Who rules?

Standard

eton

A review of Owen Jones, The Establishment

Published three years ago, Owen Jones’ first book Chavs: the demonization of the working class began with the phenomenon of middle-class contempt for working class people, the ChavScum and ChavTowns websites, the Daily Mail’s ‘A to Z’ guides to mocking the poor, the BBC’s White season and its creation of a new ethnic category, the white working class. He showed that this cultural war against the working class majority had not begun accidentally but came out of the policy consensus that underpinned the Tories and New Labour, from both parties’ subservience to the rich, from both parties’ contempt for the poor.

His second book The Establishment and how they get away with it starts where Chavs ended, with the narrowness of democratic politics and its exclusion of the great majority. Jones wants to show that there is a two-way relationship between our politicians’ focus on increasing the wealth of the super-rich and our attenuated democracy. He explores this relationship a series of chapters, each of about 10,000 words, examining successively the neoliberal think tanks, the MPs and the expenses scandal, phone-tapping and union-busting by the press, the racism of the police, business’ reliance on the state, tax-dodging by corporations, the rise of finance, and the problems of a pro-American foreign policy.

Reading the Establishment reminded me of a much older literature. Three quarters of a century ago, about five years after the end of the worst recession that modern Britain had then seen, the then Tribune journalist Michael Foot published under the pen-name Cato a pamphlet Guilty Men exposing the equivocal record of countless Tory MPs who had until recently been appeasers, i.e. opponents of a war against fascism. Foot’s pamphlet sold 200,000 copies. Almost as successful was another pamphlet by Gracchus (Tom Wintringham), Your MP exposing the business links and (again) fascist sympathies of the same MPs. Published with lists of Tory MP’s voting histories and diagrams of their company directorships, these books played a part in that decisive shift in public opinion which determined the 1945 election.

One thing that Owen Jones’ The Establishment shares with these older books is a fascination with the link between politics and business. Like Foot and Wintringham before him, he has a talent for remembering the small scandals which can otherwise drift so easily from memory – at one point, he captures former Bennite Patricia Hewitt’s journey after stepping down as Health Secretary, her reward with with plum posts at health privatisers Alliance Boots and Cinven, and her agreement, at the prompting of Sunday Times journalists, to lobby ministers in return for cash incentives.

The Hewitt story sticks out in part because the majority of the corrupt and venal MPs who Jones names are of course Tories: Nadhim Zahawi, member of the Number 10 Policy Unit and scourge of the feckless poor, who claimed thousands of pounds in expenses to heat the stables – the stables! – at his second home; George Osborne who earned £55,000 by redesignating his second house; David Cameron who claimed public funding for the costs of removing wisteria from his constituency home.

Jones’ disgust with these individuals is compelling, and his book deserves to be widely shared. Any reader of this blog will have friends for whom the Establishment is an ideal Christmas present: the occasional demonstrator, the friend who likes the left but has never been to our meetings, a person on the cusp of engaging for the first time with left-wing politics. But the book is not without flaws.

Jones employs a recurring series of framing device to place his readers at a recognisable point in the narrative. One is to signal a date or a place: “In 2008, as the greed of an unregulated City helped to unleash an economic firestorm” … “It was the autumn of 2002, and there was an air of expectation in Southampton’s Botleigh Grange hotel.” In a shorter piece, this kind of writing can be effective – it invites the reader to recall that particular year, to think of it in a sort of mentally re-enacted present. A problem comes though when your reader tries to read more than one or two of these passages in a row. Why, they may find themselves asking, are we suddenly in 2008? or 1947? Or the early 1970s? Or 1955? What is the history that connects these moments?

Jones has spoken to around 100 Peers, MPs, activists, bankers and businessmen. In a few cases, Jones takes from the interviews a detail which sheds bright light on a way of behaving – the lobbyist, for example, who is unable to compute Jones’ perfectly serious suggestion that MPs are overpaid and need a pay cut. But too few of the interviews are memorable, and rather than breaking up the text, in fact set in train a repeated description of the place where the interview was conducted (“We meet in Soho Theatre’s noisy bar” … “In a quiet, arty cafe near London’s Angel underground station I meet…”). Rather than hearing the distinct voices of the corrupt and their critics, the writing tends to mix them up.

