Friday, 31 October 2008

Branch Meeting: Wages, Price and Profit

At last night's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party, it fell to me to give a talk. This time I took a look at Marx's classic pamphlet, Wages, Price and Profit. Published posthumously in 1898, it began life as a series of lectures delivered by Marx in 1865 polemicising against the ideas of John Weston. Not a household name in 21st century militants' homes, Weston was a leading member of the General Council of what we now call the First International. At the time, while Europe was in the grip of a strike wave, Weston published a series of counter-productive pieces. He (bizarrely) argued the quantity of commodities a nation produces and wages (which are measured by the amount of commodities they can purchase) were fixed. This meant the relationship between productivity and wages is set in stone.

Weston's position was harmful to the workers' cause for the following reason. Suppose a strike forced the bosses to increase their pay from £200 to £250/week. Because production is fixed, the sum total of commodities the new wage would be able to buy could only be the same as the old. If wages go up, the capitalists have to increase prices too. In other words, an inflationary price spiral would occur negating any wage gain. The struggle for better pay was pointless so workers might as well forget about taking their bosses on. You can see now why Marx was so keen to counter Weston.

Facts are real world developments in wages and prices had refuted Weston's argument even before they were uttered by his lips. In the 1849-59 period the wages of agricultural and factory workers rose 40 per cent. If Weston was right, prices should have galloped upwards by the same amount. But in fact the wheat produced by these better renumerated farm workers fell by 16 per cent! What's going on? In this case labour productivity increased alongside a rising demand for wheat to feed the growing urban population. Supply not only successfully met demand, but managed to outstrip it. You cannot then argue, as the establishment often does, that wages determine prices. So what does?

When you look at the immense collection of commodities that constitute the market, it appears their values are relative to one another. For example, my diary cost £4 and my much-coveted man bag, £12. The value of the latter could be expressed by three of the former, but what determines the ratio? For Marx, commodities in their essence can all be reduced to a third party, and that is (abstract) labour. Commodity values differ, as Marx puts it, "only by representing greater or smaller quantities of labour ... for example, a greater amount of labour may be worked up in a silken handkerchief than a brick" (p.34). Labour, or rather as Marx and Marxists later called labour power, is measured by time. Therefore a commodity's value is determined by the amount of labour power necessary for its production, not by wages.

The labour time necessary for production (socially necessary labour) is a certain average of the conditions of production pertaining at any given time and increases/reduces according to the course of historical development. As competition between capitals compels employers to constantly revolutionise the forces of production, more quantities of commodities can be produced in less and/or the same time. The extent of the labour socially necessary is reduced and the values of commodities fall. But if anything impinges upon the productivity of labour, such as weather events or resource shortages, the volume of necessary labour increases pushing up value.

Now this is where it gets a bit tricky. Value is not the same price. Historical development has seen precious metals, then coin, then paper money stand as the representative of abstract labour. The more valuable a commodity, i.e. the more abstract labour bound up in it, the higher the price. Where price perfectly expresses value, we have 'natural price'. But commodities tend to trade at their 'market price', which Marx defines as "the average amount of social labour necessary, under the average conditions of production, to supply the market with a certain mass of a certain article" (p.40). If you like natural price is the element market prices for commodities fluctuate around. If supply and demand are in balance there is a tendency to sell at natural price. If there isn't, if supply outstrips demand or demand cannot be met the market price will swing above and below this level.

Where does profit come into it? As commodities are sold at their value (modified bby market price), profit does not come from selling at above their value. If this was the case then a scenario similar to Weston's would result. As everyone would be forced to do the same, what the seller gains they lose as a buyer. Profit therefore is interior to the system of commodity exchange, but how? A worker agrees to sell their ability to labour to an employer for a given period of time in return for a wage. For argument's sake, let that stand at £250 for a 39 hour week. This wages stands for the money a worker needs to reproduce themselves as a worker physically and culturally. Once in work, suppose it takes them 10 hours to produce £250 worth of commodities. This is paid to them as wages. Yet there's still 29 hours of the week to go! From this standpoint, this remainder is 'surplus labour', and the value they generate accrues to their employer as surplus value. But it immediately appears that this is not the case. Because the wage for 39 hours is £250, common sense suggests £250 is the value of 39 hours. Surplus extraction, therefore, is hidden by the wage relation. Where commodities are concerned then, they may be concentrations of abstract labour, but part is paid, and part of it is unpaid surplus labour. When they are sold at their value it still reflects all the labour embodied in them, realising surplus value.

