not - of public humiliation are always wrong. Their only purpose is to feed the sadistic impulses in ordinary people and thereby to provide a means for an unprincipled government to be seen to be doing something – however wrong and ineffective – against crime.

That petty criminals lack respect and self-esteem is obvious. To humiliate and belittle them more can only further alienate these people from society and stoke up crime.

26 November 2008

What Darling should do

Chancellor Darling is not wrong to increase government debt in this recession in an attempt to increase the money supply and demand in the British economy because today unprecedented levels of private debt, secured against collapsing asset prices, threatens wide scale bankruptcy and destitution for working people interlinked with mass insolvency for companies.

However Darling also threatens to reboot the economy with the same virus which inflicted the recession in the first place, namely private debt for consumer spending. Would you advise a vulnerable, but still solvent, neighbour in the present climate to spend to the hilt or save for the stormy days ahead? Yet Darling’s VAT reduction prompts such people to spend.

Instead, Darling should consider two steps. One is to be far bolder in promoting immediate direct government investment in the economy for which we need a National Enterprise Board. Second, he must consider a huge devaluation in sterling (and yes some inflation) to lessen the amount of debt.

25 November 2008

Censorship for teenagers

Do you really think a young person can be 17 years and 364 days, living in your censored and sanitised world, and then become an adult the following day? Do you really believe that prohibition can prevent a teenage boys interest pornography?

The answer lies in the exact opposite of what you want to do. Dont disempower and guilt-trip your teenage children, but allow them to explore their sexuality. Make sure they have the information to understand pornography; they will never understand the role of pornography unless they have seen and experienced it.

Most adult people recognise something which opponents of pornography want to deny, namely that nobody can control the content of his or her sexual fantasies. To take one example: a person may be excited by watching humiliation and corporal punishment, but would never contemplate realising that fantasy. That is how it is for a well-balanced adult, but that distinction has to be learnt in the teenage years.

Those who try to suppress their sexual fantasies will never succeed and will never understand the proper distinction between a fantasy wish and a wish that he or she wants to realise. Such people are the dangerous ones.

Pornography, despite its ugliness and dangers, is not just a source of enjoyment for many, but also a tool for understanding oneself.


This article errs in blaming viewing pornography rather than an inability on the part of a few to control the distinction between fantasy and committing serious crime.

Most people recognise something, which opponents of pornography want to deny, namely that nobody can control the content of his or her sexual fantasies. A large number of ‘healthy’ people, quite beyond their will, are excited by watching violence, humiliation and forced sex, but on account of their normal developed moral sense would never contemplate realising any such fantasies.

Those who hopelessly try to suppress their sexual fantasies and shun the imagery they crave will never succeed in understanding themselves and will never comprehend the proper distinction between a fantasy wish and a wish that he or she wants to realise.

Only by openness with regard to sexual fantasy can we even start to address the problem which afflicts a tiny minority of people who can’t control what they do. Pornography is not just a source of enjoyment, but also is a means of self-understanding.

21 November 2008

The BNP membership list

The online publication of the full membership list of the BNP with addresses, comments and other contact details provides an unaccustomed level of precision in politics. Behind the lists of bland English surnames on the spreadsheet, we have a precise cartography of the purveyors of hate dotted across the country. Now in our hands is concrete proof of the small, yet significant, hold of organised fascism throughout Britain.

I did what everyone else did: I scoured the list for the places where I had lived in England and where my family and friends live. Though necessary - the left needs to know the identity of these people - there is something unpleasant in this kind of voyeurism. The snooping resembles the searches in Eastern Europe to discover which neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances were informers. Vile though the ideas and purposes of these British fascists certainly are, we are nonetheless invading the privacy of neighbours who have personally done us no harm.

The key issue, though, is clear. The information is now in the public domain and the left needs it in the struggle against fascism.

18 November 2008

Economic Crisis in Britain

Newspaper commentators make a good job of explaining the current economic crisis, but they fail, naturally enough, to connect their explanations into a class analysis.

Even a reduction of ten percent of UK output would not of itself cause very much hardship in Britain if income and wealth were not so unequally distributed. Only by understanding working class debt can the dimensions of socio-economic crisis can be grasped.

New Labour presided over a regime in which capital flowed into Britain, bolstering the value of sterling, to fund working class spending. The houses, cars, etc. were paid for only in part through wages, but, thanks to credit, the disposable income was much higher. One effect of this high expenditure was to drive up house prices leading many to re-mortgage in order to fund further expenditure, which in turn drove up house prices further.

The boom ended when finance capital saw the value of its security (the house, earning potential of the worker) could not guarantee the credit advanced. By the autumn of 2008 the withdrawal of credit (its sterling value secured by the tax payer through bank bailouts) led to a Britain characterised by recession, growing unemployment and falling house prices. Workers face mortgages and other credit bills they can’t pay as their income and assets decline. The end of the road is re-possession and destitution.

Let us be clear: today and in the coming years many working people have, and will continue to have, absolutely nothing, or less than nothing. How is any of this the outcome of Blair’s stakeholder society?

Credit for consumption makes little sense unless you believe that your income will keep on rising. The myth of eternal economic growth was peddled by New Labour in the 90s and early 2000s who argued that a flexible workforce and low wages were boosting the economy. What in fact was boosting Britain just as much was the inflow of capital to finance consumer credit. Two illusions of wealth were rising house prices and cheap holidays; Mediterranean holidays paid for by an overvalued pound caused by the purchase of sterling to lend to consumers. (Buying property at home and abroad along with foreign holiday were the topics of endless TV programmes ‘Brits abroad’ and the like)

Blair pulled it off for a while. Profits rose and capital had the additional ability to secure interest from workers as they bought their houses and partied on credit. For all but the poorest in Britain it seemed as if the country were booming. Everything could be had on the ‘never-never’ housing, education, holidays and through PFI even hospitals and the London Underground.

7 November 2008

The Glenrothes by-election in Scotland

Labour’s success in the Glenrothes by-election signals a profound change in the configuration of British politics.

