Black Lives Matter: Pluralism in America Despite Dallas


Protests continued in major American cities over Wednesday’s police killing of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, both of which were recorded on video by witnesses. They continued despite the political backlash from the Republican right after the shooting of five policemen by a disturbed and apparently delusional African American individual during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. As a sign held by protesters in St. Paul said: “When 5 cops die it’s tragic. When a Black man dies, we need more evidence.”

Behind the mounting toll of police killings of black Americans is the authorities’ intensified fear of the public. Mass shootings enabled by the NRA’s stance against regulation of weapon ownership – as in Orlando only three weeks ago – has stoked this tension; combined with racial profiling it has produced extreme over-reactions to people of color suspected of possessing guns.

White Americans’ fear of demographic change and loss of political power is echoed within the police, where it has merged with the increased authoritarianism of security forces to create paranoia. Trump and all the coded Republican rhetoric before him taps into this sentiment and legitimizes it.

In Baton Rouge on Saturday, according to the Washington Post, “At least 200 protesters massed outside of police headquarters and gathered on streets, holding their arms in the air and chanting, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot.’ One group of protesters joined in a song drawing back to protests generations earlier: ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Police – some in riot gear – moved in after ordering crowds to disperse.”

In St. Paul, the New York Times reported, demonstrators blocked a major highway for hours on Saturday night, after marching from the governor’s mansion “chanting refrains such as ‘We’re peaceful, y’all violent’ as the police urged them to leave. Officers struggled for more than four hours to disperse the crowd, at times deploying smoke and marking rounds in a standoff that stretched into early Sunday … Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, said organizers scheduled [an earlier] march because ‘people are experiencing trauma after trauma after trauma as a result of what happened.’ Ms. Levy-Pounds said many African-Americans here had still been coming to terms with the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by the Minneapolis police in 2015 and the decision not to charge the officers involved.”

Baton Rouge activist Arthur Reed commented: “What we have here is acts of violence by the police department that is being passed down and all of them are being justified. That’s not just in Baton Rouge, that’s in America period. … what you see right here is that these communities are actually fed up with this. They are sick and tired of seeing this happen to their loved ones. And at the end of the day, we look at a backlash because we look at the violence that’s taking place in our community.”

On Thursday in Oakland, California, more than 1,000 people blocked an interstate for hours, hundreds more marched in Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. More than 40 people were arrested amidst a massive march in New York City. One of the protesters told Democracy Now: “I’m sick of waking up and seeing that there’s another black man or person of color … killed or gunned down by the hands of law enforcement, or in police custody, and with no explanation. I can’t handle anymore. I woke up this morning, I checked my Instafeed, and I said, didn’t we just do this yesterday? … I’m not demanding that we get special treatment. I’m demanding that we get the treatment that every other person gets, especially white people.”

Hollywood personalities like Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams joined the denunciations. In a powerful speech at the Black Entertainment awards he said: “what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.” Beyonce said in a message: “We’re going to stand up as a community and fight against anyone who believes that murder or any violent action by those who are sworn to protect us should consistently go unpunished.”

In downtown Dallas after the shootings dispersed the demonstration, “officers asked an African-American man wearing a bulletproof vest to walk toward them. The man slowly approached with his hands up, and a crowd of onlookers became angry and shouted and cursed at the police. An officer had his gun pointed at a black woman, and many in the crowd quickly began filming the scene with their cellphones. The tension eased as people in the crowd chanted, ‘Black lives matter’.”

The growing political assertiveness of African Americans and other minorities collides with the attempts of the police to enforce the racial and class hierarchy. The authoritarianism of the police affects all Americans, especially African, Latino and Native Americans. But the obvious racial dimension to the shootings undermines the assertion of legal color-blindness that is integral to sustaining white privilege.

The Black Lives Matter movement is giving political direction and cohesiveness to the protests. In Washington, DC, protesting outside the White House on Friday, student Jennifer Jones said: “I feel like we as a people should not go out and kill off police officers or cops who are killing off our people, because then we’re becoming them. I don’t want to become the oppressor. I don’t want to become the enemy. I don’t want to become the murderer.”

What people are reacting to is the fact that even when police killings are captured by witnesses on video, there are no legal sanctions on the officers involved. This sets the justice system and the public on a collision course. Justice has to be seen to be done: there must be convictions of police officers who kill suspects without cause.

Political commentator Josh Marshall questioned if these killings threatened America’s “communal and inter-communal bonds.” One of his readers pointed out, however, that the Yemeni-born Muslim man who owns the store outside which Alton Sterling was shot, who had recorded the killing on his cellphone, was held in high esteem in his largely African American neighborhood. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported: “Regular customer Tanisha Johnson said that in her experience, not every business owner is patient with his local clientele. But [Abdullah] Muflahi … cared enough about a regular to secure and distribute a recording that could be instrumental in helping authorities determine whether or not officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II are criminally liable in Sterling’s death. … ‘They’ve allowed me to become a part of this community, … and I wanted to stand for Alton,’ Muflahi said. ‘We just need to stick together — no matter what race we are, no matter where we are from’.”

This pluralistic sentiment is as much a part of American culture as nativist anxieties, and is the foundation for a movement to defeat Donald Trump in November’s presidential elections, much more powerful than the corporate commonplaces of Hillary Clinton.

1 Comment

Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, Black Lives Matter, latino americans, Uncategorized

The Collapse of the Centre: Is Brexit a Disaster or an Opportunity for Labour?


The British political class – a uniquely inbred Oxbridge clique – is in turmoil after the result of the Brexit vote, and is now engaging in a mutual backstabbing that makes Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. However, despite its disorientation, the entire establishment across party lines is clear on one thing, and only one thing: Jeremy Corbyn should not be leader of the Labour party. Its political reflex is to hold him responsible for this disruption of the status quo.

Apart from around 40 MPs, Labour’s parliamentarians are closely tied to former leader Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism that was at the root of the party’s abandonment of the working class in the former industrial and mining areas. There is now the possibility of a split between the parliamentary wing and Labour’s membership, which wants to restore its social democratic orientation. It has this in common with much of the public, even when distorted by a nationalist perspective – the Brexiters’ slogan of more money for the NHS (which they immediately reneged on) was one of the popular drivers of the vote.

Corbyn is a symbol of a social democratic alternative to neoliberal austerity, although his voice was drowned out by the shrill claims and counter-claims of the Cameron-Johnson campaigns. He is still capable of uniting Brexiters and Remainers who want to acknowledge the misery piled up in the abandoned areas of much of England and Wales that had been ignored by the political elite. The vote gave an opportunity to the people living in those areas who felt disenfranchised to show their hostility to the political apparatus; many assumed their vote would not count and that Remain would carry the day simply because it was supported by the establishment.

Gary Younge commented: “If remain had won, we would already have returned to pretending that everything was carrying on just fine. Those people who have been forgotten would have stayed forgotten; those communities that have been abandoned would have stayed invisible to all but those who live in them. To insist that they will now suffer most ignores the fact that unless something had changed, they were going to suffer anyway. … For the last 15 years, governments and the press have stoked fears about whether British culture could withstand the integration of Muslims – of whom 70% voted for remain – when they should have been worried about how to integrate the white working class into the British economy. Brexit didn’t create these problems. It exposed them and will certainly make them worse.”

