Britain: All in it Together?

You know things are bad when the Financial Times starts running a series of articles on the crisis of capitalism. Every sane member of the ruling class agrees worse is yet to come and politicians all over the world are starting to talk about the same thing: the inequality of capitalism and how to make it fairer. Politicians suddenly find themselves sympathising with the plight of workers, full of outrage at under-taxed millionaires and aghast at out of control bonuses. It’s like an epidemic of fairness has spread from one G8 leader to another. President Obama has been gunning for the rich for some time, demanding they pay higher taxes and calling for tighter controls on Wall Street but he’s become far more passionate about it in this election year. Even Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has launched an assault on bankers, telling business leaders there was a growing sense of injustice because;

those who have suffered the most have been those who bear no responsibility…and who accepted the disciplines of a market economy only to find that others were excused that discipline because they were ‘too important to fail’ (1).

An Embarrassment of Riches

The gap between the highest and lowest paid was okay as long as the economy was okay. Since the crash it’s become something of an embarrassment. The gap between the highest and lowest paid may have started to widen in the 1980’s but it really got going under the Blair/Brown regime as part of the carrot to attract inward investment and make the city the heart of the British economy. Since then the difference has soared. The earnings of bosses at FTSE 100 companies have risen as a multiple of median pay from 14 times in 1980 to 75 times, and according to Deborah Hargreaves, Chair of the High Pay Commission, top bosses now earn 160 times average pay. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, 60% of global investors backed government intervention to control the earnings gap (2) and a similar number agreed, at least in part, with the statement that banker actions were ‘driven by greed and harm the economy’ (3). David Cameron naturally joined in, criticising the City bonus culture as ‘out of control’ and said he was determined to do something about it. More than that even, he said excessive pay would be a thing of the past. He was going to curb high levels of pay that ‘made people’s blood boil’ (but no sooner had the words left his lips when Royal Bank of Scotland’s boss Stephen Hester was awarded a bonus package of £963,000 causing outrage and further hand wringing). And head of the pack is Vince Cable. On January 22nd he outlined what the FT calls ‘the most ambitious attempt in a decade to rein in soaring executive pay’ telling MP’s that Britons could no longer stomach top pay rising at five times the rate of that of average workers. And so his initiatives, binding votes on companies’ pay deals and clawbacks on executives’ pay was launched with utter determination to right wrongs. This was followed by the phrase ‘No proposal on its own is a magic bullet’ just in case none of it worked.

Of course, there is a material incentive to reduce the pay gap. A working class with diminishing pay can’t spend, which means an economy desperate to shift consumer durables won’t recover. But the real reason income disparity caused so much concern at Davos is the fear of unrest by workers forced to pay for a crisis they didn’t cause following a boom they didn’t gain from. Until this year inequality wasn’t even on the Davos radar; now it is top of the risk list. Nervously watching for signs of unrest, the world’s leaders are eager to stop the gap between the ‘99’ percent and the ‘one’ percent from growing. Far from the usual congratulatory pats on the back, the leaders at Davos are desperately jostling with each other, trying to find a solution to the growing debt crisis which threatens to engulf them all. Many of them know the terrible truth; that there is no solution. The best they can do is try to limit the damage to their own states in the short term while finding new ways of making their workers pay.

Making Capitalism Nicer…

While David Cameron is joining his fellow leaders building a ‘fair and worthwhile’ economy, Labour leader Ed Miliband has chimed in with talk of ‘toxic’ blends of capitalism and short-termism, but overall he’s been left behind in the debate. Miliband is caught between the rock of trying to talk about fairness and sound genuine and the hard place of presiding over a party which knows it will have to agree with savage cuts to pay and services in order to save the unfair capitalism he’s criticising.

So when Labour announced it would carry on with public sector pay restraint if it came to power, Miliband came under fire from the unions who had supported him when he ran for leader in 2010. The leaders of the GMB, Unite and Unison are furious at this betrayal. In all the unions still supply around 90% of the party’s funds and last year Unite was Labour’s largest donor, giving £1,493,317. Unison was second with £731,229 and the GMB was fourth-largest, giving £331,859. Paul Kenny of the GMB immediately wrote to senior Labour officials saying the decision to support the cap on public sector pay was a ‘most serious mistake’ while Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, told the Guardian that the shift on pay policy would lead to the party’s ‘destruction’. Dave Prentis (annual salary £120,000 plus perks) commented:

Our members needed hope and a reason to vote Labour. They have been snatched away.