The summer of 2008 marked the nadir of the collapse of the New Labour coalition which came to office in 1997. I earlier analysed the death of that coalition in the following piece:


By the summer of 2008 Labour had relinquished much of its working class support, not simply on account of Brown’s continued focus on the concerns of Middle England, but because of hostile economic measures which directly impacted on the working class: removal of the ten pence tax band and inaction in the face of rising fuel bills and corporate profits. Across the working class the question was posed: what does New Labour stand for? Labour support plummeted and votes dissipated in all directions. The low point was another Scottish by-election, Glasgow East, lost in July to the SNP.

The financial crisis of October 2008, ushering in recession, altered the pieces on the chessboard. Brown after his habitual dithering rose to the occasion and used public money to nationalise banking debt and reliquidify finance capital in order to prevent a financial meltdown, an act taken to bolster capitalism and in the immediate interest of all social classes.

Two consequences result. First, in the face of recession, rising unemployment and repossessions, the working class is moving in a pro-Labour direction for self-protection, though whether Labour will offer more than cold comfort is debatable. For vulnerable working people gambling with dandy Cameron in England or Salmond in Scotland is now less of an option. Hence Brown’s success in the Glenrothes election.

Second, the perception that the London government could ‘solve’ the banking crisis undercut the nationalism of the SNP. In the ongoing identification battle of Scotland whether a nation in its own right or a sub-unit of a greater Britain, it was the latter that was strengthen against the former. Hence Brown’s success in the Glenrothes election.

That Brown prevented a meltdown of support in the working class does not mean that he has yet convinced Middle England to vote for him over Cameron in 2010. Much depends on how Cameron re-orients his propaganda in the next two years of recession.

9 October 2008

Brown, New Labour and the Banking Crisis

It is far easier to comment on the underlying structures of society than it is to predict the consequences of a crisis in the system.

The current disintegration of world banking is the most significant event in the history of capitalism since the collapse of historical communism in 1989. While 2008 may well be as influential as 1929 in reshaping the cartography of capitalism, one myth peddled by some on the left needs knocking down. A financial collapse, with whole layers of the population losing their savings and pensions, would do nothing to promote socialism; indeed, apart from being painful and heralding in bottomless recession, such a crisis would release the political forces of the nascent far right across Europe, just as it did in the 1930s.

Though complex, the basis of the current crisis is clear. Banks, as a consequence of lax regulation, lent money in return for dodgy securities; their lending produced a credit boom whose deceptive glow was the allure of first Thatcherism and then New Labour. Blair and Brown from 1994 onwards exchanged Labour’s social democracy for that gloss and so brought us down the road to where we are now.

That said, Brown’s resolute decision to acquire the power to part-nationalise British banks is a welcome and decisive measure to deal with the problem even though tougher restrictions could have been imposed. Chalking up this success (supposing it is successful) may save Brown from the potential meltdown awaiting both him and New Labour in 2010.

6 October 2008

Burik arrives in America

It is axiomatic for American neo-cons that the US is God’s own country; and that if only they could exculpate liberalism, social welfare and atheism, as well as remoulding the rest of the world in their own image, they could create heaven on earth. On the web it was always possible to run into these New World zealots, and in reply on one such website I wrote the story below in response to their vacuous moralising and historical distortions.

The ten-year-old Burik is a refugee arriving with Ma and Pa on US soil for the first time. In a world, blending hope with despair, the family are about to alight from some anonymous ship on a drizzly nineteenth century morning. Imagine Burik as a child version of the ‘good soldier Svejk’ with the peaked cap, trench coat and the face of the fool attempting to understand what is beyond him. He feels painfully strongly about everything, but can express nothing. The ship is now approaching New York. Burik with his mother and father had occupied a place under the stairs leading to the third class cabins on the transatlantic steamer. It is dawn and the first rays of sunlight are falling on the boat.

“Now, Ma,” said his father, “Lets take young Burik here up on deck, so his young eyes will fall on the land of the free.”

“Yes, dear” she replied obediently. For to tell the truth she had little idea of what America was or why indeed they were going there.

Stepping over many still sleeping bodies they made their way to the deck. Brilliant sunlight now reflected from the towering statue of liberty. Young Burik’s eyes widened in awe. Suddenly his father lifted him aloft.

“Son, my dearest son, breathe the air of freedom, like you have never taken air before.”

Burik started to cough in the morning cold.

As the boat approached the dock the passengers rushed to deck, Burik and his family among them.

“In a few minutes, son, you’ll be stepping onto the soil of freedom itself” said his father gazing over the New York skyline.

The mass of impatient passengers were huddled together in a group but were prevented from disembarking by uniformed crew while the first class passengers were escorted to the gangplank. Burik’s eyes widened as he watched four Negroes carry an elderly corpulent Jewess down the gangplank on a sedan chair.

Burik grew restless in the crowd, so he pulled an onion from his pocket and bit into it as he looked around. His eyes rested on the many ponies on the dock pulling wares just offloaded from ships. He tried not to breathe as waves of vile stench floated through the air. Peering over the deck rails Burik could see any number of dead animals floating in the water between the dock and the ship. The rotting carcass of a dead horse had become the focus of the attention of rats which balanced precariously on the rotting flesh.

“Now son,” said his father grasping his hand, “hold your head up high as you step onto American soil.” Father and son moved off first and mother came behind carrying their one sack of worldly belongings.

“Just look where you’re putting your feet, darling” she begged her son as they negotiated the clumps of manure on the quay. Twenty metres from the boat they stopped to take their bearings.

The family stood for a few minutes taking in the new environment around them. A fine drizzle had set in and Burik began to shiver. At the edge of the quay was a small soap shop. “Mr Oscar’s Soap”

“Let us just relish for a few minutes being in the land of the free,” said Burik’s father patting his son’s head.

“I don’t know about that,’ said his mother, “I think Burik needs the bathroom quite urgently.”

Burik pushed to hold it back. The working ponies on the quay had left piles everywhere and a few metres away a group of chained prisoners were relieving themselves in the open. On the other side an elderly man held a coat while his wife defecated behind it.

The door of “Mr Oscar’s Soap” opened and the proprietor emerged. He was small fat man in a black suit with an untidy red beard. He chewed on an unlit cigar, “What do you want, you dirty scum?’ Burik moved closer to his mother.

“We’ve come to be part of the American dream,” his father replied, “ any chance of a job to get us started?”