The referendum itself was inherently divisive, as Patrick Cockburn points out. “This is always the way with referenda on important issues: they make irreversible decisions, but they do so at a high political cost by excluding compromise between contending parties with deeply held opinions that they are not going to abandon on the day after the poll, regardless of who wins or loses. … The Remain camp thought they could win the vote by relentlessly emphasising the economic risks of leaving the EU, though the real danger is political rather than economic as a populist right is empowered with little idea of what it should do with that power.”

The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping poverty in their own countries has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour agencies and landlords to force down wage rates and jack up rents in various parts of Britain. But this is not unique to the UK; it exacerbates a trend seen throughout Europe. Servaas Storm, an economics professor at Delft University, comments: “Almost everywhere in the E.U. — as in Britain — there is a polarization of the income distribution into a large number of low-income households and a much smaller number of very rich, while the middle classes have shrunk. There is a segmentation of employment into low-wage, unprotected and precarious jobs, mostly in low-tech services, and high-wage and protected jobs in high-tech manufacturing, finance, legal services and government. … The massive social protests in France against the modernization of labour laws — newspeak for a reduction in the strength of French job-protection laws and social security in general — by the ‘socialist’ Hollande government illustrate the point: The systemic dismantling of worker protection in the name of cutting wage costs and improving unit-labour cost competitiveness will certainly increase job insecurity, employment precariousness, and inequality without any further macroeconomic benefits.”

UMass professor Richard Wolff explains: “A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government … pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do. … the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word socialism meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris. … You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become …”

The parliamentary Labour party’s attempted coup to unseat Corbyn is another sign of how out of touch it is with the membership. Constituency activists have renewed demands for MP reselection in the event of another general election. Labour party member Dan Iles pointed out: “I believe Corbyn persuaded 60% of Labour’s supporters to vote remain because he didn’t ignore people’s concerns with the EU. By admitting that the EU is not without its faults and then demanding that we should stay in to reform it (from the left) he was able to bypass the binary claims of the two main referendum campaigns. People voted leave because they felt abandoned by politics and scared about immigration. These structural issues haven’t just appeared in the last nine months of Corbyn’s leadership. But I think many felt his defence of immigration and his determination to turn the debate towards austerity was refreshing at a time when the leave campaign was openly whipping up racism and xenophobia.”

UPDATE: David Graeber makes a relevant comment in the Guardian: “If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. … the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). … While one side effectively accuses him of refusing to play the demagogue during the Brexit debate, for the other, his insistence on treating the public as responsible adults was the quintessence of the ‘new kind of politics’ they wished to see.”

The Brexit campaign was always a dispute between factions of the Tory elite, neither of which were serious about the possibility of a Leave victory, meaning that there is no plan for disengaging from Europe. With all the criticism of Farage’s open racism, it has been forgotten that Cameron and Theresa May stoked nativism by imposing English language and income tests on new immigrants, a policy targeted at Middle Eastern refugees. Britain has never had a positive approach to cultural assimilation like the US does. It puts responsibility onto immigrants to somehow integrate themselves into the system.

While the media is fixated on British parliamentary politics, the vote is having major international repercussions, not least within Europe itself, because of the fragility and interconnectedness of the global economy. The Economist notes that the London financial industry could be in big trouble: “It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. … In the run-up to the vote TheCityUK, a trade body that opposed Brexit, boasted that London had around 70% of the market for euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives, 90% of European prime brokerage (assisting hedge funds with trading) and more besides.”

Will the inevitable diminution of the City of London’s financial clout also lead to a weakening of its political influence? This is Labour’s opportunity: the first task of a Labour government independent of EU regulations should be to take control of capital movements and pump money into kick-starting manufacturing in regionally depressed economies. Corbyn supporters have plenty of policies they could be campaigning on to unite workers whose jobs have been outsourced with immigrants who would fight for a living wage.

1 Comment

Filed under Brexit, Britain, Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, populism, Uncategorized

Brexit and the Miners Strike, Part Three: The Disorientation of the Left


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The miners and their leaders had not expected the kind of all-out political fight Thatcher was waging, but once the strike began, it generated an intense loyalty to the union, involving communities in a fight for their survival. Although mining was a completely male-dominated industry, women from mining areas mobilized to take the struggle into other sections of the working and middle class while the government cut benefits for strikers’ families. The miners’ moral economy expanded to include collaboration with other communities defending themselves against state attacks.

The Tories’ 1980 Coal Act mandated an end to subsidies by 1984 and this empowered NCB management to aggressively confront miners, provoking a large number of separate pit-level disputes that came together after the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood, when, despite the pleas of Yorkshire area officials, rank-and-file miners streamed into Lancashire and Nottinghamshire to picket out those areas. The strike had not been officially called by the NUM national leadership, who in fact merely recognized a struggle that had already started, driven by the militancy and anger among younger miners. [Richards, 100]

They were the first in the industrial world, after PATCO, to experience the assault of international capital against the concessions they had fought for and won from a national capitalist class over many years. However, the left had not grasped the nature of the changes that had taken place during the 1970s. Its theoretical outlook was guided by Leninist categories that were premised on the national state conceived as a monolithic entity, a “body of armed men” arrayed against a homogeneous working class. The picket-line battles between miners and police appeared to fall into that schema.

The left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

After the start of the strike, the sloganizing of left groups for better organized picketing, for a one-day general strike, even for an all-out general strike called by the TUC, embodied the assumption that the miners were battling a nationally-based capitalist class with which there was the possibility of a political compromise after a change of government. To acknowledge that the strike had connotations that stretched outside of a nationally-based economy would have meant breaking from the illusion that the miners could have won a victory like that of 1972.

A general strike, even if one could have been achieved in the circumstances, posed the same question that it did in 1926: who would rule? The miners and the left assumed that it would be a Bennite government that would restore the social consensus and, like the 1970s Wilberforce inquiry, consider the miners to be a “special case” whose jobs should be protected. However, the Labour party was in disarray and its leadership had already capitulated to the pressure for austerity. While left MPs headed by Benn supported the miners, party leader Neil Kinnock vehemently condemned picket-line violence, and, like Callaghan, attacked Scargill for not calling a strike ballot. When New Labour gained power in the 1990s they signally refused to return to a policy of state subsidies to industry.

While the left in general had little influence within the NUM, the British Communist party had a close historical connection with the union, but by the 1980s the party was divided between a faction that based itself on the tradition of industrial militancy and support for the Soviet Union, grouped around the daily Morning Star, and a “eurocommunist” tendency that advocated a “new realism” of adapting to the changes that were taking place within capitalism. The strike and its outcome destabilized their uneasy alliance, leading to a split and the party’s eventual dissolution.