This surplus value is not identical to profit. Once it has been realised, part of it is paid out on rental and mortgage payments, part as interest payments on loans from the banks, and part on any other obligations the owner may have. What is left is profit, which can be disposed of as they wish. We can therefore work out the rate of profit as a ratio between the capital that was originally thrown into the production process and the profit it realises. Therefore if wages are increased, the rate of profit falls, but this does not necessarily mean a rise in commodity prices. That decision is solely the province of the bosses. But if profit is to be increased, the reverse is true. More surplus value is demanded, which can either be done via new production technologies and/or increasing the quantity of unpaid labour done by lengthening the working day at little or no extra wages. As Marx says:
A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals, and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing Foreign Wealth, broken in body and brutalized in mind. Yet the whole history of modern industry shows that capital, if not checked, will recklessly and ruthlessly work to cast down the whole working class to this utmost state of degradation. (p.67-8)
This scenario has not come to pass only because of working class political action down the ages. There is a historical tendency for capital to push workers to their limits, which are the (historically and geographically variable) absolute minimum standard of living. While the bosses coin it workers are compelled to fight to retain their present conditions. But as Marx concludes, "quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!" they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wages system!""

White Supremacists and Obama

Yes, it's true. According to the ever reliable Popbitch, Esquire magazine asked four of America's best known racists who they will be supporting in next week's presidential election, and strangely, Barack Obama comes out on top! Witness:

"Tom Metzger, Director, White Aryan Resistance: "McCain ... He's a scary, scary person - more dangerous than Bush. Obama, according to his book, Dreams Of My Father, is a racist and I have no problem with black racists."

Erich Glieber, Chairman, National Alliance: "Obama ... He's a very intelligent man, an excellent speaker and has charisma ... My only problem with Obama is perhaps he's not black enough."

Rocky Suhayda, Chairman, American Nazi Party: "White people are faced with either a negro or a total nutter who happens to have a pale face. Personally I'd prefer the negro."

The odd one out is Ron Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the Imperial Klans of America: "Obama, I think he's a piece of shit.""

I thought I'd go and see what the master race in the BNP had to say about Obama and what side they would come down on. Unfortunately, not a sausage can be found. Searching his name turns up one mention from July, when he visited these shores to thank Gordon Brown and Tony Blair for their support in the Iraq war. With bare-faced cheek they conclude their article with this claim:

"It is worthwhile mentioning that the first political party to warn that the entire war was based on a pack of lies, and should not be undertaken, was the British National Party, which published its findings on the baseless lies for the war on its web site in April 2003."

(!)

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Against Tuition Fees

Keele Socialist Students this week visited the question of tuition fees and what we can do about them. Our visiting speaker was A of the Socialist Party's national committee. Though not currently a student, like me, he was involved in the campaign against their introduction back in 1997/8.

He began outlining government plans on the future of tuition fees. At the moment students are liable for a yearly fee capped at £3,000 and, if they fall beneath a £25,000 parental earnings threshold, a grant with a maximum ceiling of £2,825/year (I've never understood the logic of giving with one hand but taking away with another, but I digress). If the government gets its way it will see the cap removed and university's given the power to charge what they like. Inevitably a two-tier system will result - the top universities will charge thousands, ensuring they're even more a bastion of the rich and privileged. At the other end many universities, particularly the post-1992 institutions, will offer "budget" degrees to compete for students. The effect this will have on the employment prospects of graduates do not need spelling out.

But there's more than future careers at stake. At present the average student debt upon graduation stands at £12,000 - but the £20,000 figure is not uncommon. Already hundreds of thousands have to work to pay their way through university, often in low waged, insecure and exploitative jobs. The time these students have dedicated to their studies can and often are truncated by the demands of the workplace. Small wonder some 22 per cent of students drop out, a quarter of whom citing debt as the main reason.