And this is the real nub of the argument. If Labour can’t pose as some kind of alternative at a time like this, the unions know they will find it hard to contain the anger of their members. If that anger can’t be channeled into supporting a ‘democratic’ alternative to the cuts, they may well lose control of any outburst of struggle from the working class. So far the spat between them seems serious; Miliband greeted the attacks the union leaders made on him by defending his decision, saying it was ‘tough’ if they disagreed. Despite his supposedly “Red Ed” image he continues the strategy that New Labour adopted nearly 20 years ago. There is no need to worry about the working class. They have no other electoral choice but to vote Labour and, in any case, many of them aren’t voting anyway. Instead try to sound “responsible” (mangers of capitalism) to win the votes of “Middle England”. A spat with union leaders does this policy no harm.

Union Solutions

In reality though the unions have no credible solution to the crisis. So far their most radical solution has been to support causes like the Robin Hood Tax, but then so does President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel, George Soros and Warren Buffet. Their mix of Keynesianism and damage limitation will only ensure they police the crisis and persuade their members there is no alternative to the attacks. They’re determined to keep public and private sector workers apart and have already managed to keep Unilever workers separate from public sector workers (see our last issue), even though both were fighting to save their pensions.

Where they do join in grass roots anti-cuts campaigns they try to control and contain them. When the ‘Sunderland Against the Cuts’ campaign recently criticized Unite for agreeing to compromises on pensions, Unite leaders took offence and asked the group to withdraw the leaflet, accusing those who disagreed with them of trying to divide the movement. The unions are an invaluable tool for capitalism; they give workers a safe place to let off steam, they have a long history of splitting and dividing struggles and they keep workers’ focused on saving only their industry or workplace rather than fighting for the class as a whole. As Unite proudly says on its website: ‘The work of union reps saves companies up to £1.1 billion every year’ (4) and as the crisis deepens the unions will increasingly try to contain any angry outbursts of class struggle wherever they operate.

All In It Together?

Much as the ruling class tell us this is a shared crisis, the reality is the working class are already bearing the brunt of it, and the poorest sections of the class bearing it most. An example is the recent changes to the housing benefit rules which are estimated to put 800,000 homes out of the reach of people on benefits or low wages. Payments are being capped to £250 a week maximum for a two-bedroom home and allowances will be scaled back by pegging them to the bottom third of rents in any borough. This means there won’t be enough affordable homes in many areas with London being especially badly hit. As we write the government is struggling to get bills through to cap child maintenance benefits and charge single parents for using the Child Support Agency. It also plans to abolish the social fund, all of which will see a massive rise in child poverty. The crisis is a long way from its worst point yet and as far as cuts are concerned more, and worse, are to come. Trying to make capitalism fair is like training a lion to become vegetarian; it just isn’t in the nature of the beast. It’s a system based on the exploitation of one class over another, where one class pays for the privilege of having another rule over it, where poverty and inequality are rife and set to deepen the worse the crisis gets. The only chance the working class have of a fair society is when they create their own, when they build a society of people producing for need and not profit. It’s the only way we’ll ‘all be in it together’.


(1) Speech made 24th January 2012 Brighton.

(2) Poll by Bloomberg January 2012.

(3) Quoted in Financial Times January 23rd.

(4) Unite website under ‘Campaigns’.


Bit that on the day I read the above article the Labour Party has a party political broadcast aimed at putting across the message that in these tough times Labour will make fair choices even if as Miliband says this means capping the wages of public sector workers. Just before this broadcast a report on the local news pointed to 16 community centres being forced to close by Labour led Durham County council who are in the process of withdrawing funding from them, all in the name of fairness. There's nothing fair about depriving already deprived areas and then saying that they could be kept open if the local residents manage to raise tens of thousands of pounds.

While its no surprise that Labour is doing this it's also no surprise that the unions are quiet on this matter. Both like to portray themselves as defenders of the social good while at the same time cutting away at the minimal gains that workers made during the post war boom. Their past actions has proven beyond a doubt that both Labour and the unions will not defend the interests of workers. What is required is an organisational fightback by workers who are clear that we are not all in this together and that all the sacrifices are coming from workers. No more sacrifices time to regroup and prepare to win workers to a communist programme which will sweep away this rotten corrupt system.