The failures of the Communist party during the 1970s in relation to mass student protests and the women’s movement, together with opposition to the Soviet military response to demands for Czechoslovak autonomy, had encouraged the eurocommunists’ criticism of the lack of internal party democracy and a focus on the industrial working class. Influenced by postmodernism, they perceived class based politics as obsolete because of the transition from manufacturing in large factories employing thousands of workers to a “post-Fordist” form of production based on small, flexible units of capital. The rise of Thatcher was analyzed by this tendency in the party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, as a new and powerful form of populism, conceptualizing her government as the authoritarianism of a national capitalist class which needed to be countered by a popular front alliance of progressive forces.

Scargill was close to the “traditionalist” faction, although not a member of the party, but he represented the thinking of the young, militant activists who had mythologized the 1970s strikes and the mass picket of Saltley coke depot. What united them was a syndicalist and industry-centric orientation that thought the miners could defeat the government on their own, as they believed they had in 1972.

NUM officials influenced by the eurocommunists advocated a cautious and moderate response to pit closures, which brought them into conflict with the miners’ growing militancy. In Scotland, calls for strike action against the especially provocative NCB management team there “originated from the rank-and-file in comparatively democratic forums, including mass meetings and area delegate conferences. These calls were never opposed by the two foremost national NUM leaders, Arthur Scargill and National Secretary, Peter Heathfield, but they brought those who made them into collision with bureaucratic structures in the NUM, in particular with the NUM Scottish Executive led by Mick McGahey and George Bolton” who were both associated with the eurocommunist trend. [Brotherstone, 106]

Even today, over 30 years later, the left clings to the conception that a wider strike struggle could have won a victory. Its analysis selectively omits the impact of the global recession that had shut down much of the country’s industrial base. However, Thatcher had mobilized a much-publicized ideological attack, middle class support for her anti-union plans, control of government committees, interest rates, union leaders in key industries, as well as the physical stockpiling of coal, in support of her strategic aims.

Seumas Milne’s book, The Enemy Within, is a devastating exposé of Thatcher’s use of the deep state to spy on the NUM leadership and target Scargill individually as an instigator of the miners’ militant resistance to the restructuring of the industry. In the introduction to the fourth edition, he writes: “Success for the miners in 1984-5 could not, of course, have turned the neoliberal tide by itself. That was a global phenomenon … But it would have at least seriously weakened Thatcher, reined in her government’s worst excess and put a brake on Labour’s headlong rush for the ‘third way’ – which would eventually turn into New Labour and its embrace of the core Thatcher settlement.” [xi]

Although Milne refers in passing to the global nature of neoliberalism, he explains the motive for the covert operations he uncovered as the Tory party’s determination to avenge its humiliation in 1972, an explanation that confines his account within a national context. Thatcher’s monetarist budgets had already crashed manufacturing and boosted the City of London’s international financial role. What her government did in order to usher in the neoliberal model was to build on this induced recession with a political assault on the miners’ union to break organized resistance to privatization. Thatcher couldn’t have done this so effectively if the Callaghan government had not already initiated monetarist controls on the nationalized industries; moreover, political pressure from the City and the US Treasury makes it clear that neoliberalism was not Thatcher’s personal legacy but that she acted in line with an international reorientation of capital circulation.

The Mitterand government in France, for example, quickly followed the UK and US in restructuring its economy on neoliberal lines: “what above all determined the French Socialist government’s U-turn on economic policy was the severe market pressure on the franc in the context of the high-interest-rate and austerity policies being pursued by the US, the UK, and particularly Germany. … in June 1982 … the franc was devalued alongside the revaluation of the mark, in an agreement with the Germans that was conditional on the French Socialist government’s promise … to bring its fiscal deficit below 3 percent of GDP. … It did not take long before the French Socialist Party leaders even supported the privatization of the firms they had earlier nationalized.” [Panitch, 197]

After the strike the “traditionalist” faction in the Communist party was expelled as the leadership moved closer to the eurocommunist wing.  “The strike, and its eventual defeat were to accelerate the push towards the modernisers’ agenda within the party. Although many Communists from both wings of the party were pulled into the organisation of a solidarity which mushroomed from the late summer of 1984, attitudes to the strike and to the tactics of NUM president Arthur Scargill, were to lead to further bitter divisions. … The criticisms of ‘Scargillism’, which had been relatively muted and coded during the dispute, came out into the open in 1985 as the party, by now rid of the Chater [Morning Star] group carried out a post mortem. The lessons drawn from the defeat of the miners appeared to reinforce all of the key assumptions of Eurocommunism; the economism and narrowness of the trade unions epitomised by Scargill, the authoritarianism of the state shown in the hostile press coverage and the harsh policing tactics and hence the need for ‘broad democratic alliances’ rather than class politics.” [Eaden, 176]

The CP’s political disorientation after the 1970s was also reflected in the left generally. “The way in which the miners’ strike intensified the crisis in the CP was part of the more general theoretical crisis, and, in some cases, practical implosion on the left. The heroic militancy of the miners’ strike exposed, in a most necessary way, the inability of the then dominant leftwing thinking as a whole (notwithstanding the disputatious variety within it) to meet the theoretical needs of labour. In the new situation, the pressure of militant trade unionism to secure, from capital and its servant state, measures of reform and progressive change, was no longer an historically viable strategy.” [Brotherstone, 120]

Conclusion

The miners’ moral economy considered the blood, sweat, and lives expended down the pits to have given them a form of ownership, and that nationalization had made the mines a community resource that the government was wilfully breaking up with unnecessary closures. “We are protecting the people’s coal,” wrote Mick McGahey in April 1984.  “They are weak because they are nothing but industrial vandals and bully boys.” [qutd Phillips, 110]

Although the miners’ defeat was not inevitable – there were moments when the government could have been forced to retreat – its Thatcherite leadership had been quick to respond to the industrial crisis and the increased specific weight of the City of London in the economy. It did not act merely as the agent of Tory revenge, but also as the personification of the drive of international capital to break up national accommodations with the working class and to bring nationalized industries back into the orbit of circulation through the dispossession of public capital. “The deliberate destabilization of industrial employment and occupational communities was, to be blunt, a consciously constructed and carefully executed assault on the collective culture and material position of the working class.” [Phillips, 175]

Despite the way nationalization was carried out after 1945, creating state-owned enterprises with no change in management, it still embodied meaningful egalitarian and collectivist principles. For the mining industry, starved of capital when in private hands, “Nationalization was as much about workers’ rights [as economic efficiency] in the land fit for heroes returning from the war. The bitter industrial relations battles of the 1930s in the mines were to be solved by internalizing them within the new industrial structures.” [Helm, 30]

While enabling the government’s Keynesian economic planning, nationalization also had a great social significance. Capacity in the nationalized electricity supply industry, for example, was substantially increased through the creation of a national grid that allowed technical improvements like higher voltages, but it also facilitated social integration in a way that a market-based industry could not. “A cohesive society provided the basic social primary goods not only regardless of the ability to pay, but also regardless of location. To the extent that rural customers were too expensive to justify connection, they were to be paid for by the urban masses. Connecting up the Scottish Highlands, rural Wales and other upland areas was subsidized by revenues from central locations, and, perhaps more significantly, transmission and distribution charges tended to be averaged.” [Helm, 31]

The dissolution of nationalized industries and subsequent privatizations by the Thatcher government and its successors has led to the breaking down of essential services and intensive rent extraction by capital. It is not surprising, then, that there is popular support today for the re-nationalization of certain industries, like the railways, where privatization has brought chaos. After the economic meltdown of 2008, political opposition to neoliberalism has begun to strengthen.