Can this situation be reversed? The government says not. "We can't afford it" they say, an argument that's already threadbare after the mammoth funds it has splashed out to save the banks. If we rule out borrowing as a solution to the problem, there's still plenty of resources to be found. There are approximately two million students in Britain. If tuition fees were abolished and a grant of £5,000 were awarded all students this would cost approximately £15 billion. Right now, New Labour have earmarked a massive £76 billion for Trident. Is this really necessary? Furthermore the corporation tax rate in Britain stands at 28 per cent compared to 30 per cent in Germany and 35 per cent in France. If it was raised up to the French level an extra £10 billion would flow into government coffers. Additional funds could also be realised by actually forcing more British-registered companies to pay their tax. Of the top 700, only one third pay their way. Another third fiddle the system so they pay less then £10 million between them. And the final third paid nothing at all.

The 'can't afford' argument doesn't wash. So how to achieve our campaigning aims? Not by pursuing the NUS strategy. Its current position on fees is to limit it to keeping the cap, something it shares with Labour Students. Apparently, the argument goes, we have more chance of changing the government's mind if we stick only to this objective. As far as Socialist Students are concerned, at Keele and elsewhere, we will work with anyone to achieve this but think we need to campaign more widely. The NUS and Labour Students have no strategy addressing fees per se, grants and debt. It devolves to socialists to take the lead on these issues, and we can, as the experience at Bangor demonstrates.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Playing Catch Up

Ok, ok, already. There's no need to jam my inbox full of where art thou-style messages. It's been a touch tight for time in AVPS towers for the left's most glamorous bloggers; yours truly and the mercurial enigma that is Brother S. But there may just be a chance blogging can once again assume its normal schedule. Pleasingly Stoke Socialist Party has grown very well these past three months, which will eventually enable your Stakhanovite heroes of socialist labour time off to pursue other things, like PhDs, paid work and the occasional blog. So don't be too surprised if a shat load of new pieces are vomited out of the RSS feed in a short space of time.

One thing that has been pleasing me is even though the posting has lagged and the blog has shown no signs of life for up to a week, the stats are holding up. Before you figures freaks get excited, I'm holding them back for the AVPS second birthday splurge in December. I'm afraid I'm going to have to delay your gratifications. But part of the reason the blog is attracting an audience in a quiet period is because of this. My piece on Lisa Roger's documentary about lady bits has them queuing up to have a peek. The most popular keyword search leading to my blog is, unsurprisingly, 'the perfect vagina'. But not far behind are 'beautiful porn vagina', 'very old vaginas'(!), 'how many average depth of g spot from vagina opening point with picture image', 'how do guys feel about the way a womens vagina looks?', 'it fits perfectly in your vagina', and my personal favourite, 'hanging ham vagina'. There must be a lot of disappointed folks out there when they click through to my blog post!

While we're talking key word analyses, this one jumped out at me: 'gorilla costume- articulating jaw'. Pourquoi? I know Stroppy used to get loads of visitors looking for 'nun porn' (again, why?) - have other readers' blogs been hit by seemingly off-beam/porny/random/incongruous searches?

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Lynn Walsh on the Crisis

This Saturday saw Socialist Party members from across the West Midlands descend upon Birmingham for an afternoon school on the economic crisis. We heard from SP deputy general secretary, Hannah Sell on the politics of the crisis in Britain, but I would like to concentrate on the contribution made by Lynn Walsh, editor of Socialism Today.

Lynn began noting how the last 16-17 years should have been a golden age for capitalism. The Soviet bloc had collapsed and what remained, principally China, embraced the market (even if the market in China is primarily between state-owned firms). The working class suffered a series of defeats that had stunned it into political quietude. Wages stagnated and the labour markets in Britain and the USA became more flexible than ever before (i.e. flexible from the point of view of capital, not from the shoes of our class). Bosses had the whip hand, real wages stagnated and the finance sector was deregulated. In other words, they'd never had it so good! And yet it still came crashing down around their ears.

For Lynn this was very much a crisis of speculative capitalism. This came into being as a response to the crisis in the Keynesian regime of accumulation of the post-war period. Reagan and Thatcher's programme (though, it has to be said, Carter and Callaghan were moving in this direction prior to being dumped out of office) deregulated the finance sector, privatised as much as they could and concentrated policy on the control of the money supply. Their "achievement" was to see an increasing share of total profits accrue to finance capital. In 1980 just 10 per cent of profits were from financial activity. In 2008 that figure, depending on who you believe, stood at between 30-50 per cent. Particularly in Britain speculation was a more attractive option than manufacturing - the profits for banking were twice as large.