Mr Oscar spat. “I’ll give you a penny to clear the shit from in front of the shop.” He tossed a cent onto the ground in front of Burik’s father. His father picked up the penny, went down onto his hands and knees and started to pick up the droppings.

Burik looked at his father in wonder. He felt more excited than he had ever done in life and blood raced through his veins. For what he was looking at was the most beautiful thing he had seen in his life: the contract of employment, free labour. America was beautiful.

His father worked hard, so after a couple of hours the whole area around Mr Oscar’s shop was clear. “Well, that’s a job well done,” said his father with satisfaction, wiping his hands under his armpits. “This, son, is the American dream. Let me tell you my dream, Burik. One day you will go to school wearing silk stockings and nobody can take that dream away from us. Isn’t that right, Ma?”

Ma looked worried. “I don’t know about silk stockings, but Burik urgently needs the men’s room.”

Burik looked uncomfortable. “It’s too late, Ma. I had the runs. I just couldn’t hold it back. It’s down my legs and everywhere.”

Pa looked severe. “Couldn’t you hold it back, son? I hope it really was an accident and you weren’t giving yourself an auto-erotic experience.”

Burik stared at the ground. Ma looked around for the family sack which contained a spare pair of pants for Burik. She let out a cry; their sack which she had put down behind her had been stolen. They were in America and had nothing save one cent.


24 September 2008

New Labour's Missed Constitutional Opportunities

When New Labour electorally crushed the Tories in 1997, one thing was foreseeable another was not. Not predictable was just how rotten from a progressive perspective Blair’s government would turn out to be: reactionary polices ranged from the Iraq War, privatisation and benefit cuts to the promotion of religious schools. Foreseeable to everybody, however, was that at some point – and it now appears to be 2010 – Labour would lose office.

Progressive political discourse in the eighties and nineties had centred on building an anti-Tory alliance for constitutional reform to bury the re-occurrence of another eighteen years of centralised and reactionary Tory rule on the strength of a minority of votes. The two key progressive reform proposals were proportional representation and decentralisation. With the significant exception of Scottish and Welsh devolution – achieved despite Blair’s personal misgivings – little happened.

Following Labour’s 1997 election victory, the new government set up the Jenkins’ Commission to consider PR for Westminster elections. In the absence of support and direction from the government it dragged on and finally recommended a bizarre PR system, reflecting only a muddled compromise of the divergent opinions of the commission members. Its findings were quietly forgotten. On regional autonomy, John Prescott pressed ahead with an emaciated form of devolution for the micro-region of the north-east. In 2004 a majority of 78 percent of the residents of the area voted against the assembly; the plan was sunk by a coalition of centralisers and those who saw the proposed assembly as little more than a talking shop and an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. In truth, by the early 2000s all meaningful constitutional reform was over. New Labour in London inaugurated an era of constitutional conservatism.

What then are the consequences? New Labour’s 2008 meltdown means that in two year’s time there will in all probability be yet again a majority Tory government at Westminster. Surely one small thing that Blair and Brown could have achieved was PR? After all, the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments as well as the Greater London Assembly are elected by proportional representation. True, if Labour had introduced PR after the 1997 or 2001 elections, the whole political map would be different, probably with a Labour-led coalition, instead of a majority government, in office today. But so what? It was not as if Blair planned to do anything socialist or left wing! Nearly all of his agenda had the support of the Tories or Liberal Democrats – or often both.

In 2010 Labour will still be the leading party in one English region, the north, defined as Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the historic counties up to the Scottish border; in the other English regions, though, Labour will probably achieve second place or worse. The north, consisting mainly of cities and former industrial towns, has about a quarter of England’s population and is its poorest region. Yet unlike Scotland and Wales, the north will have no elected institution to fight for it. Despite the north consistently voting Labour, Blair focused New Labour on the concerns of Middle England, geographically centred in the south and Midlands; northern Labour voters were largely taken for granted and were ignored. Cameron, though, after 2110 will have even less cause to worry about the industrial towns and inner-cities of the north. He wins no seats there, and probably never will.

So déjà vu. Welcome back to the eighties: majority Tory government in London and the non-Tory voting north is left naked. However both these outcomes were easily avoidable: PR to stop a majority Tory government; and decentralisation so as not to leave the Labour voting north uninsulated from a non-Labour government in London. Why was constitutional reform abandoned?

No doubt there are several reasons, but not least among them were the preferences of Tony Blair. Behind Blair’s US-style déclassé persona is a deeply conservative and anti-democratic politician. Having killed democracy inside his own party, he had no taste for injecting it into the British constitution. Using Britain’s centralised state he carried out his own brand conservatism (called New Labour), and when that had run its course he was happy to hand the UK back to the Conservative Party.


15 September 2008

Gordon Brown: his personal failure

Whatever the content of Gordon Brown’s character and mutterings in private, he remains a doubly failed politician. First, he has failed in the obvious sense that he is now leading New Labour to a seeming electoral obliteration in 2010. Second, as junior partner and ‘yes man’ to Blair’s for a decade, he nodded in agreement inter alia for the Iraq War, faith schools, privatisation and benefit cuts. In 2008 he cannot get off the tiger he has been riding.

New Labour faces two years of purposelessness and powerlessness, and with active membership of the party having haemorrhaged, a new leader could only emerge from shuffling the cards at the top. The one manoeuvre that might save the Labour Party, unlikely but still possible, would be a sudden conversation to, and rush to implement, proportional representation for Westminster Elections.

11 September 2008

The End of New Labour in Britain

Tony Blair’s greatest mark on history - aside from the stain of Iraq - was in twisting Britain’s historical Labour Party into New Labour. This glitzy top-down and supposedly ‘post-political’ political party was able with 43 percent of the vote to sweep the Tories out of office in 1997 and end eighteen years of Tory rule. And yet again in 2001with the same share of the vote, Blair’s triumph was repeated. Though the promotional image of New Labour differed from that of the Conservatives giving an illusion of difference, Blair’s politics in socio-economic matters at any rate were very much Thatcherism under new management. Ideologically anchored only in waffle about ‘third ways’ and nebulous concepts such as ‘responsibility,’ the electoral coalition which sustained New Labour was always precarious. In the 2005 election Blair secured a mere 35 percent of the national vote – and fewer votes than the Tories in England, - but was returned to office thanks only to Britain’s majoritarian electoral system. No post-war British government has ever been returned with less support.

