Category Archives: Neoliberalism

The United Airlines scandal reveals the hand of corporate authoritarianism


The confluence of corporate demands and police violence has made extremely visible the absolute lack of rights for citizens in planes, in shopping malls, and in allegedly public spaces. Corporations are riding roughshod over consumers because of their relentless drive for cost-cutting to boost profits, driven by equity capital and aggressive hedge funds.

By now, most people have seen the videos of the violent assault on a 69-year-old physician, Dr. David Gao, as three airport police dragged him from his seat on a United Airlines flight due to depart Chicago O’Hare. He was left with a broken nose and two missing teeth, and will need reconstructive facial surgery.

The police were acting on behalf of airline staff who had failed to convince Gao to give up his fully-paid seat for a United crew member. A police spokesman made a vain attempt to blame the victim for bringing his face in violent contact with an armrest: Gao, said the spokesman, “became ‘irate’ after he was asked to disembark and that he ‘fell’ when aviation officers ‘attempted to carry the individual off the flight… His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face’.”

United’s chief executive, Oscar Muñoz, initially joined the blame game, calling Gao “disruptive and belligerent.” As the videos of the assault went viral, and the company’s share prices plunged, he changed his tune, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” and committed to make sure it never happened again. But all this amounted to was to institute a rule that aircrew had to be allocated seats at least an hour before takeoff; flying aircraft at capacity with little room for maneuver will not change, because it’s central to the company’s strategy to maximize profits.

The flight was not overbooked, as most media have wrongly reported. It had been boarded and was completely full with passengers when, according to an eyewitness, Tyler Bridges, “an airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”

After a young couple had left the plane, Gao was approached, but refused to move. “He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” said Bridges. After staff attempted to argue with him, the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare International. Three officers then boarded. The videos show one of them reaching across two empty seats, yanking Gao up and pulling him into the aisle.

“The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police. ‘It looked like it knocked him out,’ Bridges said. ‘His nose was bloody.’ In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor. Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.”

Other passengers attempted to argue with the police. Another eyewitness, a Kentucky high school teacher, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that one of the officers laughed during the incident.  “Some passengers audibly protested to the officers, some stood and removed themselves from the plane rather than continue to witness the abuse, and one father, while trying to console his 8-year-old daughter, confronted the officer saying, among other things, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ “

Yves Smith comments that United “is getting a virtual free pass [from the press] as far as its rights to remove a paying passenger with a confirmed seat who has been seated. This seems to reflect the deep internalization in America of deference to authority in the post 9/11 world … The excuse for United’s urgency was that if these crew members didn’t get to their flight, it would create cascading delays. … The FAA tracks flight status of planes by their tail numbers in real time. If the four crew members were in a fix due to a flight delay, United should have known well before they landed and alerted the gate personnel of whatever flight it wanted to put them on as soon as the gate opened. … This in turn reveals the lack of any slack whatsoever in United’s system. Clearly the urgency was due to the four crew members somehow being late; Plan A had failed and the last-minute boarding effort was Plan B or maybe even Plan C. As one experienced passenger said, ‘They can’t come up with four crew members in one of their biggest hubs?’ ”

Wired magazine reports: “The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. …

“United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. … Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. … United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces.”

Although over a billion dollars were wiped off its share value when the news broke, United regained its trading position the next day. The Washington Post explained: “The reason is the same for why any of our country’s other oligopolistic powerhouses can treat their fellow Americans with such crass indifference: Shareholders don’t really care about consumer opinion or even a company’s larger public image. They care about profits. If there is no competitor to whom consumers can turn, who really cares what they think? The 2013 merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways — the biggest and last in a series of dramatic consolidations that federal regulators did little to stop — left the United States with only four major airlines.”

It’s this kind of aggressive industrial consolidation, driven by predatory finance and accompanied by outsourcing of jobs and attacks on pensions, that created the authoritarian social climate behind Trump’s administration – more obvious now that he has ditched the pseudo-populism that won him presidential votes.