The hegemony of finance capital was strengthened every time the boom it had created began to falter. The bursting of the dot com bubble? September 11th attacks? Just cut interest rates and make more government bonds available. But cheap credit can't keep the economic boat afloat forever. Something was bound to bring the edifice down, which as we now know, was the breakdown of the US sub-prime mortgage market.

The availability of cheap credit enabled millions of Americans to get on the housing ladder, and mortgage providers were only too willing to oblige. Proper credit checks went out the window as agents could accrue fees on the basis of a successful sale. In other words there were tempting short term gains to be made, which overrode the ability to keep up payments. Very quickly the finance industry cottoned on to this problem - if the debts are of poor quality it is very difficult to sell them on the markets. The solution was to chop them up and mix them in with good quality mortgages in securities. The advantage of doing so is the risky mortgages are tempered by the prime. If someone defaults on their mortgage it doesn't really matter because the payment guarantees of the prime debts cancels out the loss. At least this was what the top credit agencies thought - these packages were awarded a AAA rating, an almost zero risk! The promise of a virtually guaranteed return helped drive the expansion of credit, spurred ever more complex ways of packaging and repackaging debt and drove a boom in house building. But an economic bubble inflated by debt cannot be sustained indefinitely.

In early 2007 the credit locomotive hit the buffers. Finally the credit system began to run up against its limits as more and more people defaulted on their mortgages. Not only did the bottom of the mortgage market fall away, because of the shake 'n' bake packaging of debt no one knew whether one security was riskier than another. The composition of debt was completely unknown. Just as one apple spoils the barrel, the whole lot became toxic very quickly and the damage rippled out across the financial system, damage exacerbated by these packages being used as collateral for inter-bank loans. They panicked, inter-bank lending froze and the debts started getting called in. Northern Rock and Bear Sterns were early casualties, but more were to follow.

The crisis matured during the summer months and erupted back into the open in September. As stock markets plunged and the city went cap in hand to the US and UK governments, Bush and his advisers tried to draw a line in the sand as Lehman Brothers collapsed. They were mindful of the angry response welling up from the depths of American society and were keen not to be seen bailing out tremendously wealthy companies. The decision to let Lehman Brothers go to the wall was political. But alas it was to have tremendous economic repercussions. It's no exaggeration to say it helped deepen the panic in the markets and spread the crisis around the world. Lehman's debt obligations ignored the borders of the United States. All of a sudden it looked as though many more financial institutions were in for a rougher ride. This time governments did step in - the US and its $700 billion bail out, which, under the pressure of events, moved from a strategy for the buying up of banking debts to outright nationalisations, which currently stand at nine big and regional banks. But the UK government has really set the tone. No doubt some were impressed by the audaciousness and the apparently decisive actions taken by Brown and Darling. £500 billion has been pledged to sure up the system and the banking sector is now part nationalised. But it was events that forced their hands. The British banking system was on the brink of a 1929-style meltdown if they hadn't so acted.

But one question a lot of people are asking is where the money has come from? Printing presses haven't been going into overdrive, so Zimbabwe-style inflation is a very remote prospect. For Lynn the money governments got their hands on came from three sources. First, the last 16 years saw the largest redistribution of wealth in modern times - from the poor to the rich. Some corporations coined it like never before and those not compromised by the crisis are looking for safe places to invest their capital. The rate of return may be low but at least (for the moment) government bonds appear to be risk-free. Then there's China. By virtue of its position as the new workshop of the world it has accumulated tremendous trade surpluses. Some two trillion dollars are sitting in Chinese banks. So they have the money AND the interest in bailing out the West. If their markets dry up its rapid economic growth could run out of steam, throwing oil onto an already combustible domestic situation. And finally there are the oil producing states, particularly in the Middle East. Because of their low populations and underdeveloped infrastructures, the Arab ruling classes deposited their surpluses in Western banks for speculative accumulation. Like the corporations, this capital is looking for secure outlets.