But with an economy dominated by international finance, how can austerity be resisted? Global capital still needs nation-states to maintain the social discipline necessary for its circulation. The orientation of the state is an important factor: even a small country like Malaysia was able to resist the IMF and US government and impose capital controls after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. “The more important effect of globalization has been on the political will to undertake state regulation, rather than on the technical feasibility of doing so.” [Kotz]

The left has to re-think the nature of the many partial movements against austerity and the relation of international capital to state power. The class struggle is fought out on many levels, inside and outside of political parties, within state institutions and regulatory bodies as well as on picket lines. If state power was not important, then the plutocracy would not spend so much effort on gaining control of it. What should the left be doing to guide the fight back?

Works cited

Terry Brotherstone & Simon Pirani, “Were There Alternatives? Movements From Below In The Scottish Coalfield, The Communist Party, And Thatcherism, 1981–1985,” Critique, 33:1, 99-124 (2005)

James Eaden and David Renton, The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920, Palgrave, 2002

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

David M. Kotz, “Globalization and Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism vol 12 #2, Summer 2002:64-79

Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within, Verso, Fourth edition, 2014

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996

Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012

Jim Phillips, Collieries, communities and the miners’ strike in Scotland, 1984-85, Manchester UP, 2012

1 Comment

Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, British Labour party, deindustrialization, finance capital, Jeremy Corbyn, militarized police, Miners Strike, Neoliberalism, NUM, police violence, Thatcher, Trotskyism, Uncategorized

Brexit and the Miners’ Strike, Part Two: Thatcher’s political war for neoliberalism


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The miners’ victory in 1974 had won them the promise of an assured future for the industry, formalized in Labour’s “Plan for Coal.” It had also won them the enmity of the new Tory party leadership, Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph, who were determined to prevent the recurrence of a government defeat.

Their rise to power in the Tory party had come out of a revolt of the grassroots against patriarchal leaders like Heath and Macmillan who were identified with a Keynesian corporatist approach to government. Thatcher’s small-minded hatred of organized labour would have ended in political isolation if it had not aligned with the interests of US big business and the US Treasury. While it was relentless US pressure that forced Callaghan to embark on austerity measures, Thatcher was a willing accomplice, whose outlook merged the mentality of small business anti-union and anti-social democratic attitudes with monetarist ideologies geared to “liberating” national economies from restrictions on the circulation of international capital.

Although Thatcher cultivated her “iron lady” image, she hardly stood alone. Her determination to take on the unions was shored up not only by monetarist economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, but also by the entrenched resistance to social democratic policies from the financiers of the City of London. Like the banks, Thatcher accepted that “Keynesianism had to be abandoned and that monetarist ‘supply-side’ solutions were essential to cure the stagflation that had characterized the British economy during the 1970s. She recognized that this meant nothing short of a revolution in fiscal and social policies, and immediately signalled a fierce determination to have done with the institutions and political ways of the social democratic state that had been consolidated in Britain after 1945.” [Harvey, 22] Thatcher’s determination to defeat the miners didn’t just stem from her visceral hatred of unions but also from her ideological commitment to destroy obstacles to capital accumulation.

The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve

What monetarist economics meant in practice became clear when the US Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates sharply in June 1981. Over the next three years, unemployment soared, the construction and auto industries plunged into depression, and the American Midwest became known as the “rust belt” with much of the steel industry shut down; internationally, whole countries, like Mexico, that had borrowed from US banks to overcome the 1970s recession were bankrupted. The US government had abandoned Roosevelt’s New Deal promise of full employment and promoted the reduction of inflation to save confidence in the dollar. Soon after, newly-elected president Reagan faced off the PATCO air traffic controllers’ union in a long and bitter strike and fired them all when they refused to return to work. [Harvey, 23-5]

After winning power in 1979, Thatcher’s first actions were to remove constraints on capital circulation. The government’s 1981 budget, like the “Volcker shock,” focused on deflating the economy and had the effect of accelerating the decline of manufacturing. “For the nation as a whole, the visible effect was a huge rise in unemployment and a vast drop in the gross domestic product, with factories, mills, and pits closing down all over the country. In 1979-81, while other nations saw their GDP rise by 5.3 per cent, Britain’s fell by 2.5 per cent. Unemployment rose to 13.3 per cent, the highest in Western Europe.” [Morgan, 446]

Deindustrialization was a feature, not a bug. It was driven by the government’s need to enforce discipline on the working class; high interest rates attracted capital that the City diverted into low-wage economies in third world countries, shifting manufacturing offshore. “The Prime Minister, urged on by her newest economic adviser, Professor Alan Walters, forced through the most resolutely anti-Keynesian budget of modern times. It imposed Britain’s biggest-ever tax increases … A total of £3,500 million was taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. Never before had there been so savage a fiscal squeeze; not since the thirties had there been a comparable increase in unemployment, now approaching 3 million.” [Morgan, 446-7]

But this was just the first step in imposing a neoliberal agenda on Britain. The other necessary condition was to defeat the most militant and organized section of the working class. As part of the fiscal squeeze, the external financial limits (EFLs) on the National Coal Board inherited from the Callaghan government were constricted, abandoning the production targets of the 1974 Plan for Coal. “The recession – and particularly the decline of large-scale energy users – reduced demand further, thereby increasing the stranglehold of the EFLs. … [The NCB] therefore decided in February 1981 that it would be necessary to accelerate the rate of colliery closures. The NUM responded by threatening to call a strike ballot, and the miners in South Wales jumped the gun and went on strike.”  [Helm, 74]

Thatcher had learned from the success of Reagan’s gamble with PATCO that governments could gain politically from a dramatic confrontation with unions. The Tories’ 1980 Employment Act virtually replicated US labour laws to prohibit secondary picketing and remove unions’ legal immunity. However, Thatcher was not politically ready for a confrontation with the miners at this stage; her cabinet was still dominated by Tory “wets”, and the government did not have the full support of its middle-class base. Above all, she wanted to avoid Heath’s fate. So she ordered the NCB to back down, while continuing to implement strategic preparations for a strike.

The monetarist economist Friedrich Hayek urged Thatcher to implement yet more drastic increases in interest rates, citing the example of Chile. Thatcher replied: “I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons. However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

The subtext of Thatcher’s reply bears analysis. She did not disagree with Hayek’s lionization of Pinochet’s “remarkable success” in achieving economic “reform,” despite her distaste for mass killings of trade unionists. But she was able to create within British institutions – Parliament, the police, the judiciary – the consent for shock tactics of a different kind in order to restructure the economy.