An early passage defines the people that Jones is interested in, “Today’s Establishment is made up – as it always has been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right people.” While this sounds like one thing, it is in fact two distinct groups of people and a relationship. Jones’ establishment includes the powerful. It also includes the people who operate as the hirelings, the advocates and the court jesters of the rich. He writes at one point of the establishment as “guaranteeing” the status quo; he writes at another point of the establishment “ruling”. The book would be stronger if there was a greater sense that these are two quite different tasks.

Jones has interviewed members of every party in Parliament, and spoken to journalists from every newspaper and from the BBC. Almost all of his book is devoted to the people who propagandise on behalf of the powerful, and about the former there is a near silence. The genuinely powerful exist in the book, rather like the God of Genesis, moving over the waters, both omnipotent and invisible.

Of course, if you are Paul Staines (the blogger Guido Fawkes, the first interviewee quoted in the book), or Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute (the second) or Lord Bell the PR man (the third), it may be possible to persuade yourself that you are a person on whom the fate of governments depend. But the words of Caroline Lucas have greater force, “As an MP, in terms of having real power, I feel that I have very, very little. I feel like I’ve spent my career trying to find out where power is – wherever I am, it always feels like power is just somewhere else and I am constantly chasing this thing.”

The left did once prefer to speak about the ruling class rather than the Establishment. I have always found that alternative label more compelling:

As an errant child of the ruling class myself, the left’s language chimes surprisingly well with how the rich and genuinely privileged see themselves. They do use a language of rule, and they have notions of force and consent which are recognisably similar to, for example, Gramsci’s notions of hegemony and consent. The model is the same, even if the value judgments are reversed.

To think about ruling is to think about choices and their consequences. The political will to expropriate the rich must encompass the rejection of certain behaviour which the rich practice in an extreme form – their refusal to pay taxes, their looting of the welfare state, their tolerance of extreme forms of oppression (which can be ignored so long as they function to assist the propertied). In so far as each of us has opportunities to re-enact in small scale what the rich do to excess, we should not do so. Otherwise how can we say that we are any better than them?

In addition, despite what I have just written, to speak of rulers is to impart a sense of scale. It is to grasp that the rich do not have any greater passion for their publicists than they do about their solicitors or their accountants. Each group is necessary; each charges too much. What historian looking back on the middle ages would decry the words of the Court Jester, and miss the deeds of the King?

I am glad that Owen Jones has shone a light on the Establishment but the ruling class still awaits its proper, hostile biographer.

Hollow threats; hollow people

Standard

kimber

In the distant decades when Socialist Worker was a lively, campaigning newspaper, its editors found themselves repeatedly threatened with libel. The Metropolitan police threatened a libel action in 1974 after Socialist Worker accused its officers of having killed a demonstrator Kevin Gateley at Red Lion Square. In March 1977, the paper was accused of libelling Clive Jenkins, the General Secretary of the white-collar union ASTMS. These, and other threats of libel, left the paper’s then editor Paul Foot with a lifelong feeling of contempt for the ways in which the rich, the powerful, and the custodians of bureaucratic organisations  would use libel law to silence their critics. “Those of us who seek to publish uncomfortable facts about our fellow human beings are constantly being plagued by the law of libel”, he complained in the London Review of Books in 1991.

Twelve years later, after Alex Callinicos had falsely labelled Quintin Hoare, the translator of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, as a supported of the Tudjman-era Croatian state, Paul Foot was asked to pen an appeal for the funds that would prevent Hoare’s action from bankrupting Callinicos’ publisher, Bookmarks. This is what he wrote:

“… It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws. The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford … Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts”.