The ruling class and their system have left a right mess. But things are much clearer for socialists. It shows up the failure of free markets. It illustrates how vast amounts of money can be found when the system is threatened. It reveals the hollowness of neoliberalism. And, incredibly, some sections of capital are falling over themselves to show their ingratitude. The part-nationalisation of banks via a system of government-owned preference shares have riled some up. You'd think they'd rather see banks fail than have the government getting first dibs on any profits, or have its appointees running the show (even if, like themselves, they are city people).

A socialist response to the crisis would be outright nationalisation of the banks, but crucially they would be taken out of the hands of the executives, speculators and spivs and run democratically by the people that work there and those who deposit in them. This would enable an immediate programme of debt cancellation, a replacement of repossessions by transferring defaulting borrowers homes into rented housing at cheap rates and a restitution of loans to small businesses on favourable terms. And because the crisis is global, similar measures would have to be taken all over the world.

These measures may be radical and complex, but they're a damn sight more realistic than the pious hope of fixing the cycle of boom and bust and the social devastation it leaves in its wake.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Stoke Scraps Elected Mayor

Yesterday the people of Stoke were invited to choose how we are governed. Did we want a modified version of what we have at present - a directly elected mayor and a cabinet made up of favoured councillors, or its abolition and replacement by the traditional council leader and cabinet elected by and accountable to the chamber? By 21,231 to 14,592 votes the city turned its back on the mayor. Thus instead of a hotly contested election in May 2009, a council leader will be sworn in and the incumbent Mark Meredith will be out of a job.

Contrast this with the situation six years ago. After a run of scandals, bouts of infighting and a period of general incompetence, the Mayor 4 Stoke campaign, led by Mike Wolfe, successfully campaigned for and won a referendum setting up the mayoralty by 28,601 to 20,578. Wolfe then went on to win the mayoral contest by a narrow margin of 300 votes. Part of his appeal was undoubtedly his excellent work managing Stoke Citizens' Advice Bureau. But also, as an independent, there was a clear break between him and the cronyism of the ancien regime. The moribund politics of Stoke were about to be shaken up.

Wolfe's Mayor 4 Stoke campaign appealed because the mayoralty appeared to have the potential to get things done. It was established as an executive whereby the mayor and the unelected council manager concentrated decision making in their hands. Their decisions required approval by full council meetings, but that was the limit of councillors' powers. There was no accountability in between the mayor's fixed term elections vis a vis the chamber, enabling him to stand above the intrigues of the chamber and not beholden to its petty agendas. The new mayoralty also coincided with a new phase in the ongoing city regeneration saga, a process long promised but realised at a painfully slow pace. Wolfe seemed the man of the hour that could drive regeneration through.

Unfortunately he did not live up to this promise. Stoke suffered the same diet of council cuts and job losses as everywhere else, but what really turned support away from Wolfe was his plans to raise council tax to pay for the regeneration. Needless to say this didn't go down well in a city containing some of the most deprived estates in Western Europe. By the time he was voted out, a sprucing up of Stoke's parks, the start of the complex demolition of Unity House and some truly awful examples of public art was all he had to show for his two year tenure.

The second mayoral election coincided with the last general election, held on 5th May, 2005. The boosted turn out at the polls helped Labour's support in the mayor vote. Wolfe was dumped out of office by Mark Meredith (pictured), with a healthy 13,000 vote majority. As far as the local Labour party were concerned, he had the advantage of being something of a fresh face. He was virtually unknown and could be presented as a break from the past.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. His first budget in 2006 was opposed by then Socialist Party councillors, Paul and Dave Sutton. Instead of cutting back on services and jobs while raising council tax to cover the city's deficit (Meredith's plan), they called on the council to withdraw the tens of millions it had in investment banks (Icelandic or otherwise) and organise a campaign to win back the money central government had been shaving off for the previous decade. This, they argued, would meet the deficit without having to attack council workers. The SP proposal fell with nine votes in favour - our councillors plus seven independents. The then two-strong BNP group impressed, voting against AND abstaining, showing how all over the place they are when it comes to protecting the "British workers" they profess to speak for. But more significantly a number of Labour councillors refused to tow the line and vote against, abstaining on this and Meredith's budget. They were handed disciplinary sanctions by the regional machine, and a few resigned. And needless to say, enacting this programme led to further rounds of anger and political disillusionment.