At the end of 1981 the government was at its lowest ebb. Riots in the inner cities broke out against unemployment. But in March 1982 Argentina occupied the Malvinas islands, known to the British as the Falklands, and Thatcher made a strategic gamble that her ideological kinship with Reagan would result in American assistance for a British military response, succeeding in getting the use of a US airbase on Ascension Island, advanced weapons technology, and intelligence help. Her sympathies for Pinochet were also returned: the Chileans installed a long-range military radar opposite Argentina’s main air base that supplied early warnings of Argentine air attacks to the British invasion fleet. When the radar had to be switched off for maintenance one day in June, the Argentinians were able to launch a surprise attack and sink two troopships.

Although demonstrating Britain’s political and economic dependence on the US, the war’s success changed the political climate to one of belligerent chauvinism, and within the government Thatcher was able to centralize cabinet decision-making in her own hands, bypassing the “wets” in the cabinet. She worked to dissolve the collectivist spirit of the country into the responsibilities of individuals, an ideological message aimed at the aspirational middle class and skilled working class, that lay behind the selloff of council housing to more prosperous tenants. In late 1984 the privatization of British Telecom “made privatization part of a wider cultural shift among the British people, including wide swathes of the working class. Many hundreds of thousands of trade unionists were among those who became shareholders for the first time. … There followed the privatization of British Aerospace and Britoil, and finally the huge sale of British Gas for £5.434 million in December 1986.” [Morgan, 469]

The real beneficiaries of the selloffs were the financiers in the City of London whose central role in mobilizing capital for the privatizations did not mean the strengthening of nationally-based capital, but enhanced its power as a key conduit for the circulation of global finance. The pressures for privatization did not originate within the nation-state but were imposed on it by international capital.

The Thatcher government won re-election in 1983 with renewed political confidence and the results of four years of preparations to take on the miners. The coal industry represented capital locked up in a nationally-circumscribed economy, tightly linked to the electricity industry, and as such was a barrier to the circulation of international capital. But the global economy had already undermined these national arrangements: “The real underpinning of the coal industry lay in the demand for electricity. The 1980-82 recession decimated heavy industry, and, thereafter, the structure of the economy changed to one in which economic growth no longer needed ever more electricity generated.” [Helm, 81]

While in opposition, the Tories had prepared a report on nationalized industries that called for: (a) the building up of maximum coal stocks, particularly at the power stations; (b) contingency plans for the import of coal; (c) the recruitment of non-union lorry drivers by haulage companies to help move coal where necessary; (d) introduction of dual coal/oil firing in all power stations as quickly as possible. There should also be “a large, mobile squad of police equipped and prepared to uphold the law against violent picketing. ‘Good nonunion drivers’ should be recruited to cross picket lines with police protection.” [Saville, 296]

The government’s tactical retreat in 1981 meant that surplus coal was being produced and coal stocks built up at the power stations. The closures of Cortonwood and Polmaise, two of the left’s traditional strongholds, made a strike inevitable, despite the tactical disadvantages of starting a strike in the spring. “[T]he stark choice [for the NUM leadership], faced with MacGregor’s closure programme, was either to capitulate and accept what the NUM had resolutely opposed since the late 1970s, or to fight as best they could … The EFLs were tightened, and hence the Treasury squeeze could only force closures. … Without the new labour laws, without the stocking policies, without the more gentle treatment of what became UDM areas… and without the generous redundancy packages, it would have been more close-run.” [Helm, 87]

During the strike the miners were consistently portrayed as violent, when large numbers of police escorted a very small number of “working miners” into pits. While the violence against pickets was unprecedented in British terms, by international standards it was mild: the police were armed with riot shields, helmets and batons, and nobody got shot, unlike miners in South Africa or South America. Public opinion about the rules of engagement still mattered, but the government were able to prejudice this opinion through its control of the media message. In the course of the strike paramilitary techniques developed in Northern Ireland were refined and the police were “in effect allowed by the courts to re-write the law.” [Saville, 326]

What a focus on the violence of the police against pickets obscures, however, is that Thatcher was carrying out a political war against the miners, that involved an all-round ideological campaign to manufacture consent for her government. The police, as well as being a physical force, were also a means to an ideological end. Her rhetoric of the “enemy within” framed the strike struggle as a conflict contained within national borders; the more she channeled the interests of international capital by harnessing the state to neutralize trade union militancy, the more she appealed to national chauvinism to bolster the legitimacy of the state’s violence against its own citizens.

Her hectoring bombast targeted the social democratic institutions of the postwar consensus; she invested the ideas of “democracy,” “liberty” and the “rule of law” with the content of “obeying orders from superiors,” framing the strike as one that challenged the rule of an elected government and democracy in general. When she said there was “no alternative,” she was able to do so unchallenged because the Labour party elite had already conceded the necessity for austerity in the course of the IMF crisis.

What Thatcher actually achieved through the defeat of the miners was to remove the most important political obstacle to a transition from an economy embodying barriers to global production and exchange in the form of the nationalized industries, to one open to international capital circulation. For this she won the applause of global corporations and their shareholders.

Next: the left fails to acknowledge the international dimension of the strike

Works cited

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford, 2005

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

1 Comment

Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, Britain, British Labour party, Miners Strike, Thatcher, Uncategorized

Brexit and a Reappraisal of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Part One: Its International Dimension


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The standard account of the strike relates how the National Union of Miners, considered at the time to be the strongest section of the organized working class in Britain, was overwhelmed by the state’s unprecedented physical violence against pickets. While the miners fought bravely and made many sacrifices for the sake of solidarity, they were isolated by the TUC and eventually had to capitulate. Their defeat meant that Thatcher had definitively ended the credibility of the unions’ strike weapon.

An article by Donald Macintyre in the New Statesman, published to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the strike, follows this familiar narrative closely. He writes sympathetically about the miners’ fate after the eventual collapse of the coal industry, then blames Arthur Scargill for the outcome by claiming that his intransigence prevented a compromise engineered by other union leaders in late 1984 that could at least have saved “the wider authority of the TUC.” He mourns the loss of Heath-era corporatist bodies on which unions sat on equal terms with employers and “provided a platform from which to challenge, or at least counterbalance, the increasing influence of a deregulated City of London.”