By the early summer of 2008 New Labour was in tatters chalking up only 23 percent in opinion polls. The collapse can best be probed by looking at the two electoral groups that coalesced to propel Blair into office in 1997: Middle England and the mainstream working class.

Middle England

Middle England is a politically defined social group which comprises skilled and better paid manual workers, the self employed and middle-rank white-collar workers across the small towns and countryside of southern England and the Midlands. Between 1979 and 1992 this group was won over to the Thatcherite project. Two key factors explain its shift to New Labour in 1997, and its subsequent return to the Tory fold in the late 2000s.

The first is economics. The recession of the early 1990s culminating in the Black Wednesday debacle was attributed to Tory economic mismanagement, just as today the collapse in the housing market, the onset of recession and the surge in utility, fuel and food inflation is laid at new Labour’s door.

The second is image. The defeat of the Major government in 1997 was also the result of a shift in values and identification. New Labour emptied itself of ‘workerist’ imagery; the ex-public schoolboy Blair symbolised urbane bourgeois values, which were also manifest in such men of the age as Peter Mandelson. Imagery of this kind proved more attractive to Middle England than did the petty-minded nastiness of high Thatcherite Toryism symbolised in men like Norman Tebbit. Yet after Blair’s resignation in 2007, new Conservatives leaders such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson came to represent those urbane bourgeois values better than does Gordon Brown, Blair’s grey former deputy. (Much of motivation behind the move to replace Brown by David Miliband over the summer is the latter’s public image as a suave bourgeois.)

Middle England is thus extremely fickle in its political identification. Both the Conservatives and New Labour fight for this group which is the determining constituent in Britain’s first past the post elections. For Middle England, unlike the mainstream working class, it makes little difference to their economic interests which party runs British capitalism; hence the capriciousness of their voting preferences.

The mainstream working class

The core of the Labour voting working class is centred on the low paid particularly in the large cities, the older industrial areas of northern England, and in the Celtic countries of Scotland and Wales. Whereas Middle England is returning to the Conservatives, the working class vote is fragmenting over a wider spectrum.

With New Labour having designed itself to woo Middle England, the working class lost historic Labourism as its electoral home. In the economic upswing which lasted till the mid 2000s, a combination of apathy and voting New Labour prevailed. However, Brown’s bungled attempt at the beginning of the current recession to endear himself to Middle England through increasing tax on the very low paid to fund tax cuts for the better off raised the fundamental question in the working class: what is Labour for? That question was posed even more sharply in the late summer with double-digit increases in utility charges coupled with food inflation exceeding eight percent. Suddenly and obviously, the working class became poorer both in absolute and relative terms. Imposing a two percent pay ceiling on public workers has further rubbed salt into the wounds.

Such disorientation has led to a flight from Labour particularly within the white working class. In England and Wales the local elections in May 2008 and the Crew by-election saw, in addition to a move to the Conservatives, a small but growing attachment in certain localities (e.g. London, Stoke) to the fascism of the BNP. In places which were historically more solidly Labour (e.g. Sheffield) the Liberal Democrats have been the main beneficiaries. In Scotland New Labour’s collapse was even more dramatic with the SNP capturing Labour’s third safest seat Glasgow East in a by-election in July.


Blair’s New Labour was founded on replacing policy with spin, on portraying neo-economic liberalism as ‘cool’ and everybody’s friend and on believing you could win and win again by outflanking the Tories. With a long upswing in the trade cycle ‘Teflon Tony’ oiled his way though two general elections, and even after the Iraq war lies he scraped through in 2005. But now devoid of purpose and support the Labour Party stands at the precipice of electoral disaster. Everywhere, except perhaps in Scotland, the collapse of New Labour has led to a shift in electoral support rightwards. This is indeed the tragedy of the age.

1 September 2008

Denying the obvious

Propaganda and spin under New Labour is all embracing.

Today the media acquired a confidential internal Home Office briefing letter sent to Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. The message of the letter was that the economic downturn which is causing rising levels of poverty and unemployment would in turn be accompanied by an increase in crime and other related social problems.

The BBC News political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue said that although it comes as no surprise that ministers expect crime to rise in an economic downturn, there will be embarrassment that these thoughts have become public.

Two issues seem to me to arise from this sorry episode. First for what possible legitimate reason is ‘advice’ of this kind to government ministers kept confidential in the first place? Second, to what depth has government propaganda sunk – along with popular expectations of government behaviour – when something as obvious as “recession equals higher crime” can’t be acknowledged by the government. What started off under Alistair Campbell as “spin” as the key to all government communication – i.e. a policy of perennial propaganda in government speech – has now led to situation where citizens expect their government to misrepresent and deny the obvious. Is this one of the so-called British values that Mr Brown is so keen to promote?


27 August 2008

Die Linke in Germany: a case for optimism?

I have been overwhelming pessimistic about the prospects for the left in Britain, seeing the implosion of New Labour resulting in either depoliticisation or else the strengthening of parties to the right of New Labour. George Galloway, Tommy Sheridan and the SWP together serve to show only the intellectual poverty, self-marginalisation and irrelevance of the left in Britain today.

Though no expert on German politics, I have been impressed with the recent growth of the Die Linke and their chalking up of electoral success across Germany. A few brief words of background.

By 1990 the former ruling party of Eastern Germany had cleansed itself of its Stalinist leaders and was largely a party led by former East German dissidents, such as the writers Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf. Rechristened the PDS (the party of democratic socialism), it scored a miserable 2.4 percent in the 1990 all-German national elections. That figure rose to 4.4 (1994) and 5,1 (1998) before falling back to 4.4 percent in 2002. Throughout this period the PDS vote came almost exclusively from the territories of the former East Germany where in regional elections the party was a major player.

In July 2005 the party formed an electoral alliance with dissident left-wing SDP members led by Oskar Lafontaine and some west German trade unionists, creating a new party Die Linke. In the national elections of that year the party scored 8.7 percent of the vote. The party also entered the western regional parliament in Bremen. By 2008 it has also entered the western regional federal parliaments in Lower Saxony, Hessen and Hamburg. Any attempt to see Die Linke as merely Stalinist old-timers from the former East Germany is clearly no longer valid.