Twenty years later, and Socialist Worker has a very different approach to those in the younger generation seeking to expose the cover-ups carried out by middle-aged men in their modest left-wing bureaucracies of power. It has stopped being a newspaper that dares the risk of libel, it has become a paper which uses libel to silence its critics.

So, this week, when students at Edinburgh University proposed a motion to say that the SWP should be banned from holding meetings on campus, in the light of what happened in the SWP in 2013, the SWP’s present National Secretary Charlie Kimber responded by threatening the students with a libel action. Asked by the Edinburgh students’ newspaper to justify his threats, he said, “The motion – and the article in The Student – were wholly inaccurate and, I believe, contained defamatory statements about readily-identifiable individuals”.

The victims in all of this are, of course, the students at Edinburgh. Defending a libel case takes time, causes immense worry, and can do psychological harm to those on the receiving end. Paul Foot was right too about the effect of costs: libel actions are brought in the High Court, which means that anyone bringing them must rely on the most expensive lawyers.  It is the tradition in civil litigation that a party who wins their case is entitled to have the other side pay their costs. So although the damages to the claimant for loss of reputation are often modest, the lawyers’ bills can act as a multiplier of 5 or 10 to one or even more. In practice, publishers almost always try to settle rather than fight libel claims, and when do they fight them they are often bankrupted. For all these reasons, libel has been the device of bullies and petty tyrants through the ages.

If you believe it is a good thing that Edinburgh University has a students’ paper, or that the socialist publisher Bookmarks exists, then in general you should oppose those socialists who try to silence alternative views by threatening to go to court.

There is in addition something peculiarly unattractive about Charlie Kimber threatening libel to defend the reputation of “readily-identifiable individuals” (ie his predecessor in the role of National Secretary of the SWP). This individual chose to leave the SWP rather than explain himself before a disputes committee made up of SWP members which went on to find that he had “a case to answer” on an allegation of sexual harassment. Ordinarily, when an individual in any organisation is found to have a case to answer on misdeeds of this seriousness, and the effects of their behaviour have been to drive out a majority of that organisation’s young members, and several hundred people altogether from the group, you would expect that the individual’s name would be mud in the party that he has wrecked. But this time, the opposite applies: the SWP has never publicly repudiated him, nor commented on his resignation from that party. He has a blog, Dream Deferred, written jointly with a supporter of Unite Against Fascism. It has been promoted by Alex Callinicos a member of the central committee of the leadership of the SWP, while another SWP CC member has retweeted three of his personal posts on twitter in this month alone.

Should the students try to ban the SWP from campus? No: the best situation would be one in which the few new people who joined the SWP over the summer could have properly explained to them the depths that their organisation has recently plumbed. This is less likely to happen if the SWP keeps itself away from places where its members can be challenged.

But the students should be heartened by the thought that the SWP’s threats of libel are hollow. While in many cases, a libel threat can silence a critic, the more that it is relied on the more treacherous the weapon becomes. Many people have tried to use libel threats to silence critics – quite a few, of whom Oscar Wilde is the best known, have found that they were making a disastrous mistake.

The SWP’s problem is that truth is a complete defence to libel. And the only way that a court can establish whether a person has spoken untrtuthfully is by ordering both sides to disclose all the documents of a case and forming a view for itself. That means that one of the tasks facing any organisation seriously maintaining libel is to disclose to the court and to the party which it accuses of libel all the documents of the case, both those that support its case, and those that potentially undermine its case.

Charlie Kimber knows very well the catastrophic impact that the details of what happened during the two investigations would have – even on Smith’s most blinkered supporters, let alone on any new recruits to the SWP – if they were finally made public. He has no doubt been advised, or if he has not been advised, he should have been – that once a document has been part of court proceedings, there is nothing you can do to stop its open discussion. For those reasons, he will not pursue a libel threat to court.

There is finally a neat symmetry between the hollowness of the SWP’s threat, and the SWP’s hollowness in terms of what it purports to be: a revolutionary party, of the young and the questioning, where all those who are in the forefront of the struggle against oppression can meet.