But this is merely wishful thinking: the social and economic basis of the postwar consensus in which unions collaborated in government had been eroded long before Thatcher came into power. Keynesian-style central planning had lost its viability after the inflationary wave and industrial slowdown of the 1970s, and when in 1976 the Callaghan government turned to the International Monetary Fund for a loan to overcome a run on sterling, the US Treasury, together with officials in the Bank of England and the UK Treasury, brought relentless pressure on it to accept severe public expenditure cuts. Defending the value of the pound meant prioritizing the interests of the City of London over industry, and Denis Healey became the first politician to privatize state assets when he sold off British Petroleum shares as part of the deal. Labour’s policy director at the time, Bernard Donoughue, later wrote how “the doctrines later known as ‘Thatcherism’ were first launched … ‘in primitive form’ by Callaghan, the Treasury, the Bank, and above all the IMF and sections of the US Treasury.” [Morgan, 385]

“In the face of successively more intense runs on sterling, climaxing in the IMF crisis, the Labour cabinet’s turn to scaling back the welfare state, confronting industrial militancy, and dismantling capital controls was so thorough that, for the first few years of her 1979-83 government, Margaret Thatcher could claim she was only following Labour’s policies.” [Panitch, 158]

When the miners brought down the Heath government in 1974, they had gained a commitment to coal as Britain’s solution to the rising cost of oil. The “Plan for Coal” of that year assumed a steadily increasing demand for coal from electricity power stations, and so an expansion of output and an end to job losses. But Healey’s policies of monetary targets for nationalized industries under the conditions of the IMF loan meant that there would be no prospect of state support for such plans. [Helm, 71-3]

It was under a Labour government, then, that state policy was changed from upholding full employment and social welfare to the priority of controlling inflation and state expenditure. Thatcher would take this much further, but the globalizing economy was the force driving this development. In many countries globalization had brought pressures for “international standards and wage structures and destroyed the tacit link wage-earners had to the ‘success’ of national capital; and the erosion of national sovereignty reduced the political leverage held by the working class or trade unions on the national state. Trade unions themselves began to face increased antagonism from both capital and the state, with stagnation or even loss of membership beginning to appear by 1980.” [Teeple, 29]

Historically, the miners were to become the most dramatic casualties of this extension of the power of global capital into the British economy, or to put it another way, the start of the financialization of the UK. Unlike the circumstances of their victory in 1972, they were not fighting a government oriented to national capital (despite Thatcher’s regular appeals to chauvinism), but one increasingly impelled by the economic logic of globalization.

The international dimension of the strike

While the miners indeed fought bravely in 1984, they did not receive the same kind of industrial support from other workers that they had got in 1972. While supporting the miners with generous donations of food and money, uncertainty over industry closures and high unemployment meant other sections of the trade union movement were reluctant to spontaneously join in mass picketing as they had in the previous strike; the steelworkers were said to be “shellshocked” from the plant closures of the previous three years. [Saville, 312]

There is little chance that calls from union leaders for strike action without a movement among their membership would have been successful. In any case, the TUC was itself divided between unions like the NUM who argued for defiance of the anti-union laws the government had begun to apply after the 1983 election, and others who wanted to maintain a low profile. In particular, the electricians’ unions which organized workers in the power supply industry refused to recognize the miners’ call for support action, and went as far as instructing their members to cross picket lines. [Richards, 136]

Reflecting on the defeat of the strike, “[a] miner at Penallta colliery commented: ‘I think why we didn’t get a lot of support was … people were frightened … very frightened, because the Government had proved that they intended to win and never mind what it cost.’ A colleague at the pit agreed: ‘why we didn’t get that support … is because … the propaganda that Thatcher was putting about, a lot of people unemployed, who were fighting for jobs, and there was people then that were employed who knew that if they didn’t play ball with the employers they would be pushed out.’ The Branch Delegate at Sharlston colliery in Yorkshire spoke similarly: ‘The whole trade union movement has gone through a low ebb … I believe people were looking after their own jobs – they were threatened with ‘if you do support the miners with industrial action, you could close your own factory down.’”[Richards, 138]

The international recession of the late 1970s had hit the trade union movement hard. By 1978, 1.5 million workers were unemployed, disproportionately in areas that had been union strongholds. “By 1983 a continuous spatial tract where at least one-third of the total unemployed were long-term unemployed stretched from the Mersey to the Humber and penetrated both south into the Midlands and north through Lancashire and Yorkshire into the heartland of the British industrial economy.” [Salt, 1985] At the same time, “The number of strikes fell dramatically: in 1981 only 4.2 million days were lost in industrial disputes compared with an average 13 million per year throughout the seventies. Union membership had fallen from over 13 million in 1980 to below 10 million three years later.” [Morgan, 450]

Rapid deindustrialization in the north of Britain was accompanied by an expansion of new industries in the southeast based on microelectronics, which created a broad area of relative prosperity. This gave Thatcher a social base: her government “had coincided with the rising prosperity in the expanding towns of southern England and East Anglia. High-tech industries, based on computer software and the like, had meant near-boom conditions for such places as Cambridge, Basingstoke, Winchester, and especially Swindon, the outstanding growth town of the decade.” [Morgan, 467]

The technology industries tended to be smaller and non-union, and ideologically supportive of the government: “many of the companies making the information technology revolution happen were innovative and enterprising small firms, run by entrepreneurs. Clive Sinclair’s business success over the early 1980s was all the more marked because the demise of Sinclair Radionics in the 1970s was associated, to an extent, with the heavy hand of state control via the National Enterprise Board.” [Lean] The overall effect of their expansion was a radical change in job structures, with a small number of highly-paid technicians alongside a large number of low-paid production workers, and consequently a differentiation of the working class that undermined traditions of trade union solidarity.

These were the social conditions in which the miners began their strike in April 1984 after the enforced closure of Cortonwood in Yorkshire and Polmaise in Scotland. Although industrial support from other unions was not forthcoming, the majority of miners stayed on strike until the end of 1984, many until early 1985. The miners had their own idea of a “moral economy” in which their right to jobs and the welfare of their communities came above capitalist economics. “[M]ost miners … clung tenaciously to an alternative vision of the market – one which encompassed different economic, social and moral dimensions. … miners sought the restoration of a system of negotiation and consultation to which they were accustomed and which they felt was being undermined in the early 1980s. Coupled with this was a clear awareness that the future of their communities was at stake” [Richards, 119-120, 122] Their determination to stick it out, once the strike had begun, stemmed from the fact that the NCB and the government had broken the precepts of this moral economy.

The NUM leadership had expected the strike’s economic impact to force an early climbdown over pit closures. But what was at stake was much more consequential. Despite the NCB’s production loss of £1.1 billion and the eventual economic cost to the government of an estimated £3 billion, “in challenging the assumed prerogatives of management over employment levels in the coal industry, the miners struck at the very heart of Thatcherism’s strategy for the restructuring of the British economy. Its central thrust … was to break with the institutions of corporatism and interventionism, to dismantle the public sector and ‘to reestablish the conditions for free markets. The state had to be strong if the market was to be free.’ Furthermore, given its monetarist goals of eliminating state subsidy of the public sector, and of breaking the power of public-sector trade unions, a ‘public defeat of Scargillism would demonstrate that unions could not interfere with the restructuring of the economy’.” [Gamble, qtd Richards, 123]

Scargill initially thought that the miners alone would be sufficient to defeat the government, but the use of mass pickets in the early part of the strike to prevent British Steel from moving coking coal from the Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire was defeated by a phalanx of police organized in paramilitary fashion.  “The NUM national leadership hoped for a repeat of the Saltley episode in 1972; instead, Orgreave was ‘the pickets’ Waterloo.’ As thousands of miners from all over the country converged on Orgreave, they were met by 8,000 policemen equipped with riot helmets, shields and truncheons, and with dogs and horses at their flanks.” [Richards, 127]

