Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Thornberry Paradox

Why was Emily Thornberry forced to resign? Why did Ed Miliband say that her tweet showing an uncaptioned picture of a house in Rochester, draped in England flags, in front of which stood a white transit, made him more angry than anything else had done?

The fact is that the Labour leadership are stuffed full of middle class professional politicians. They know it, we know it, the electorate know it. And for that reason, they are extremely touchy about the subject, and any suggestion that they might be out of touch with ordinary working-class people, especially as that is one of the main charges they level against the Tories. So, when the media picked up on Thornberry's tweet, which they interpreted as sneering at workers, they felt an immediate panic that could only be quelled by the most over the top response, of sacking Thornberry, and coming out with the most gut wrenching pronouncements, about how when they saw white vans it immediately instilled in them thoughts about hard working British patriots.

But, the surreal thing is that Thornberry herself grew up on a council estate, unlike many of those within the labour leadership, who flew into a panic and demanded her resignation. Thornberry's tweet, was if anything a far more authentic working-class response, than anything the Labour leadership, the Tories or the middle class pundits, all of whom are cut from the same cloth, have come forward with.

To the extent that her tweet was sneering, it was only sneering in the same way that many genuine working-class people sneer at many of those for whom this picture is emblematic. Ed Miliband when he sees a white van might immediately think of hard working people, but the thoughts that go through many real hard working peoples minds is at best – other than for the colour – Del Boy and Rodney, and more usually it is with rogues who are not so lovable. I can say this fairly confidently, because, at one time, when I ran my own business, I used to drive a big, old, yellow twin wheel transit, and my kids used to hate me dropping them off at school in it.

When Ed Miliband sees English flags draped out of house windows he thinks of hard working patriots, but when many ordinary real working-class people see that in the context they often encounter it, on their estates, they think about loutishness - the same kind of loutishness that Britons are renowned for overseas - and anti-social behaviour.

  As one contributor to the discussion on Phil's blog put it,

“These right-wing journos were never in Goldenhill on one of the nights when an excuse is found to let off fireworks when most people (Sun-readers included) are in bed.

They wouldn't be eulogising people like Dan Ware if, like me, they actually had them for neighbours. That's what I'm saying.”

As I said last week, there is nothing unusual about seeing England flags, or Union flags draped on houses, but nor is it ubiquitous, or a characteristic trait of being working-class. Often, even when it is just a temporary phenomenon, like putting up overdone Christmas lights, associated with some event, like a big football or cricket match, it reflects the extent to which that flows over, or is itself an expression of nationalistic sentiment. But, its also often an expression of the character of the individual, who wants to always be able to impose themselves on everyone else, by having the most visible manifestation, just as often, as with Asquith's comment, they have to have the most, the noisiest fireworks, let off whenever they choose, irrespective of their neighbours, or who must always have loud music emanating from their house, or car speakers.

This kind of individualism, has nothing in common with those aspects of working-class life that are a rejection of such selfish individualism, and which by contrast, are founded upon collective solidarity and mutual respect and concern. The former characteristics are usually found, not amongst the real working-class, but amongst all those peripheral layers whose outlook is based on their ability, as individuals, to make their way in the world, be it as some kind of wide boy trader, or those that live off the proceeds of less savoury aspects of the black economy. That individualism was reflected in the kinds of elements who came on to the streets to burn and loot in the riots of 2011, whereas the latter are reflected in those workers who came together collectively to defend their communities from them.

As Phil put it in his blog post, 

“Knowing a thing or two about theSun-reading working class - it's where I come from, after all - I can tell you what their army of readers are likely to think. They see a skinhead with a thuggish appearance, a first impression they'll probably stick with when they learn he's a some-time cage fighter. Compounding the unfavourable vibes is his occupation - he owns and runs a used car dealership. And last of all, Ed Miliband might feel respect when he walks by a house festooned like Dan's. Most Sun readers on the other hand would barely notice, or at best think the resident is a bit of a nob. Contrary to what the hacks and the politicians think, the majority of working class people feel that showy displays of patriotism outside of European/World Cup tournaments is tacky and vulgar. So stick that in your pandering, patronising pipe and smoke it.”

And nor is that just the Sun reading working-class. I grew up in the same Goldenhill that Asquith refers to above.  My parents would never have read the Sun. But, like most of the other people who lived on Goldenhill, as a former mining village, you could not get much more real working-class. One of my grandads worked in three foot seams in the pit with hand tools, the other was a colliery fitter. My father was an engineer who as a 20 year old, in 1939, worked in the car factories in Coventry, Rugby, West Bromwich and elsewhere, being continually moved from one to another, and eventually had his cards literally filled with black ink, to prevent him getting further employment, because of his trade union activities.  But, they and the other people in the street, had a similar viewpoint, as well as a disregard for all those in the street who were considered to be shirkers of one form or another.