You can see the emptiness in its publications, in the weariness with which it repeats analyses of the present stage of capitalism which have not changed in four decades, in the fatigue of its leaders, in the paucity of its interventions, in its inability to say anything to its critics. The SWP is already a hollow shell; this after all is exactly why Kimber thought it was necessary to threaten libel. Because there were undoubtedly no young students in Edinburgh, or anywhere else, who could be trusted to argue the leadership’s case in public.

 

Midwives of the transformation

Standard

1889

Marxism begins in winter 1847-8 with the changes that Marx made to Engels’ Principles of Communism, in the drafting of the Communist Manifesto. Up to this point, both writers had agreed that socialism could be achieved through a proletarian revolution. Engels’ Principles sets out why the working class had been chosen: “the further [capitalism] advances, the more new labor-saving machines are invented, the greater is the pressure exercised by big industry on wages, which … sink to their minimum and therewith render the condition of the proletariat increasingly unbearable”. Marx had written along similar lines in 1843, and you can find the same idea in the Manifesto, “The modern labourer … instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

In the Manifesto, interlaced beside this older idea and going beyond it, was the beginning of a different understanding.  “The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class”, Marx wrote, “is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour.” The street artists of May 1968 were to state the same idea more succinctly: “your boss needs you; you don’t need him”.

“Wage-labour”, the Manifesto continues, “rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by … revolutionary combination, due to association.” It was not the decline of the working class into poverty that would pave the way to triumph but its organisational ascent.

Three years before the Parisian general strike, the activist historian EP Thompson reflected on what the proletariat had achieved in 120 years of struggle: “The workers, having failed to overthrow capitalist society, proceeded to warren it from end to end … [through] the characteristic class institutions of the Labour Movement … [the] trade unions, trades, councils, TUC, co-ops and the rest … This was the direction was that taken and, beneath, all differences in ideological expression, much the same kind of imbrication of working-class organizations in the status quo will be found in all advanced capitalist nations.”

For over a century, Marxism derived its appeal from what was seen to be its founders’ accurate prediction that the workers would rise and limit the power of capital.

Revolutionary politics has lost credibility in an epoch of workers’ defeats. Strike days have fallen from 10-20 million per year in the early 1970s to 440,000 in 2013. In 1974 around 8/10 UK workers were covered by collective bargaining, it is now under 3/10.

With workers’ losing, the rich have felt no limit in advancing their own interests. In the US, the top 0.1% now holds around 25% of private wealth. In a typical UK business in 2000, the top managers earned 47 times the lowest-paid worker. The ratio is now 1:120.

We too often see labour’s backwards step in activist terms – the defeated strikes of the 1980s had a momentum of their own. Workers organisations have spawned bureaucratic leaderships more fearful of outright victories than they are of partial defeats (we risk forgetting how much greater were the assets held by the unions of 40 years ago)

An alternative way to read the past forty years would be to say that through two centuries the working class has been renewed as changes in the organising technologies of any one decade brought new groups of workers into the centre of working class life.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the technology which most other businesses wanted to was the cotton factory. The face of labour was the mill workers who struck during the Chartist General Strike of 1842. The car factories of the interwar years made Fordist methods of management general. Part of the Fordist template was a hostility to unions; the move to keep the car factories union-free was broken by the sit-down strikes of 1934. It was the same in the 1960s with the adoption of union methods by low-paid employees of the state – in schools, local government and hospitals.

This pattern of new industrial techniques enabling new generations of workers to move from the periphery to the centre of working class experience continued until the 1980s.

New technologies have since tended to atomise workers’ cultural and social life, while the number of junior managers has proliferated.

Yet despite the present neo-liberal hegemony, the victory of capital could only ever be temporary. The greater the extent that the lives of the wealth spiral away from everyone else’s, the easier it must be for workers again to see them as their clear enemies, and therefore for this stalled cycled of working-class renewal to begin again.

The command techniques of high Stalinism will not attract the generations who have grown up the other side of digital media, with its constant (if unsatisfying) allure of choice.