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Long Island U: An Old For-Profit School Passing as a Private University


Across the street from Brooklyn landmark Junior’s, faculty and students from Long Island University (LIU) are waging a battle with the administration in the latest labor dispute rocking higher education in the United States. Newspapers from The Guardian to New York Times have reported that administrators, facing declining enrollments and revenue, took the unprecedented step of locking out faculty, preempting an anticipated strike over contract negotiations. As soon as the last contract expired on August 31, professors found they had been cut off from their health insurance and denied access to email, and that old syllabi had been posted for their courses.

The draconian measures of the administration have resulted in support for the faculty from public authorities, other unions, and students. The New York City public advocate, Letitia James, sent LIU President Kimberly Cline a letter advising her to sign contracts with all four unions at the institution and warning her that hiring replacement workers for faculty “will only exacerbate your troubled relationship with labor in New York City.”

Yet there is a bigger lesson here than a union struggle: this is what happens when an institution of higher learning passing for a private university is really a for-profit institution. All the reporting on the LIU debacle has omitted to mention this fact, interpreting the university’s claim to be “private” to mean the same as it does when nonprofit liberal arts colleges and universities claim to be “private” universities.

But LIU’s “private” should be clarified to mean “private for-profit”. While most for-profit colleges are comparatively recent, LIU was founded in 1926. A university that makes 90% of its profit from student tuition has a business model no different from the defunct Trump or Phoenix U. LIU’s masquerading as a private university is the triumph of marketing over reason, and the complicity of all involved – administration, faculty, and alumni – in the cover up of this reality.  It has blown up because the demand for profit is unsustainable against the academic standards that should in theory govern an institution of higher education.

Is it any wonder, then, that the university leadership had prepared for the lockout by hiring temporary instructors, many of them unqualified for the courses they were assigned to teach? They also told administrators they had to teach courses in addition to their other duties or face being terminated. As Emily Drabinski, the coordinator of library instruction and secretary of the faculty union, told The Nation: “I think this administration thinks it doesn’t matter who’s teaching in the classroom. I think they think that teaching and learning is about a production of commodities, that it’s about delivering something to students, filling a student with learning that they will then go out and use to make money, and that’s not what higher education is about.”

There are about 8,000 students at LIU taught by about 250 full-time faculty and about two hundred adjunct professors. Under the new contract, the adjuncts, who are paid by the number of courses taught, would have their teaching load reduced from 12 to nine credit hours. Pay for office hours would be eliminated, and new hires would be paid less under a two-tier wage system.

The Atlantic reported that Arthur Kimmel, an adjunct at LIU for over 20 years, would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent. “That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.”

Many of the tenured faculty’s salaries are 20 percent lower than their colleagues at LIU’s C.W. Post campus in Nassau County, and this is a sticking point in the contract negotiations. Brooklyn professors worry that their campus, which serves more black, Latino and low-income students than C.W. Post, is undervalued by the administration. Tuition is the same at both campuses—$34,352 per year.

The administration is also proposing a new post-tenure review process that would allow administrators more control over academic standards. On Tuesday, tenured faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject the proposed contract, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no confidence in Cline. They rallied outside the Brooklyn campus with a giant inflatable rat as classes began on Wednesday September 7, taught by non-union members. On Thursday hundreds of students walked out to protest the lockout.

Students are told they will get high quality education that will qualify them for high-paying jobs, but professors are pressured to graduate struggling students in order to keep the tuition money rolling in. And while some of those who graduate from LIU find jobs in pharmacy and healthcare, two fields where the institution has had success in placing its graduates, only 26% of its student body manages to graduate at all. This means that 74% of students take on loans for a degree they will never finish. The administration and the faculty have long known this, but still persist in calling LIU a “private” university.

Students are encouraged to think of education as a commodity by LIU’s efforts to market itself as a private university. Hakim Sulaimani, a psychology major, is protesting the lockout because, he says, “You expect to get what you’re paying for. You’re paying upwards of 40 grand for a certain level of education and you’re expecting a quality education. I selected certain professors because they’re very passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects. I expect to be taught by the guy I signed up for and not some guy who just popped up two weeks ago.”

“We aren’t planning to go back to class at all until our professors are back,” said Sharda Mohammed, 18, a sophomore studying philosophy. “Today I walked into my English class and the guy gave us a syllabus and told us we could leave. He couldn’t even pronounce the names of the books. They are charging us full tuition for this, and they’re not teaching us,” she added.