It seems to me that the experience of Germany is well worth studying by people attempting to rebuild a British left. The policies of Die Linke in English can be seen in the link below.


9 August 2008

A short existential comment

When you think about it, our life logically consists of three parts:

•what you are doing right now (i.e. looking at a computer screen)
•your memories from the past, partial, selective and decaying.
•your thoughts about what you will, won’t or might do in the future.

As we get older, though, our memories of the past increase while our futures are inevitably on a steady countdown to zero. That thought has from time to time propelled me to tap away at the keyboard.

McEwan, Ian - On Chesil Beach

McEwan, Ian - On Chesil Beach

First published 2007

Vintage 2008

This is a short book, almost a novella, which tells a powerful, but simple, story. The non-chronological narrative is without surprises or the acts of extreme violence which so often feature in McEwan’s work.

A very lower middle-class Edward and a haut-bourgeois Florence both in their early twenties fall in love during the late fifties and early sixties in a heavily repressive England. On their wedding night Florence can’t accept a sexual relationship with Edward, but offers him a platonic but open relationship instead. He rejects it only to fall later in life a series of unsuccessful and unfulfilling relationships during the sixties and seventies.

The book paints not only a strong psychological picture of the Edward and Florence, but also comprises a portrait of a forgotten age which is then contrasted with our own.

30 June 2008

Gordon Brown: a failure

Gordon Brown always liked to present himself as the man of substance behind the glitzy Tony Blair. However as prime minister in the last twelve months he has revealed only weakness.

First, he dithered and then lied over his reasons for not holding a general election, making him look cheap in the public eye.

Second, the ten pence band tax fiasco destroyed any image he retained of being a friend of the working class.

Third, his stubborn instance in pushing through 42-day tore to shreds any support he had amongst the liberal left.

Brown was crowned leader in 2007 without election because around 95%of Labour MPs endorsed him. Brown’s failing, therefore, are not his alone, but those of the whole New Labour apparatus.

16 June 2008

Afghanistan and humiliation in Britain

Is there no end to this?

In the aftermath of 42-day detention vote, we now have Bush in London and an announcement from Brown that the number of British troops in Afghanistan is to be increased to 8000. This utterly pointless war, which has now claimed over one hundred British military fatalities, is being fought only to save face of the US, and Brown the US poodle has been told what to do.

Then today we have leaked plans from the government to ratchet up the humiliation of those undertaking community service orders – due to be renamed ‘community pay back’ with the compulsory wearing of prison jackets and mug shots of the offenders posted on lampposts.

Brown hopes that his perception of ‘being tough’ will reverse New Labour’s collapse in support. But taking measures which in the long run will only add to the coffins coming home and which turns petty offenders into humiliated and angry criminals will only lead him and the country deeper into the mud.

What kind of Labour government is this?

12 June 2008

Six Weeks Internment in Britain

Yesterday, New Labour - with 36 Labour MPs dissenting - voted in the House of Commons to extend pre-charge internment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act from four to six weeks.

On The Guardian’s Web Comments the private citizen, Mr Carlos Belafonte, wrote:

If I was dragged from my car or home in the dark hours of the morning, interrogated by the security services for 6 weeks to no avail and then dumped onto the steps of a police station with no more than an 'off you go' I would imagine that my family, work and social life would be in tatters, not to mention that stigma that I would inevitably carry around my neck for some time.

Such internment – six weeks of isolation and interrogation – amounts to psychological torture, and the likelihood of the victim making deluded (and false) confessions.

Nobody can know what will make him or her liable to this treatment: looking at a site on the internet, talking to somebody under suspicion, denunciation by a spiteful neighbour or colleague – or just simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In every case there is no hard evidence against the victim, because if there were he or she would be charged with an offence and brought before a court.

This nightmare for the individual (even if it’s only for two, three or four weeks) happens to innocent people, and in Britain’s all-pervasive surveillance society (CCTV, bugging, intercepting) those falling under suspicion – nearly all of them Muslims – is set to grow.

9 June 2008

State Repression from New Labour in Britain

Last week The Guardian carried the following two headline stories. The first was the on-going determination of the Brown government to whip the Parliamentary Labour party into supporting a period of six week internment; i.e. allowing police to hold and interrogate people for six weeks without charging them with any specific offence. The second was the decision of the justice ministry to commission several mega prison complexes for thousands of additional prisoners.

Matters have indeed reached a pretty pass when intensifying state repression becomes the leitmotif of Britain’s once progressive Labour Party. The new proposed pre-charge detention limits, opposed by the Tories, Liberals and most of the establishment, is Brown’s stubborn attempt to appear ‘tough on terrorism’ in the eyes of so-called Middle England. But just as his plan to raise tax on the low paid to fund a tax cut on the better off backfired, so this attempt to destabilise Britain’s now shaky civil liberties will generate no support for the Brown government.

And what of the new prison colonies? Nothing could signal more the total failure of New Labour’s social policy than the admission that Britain, which already incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than any other European country, needs tens to thousands of new prison places.

These policies are but pieces in New Labour’s reactionary and conservative jigsaw, all of which raise the question, ‘What is Labour for?’ With a recent poll putting Labour on 23 percent few people are attracted by these forms of bankrupt politicking being sold as high principle.

9 May 2008

Brown’s bloody nose

On 1 May the voters of England and Wales gave Labour 24 percent of the vote, which is four percent less than Michael Foot’s 1983 result. Much of ‘Middle England’ reverted to Cameron’s revamped Tories while swathes of traditional Labour supporters stayed at home. The most prominent issue of the election was the abolition of the ten pence in the pound tax band.

Brown now says he made a mistake over the abolition of the ten pence tax rate. But what kind of mistake was this? Last year Brown announced, without a murmur of opposition from Labour MPs, tax changes, the desired and obvious effect of which would be to increase the rate of tax on lower earners while lowering it on higher paid earners. Brown did this with one purpose in mind, namely to ingratiate himself with ‘Middle England’. He failed totally, and he deserved to fail.