Nor does it help to say that the working-class is now too divided for anyone on the left to represent a significant fraction of the class, but, that weakness aside, we must retain the ambition to build (in some, better-organised future) “a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party”.

A better alternative would be to look to the parts of the class which are making that same journey that others made before from the margins to the centre of working-class life.

A century ago it was the dockers, today it will be fast-food workers, or any one of the millions working on zero-hours or hourly-paid contracts who could – if only they were organised – establish guaranteed hours on a living wage.

Socialists should be among them, not as the oppressed’s tribunes (we no longer have to assume that anyone needs a representative to speak on their behalf) rather as midwives of the transformation from a present where socialism is off the agenda altogether to one where it is again conceivable.

125 years ago this year, two of the largest unions in Britain were built from campaigns on the London docks and at the Beckton gas workers. The leader of the Beckton workers, Will Thorne worked with another socialist outside his workplace, Eleanor Marx. She taught him to read; the union invited her on to its executive (the only non-gas worker allowed) as its first treasurer.

After the New Unionism of 1889 began, she spoke tirelessly to let other workers know what the strikers had achieved and why they should copy them, “We have not come to do the work of political parties”, she would say, “but we have come here in the cause of labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights”.

Organisations which grew until they counted members in the millions were built on the message that the strikes of 1889 proved that casualised workers could win.

Before it happens, socialists should be the people with a vision of the upturn of the future. Once it has begun socialists should be those who spread the news of its happening as widely as we can. This is the only way to make any ambition for a working class party meaningful again.

Running the Oxford half

Standard

oxfordhalf

On Sunday, I ran in the Oxford half-marathon. Let me start with two quick complaints. First, why do organisers only ever seem to start these faces at 9 or 9.30 in the morning? There were about 4,500 finishers, including runners from London (at least one in the red and yellow Serpentine running vest), Sheffield and all over Southern England. The first London-Oxford train on a Sunday does not even get in till 9:13 in the morning, leaving no time for a race starting 17 minutes later deep in East Oxford. The organisation of the event mandated runners to spend the evening before in Oxford – whereas if they had started it just an hour later, there would not be the same pressure.

Second, couldn’t organisers make a little bit more effect to check that the mile markers correspond to the correct distances? At the Richmond half marathon, three weeks ago, the organisers put out mile markers at about half of the milepoints; some were long, some were short, and for anyone relying on the mile markers for their pacing (which included me) they were barely better than useless. Oxford was better in that every mile along our route had a marker of some sort or another, but a number were out by around 300 metres or so, starting with the first two (which were too close to the start) and the third (which was about a mile and a half after the second). I know that these days many runners have GPS watches so it shouldn’t matter if the markers are a bit out, but the watches often don’t connect at all or not at the start, leaving the wearers dependent on the markers they can see.

That said, it was a lovely route, with a modest climb of just about 50 feet out of Cowley and towards the Iffley Road near the start, then long periods of descent. In the middle, we ran a lap of the Iffley Road track where Roger Bannister once broke the four minute barrier, we then had a couple of miles running along the Thames. Although I lived in Oxford for four years in my 20s, I had never explored the river south of the Plain, and I reminded myself that this was a stretch of the Thames where my father once spent some of the best days of his life. There were live bands in Iffley, and at Magdalen roundabout, and very large number of local people turned out to cheer us on.

Experimenting with running the first half of the race at about 30 seconds per mile faster than I had run Richmond, I tired (of course) in the second half of the race and in the final third was just about “holding on” with miles of 7:30 or so. But the music kept me going, as did the variety of the running.  The friend I was running with found a different motivation: a runner next to her told his companion that he was going to be a UKIP council candidate – her fastest mile was the last, which she ran to make sure he could not overtake her.

Roger Bannister began the race with a short speech telling us that there were 200,000 people running half marathons that day; a small reminder of the very large numbers of people who run every weekend. It is a social movement, not just a sport.