The Thatcher government had made extensive preparations to isolate the miners and cut off their support. The anti-union laws passed in 1982 “were always intended to be relevant to the NUM, and legal action started to have a serious impact on the NUM’s ability to persevere with the strike in the summer. It was to take two main forms. The first was to mobilize the police to protect working miners and to keep the pits clear of pickets. The second was direct action against the NUM and its assets. … There was only one serious fright for the government before the drift back to work began to erode the strike. This was the vote by NACODS to strike, which led in turn to major concessions by the NCB, including those in relation to the closure programme and the associated procedures.” [Helm, 86]

Large coal stocks had been built up at power stations, which had also been converted to use oil as an alternative fuel. Although ASLEF and NUR had told their members not to cross miners’ picket lines, as the strike continued, “more and more coal was transported in massive convoys of lorries – many of them privately owned. As such, a Derbyshire surfaceworker reflected, the miners’ failure to turn back many lorry drivers at picket lines became a major strategic weakness of the strike: ‘The TGWU – most of their members went through the picket lines … if the TGWU … had stopped the transportation of coal, that would have been better than money coming in’.” [Richards, 136-7]

Thatcher was able to use the opposition of the Nottinghamshire miners to strike action to further undermine the strike politically, although this was more of a propaganda advantage than an economic one. When Peter Walker announced at the start of 1985 that there would be no power cuts in the coming year, a turning point was reached. The NUM leadership had not been prepared for the extended war of attrition that the government had launched. The miners’ job security was based on a continuing high output of coal, which itself depended on the close relationship of the Coal Board with the nationalized electricity industry. Both industries were ultimately based on a social-democratic compromise between labour and capital in a closed national economy. This era had been ended.

The miners’ isolation originated in the international context of the strike: the recession in the global economy had led to the rapid decline of heavy industry and the growth of new industries based on microelectronics that had undermined the class basis of social democracy. The resolve of the Thatcher government to defeat the miners was likewise not solely motivated by national political pressures. It had an international dimension not only because it mirrored a US-supported trend to cut back government spending, dismantle heavy industry and privatize national assets, but also because it was influenced by the example of Chile in restructuring the economy through a drastic offensive against workers.

Next: The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve.

Works cited

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

Tom Lean, Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996

Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012

John Salt, “The geography of unemployment in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.” In: Espace, populations, sociétés, 1985-2.

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

Gary Teeple, Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform: Into the Twenty-First Century, Humanity Books, New York, 2000

1 Comment

Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, Coal industry, Miners Strike, Neoliberalism, NUM, Thatcher, Uncategorized

Britain’s Brexit: the left must fight for migrant rights


The result of the Brexit vote stunned the British political elite and sent shockwaves around the world; it was welcomed by separatist and rightwing populist movements in Europe and by Donald Trump as he visited his golf courses in Scotland. By just over a million votes in a high turnout referendum, the public voted to leave the European Union. The vote was uneven: Scotland voted by a large majority to remain, as did London.

It was a victory for the far right of the Tory party, which campaigned incessantly on restricting immigration. But there are other deep-seated reasons for the Brexit vote. Foremost among them is the resentment of the white working class, especially in the North, over deindustrialization, degradation of benefits like housing, health and education, which is blamed on immigrants as the most visible sign of what is in fact a neoliberal reconstruction of society.

Gary Younge argues: “Britain is no more sovereign today than it was yesterday. We have left the EU but we remain within the neoliberal system. … The chutzpah with which the Tory right – the very people who had pioneered austerity, damaging jobs, services and communities – blamed immigrants for the lack of resources was breathtaking.”

Owen Jones commented: “It may not have been the working-class revolt against the political establishment that many of us favoured, but it is undeniable that this result was achieved off the back of furious, alienated working-class votes. … Many of the communities that voted most decisively for leave were the same communities that have suffered the greatest battering under successive governments.”

What started as a maneuver by prime minister David Cameron to control the rightwing of his party resonated with the country in an unprecedented way. Younger voters and those living in metropolitan centres like London, Manchester and Liverpool voted for Remain, while in the deindustrialized north and midlands there were large majorities for Leave. The country is now intensively polarized and resentful of the other side.

The New York Times reported on the generational divide: “Leslie Driscoll, 55, sells hot cross buns in an English bakery in London. Having different cultures and communities is ‘fantastic,’ she said, ‘but what I don’t like is the fact that, through having that, we’ve now left ourselves open. I feel like a second-class citizen in my own country’.” Her daughter Louise grew up in the same area “but in a more prosperous, multicultural Britain than earlier generations had. In school, she was one of only two white students. Her friends are Eritrean, Nigerian and South African. Louise said she understood the pressures that immigration placed on schools and hospitals. But leaving the European Union worried her, she said, because it risked wrecking the economy and making it hard for young people to secure employment. It took her eight months to find work as a barista, she said.”

John Harris commented in the Guardian: “for millions of people, the word ‘immigration’ is reducible to yet another seismic change no one thought to ask them about, or even explain. What people seem to want is much the same as ever: security, stability, some sense of a viable future, and a reasonable degree of esteem. To be more specific, public housing is not a relic of the 20th century, but something that should surely sit at the core of our politics.”

Not that the vote will change that; if anything it will make things worse. Brexit voters were making a plea for a return to a self-contained economy with defined borders that would allow for a national compromise on jobs and benefits – in other words, Britain as it was before Thatcher, or rather an idealized country of the past.

Fintan O’Toole comments in The Irish Times: “The sense of grievance is undeniably powerful. It’s also highly contrary: it is rooted in the shrinking of British social democracy, but the outcome of Brexit will be an even firmer embrace of the unfettered neoliberalism that is causing that shrinkage. … The great cultural appeal of nationalism – we need independence or our culture will die – doesn’t wash. And besides, take immigrants out of English culture and what do you have left?”

Some on the left consider the result a progressive move that could lead to the weakening of neoliberalism. Joseph Choonara of the British Socialist Workers Party told Democracy Now that he hoped the vote “begins to precipitate the breakup of this huge bosses’ club. So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism. … The point is that there is going to be popular opposition to these kind of institutions. Does it receive a right focus or a left focus?” Alex Scrivener of Global Justice Now disagreed: “We’ve woken up today to a Britain in which it is a much, much scarier place to be a migrant. … Austria came within a whisker of electing a far-right president. We are living in very terrifying times. The National Front may be—is leading the polls at the moment for the French presidential election. You know, I think we’re on a level of political crisis here we haven’t seen since the 1930s. And I think that the sort of glee on some parts of the left about the EU breaking up, I think people are going to regret that, if that leads to a retreat into nationalism, which is already happening.”

In a similar debate on The Real News Network, John Hilary of War on Want said that the referendum gave a voice to voters’ desire for change: “so many millions of people voted saying, we do not trust our government and political elites anymore; we want a different type of politics which does not just serve the interests of the few … this is genuinely a return to a situation where we have direct democracy again, not a situation of the European Commission being able to hide all the time behind the democratic deficit that exists at the heart of the E.U.” Economics professor John Weeks responded: “Immigration was the issue people that voted on: we’ve got too many foreigners over here in Britain. That’s what the Out won on, and that is what they are going to pursue. And if I were the person that takes over after David Cameron, I would immediately call an election with the confidence that I could win it. And the reason that the Tories could win it is because the Labour Party is split. Most of Jeremy Corbyn’s MPs would love to see him defeated and will not work for a Labour Party to win. And when that happens, we could be in a very difficult situation indeed.”