As the article says "The crisis is a long way from its worst point yet and as far as cuts are concerned more, and worse, are to come". I doubt there will be any revolutionary response until the working class has been stretched on the rack to breaking point. Sadly I think there will be many more sacrifices, the lesson will not be learnt outside of a protracted, painful process. "Revolution Now'' is an improbability at best.

Of course this is exasperating for those who have arrived at a comprehension of the capitalist process and its contradiction between the relatively static relations of production (I say relatively because there is some variation between the various models of capitalist society even if they all come down to an exploiting layer and an exploited mass) and the extreme dynamism of the productive forces which can only create further social dislocation.

However, even if we have an entirely accurate identification of the process, this does not translate into an effective means of avoiding the pain which it entails. The problem of mass revolutionary consciousness is posed, the fact that under capitalism until extreme moments of crisis, if history is any guide, the working class will not organise to destroy capitalism and its state, its edge will be blunted by support for demands for change without going to those lengths.

We have still to see a successful revolution in an advanced "democratic" state and whilst the above mentioned capitalist contradiction can only multiply the negative social effects, even though the material reality may suggest that it is absolutely irrational to allow capitalism to go on down the path of ever greater pauperisation and exploitation, not to mention the absolute urgency of the environmental question, the nature of the proletarian condition is such that it is finding it exceedingly difficult to pierce the many layers of capitalist ideology whilst its own material situation, if declining, is not at the point of desperation for many.

The problem remains one of timescales. For those that have arrived at a high level of consciousness, it seems reasonable to think that there is a short time conclusion to this longest running crisis. But I think here subjectivity is clouding their judgement, their incapacity to place themselves in the shoes of the worker who has no special talent or learning, no individual quality of note.

The task is colossal, that of mass consciousness, but the reason to believe it will eventually occur is equally weighted, the insoluble nature of capitalism's crisis. the question which remains is, when?

I agree with Steve 7 when he points out that conditions will have to significantly deteriorate before the working class in Britain and globally turns to a communist programme. As part of this deterioration the mass reformist orgaisations which workers look to and in some cases identify with will have to prove themselves both unable to protect workers conditions both at work and socially while also be seen as carrying out the attacks on behalf of the bourgeoisie. Through this process there will have to be left communists in the struggle who will at first be able to win over small amounts of workers to a communist programme and be able to integrate and retain these workers in a revolutionary organisation. The success of the revolution requires that revolutionaries are an integral part of the working class and are in fact the most clear sighted workers who can develop the most effective strategy in the struggle against capitalism. One point that i think needs addressing is how do we struggle against the commodifiied/alienated form of consciousness that capitalism generates. The problem of why workers are integrated however uneasiily within a capitalist framework is down to this form of consciousness and not simpy due to a question of a failure of revolutionary leadership as a lot of Trotskyists maintain.

Related......According to Lukács, the proletariat was the first class in history that may achieve true class consciousness, because of its specific position highlighted in the Communist Manifesto as the "living negation" of capitalism. All others classes, including the bourgeoisie, are limited to a "false consciousness" which impedes them from understanding the totality of history: instead of understanding each specific moment as a portion of an supposedly deterministic historical process, they universalize it and believe it is everlasting. Hence, capitalism is not thought as a specific phase of history, but is naturalized and thought of as an eternal solidified part of history. Says Lukács, this "false consciousness", which forms ideology itself, is not a simple error as in classical philosophy, but an illusion which can't be dispelled......*Now I have a recollection that Cleish objected to the concept "false consciousness'' but I forget why. However, the paragraph quoted seems reasonable to me. Any clarification o the matter?

I think that in History and Class Consciousness Lukacs begins to tackle the difficult question of why workers find it difficult to develop a sufficiently clear form of consciousness which can overthrow the mystifications of bourgeois society. Begins to tackle is the appropiate way to think about LuKacs as he did capitualate to Stalinism later in his career. That of course doesn't mean that as revolutionaries we can't use his insights into the nature of class consciousness and to develop his insights for the current period.

On the point of false consciousness I don't think that this really helps us to understand why workers remain wedded to various forms of bourgeoise ideology for the majority of time. If one considers that capitalism is the only way to organise society then the particular form of consciousness that one integrates is the one that makes sense. false consciousness is a cop out because it diverts us away from looking and developing a strategy which can facilitate the development of an active working class consciousness which sees the necessity of overthrowing capitalism and introducing a communist society. Overturning consciousness is not only a theoretical task it is also inherently practical.