However, this antipathy was not reflected in the referendum's turn out, which has been the source of acute anxiety for some. Only 19 per cent of Stoke's registered 181,000 voters visited the polling booth. This has predictably led to some hand wringing and a good deal of blaming Stokies themselves for having nothing to do with the referendum. This recrimination, found usually in the more political layers of Stoke-on-Trent is a position Stoke SP completely rejects.

Firstly, the two campaigns - the Yes and the No vote operations have had little in the way of visibility. As someone who is politically active it was only by chance I came across signs of either campaign - the Yeses when they were doing a leaflet drop in Hanley at the same time we were doing our regular stall, and the No by virtue of a fly poster on a disused shop! So much for capturing the public's imagination!

Second, there is the misnamed 'apathy' factor. Large numbers of working class people are turned off by mainstream politics. It's not something unique to Stoke. Since neoliberalism became the unassailable political commonsense after the 1992 Tory general election victory, mainstream parties have competed on very narrow political ground. They have not had to bother too much with the aspirations of working class people because the labour movement had been effectively muzzled by the anti-trade union laws and the defeats of the 1980s. Extra-parliamentary opposition movements of the recent period may have put the heat on the government but have ultimately been unsuccessful in challenging its direction. So all three parties have pursued a managerial politics of cuts, privatisation, civil liberties erosion and war, and have successfully alienated a huge chunk of the electorate. This has found itself expressed more in political disengagement than through the radical politics of the far left and far right. What's more, the establishment at all levels are completely blind to this. Following Labour's election wipe out in May, local politics more or less carried on as business as usual. Small wonder people are going to turn out when those who would be its representatives refuse to listen or learn. Make no bones about it - the blame for "apathy" falls squarely on the establishment's shoulders.

Where now for Stoke? While the yeses celebrate and the no campaign gently weeps, there has been an immediate if slight improvement in the prospects for socialist politics in the Potteries. First of all the nightmare scenario of a BNP mayoralty has passed and its highly unlikely their candidate for council leader, Alby Walker, will garner enough support in the chamber. This doesn't mean the struggle against the BNP is over - anti-fascists still have a great deal to do to break their support away from their racist and xenophobic politics. But the referendum result affords us a breathing space to do so. Where mainstream politics are concerned, as there are no council elections until 2010 I will be really surprised if there is a qualitative political break between the course already embarked upon by the mayor and his successor. Whoever this will be is likely to be one of the leading figures within the present Lib/Lab/Con coalition that supports the mayor.

As far as the left are concerned the combination of politics-as-usual and the economic downturn may combine to create a favourable environment for the spread of socialist ideas. But so it will for the BNP too, who, electorally speaking, are light years ahead. However, the force of events will compel workers to struggle at some stage in defence of what they already have. On past experience the BNP have stayed well away from these sorts of mobilisations because they know the logic of class struggle runs against the grain of their politics. In the long term, the future is red.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Eating at the Karl Marx Cafe

During our branch discussion on 'everything you've wanted to know about socialism but were afraid to ask ...', M asked what we thought eating establishments in a socialist society might look like. She recalled the attempts of the Bolsheviks and latterly the Stalinists at socialising the privatised domestic labour of women, which involved large communal cafeterias (among other things) and enabled women to enter the labour force in large numbers. Would something similar take root in a future socialist society?

On first thoughts, the idea of socialised eating might not be too appealing. But then again many such places already exist and are part of our everyday life, albeit in forms appropriate to the prevailing capitalist relations of production. The workplace canteen/staff room, school dinner halls, fast food joints, coffee shops, greasy spoons, balti houses, pubs, food courts, plush restaurants; all our variations on the theme of communal eating. Therefore the idea is not as alien as immediately posed.

It is likely the democratic expropriation of capital will include large chains of fast food companies, breweries, coffee shops and the like. Their infrastructures can be merged over a period of time to supply the new socialised outlets that spring up in their place, minimising the waste of needless competition and duplicated supply lines. So there is an efficiency argument supporting the case for socialised eating. But also their scale and depth will vary according to the dependency of populations on them. For example, a successful socialist revolution will inherit a globe of vast infrastructural disparities and standards of living. Socialised canteens can help overcome this by providing guaranteed food supplies and stimulating localised agricultural production at the expense of cash crops - never again will the spectre of famine or adulterated food stalk the global south.