The left needs to face up to the reality of the Brexit vote – the toxic nature of the Leave campaign created a nationalist backlash against immigrants who will need to be defended. The left has a huge responsibility and opportunity now, as Alex Scrivener of Global Justice said, “to fight for migrant rights, fight for those people who are going to lose hardest from this historic and tragic moment in our history.”

The idea that breaking up the EU means that opposition to neoliberalism will gain an advantage by only confronting a nationally delimited capitalist class is a fantasy. The UK was only ever an independent nation because it was sustained by a huge empire, and Thatcher carried out the last act of an independent nation-state when she opened up the country to international capital after the defeat of the miners’ year-long strike. Since then it’s been under the thrall of one neoliberal government after another.

Colonel Despard will be publishing a three-part reappraisal of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its international implications, the lessons of which have still not been absorbed by the left. Watch for the first instalment next week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brexit, Britain, British elections, Cameron, David Cameron, deindustrialization, immigration, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, Thatcher, Uncategorized

The struggle continues: Sanders’ supporters ready to keep up the fight for social justice


Bernie Sanders has annoyed political pundits and party strategists alike with his stubborn insistence on taking his campaign all the way to the Democratic party convention in July. On Tuesday evening he told supporters in Santa Monica, after the California primary: “We are going to fight hard to win the primary in Washington DC. And then we take our fight for social, economic, racial and environmental justice to Philadelphia.”

The New York Times described his speech as one of “striking stubbornness” that “ignored the history-making achievement of his Democratic rival.” Although Clinton has presented her delegate count as a victory for women’s rights, it is more a victory for the Democratic party machine, aided by the media that announced her presumptive nomination for presidential candidate on Tuesday, just before voting began in California and five other primaries.

Even after Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren had formally endorsed Clinton on Thursday, Sanders’ supporters backed his decision to carry on. Iliana Jaime, 18, a high school senior, welcomed the stance and said she wanted Sanders to remain in the race until the convention next month. “I don’t think a revolution ends with a certain number of delegates,” she said. “It’s crucial he keeps going until the end. His impact is really obvious in a lot of ways aside from just being president. It would kind of be giving into the system that he is trying to reject if he did drop out at this point.”

Sanders told a rally in Washington DC that the campaign would go on because it is “based on a vision that our country must focus on social justice, on economic justice, on racial justice, on environmental justice. And when the overwhelming majority of young people support that vision, that will be the future of America.”

The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote that “Clinton may take the nomination, but Sanders surely has won the political debate. … He has astounded even his supporters, winning more than 20 contests, 10 million votes and 1,500 pledged delegates, the most of any true insurgent in modern history. He has captured the support of young voters by record margins. And he did so less with personal charisma than with the power of his ideas and the force of the integrity demonstrated by spurning traditional deep-pocketed donors in favor of grass-roots fundraising. … Sanders has already nudged Clinton to the left on key issues during the campaign, including trade policy and the minimum wage. The Democratic National Committee made one important concession last month by allowing Sanders to name five strong progressive allies to the platform committee (though the DNC also vetoed one Sanders pick, National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, on the strange grounds that it did not want labor leaders on the candidate’s lists).”

While early on Clinton was able to leverage her appeal among African American voters, especially in the South, by the end of the campaign Sanders appeared to have overcome his early missteps with this section of the American public. The Washington Post reported: “Summoning congregants last week in a historic East Oakland sanctuary that helped give rise to the civil rights movement and the Black Panther Party, he spoke passionately about the plight of many blacks: Too many children are raised in poverty, too many youths can’t afford to go to college and can’t find jobs, too many adults are locked in jails. The system is rigged against them, and he vowed to change it. The audience rose in applause and affirmation. There were hurrahs and smiles and shouts of ‘Amen!’ ”

Sanders has headed a movement that is not going to go away after the presidential election. Unlike Obama’s campaign in 2008, the movement is independent of his campaign organization, being based on a grassroots bottom-up approach rather than a top-down model. In particular, he has energized youth to support his social democratic program. The Huffington Post commented: “Sanders has not demagogued his way into relevance among the impressionable youth. He has simply stated their legitimate grievances directly and forcefully. Young people have been hit hard by the country’s economic anemia. It’s not surprising that they gravitated to the candidate calling for a major overhaul of the system. … Bernie Sanders did not create the movement that political pundits like to credit him with. He has, instead, spent a year serving rather effectively as the voice of people left behind by a broken economy. And until that economy is fixed, the movement will not go away, no matter who rises to lead it.”

A major survey of youth voters between 17 and 19 years old found overwhelming support for Sanders: 1.94 million voted for Sanders compared to 727,000 for Clinton. The Guardian reported: “Jasmine Brown, a student at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, is one of those young voters. She grew up two hours east of Orangeburg in Georgetown, where, according to the 2010 census, 24.1% of people live below the poverty line, a figure that rises to 34.9% for those younger than 18…. Brown came away from [Sanders’ rally] inspired. She would go back to Georgetown, back to the projects where she grew up, to tell young people – some of them in danger of going down the wrong path – that there was hope for the future. … She travels back to her home city every weekend, revisiting the Georgetown projects where she grew up, speaking to students from her old school.”

Brown says many students look up to her as someone who came from that neighbourhood and made it to college. “I don’t brag about what I’m doing, but I let them know: ‘Just because you’re from this area you can go out and, you know, do big things’.” Even if Sanders does not win the nomination, Brown says, she will continue to support him away from the presidential race.

While most of Sanders’ supporters will vote for Clinton in November to keep out Trump, many of his passionate volunteers will turn to state and local political fights to advance the ideas of the campaign. “Brand New Congress,” co-founded by the former director of organizing technology in the Sanders campaign, intends to impact the 435 Congressional seats up for election in 2018. “The idea is to pull in people who have not necessarily been involved politics before, people who are not willing to compromise their principles, people who truly believe that we can regain our democracy,” Yolanda Gonzalez, a BNC Team Leader told AlterNet.

Gonzalez, a teacher for 20 years, was the Latino Outreach Coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign and has spent a large part of the past year volunteering for campaign events in the Southwest. “These same volunteers [that] are often dismissed by campaigns are super organized and passionate about the political revolution,” Gonzalez explained.

The House and state elections are the battleground that the plutocratic elite is also aiming for with their checkbooks: billionaires like the Koch brothers have given up on the presidential race because of the disarray in the Republican camp. Trump’s nomination has coincided with a fragmentation of the campaign after his racist attacks on the judge in the fraud case against the real estate “Trump University,” which stepped over a line even for conservatives.

It’s possible the Democrats will take both the Senate and the House in November, because of the Republican meltdown; but what will dominate the political future of the United States is the social movement that has built up rejecting Clinton’s neoliberalism and Trump’s racism.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2016 Election, African Americans, Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, Uncategorized