While students feel rightly cheated, the bigger lesson is that for profit institutions, even older ones like LIU, are incompatible with the goals of higher education. The LIU faculty deserves support, but they should abandon their collusion with the administration in branding LIU as a “private” university. The administration has exposed what drives LIU. It is not a love for higher learning, its faculty, or its students. It is the same thing that drove the now defunct Trump U: greed.

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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.

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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

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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

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Londoners reject anti-semitism smear and Islamophobia


The FBI is claiming success in dozens of anti-terrorism cases that rely on its undercover agents suggesting bombing campaigns against Jewish targets to susceptible Muslim youth, then supplying fake bombs for suspects to plant. In order for the FBI to avoid the charge of entrapment, the suspects were coaxed by the agents into voicing anti-semitic remarks which could be used to prove predisposition and deny them credibility. The US security forces, of course, cooperate closely with their Israeli counterparts, and appear to have learnt from them the use of allegations of anti-semitism as a political tactic calculated to overcome doubts about guilt.

The same tactic was used by the Tories in the recent London mayoral election, fabricating and amplifying allegations of anti-semitism against individuals in the Labour party – then claiming the party was “riddled with anti-semitism.” Combined with a virulent Islamophobic campaign against the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, the Lynton Crosby-masterminded strategy targeted Jewish votes in outer London constituencies that were assumed to be marginal. In parliament, prime minister Cameron tried to tar Jeremy Corbyn with the anti-semitism brush by suggesting an association between Khan and a supporter of ISIS – but the individual he referred to turned out to be a Conservative party supporter.

The tactic rebounded on them when millions of ethnically diverse Londoners, in a turnout sharply higher than four years ago, repudiated the Tory candidate’s racist campaign and elected Khan by a decisive majority. The voters responded to the social issues he campaigned on, above all the crisis of affordable housing and transport, rejecting the Tory policy of pandering to a tiny few in order to attract their wealth.

Demographic changes have changed London’s political profile significantly from previous mayoral elections. Migrant voters and ethnic minorities make up a larger slice of the electorate, and the catastrophic rise in house prices has forced people out of the centre of the city into the outer boroughs, which have become poorer and more diverse. Manchester University lecturer Rob Ford told the Guardian: “Any mainstream party associated with anti-racism, as Labour is, potentially has huge appeal.” The Guardian adds: “The dysfunctional rental and property markets, the spread of unpaid internships, the particularly obvious need in London for more state spending on overcrowded schools and transport infrastructure – all of these have drawn young Londoners towards Corbyn’s mildly anti-capitalist Labour party.”

Socially liberal, multiracial Labour politics are “spreading to cities with significant student and ethnic minority populations, such as Oxford, Southampton, Brighton, Manchester and Bristol, where last week the mayoralty was won by Marvin Rees, a mixed-race Labour candidate close to Corbyn. Simon Woolley of the non-partisan pressure group Operation Black Vote, who followed the Bristol contest closely, says that Rees’s victory was partly achieved by a coalition between black Bristolians and white, liberal incomers from London.”

After his victory, Khan penned an opinion piece in the Observer that implicitly rejects Corbyn’s electoral strategy, suggesting that he is failing to appeal to a wide enough electorate. Khan’s recipe for winning elections is “to unite people from all backgrounds as a broad and welcoming tent – not to divide and rule. … Just like in London, so-called natural Labour voters alone will never be enough to win a general election. We must be able to persuade people who previously voted Conservative that Labour can be trusted with the economy and security, as well as improving public services and creating a fairer society.”

However, although he spent much of his campaign in outer London boroughs touting a pro-business policy, Khan didn’t achieve his majority by winning over disaffected Tories. Nor did the result reflect his religion or charisma. He fails to mention that his success in inspiring young Londoners to come out and vote in such numbers was because of his association with the Labour party’s rejection of neoliberalism under Corbyn’s leadership. Other successful Labour candidates in places like Bristol, Liverpool and Salford had the same experience. Corbyn’s own assessment of the election results was that they were “only the first stage in our task of building a winning electoral majority, attracting voters from all the other parties and mobilising those who have been turned off politics altogether – as we did last week in Bristol and London.” There’s an important difference in nuance between the two statements. Khan is advocating moving the party to the centre to attract Tory voters; Corbyn, by contrast, is in favour of attracting new voters to Labour’s position.