Brown is sinking fast. ‘Middle England’ is ebbing away from New Labour in favour of fresh faces. The working class is alienated from Labour. Brown’s knee jerk response is to charge further rightwards in a hopeless attempt to exploit ‘Middle England’s’ supposed conservative prejudices: forty-two days pre-charge detention, chauvinistic appeals to Britishness and militarism, increasing penalties for cannabis possession. Never under liberal democracy has a once social democratic party become so rotten.

23 April 2008

Brown: falling far and fast

The fortunes of no prime minister can have fallen so far and so fast as those of Gordon Brown. In June 2007 he was ‘elected’ unopposed after it was made clear to Labour MPs that it would be an act of unforgivable betrayal to canvass support for anybody else. Brown then emerged from Blair’s shadow and immediately affirmed the new-Labourism of which he was joint collaborator with Blair by appointing Tories and Liberal to peripheral positions in his new administration.

After dithering about whether to hold a general election, he launched three policies clearly intended to ingratiate himself with Middle England through utilising what he saw as their selfishness and prejudices. Each policy blew up in his face.

First, he set in motion an increase in the lowest tax band from 10 percent to 20 percent, while cutting the middle tax band from 22 percent to 20 percent. The effect was to increase tax on low wage earners while lowering it on higher earners. The real Middle England party, Britain Tories, have cynically ganged up with Labour Party rebels to force a humiliating reversal.

Second, to play the ‘tough on security’ card, which he thought would play well in Middle England and triangulate the Tories, Brown has championed a proposed police power to detain people for six weeks before charging them with a crime. A measure such as this, an anathema to Britain pretence at liberal democracy, has invoked the hostility of much of the establishment and has again brought about the cynical opposition of the Tories, thus leaving Brown attempted triangulation flat on its face.

Third, Brown has embraced the last refuge of the scoundrel, patriotism. As the union weakens, his calls for Britishness, saluting flags and military pride appear irrelevant, silly and an insult even to the intelligence of Middle England.

Brown, the eternal deputy, has tried to nose himself into a political space carved out in Blair decade. But just as Blair has moved on, so have the political circumstances. And with neither principle nor success in his hands he has fallen fast. In local elections on 1 May, Brown needs to be given a bloody nose. Yet voting for Cameron will only make matters worse. Only votes for Galloway and the Greens can send the message that is needed.

12 March 2008

New Labour's Militarism

One positive aspect of Britain today is the widespread public antipathy towards the two on-going wars that Blair bequeathed Brown. The Iraqi war is being fought for control of Iraqi oil and for continued US dominance in the Middle East. The Afghan war, which we are told will last another thirty years, is essentially pointless: a war being fought so that the West does not lose face.

As an enthusiastic author of these wars, New Labour cannot get off the tiger it is riding; yet it suffers from the deep public antipathy that these wars engender. Its recent solution has been to attempt to promote militarism in Britain: first, by the policy of having the military wear their uniforms in public (when safe to do so!), and second, by floating the idea of having an armed forces day with military parades and the like.

New Labour’s militarism is nothing for anybody to be proud of. Apart from the murder and destruction wrought abroad, already hundreds of young mostly working class young people have been killed or maimed – and thousands have been traumatised, the effects of which will plague Britain for years to come. Some, moreover, have been involved in brutality and the torture of prisoners in custody.

While the intellectual case against these wars may have been won even in bourgeois circles, socialists need to demand a total withdrawal of British forces and a total opposition to the glorification of the criminality of which the New Labour government and the British military is part.

12 February 2008

TRUDGILL, Peter - Sociolinguistics

Penguin 1983

Re-read December 2007

The aim of this book, as its title suggests, is to place language in its social context. While Chomsky is undoubtedly correct in arguing that humans have an in-built ‘Language Acquisition Device’, which is hard wired to structure in any language (thus displacing B. F. Skinner’s behaviouralism), it is nonetheless true that that language is tied to social context in several ways.

Trudgill has written a clear and very readable book on his subject, which retains one’s interest in the same way as a novel. The book does not shun technical vocabulary, but nonetheless is written for the layman.

The type of language we speak is tied to the social groups of which we are members; be it our social class, our region, our ethnic group or our sex. Though language may change according to these categories, and different language use may be awarded a higher or lower status, it does not mean that any language is less intricate or less able to express reality and ideas than any other. This point is especially relevant for rejecting the view prominent in the US that Black American English is merely a corrupted and less sophisticated form of Standard English.

While language and language use reflect the social environment, it does not mean than any particular language leads to any particular behaviour pattern. In other words, Romanians, for instance, don’t behave like Spaniards because they both speak a Latin language. The view that there is any connection other than socialisation between an ethnic group and a language is also shown to be false.

While literary languages are distinct, the boundaries between two colloquial languages may not be. For instance in places on the border between the Netherlands and Germany the language spoken either side of the border may resemble each other more than either do to literary Dutch or German. Any number of situations may exist with bi- or multilingualism in countries and with different literary languages functioning as state languages.

Trudgill also considers pidgins, a language created when a lingua franca (e.g. English, French or Portuguese), used by slaves or primitive people, has moved so far from the literary language that it is no longer comprehensible to native speakers. Pidgins become creoles when they acquire native speakers.

This book is beautifully and interestingly written, and Trudgill, with no axe to grind, gives a interesting introduction to his subject.

LeBOR, Adam - City of Oranges

Bloombury 2006

Read December 2007

LeBor has chosen to write about the sharpest issues of international politics, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. To do so he has chosen a precise focus, namely the family history of several Jewish and Arab families from the town of Jaffa. Interlaced with the personal histories is an outline of the key historical moments and facts. Throughout the book is well written and gripping.

What makes LeBor’s topic heart rendering are the issues thrown up by the Middle East’s most entrenched conflict. On the one side is a mostly Western people subject to historical discrimination and genocide who established an ethnic-supremacist state, Israel, largely by means of land appropriation. On the other stands expropriated Palestinians living either as second class citizens in Israel itself or as part of a displaced diaspora. Yet it is true, although perhaps irrelevant, that Israel has done nothing to its Arab minority which the surrounding Arab states (themselves dictatorial nightmares compared with Israel) have not done to their Jewish minorities.

LeBor wisely tells his story though personal lives and in addition to historical narrative paints a picture of Israeli society in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Clearly LeBor himself stands at the liberal end of the political debate, and his views are very much of ‘if only’ type; i.e. if only Israel were itself more liberal and accommodating, and if only the Palestinians were better led, more realistic and more moderate…

Taking everything together, though, LeBor has written an excellent book which is well worth reading.