After all, the basic principle of Socialism as set out by Marx and reiterated by Lenin is "He who does not work, neither shall he eat."  That applies to all those who would leach off the working-class, not just the rich.  In the 19th century, when workers were setting up co-operatives, one of the principles was that they would be a means for finding work for their unemployed members.  There is nothing wrong with the principle that a social insurance fund, such as that established by the co-operatives, should not operate on the basis of expecting its members to take whatever work it is able to provide for them, in return for payments out of that fund.  The whole problem with workfare schemes is not that principle, but that national insurance funds, are not established by workers, nor run by workers for their benefit, but, like the whole of the welfare state, are established by capital for the benefit of capital.

The problem for Labour in dealing with this is that their entire perspective has become bifurcated. On the one hand, as far as their macro-economic strategy is concerned, it has accepted all of the nostrums of free market conservatism, that have been developed over the last thirty years. They have failed to even confidently advance those aspects of social-democratic strategy that are in the interests of big industrial capital, which is why they have even retreated in the face of the conservative attack over immigration and Europe. The policy put forward by Rachel Reeves to prevent EU migrants being able to claim benefits for two years, is essentially to oppose the free movement of labour, because no worker is going to take the risk of selling their existing home, moving their family, settling their kids in a foreign school etc., in order to move to employment in another country, if they do not have even the guarantee of a degree of social insurance should they lose their job, having done so!  If we had worker owned and controlled social insurance funds, they would have no such national restrictions, but would bind workers together within them across the globe.

On the other hand, having accepted conservative macro-economic policies that favour small capital, Labour is only able to offer workers some modicum of comfort against the consequences of that, by focussing on welfarism. In this way they fall between two stools. The small capitalists and backward elements will not be convinced by the conservative economic policy, and will vote for the real thing in the shape of the Tories and UKIP, especially as they see the welfarist policies as being paid for out of their pocket, without any control over them. On the other, real workers themselves see no prospect of a dynamic industrial economy being reconstructed, and instead see their own wages frozen, and cut in real terms, as taxes continue to expand to cover the expansion of welfarism.

But, the irony is that the so called revolutionary organisations, ought to be able to make hay, and offer a real revolutionary alternative to workers under such conditions. Yet, the reality is that these micro-sects are themselves made up, and led by the same kind of sociological layers that make up the Westminster elite, and the chattering classes. Instead of a revolutionary alternative to social democracy, they offer up only left-wing Fabianism, dressed up with radical phrases, and packaged in Trotskyist verbiage.

For these organisations too have only a limited vision of the role that real workers are to play. For the labour leaders it is to vote periodically at elections, for the micro-sects, it is to throw themselves periodically over the barricades in strike actions out of which the sects hope to recruit a few more members, or even less periodically to come out on to the street in open revolution to displace the existing order, but only for long enough, of course, to ensure that the new “revolutionary” leadership is put in its place.

As Simon Clarke put it many years ago,

“For the working-class the Party is a means of mobilising and generalising its opposition to Capital and its State, and of building autonomous forms of collective organisation, while for the intellectual stratum it is a means of achieving power over capital and the state... As soon as the party has secured state power, by whatever means, it has fulfilled its positive role as far as the intellectual stratum is concerned. The latter's task is now to consolidate and exploit its position of power to secure the implementation of the Party's programme in the interests of the 'working class'. Once the Party has seized power, any opposition it encounters from the working class is immediately identified as sectional or factional opposition to the interests of the working class as a whole, the latter being identified with the Party as its self-conscious representative.”

(Crisis of Socialism Or Crisis Of the State?, in Capital & Class 42, Winter 1990) 

For the sects, the solution for the immediate problems of workers is for the capitalist state to nationalise their industries, and thereby maintain them in unproductive employment, much as the Stalinist state did. It thereby means other workers subsidising those workers through an ever increasing tax bill to maintain this burgeoning capitalist state. It is to continue to build an ever increasing welfare state as a means of providing opium for the pain of the people rather than dealing with the cause of that pain itself. And again, the consequence of that is to make those workers in employment bear an ever larger cost of that maintenance. As Clarke put it,

“The distinction between the Bolshevik and social democratic variants of state socialism should not be ignored, but it is more a matter of degree than of substance. The 'degeneration' of the Russian Revolution was not a matter of Lenin's intolerance, nor of Trotsky's militarism, nor of Stalin's personality, nor of the economic backwardness nor of the relatively small size of the Russian working class, nor of the autocratic character of the Russian State, nor of the embattled position of the revolutionary regime, although all these factors played their part in determining the extent of the degeneration. The degeneration was already inherent in the class character of the revolution which underlay the statist conception of socialism which it adopted as its project.” 

Socialists need to recognise socialism as something that is done by workers not done to them. It requires a perspective such as that advanced by Marx which focusses on the collective aspirations of workers to create something better, to lift their eyes to the sky, not down to the gutter. It is what is expressed in his writings on the Civilising Mission of Capital, in the Grundrisse. That is the opposite of characterising the working class by its most backward layers, still less by those that fall beneath it. Our task is to build a better world, not to have as the limit of our vision only the generalisation of the most moronic aspects of the current one.

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