Hostile Labour MPs have seized on Khan’s remarks, as well as his criticism of Labour’s slow reaction to the anti-semitism charges, to blame Corbyn for results that would fail to give the party a majority at the next general election. Their antagonism reflects a struggle to overturn the Labour leadership vote; as Max Blumenthal comments: “The right-leaning elements empowered by Tony Blair are determined to suppress the influence of an increasingly youthful, ethnically diverse party base that views the hawkish, pro-business policies of the past with general revulsion. … Labour’s Blairite wing has embraced a cynical strategy to shatter the progressive coalition that brought Corbyn to power.”

Labour are rightly concerned about their dismal result in Scotland. There, the vote was polarized between nationalist and anti-nationalist, leaving no political space for Labour’s anti-austerity message. Instead, the party was trounced because of its dismal record over the independence referendum. Instead of recognizing it as a chance to reject austerity imposed by a government that Scots never voted for, Labour supported the union. No wonder anti-nationalists preferred to vote for the party that more directly expresses unionism, the Conservatives. No amount of left promises will erase voters’ memories of Gordon Brown huckstering for the Tory side.

Labour needs to continue building social coalitions while recognizing the importance of Welsh and Scottish national identities. The idea of “Britishness” has been eroded by years of industrial decline and the privatization of nationalized industries like shipbuilding, steel, mining, railways and electricity supply that gave the multinational union some coherence and held the labour movement together. The Tories define British identity as presupposing people who are white, property-owning middle class and subordinated to the Westminster parliament, but they have been definitively rebuked in London.

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Book Review: Cliff Slaughter’s “Against Capital”


The book is subtitled: “Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency,” and is a compilation of essays by a number of left activists, edited by former British Trotskyist leader Cliff Slaughter.

An interesting section is Terry Brotherstone’s report on discussions of the class significance of the votes, both “Yes” and “No,” in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Labour voters defied the Labour party in the deindustrialized working-class centers of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and North Lanarkshire to vote “Yes” for independence, and the referendum energized and politicized Scottish youth to an unprecedented extent. The discussion gives a sense of left thinkers and trade unionists coming to grips with the implications of a mass, broad-based movement adopting a vote for national independence as a way of resisting social injustice.

The accompanying essay on British politics and culture, apparently written before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in September 2015, now appears somewhat dated; it calls for an analysis that will give the “hope of a new world,” something that Corbyn’s election seems to have channeled. It may be too soon to write off the Labour party as a vehicle for resistance to neoliberalism, since a large grassroots movement voted against the neoliberal Blairites.

Gabriel Levy writes a thoughtful piece on Ukraine that analyzes the use of war and military conflict as a new means of social control following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the role of state actors in reinforcing separatism, and how this has a disastrous impact on social and labour movements. He gives evidence of a continuing struggle for the independence of the workers’ movement despite war-driven divisions between sections of the movement, when workers in Ukraine’s largest industrial centers now live in what amounts to a military occupation.

The other essays are uneven in character, as the editor admits. A long essay on the Middle East prefaces an account of the Iranian revolution with a comprehensive political-diplomatic history of the region. The revolution itself is analyzed from the standpoint of relations between the pro-Soviet Tudeh party and Fedayeen groups. But little is said about agency, in terms of the social movements leading to the revolution, or social changes in the Middle East.

Contributions from Robert Myers give eyewitness accounts of the internal political conflicts within the ANC that derailed an earlier victory over apartheid in South Africa, and of workers’ struggles in Bosnia; there are also short essays on protest struggles in Spain and strikes in Mexico.

The most disappointing part of the book is Slaughter’s introductory and concluding essays. While maintaining that the left cannot prescribe the form that resistance may take, he writes off the “turmoil” in the British Labour party just at the moment that a surge of support for Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance was building. His celebration of the Greek referendum against EC-imposed austerity also seems off-base in light of the capitulation of Syriza to the EC – the fact the government acted as though they had a strong hand when the game was always rigged in favor of the bankers can only have disillusioned and weakened the Greek public.

