The instability and internal divisions besetting the ConDem coalition accurately reflect the panic and disarray of the capitalist class under conditions of worsening crisis, with the war against Afghanistan clearly being lost and the public deficit now standing at £165 billion. However the opportunity for the working class to take proper advantage of this relative political weakness is in danger of being yet again squandered by a labour movement which remains largely mesmerised by the opportunism of the Labour Party.
Instead of confronting capitalism with the failure of its commodity production relations to satisfy even the most basic requirements of modern civilisation, instead of demanding that capitalism either pay to sort out its own mess or make way for the proletariat to furnish its own socialist solution, workers are encouraged to accept that “cuts are inevitable” and busy themselves with devising the “fairest” way in which the slump burdens can be divided amongst the working population. This national search for the holy grail of supposedly “fair cuts” has government ministers, middle-class journalists and trade-union bureaucrats all singing from the same Dunkirk-spirit hymn book, with differences only of emphasis and timing, not substance.
Ian Duncan Smith, Tory minister at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), assisted by Nick Clegg, his LibDem sidekick, recently got involved in a “blazing, shouting, grade-A row” with the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, on the subject of cuts (Financial Times, 16 August, Alex Barker, ‘Tough targets for benefit reforms’).
Whilst the degree of anger involved is revealing for what it tells us about the permanent backstabbing and jockeying for position which characterises this insecure regime, and the nervousness with which it approaches the task of dismantling welfare capitalism, we should not suspect any of the disputants of any disagreement on fundamentals: capitalism has a problem, the workers must pay to sort it out. The cat must be skinned, on that point there is no dispute. The only question is: how best to skin it?
It seems that Duncan Smith at the DWP wants to spend some money now to save some money later. By spending a bit up front on simplifying the benefit system, he hopes to save on waste in the future. But the Treasury demanded that he come up with £5 worth of savings for every £1 he spent on simplification. When Duncan Smith suggested dumping some universal benefits like the £2.7 billion winter fuel payment for pensioners and relaxing the ring-fencing around education and health spending to help him make ends meet, he was rebuffed.
The argument on both sides is of course phony. The vaunted “ring-fencing of education and health” largely means public taxes underwriting the PFI debts run up building hospitals (the current outstanding PFI debt over all sectors stands at £200 billion) and filling the pockets of all the education privateers flooding in under the banner of “parental choice”. And “simplification” of the benefits system can have but one aim: grinding the poor with greater efficiency.
The biggest obstacle to the working class mounting an effective challenge to this class aggression is the fact that social democracy is meanwhile presiding over the self-same debate, only this time within the labour movement, over “how better to implement the cuts” which “all of us” must face together, and how much “better” it would have been to cleave to Labour’s more “sensible” timetable for cuts. Plumbing the depths, this perspective ends up telling the trade union movement to engage with the ConDem government, agitate for “fairer” cuts, and wait for better days (i.e. the return of a chastened Labour government).
This adaptation to the capitalist rules of engagement opens the door to a host of divide-and-rule tactics employed by the capitalists and their apologists. They tell us it is unfair that some folk have to get up and go to work whilst their neighbours slumber on with curtains closed, planting enmity between the employed and the unemployed and “forgetting” the wholesale destruction of jobs care of the overproduction crisis. They tell us that the collapse of pensions provision is a consequence of our inconvenient tendency to live longer, planting enmity between young and old and “forgetting” how pensions security fell prey to markets anarchy. They tell us that “foreigners” are pushing “Brits” out of the queue for jobs and social provision, planting enmity between different races and cultures and “forgetting” that the origin of those lengthening queues in the crisis of the capitalist system.
They even dare tell workers that “we” have overindulged in our consumption of resources and must now teach “our” children to love frugality. (13.5 million people in the UK are already acting as involuntary guinea pigs for this brave new frugality, eking out a miserable existence below the 60% of median earnings low-income threshold.) More grist for this particular mill came in a recent article in the Independent by Sean O’Grady on 14 July, which used a report from the Office for National Statistics to suggest that there is occurring “a huge ‘intergenerational transfer’ – broadly in favour of today’s ‘baby-boomer’ generation at the expense of younger people and future generations”, thanks to such supposed luxuries as free university education (now gone) and public sector pensions (awaiting execution).
Yet as the current issue of Proletarian explains, “the problem is not the unaffordably luxurious lives of British pensioners, but the unaffordably luxurious lives of British and foreign bloodsuckers – moneylenders, bankers, financiers – who are so positioned as to be able to suck the lifeblood not only of future generations but above all of the current one.” Whilst middle-class journalists invite workers to blame themselves for failing their children and government stooges berate the feckless poor, the thousand richest people in the UK can slumber on behind closed curtains in undisputed possession of their £300 billion of wealth.
In the light of the all-out attack on the standard of life of working people in this country, the National Shop Stewards Network’s decision to mobilise a lobby of the TUC in Manchester on Sunday 12 September, demanding that the TUC call a national demonstration against the cuts “to kick-start a mass campaign to stop this government in its tracks”, is welcome indeed. Communists will stand shoulder to shoulder with the NSSN, whilst recognising that there can be no trusted leadership from a trade union bureaucracy so thoroughly imbued with social democratic prejudice. It will be through the struggle to decouple organised labour from the Labour Party that the working class will achieve the unity necessary to resist the class-war assaults being launched against it.
The experience of workers in Greece is instructive in this regard. Workers there have with great militancy challenged the attacks launched upon pay, pensions and the social wage, attacks which it fell to the lot of the social democratic PASOK to instigate. (No honest worker doubts for an instant that were Labour still in power in this country, it would likewise have no compunction in pressing on with these class attacks.) And in Greece too, the major trade union federations in both the private and the public sectors are closely allied with the party of social democracy. How then account for the successful mobilisation of workers all across Greece in mass strikes and demonstrations, and the increasingly political character of the challenge which workers are throwing down to the capitalist state? The key difference lies in the politics of PAME, the cross-union popular front movement which, taking its cue from the KKE (Greek communist party), denounces the opportunism of the union leadership, explains how that opportunism is sustained by the link between the unions and PASOK, and welcomes all workers, from any union or none, who refuse to choose “reasonable, fair” cuts as against “bad, unfair” cuts and instead demand that capitalism answer for the disaster it has inflicted on society at large. Whatever the immediate material outcome of the current struggle in that country, the working class cannot but be strengthened in its ideology by this experience.
Labour’s well-earned expulsion from power in this country, so far from rendering less urgent the fight to sever the trade unions’ link with that party, in fact offers the working class an opportunity to root out this ideological parasite upon the labour movement once and for all – an opportunity which should not be missed.
Break the link with Labour!
[For full details of the extent of the cuts see below]
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