GESSEN, Masha - Two Babushkas

Bloomsbury 2005

Read October 2007

This book focusing on the lives of the author’s two Jewish grandmothers is a clever and intriguing choice of topic. Both grandmothers spent the majority of their lives in the Soviet Union and encounter first hand the twists and turns of the twentieth century. Gessen, herself, was born in the Soviet Union, but emigrated with her immediate family to the United States in the 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she retuned to Moscow to live and now works there as a journalist.

The book is well written and has a novel-like appeal. Yet however gripping it is, it nonetheless suffers from all the weakness of second-hand testimony. There appears to be one domiant source for nearly all that is said, i.e. what her grandmothers told her, and Gessen's attempt to present the book as a third person account written by her cannot hide the single source of information. At times her background research appears weak, for instance when referring to Hungarian uprising of 1956 she says that its leaders were immediately executed. In fact Nagy was only executed for political reasons some two years later. A small mistake it may be, but it led me to wonder whether the rest of the book contained similar errors.

The book also provides another first hand account of anti-Semitism in interwar Poland and in the Soviet Union itself.

The book is well written and provides and fascinating documentation of two lives which stretch backwards into the key moments of the twentieth century.

Miliband and Benn

Memories are like photo snaps, not film sequences. From twenty-nine years ago in 1979 I can remember a warm spring day and the gate post at the end of our garden path. I recall that I had just returned after spending my newspaper round money on Ralph Miliband’s ‘The State in Capitalist Society.’ Today, Miliband’s book still has a prominent position on my bookshelf.

Perhaps I remember the incident because Professor Miliband was such a good writer and therefore a good teacher of politics and of Marxism. I admired him up until his early death in 1994. The first time I heard him speak – in the most articulate English with the strongest of French accents – was in 1987 at the Chesterfield Conference. Even now I remember what he said with the utmost clarify.

The star of the 1987 Chesterfield Conference, the then MP for Chesterfield, the neighbour and friend of Ralph Miliband was Tony Benn. Benn’s campaign inside the Labour party for what amounted to left-wing social democracy in answer to the debacle of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government fired my imagination. It seemed to be the politics of the possible in the first half decade of Thatcherism.

So Tony Benn and Ralph Miliband formed my intellectual and political coordinates and held out a flag of hope for the next generation of which I was part. But any such hope was cruelly misplaced. Today Miliband’s son, David, is British foreign secretary and sits in the cabinet with Benn’s son Hilary. Together they have travelled along the New Labour road, embracing Bush, the Iraq War, further capitalist inequality in Britain and the attack on civil rights.

I can never hear the names of either of these two New Labour ministers without unfavourably comparing them with what their fathers achieved.

6 February 2008

Caroline Flit & Public Housing in Britain

Caroline Flint, Labour Member of Parliament for the Don Valley and Housing Minister, is certainly pretty, but her right-wing New Labour politics are not. What she now proposes is that the residents of Britain’s dwindling public housing ghettos sign ‘contracts’ agreeing that they will look for work before getting the keys to their hovel; the implied threat being that if they fail, she will make them homeless. Like all good propaganda there is an element of common sense: of course the residents of junk estates should not remain impoverished and idle. The action of government, though, should be to take measures to secure the jobs, not farm out work to bailiffs and thereby add to the stock of human misery.

30 January 2008

Tony Blair's Stain

I tended to believe that within months of resigning both as Prime Minister and from the House of Commons, Tony Blair would be transformed into Lord Sedgefield and would be showering us with his right wing platitudes. How wrong I was.

Instead Blair has fully prostituted himself to the institutions of world financial capital; and is now raking in the millions to enjoy the lifestyle of the vane super-rich, which is the strata of society he has always sought to endear himself to. The one public role he has acquired is as a part time Middle East mediator on behalf of the so-called Quartet, but with his extreme pro-Israeli bias a more inappropriate figure would be hard to find.

Watching the last Labour conference giving Blair a standing ovation was like seeing a beaten and humiliated woman applauding her unfaithful husband. Not only has Blair disgraced the Labour Party and everything progressive that Labour ever stood for from social reform to civil rights, but the rank and file’s sycophantic crawling to this scumbag has fatally stained everything connected to the Labour Party.

25 January 2008

FINE, Ben - Marx's Capital

Macmillan 1984

Read November 2007

No academic subject is so divided into separate disciplines as is economics. On the one hand there is orthodox or bourgeois economics which seeks to explain prices, incomes, interest rates, etc. by using mathematical models. While it is often supposed that traditional economics is an ‘empirical science’, it is in fact largely based on the assumption of rational (i.e. income maximising) behaviour of ‘de-socialised’ individuals. This approach is not wrong – in fact it gives powerful tools for understanding economics – but it fails to explain the fundamental social relationships generated by production, distribution and exchange, which fuel human history of which economics is a part. Thus bourgeois economics can be said to have a confined and falsely isolated un-historical explanation concentrating on the relationship between things, rather than the producers and users of those things.

Ben Fine’s book is a short, but by no means simple, introduction and overview of the other economics, that developed by Karl Marx. Though published two decades ago, the majority of the information in the book has retained its relevance even if its intended audience of economic students would now ignore it.

For the most part, the book follows a faithful account of Volume I of Das Kapital, after giving an outline of Marx’s materialistic conception of history and the methodology thrown up by it. Fine introduces the labour theory of value, exploitation, accumulation, the transition to capitalism, theories of capitalist crisis and the theories of distribution. Readers can see the force of this powerful explanatory system which is as valid today as it was twenty years ago, or indeed in late nineteenth century when Marx was writing. The question it seems to me is not whether Marx was correct or not, but how far and in what ways these theories can be used today to explain the manifestations of twenty-first century capitalism.

Obviously Ben Fine’s conclusions relating to the worker’s struggles in response to Britain’s economic crisis in the early 1980s are no longer as relevant today. Furthermore the book cannot comment on twenty-first century problems: the collapse of the labour movement or on the impact of intensified globalisation. Yet, nonetheless, the contents of Fine’s book continue to contribute to an understanding of the economic system today.