I am not sure I understand. I think this is 'false consciousness'... ''If one considers that capitalism is the only way to organise society''. Any subsequent beliefs derive from that premise. False consciousness does not mean some sort of deceit or duplicity, it is simply erroneous....I think. i.E.

As far as I know your right about false consciousness not being based on duplicity or deceit as this form of consciousness is appropiate to a capitalist society and is internalised by the mojority of workers. False consciousness arises because the working class has still to come to a clear perspective on what a capitalist society is the dynamics and the transitory nature of capitalism. If and when workers as a class comes to such an understanding then workers would be ready to overthrow capitalism.

The question is how will workers achieve this? I beleive that it won't come through propaganda only it will require the active participation of the most class conscious workers organised in a revolutionary party. These networks of activists need to be able to be involved in the day to day struggles such as the current struggles against workfare but be able to give a clear communist perspective on the root causes of the economic crisis the problem of capital not being able to succesfully accumalate enough profit to ensure the growth of the capitalist system itself. There is a need to encourage the self activity of the workers as a class to oppose such schemes and to win workers to see and experience themselves the only wayb out of crisis isthrough the revolutionary transformation of the existing capitalist society.

One quick point it is relatively easy to convince workers that we are not all in this together. The bonuses of the wealthy show this to be the case the more difficult question is how do we restore the idea within the class that communism is a realistic alternative to the madness of the capitalist market.

Perhaps a little nuance is that it is not for us to get workers to struggle. That much is the premise for the minority to conquer the majority under the spell of bourgeois ideology.Obviously it is an aspect of our propaganda that the wider class should fight back, but its actual occurence is not within our control.Rather our task is the injection of revolutionary consciousness. As said many times, this is a dialectical struggle within the class, we need to detonate an avalanche.Such an avalanche is possible because reality is tending towards our theory. I.E. we are not vending a pretty ideological bauble outside of objective reality but correctly identifying acual processes.

One thing is guaranteed that the class struggle will continue as long as class socities exist. Workers will be forced to take strike action even if they are initially reluctant if for no other reason than the alternative to doing nothing is to see ones life deteriote. I agree that these struggles willl exist even without our existence. Also agree that the development of of a critical working class consciousness is a dialectical process where both theory and practice intermingles to produce a change of class forces in favour of the working class. Its this process which means that Marxists have to intervene to win workers to a communist programme and to win activists in the organisation. Problem of seeing this as a detonation means that it underestimates the preliminary work that is required to build as an organic part of the working class a class conscious vanguard. Rosa Luxemburg and the rest of the German working class paid the price in 1919 for not building a large enough network of class conscious militants within the working class before the crisis reached the point of either revolution or counter revolution.

Sure enough Dave, there is a process leading up to the formation of a force capable of acting as a catalyst/detonator, a process which is a slow and difficult engagement with those with potential to become revolutionaries. As you say, it probably will not rapidly materialise with an upswing in worker combativity, but a protracted period of sharp struggle may help. I suppose at the moment the real gain is the individual who joins the organisation, and even that may be excessive, just to advance awareness of the organisation and its theory (I'm not keen on t!he word politics, in the common usage it denotes a separate sphere of activity, but maybe l'm too picky) is a real gain. Class struggle without the advance in consciousness is not necessarily a negative, but it will happen anyway.One thing I was considering is if there is anything beside factory groups. They are ideal, but maybe street sales on a regular basis could be the trigger for community groups, but as we know, legal issues abound. University groups? I mean, uni is hardly the preserve of the wealthy elite these days. I bet something will kick off that we can use. Occupy was a glimpse. Internet is also a big tool. We need more translators, more languages, post our stuff around the globe.

We are living in interesting even dare I say it exciting times as both the impact of the austerity cuts begins to bite in earnest and the complete failure of the reformist left makes its presence felt. Its out of these dissapointed hopes that the emergence of a revolutionary milieue will develop that will be an organic part of the communist movement. Like you I'm reluctant to see these people as coming from outside of the working class, of course some will come from the middle classes/intelligensia but they will have to subordinate their class interests to the interests of the communist future.

The trick is to become active with a purpose that is political in the all encompassing sense of the term and not the common sense definition which will turn of millions. Your idea of street sales is promosing as long as you have a strategy that can challenge the isolation of the individual and does not fall into workerism. I think at this stage all one can do is to try to attract small numbers to our meetings abd try to keep in touch with them on a regular basis. One thing we can be sure about no section of the world bourgeosie has any solution to the crisis and neither does the reformists.

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