Although calling for engaging with all forms of resistance from below, Slaughter’s use of the term “revolutionary agency” introduces a certain ambiguity: while it could mean the way in which masses of people break from social constraints and act in history, it could also refer to the ideas or groups that played a part in attempting a revolutionary insurrection. In a number of essays, the latter interpretation prevails, primarily through criticism of the role of Stalinized Communist parties in heading off possible revolutions. But are all the setbacks of attempted revolutions in all parts of the world due to a failure of leadership rather than objective circumstances?

Unfortunately, Slaughter’s call for a “definitive break” from the idea of a vanguard leadership is not carried through to a critical re-examination of the Second International concepts on which it is based. The concept of the working class as a “structural antagonist” to capital, for example, objectifies it as an abstract global entity whose social composition and historical experience in each country is homogenized, calling into question its agency independent of a leadership party. Likewise, he makes no attempt to deal with the extensive recent literature on the nature of the state, remaining content with repeating the formula that it is “an organization for the oppression of one class by another.”

Slaughter devotes a section to discussing Lenin’s famous endorsement of Kautsky’s phrase about bringing revolutionary consciousness into the working class “from the outside” as part of his rationale for rejecting vanguardist parties. However, he treats it as a part of a purely theoretical debate without going deeper by addressing its social and political context or referring to other historical sources. There was a real social division between workers and intellectuals in the opposition to Tsarism that problematizes Lenin’s characterization of “economism.”  One of these “economist” groups, the “Workers’ Organization” of St. Petersburg, which published Rabochaya mysl, gave organizational expression to workers’ resentment of intellectuals’ social paternalism and elitism by barring intelligenty participation in leadership roles and confining them to the delivery of propaganda and literature. While Lenin’s theses in his pamphlet What is to be Done?, on the other hand, retained a privileged role for intellectuals within the underground movement, they also had an appeal to the more “advanced elements” of worker-intellectuals, especially among the engineers of St. Petersburg, who looked down on the less developed, “gray” workers of the textile mills and tobacco factories.

What distinguished Rabochaya mysl was the thrust of its organizing towards all sections of the working class – beyond the skilled and literate layers. This contrasted with Lenin’s Iskra group which emphasized organizing the “most advanced” elements. Lenin extrapolated from these political disagreements to characterize the economic consciousness of workers as “bourgeois,” since they were fighting for partial reforms, and the consciousness of the radical intelligentsia, who were focused on the overthrow of Tsarism, as “socialist.” But this legalistic definition bore little relation to the actual disposition of class forces: while Iskra adhered to a two-stage program, which gave the proletariat the role of first achieving a constitutional state and only then organizing for a socialist overturn, the economists were moving towards a conception that the political struggle would consist of the effort to overthrow simultaneously both autocracy and capitalism. (Trotsky was thus not original in formulating such a view.)

The question is, not how right or wrong Lenin was in 1902, but why did the autocratic form of leadership that What is to be Done? was used to justify find a social resonance in Britain in the 1960-80s? What was the social and political context of the rise and fall of the Workers Revolutionary Party? When Slaughter recounts the sectarian refusal of the party’s leader, G. Healy, “against all advice,” to let party members sell the rank-and-file newspaper The Miner, he doesn’t raise the question of how Healy was able to exert such arbitrary authority. It can’t be explained by referring to personalities or intimidation alone: he was bolstered by an ideology that rested on the ”Great Man” outlook of Trotskyism, which in turn had social roots in the relation between intellectuals and workers in the left movement. Even if party members had continued to sell The Miner, how would that have changed the balance of class forces in 1985 when the full might of the state was brought to bear on the miners, abandoned by most of the unions in the TUC?

It’s difficult to see how WRP members in the miners’ union could have become a force of “great value” to the strike struggle since their political perspective would have misled them: the significance of the international capitalist turn to financialization and neoliberalism in the 1970s was missed by the Trotskyist movement and the left in general. A new analysis of the historical period when the WRP disintegrated is sorely needed, together with tackling the question of why the WRP’s ideological grip was so powerful up until 1985. Its vanguard ideology had material roots independent of Slaughter’s own intellectual journey; it’s a shame he didn’t write more seriously about them.

Against Capital: Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency, Zero Books, Winchester UK, 2015

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