26 May 2010

The dream and nightmare of revolution

There are circumstances where a mass of people want change of some kind and those in power prevent reform, so the only step forward is the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order. Revolutions are rare, painful and destructive, always throw up unintended consequences, but are sometimes necessary.

Interestingly, though, in human history to date, the most humane societies that we have ever seen were those in northern Europe in the latter part of the twentieth century. None resulted from revolution; each was the product of sustained social-democratic struggle for reform. Yes, their successes resulted from favourable conditions, but as Marx taught social conditions are everything.

I know that this next point will make Geoff angry, but I will say it anyway: reliance on revolution as the only real means of advancing human-kind has all the features of a religion. In this view whatever happens in the here-and-now is somehow artificial, ephemeral and inadequate; and only through maximum upheaval, preceded by maximum strife and suffering, can the golden age be ushered in.

Marx was wrong about two things: he underestimated longevity and power of capitalism, and he underestimated the ability of capitalism to reform when under pressure. The problem today in Britain and elsewhere is that popular pressure is disorganised and disoriented.

24 May 2010

The hoplessness of the left

My point was first and foremost an observation of how political society is, rather than a prescription of how to change it. The following three points seem to me indisputable, at least in the short to medium term:

1. Thanks to Blair and New Labour, transforming the Labour party so that it becomes a left-leaning social democratic party is today nearly impossible.

2. The historical communist movement has disappeared and is now irrelevant.

3. The Trotskyite groups are smaller and more marginalised than ever before.

Therefore every possible agent of socialist advance has diminished almost to the point of irrelevance in Britain and in most other European countries.

Green parties, though progressive in some respects, are hardly socialist; no new parties of the left have appeared in the major European countries to counteract the major shift to the right and the hegemony of market fundamentalism. The one major exception is the German Left Party and I have devoted some time to looking at the circumstances in which this party has arisen and enjoyed minor success. (See the link in my initial contribution)

Now, because I said that the new social movements couldn’t be an agent for socialism, this does not mean that I oppose them. As sites of social and political activity they undoubtedly have an educational effect and are therefore beneficial as progressive pressure groups. Maybe I was wrong to call them rabble, but many do include some very silly people who are experts at self-marginalisation.

I do not subscribe to the end of history hypothesis, but I do not accept the argument that capitalism is doomed in the coming decades. Capitalism is structurally condemned to periodic crisis, but these crises have not so far destroyed capitalism, and there is no reason to believe that capitalism can’t surmount these crises in the next century as it did in the last. In fact, capitalism today looks in a far stronger position than it did at several points in the twentieth century.

20 May 2010

Organisational set backs for the left since the 1980s

The diminution of working class and social democratic pressure is indeed in part due to legal restrictions on trade unions, their de-politicisation and marginalisation in most of the economy and in politics.

To that one must also add two further domains in which social democracy was squeezed out.

First the Labour Party itself. The rise of New Labour was both cause and effect of de-democratisation of the party structures, choreographed conferences, top-down control and consultation replacing elections. The fact that there has not been a contested election for leader since 1994 speaks for itself.

Second, in the 1980s much was made of municipal socialism. The centralisation of power started by Thatcher was continued by New Labour.

18 May 2010

2010 British General Election (after)

I thought I would just make a couple of remarks about the 2010 election.

On the eve of the election I outlined three possible outcomes: Conservative majority rule, Tory minority government (leading to a second election later in the year) and a Lib/Lab pact. I was right about one thing and wrong about another.

I was right in thinking that the authoritarians in New Labour (Straw, Blunket, Reid, Burnham, etc) would reject any alliance with liberalism preferring instead a Tory government. Labour would not offer the one thing that would ensure Liberal Democrat support and something that progressive should support anyway, namely proportional representation.

Much is made after the event of the fact that a Lib/Lab coalition would have been a minority government requiring 7 votes for a majority from the 13 nationalists, Green and SDLP to pass legislation. While that is true, accepting the challenge would have been better than the only other option, letting the Conservatives into office.