22 January 2008

Dialectical materialism: its meaning and scope

Dialectical materialism as a philosophical term is often abbreviated for convenience to diamat. In the history of Marxism from Engels onwards – particularly in the official communist movement – a great deal of mystical mumbo-jumbo has been written about this subject. I will argue here, however, that the key tenets of diamat are easy to elucidate, and - as far as they go - they are probably correct. While they are arguably true, I will argue that they provide a world conception of material existence, and not a magic wand for understanding all and sundry.

Introductory Points

Prior to the exposition, three things need to be clarified. The first is the distinction in metaphysics between ontology and epistemology. Ontology investigates existence; i.e. what exists in the universe and what are the conditions of and for existence. Epistemology, in contrast, examines the question of how we can know something to be true. This simple distinction, however, gives rise to a problem. While we can assume that there is material world external to our senses and to ourselves, what we know about it is dependent on our methodology of investigation. In other words, ontological questions can be seen as subordinate to epistemological ones. Diamat, though, is in the first instance an ontological theory (it says things about existence) and only secondarily addresses issues of ‘how we know things.’ For that reason diamat is based entirely on chains of reasoning (as is logic and mathematics) and can only provide at best the ontological preconditions for knowledge of the external world, not knowledge itself.

Second, having stressed the predominance of reason in diamat, it is helpful to throw light on the mode of back-chaining reasoning through which much of the analysis develops. The logic is often of this kind:

If P is the case, then Q must be the case, (i.e. P cannot exist without Q)
Therefore, if we assume the existence or truth of P, then we assume the same of Q.

Third, diamat claims to be a universal philosophy. Roughly speaking, we can divide philosophy into three levels: (i) questions concerning the cosmos and the existence of things, (ii) the social world, and (iii) the individual. Diamat operates at a cosmic level with the other levels as instances of its general operation. In Marxism it is traditionally said that dialectical materialism is the philosophy standing behind historical materialism, with historical materialism being understood as the philosophy and sociology of human society and social existence. Nonetheless, readers will be able to see that diamat, given its abstract quality, has to be compatible with just about any kind of sociology or political theory, and conversely that historical materialism has to be justified by arguments over and above those provided by diamat.

An Exposition of Dialectical Materialism

Let us start by assuming a single object in the universe, e.g. a stone. The existence of the object pre-supposes the existence of space and time. In other words, if an object, (or objects) exists, then so does space and time. Why? An object cannot exist unless it has three dimensions; if that is so, a three-dimensional space must also exist. For analogous reasoning, time must also exist. Unless an object exists in time, it cannot exist at all.

With space, however, we can deduce not only the existence of space, but also its gradation or measurement by degree. The dimensions of the object (e.g. a stone) must be limited. If any of its three dimensions were unlimited then the stone would be coterminous with the universe itself because there would be no part of the universe outside the stone.

The measurement or gradation of time can only be proved through introducing the notion of movement. For movement to exist, we need at least a second object. The movement of object A has to be understood relative to the movement of object B. If the distance between the two objects changes that change has to be within a specific time period.

So far we have seen from some very simple common sense observations of the cosmic material world the connection between objects, space, time, and movement/change. Of all these concepts only one (i.e. the object) refers to something that has material existence.

We know (or at least can pre-suppose) that the universe consists of two or more objects. In fact we can suppose it consists of many billions of interconnected things. The ‘di’ in dialectical materialism, however, refers to the notion of two things. This needs to be explained. Let us take any one thing ‘X’ then everything else can be referred to as ‘not-X’ By this means we can divide the totality of the universe (which we will call ‘T’) into two parts X and not-X. X can be anything we want it to be. We can represent this idea in the following formula:

X + not-X = T

Let us now return to the idea of movement or change. Assuming for this purpose X to be an undifferentiated thing merely existing in time it is incapable of changing itself. Therefore, its partner in change has to be not-X and cannot be anything else because X and not-X together is all that exists. In the process of change, not only will X be changed, but X will inevitably cause a change to not-X. X may change so radically that it ceases to be the original X. An example will help clarify this argument. Imagine that all that exists in the universe are a green and a blue bottle. The only thing that can change the green bottle is the blue bottle, but the latter cannot change the former without being changed itself. After the change one or both of the bottles may become something else entirely; e.g. broken pieces of glass.

Implications of diamat

Diamat allows us to conceptualise a system in the universe in the following terms.
• All change comes from inside the system.
• The system consists of two parts X and not-X
• X could not exist without not-X and vice versa.
• Change is the result of the interaction between X and not-X.
• Change can transform and even destroy the original X and not-X

When applied to the whole universe, diamat gives a non-theistic world view. God and purpose-in-existence are abandoned and instead we have a picture of interacting things moving through time, some of which we know about already and some we do not. The division of the universe (or a self contained sub-system of activity within it) into Xs and non-Xs is of course not arbitrary, but rather the division is chosen on the basis of our reasoning and existing knowledge. Thus in historical materialism, for example, the division is: X = human beings and not-X = the rest of the material universe. Over history, historical materialism maintains, humans by means of their labour and by using their technology change their material surrounding while their material surrounding change them.

Though diamat is an ontological theory, it nonetheless has epistemological implications. X can be seen as our mind (either one particular mind or the mind of humans in general; the important thing is that it is ‘the knower’) and not-X is the external material universe which is to be known. To know something we must bring our brain and its reasoning power through the senses and apply it to what we sense; i.e. the external material world. As a result we have knowledge, which changes both our sense of our material world (e.g. it’s round not flat) and also the ideas we have in our heads.


The great fault in the history of Marxism (and Marxism-Leninism in particular) has been the reduction of these observations to dogma and the insistence that the adoption of a particular politics flows as the result of a logical chain from dialectical materialism to a particular policy. This is hardly sensible. The real power of dialectical materialism is twofold (i) it gives us a world view of things, if we need one, and (ii) it gives us the word dialectical which, if not thrown around like confetti and is deployed correctly, can assist in our understanding of things.

8 January 2008


I can easily see why people trafficking, violence and the public nuisance of street prostitution are wrong and are, therefore, matters of legitimate government concern. I cannot see, though, why it is wrong when A and B could lawfully have sex for it to become a crime only for the reason that A agreed because B offered payment.