I was wrong in thinking that the Conservatives would prefer minority government to a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Yet Cameron had clearly read the writing on the wall: the start of every period of Tory or Tory-dominated government since 1931 has enjoyed a lower share of the vote than the previous period. Cameron was not sure that a second election would give him the majority he needed.

Britain now has a fully bourgeois government. New Labour certainly abandoned social democracy and threw in its lot with capitalist power; yet always it was impeded by the fact that its core vote (and now its only vote) came from less well-off ordinary working people. No such impediment restrains the current government. Britain’s economic problems can be solved at the expense of its ordinary working people.

And something else. Since the 1980s the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves as part of the progressive majority in Britain and as an anti-Tory party. All those Liberal Democrat voters and activists who see themselves in that light have no future in the Tory-led coalition and will tend to drift away. The Liberal Democrats will become what they in fact are: the Tories junior partner.

It seems that the revolution against the forward march of labour that began in 1979 will have at least three parts: High Thatcherism (1979-97), New Labour (1997-2010) and now the Tory-Liberal coalition. Not optimistic stuff, I’m afraid.

Can David Miliband succeed?

Can David Miliband succeed?

Just look where he is coming from as a loyal Blairite. New Labour junked everything that Labour hitherto stood for, social equality, civil liberties and international law, in order to profit from and ingratiate itself with big business and win ephemeral support from Middle England. Electoral success became the only raison d'etre for this compromised and unprincipled party.

Today the Labour Party has the backing only of its core voters who have nowhere else to turn. David Miliband has nothing in common with those people and their problems.

The great shame is that David didn't learn anything from his famous and much respected father. But there again if he had he wouldn't have risen to the top of New Labour.

4 May 2010

British General Election 2010 (before the vote)

Writing in Guardian on 2 May 2010, the liberal commentator, Will Hutton, outlined the nightmare scenario of untrammelled Conservative Party power in Britain:

[Cameron will] refine the first-past-the-post voting system, reduce the number of constituencies by 10% but in so doing redraw their boundaries to be fairer to the Tories and disqualify Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English issues.

The state will become a Conservative fiefdom, with even local police forces directly run by Tory politicians in the name of "democratic accountability". The City of London will not be reformed. Wealth will become ever more concentrated in fewer hands. Scotland, Wales and many English regions will be devastated by swingeing public spending cuts – almost their sole economic prop for the last decade – and by ongoing de-industrialisation.

The management of an economy burdened by excessive private debt, fragile banks and a faltering economic recovery will be ideological. The prison population will grow even faster than under Labour as populist social repression intensifies.

[…] Britain will become a meaner, less generous and more unequal society despite David Cameron's declared intentions. This will be Murdoch's Britain, with the BBC to be cut back and Sky's influence extended.

I view Hutton’s scenario as realistic.

Resulting from the 6 May 2010 British General Election three outcomes are possible on the seemingly certain assumption that the Conservatives will win the most seats.

First, Cameron will achieve an overall majority, however small, and will start to implement the programme which Hutton describes above.

Second, Cameron falls short of his overall majority, but manages to form a minority administration (or less likely woos the Liberal Democrats into a coalition). In government he soft peddles and then dissolves parliament and calls a second election which would probably give him his overall majority – and the nightmare scenario starts.

Third, a non-Tory government, which by necessity would involve a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, can be formed; the key task of such a government would be to bring about proportional representation and fixed-term parliaments. This government would hardly do anything to challenge the vast levels of social inequality in Britain, but it would at least stop the Tories, as the single largest party in terms of the popular vote and seats in parliament, from being able to link up with capitalist power and complete Thatcher’s unfinished business.

My wish, of course, is for this third option; but I fear that Labour's hope of retaining its eternal role of one of the 'big two' at least for now in terms of seats if not in votes and Clegg's fear of splitting his own party by cuddling up to Labour would stymie such a government.

I am not optimistic.

Hate Speech

I do not like hate speech which by definition insults individuals or groups of persons. Yet I do not think it should be punishable unless it actually puts a specific person in reasonable fear of suffering an attack to their person or property.

People have a right to security of their person and property, and to enjoy equal rights with everyone else. They do not, however, have a right not to be insulted; that is a matter of manners not law.