And because we're talking democratic socialism here (because there is no other), socialised eating will not be a labyrinth of bureaucracy and red tape. They will be participatory and encourage its patrons to get involved in their functioning. This is not just in terms of working there - they can be envisaged as places where people can learn about food technology and production. Nutritional information would be freely available, and courses could be run on preparation, cooking and safety. The division between patron and staff would erode to such an extent that it would become meaningless. Plus all would be encouraged to take part in decision making so it and its commitment to sustainable food production is constantly improved.

It's also worth noting socialised eating would be an option. No one would be forced to eat there, but chances are it will become the most convenient place to do so. And because of this, food preparation in the home will go from today's necessity to tomorrow's leisure activity. The tie that has helped bind women to the home throughout the existence of class society will unravel. The (negative) proof of the pudding can be seen in East Germany after the collapse of Stalinism, where socialised eating was one of the first things to go. In lieu of anything else many women were forced back into preparing food at home, marking a recrudescence of housewifery - some "progress".

Socialised eating will not be a standardised experience from locale to locale either. Their size, their efficiency, their democratic planning and management will ensure a different experience wherever you go. It will harness our ingenuity into a blooming of a million culinary flowers and completely transform our experience and consumption of food and eating. For the first time in human history, food will be something that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Stoke Politics Gossip

Intriguing gossip reaches my ear this evening. If you're not interested in Potteries tittle-tattle, then move along.

Because it is gossip, it may be true. It may be false. But the truth will out.

Rumour #1: There's some competition among Stoke's Tories for their candidate for the mayoral election (should it take place) this coming May. I hear, as you would expect, Cllr Roger Ibbs is in the running. But he faces stiff competition from ... Anthea Turner.

Rumour #2: While David Cameron is keen to put clear blue water between himself and Margaret Thatcher, it seems no one told Keele Conservative Future. Our Tory friends, who regrettably have been the largest political grouping on campus for some time, are campaigning to bestow the honour of being KUSU's ambassador upon the Iron Lady.

Rumour #3: To boost their chances of ascending high office in the mayoral election, the BNP are said to have drafted in their biggest gun. That's right, the fuhrer himself, Nick Griffin may be contesting the mayoralty for the BNP and has, apparently, gone to the extraordinary length of acquiring a property in Stoke to enable him to do so. If true, did the dosh come out of Griffin's pocket or did he extract it from the BNP's increasingly threadbare coffers? And will the gamble show Griffin to be their biggest asset, or just an ass?

Also quick plug to a newish local Stoke blog, Pits'n'Pots. Everything you needed to know about The Potteries but were afraid to ask about sums it up!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

My Worst Musical Nightmare

I suppose it was inevitable.

Regular readers of this blog know I have a penchant for bleepy technoey dancey trancey things. But not all of it suits my electronic bolshevist palate.

I absolutely detest Scooter. They are formulaic, dull, pointless and needlessly offensive on the ear. Just like Status Quo in fact. So any kind of alliance between the two could only be my worst musical nightmare. And guess what? They've only gone and collaborated on a track. Be warned, it's definitely not safe for anyone of taste.



Words fail me. It's got to be in the running for the worst track ever.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Stoke Mayoral Referendum: Vote Yes

This Thursday the people of Stoke-on-Trent are being asked to attend their local polling station. Should they do so, they will be met with this question:
Are you in favour of the proposal for Stoke-on-Trent City Council to be run in a new way, which includes a councillor, who will be elected by the councillors of Stoke-on-Trent to lead the Council and the community which it serves?
As far as Stoke Socialist Party is concerned, the vote should be yes. Earlier this year we wrote a letter to the anti-mayor Democracy 4 Stoke campaign, which explains some of our reasoning:
As socialists we believe democracy and socialism go hand in hand. We stand for the fullest democratisation possible, at international, national, regional and local levels. We also believe democracy needs to be extended, taking in everything from the workplace to the management of public services.

In Stoke and across the country, wherever there have been moves to set up presidential-style local mayors the Socialist Party has opposed it. This is because elected mayoral systems are the least responsive forms of local democracy possible. As we have seen in Stoke this has allowed the mayor’s office to dominate the council chamber to the detriment of the city’s education and local services provision.

The alternative offered by Democracy 4 Stoke is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. We would like to see the mayor’s office dismantled and replaced by a council chamber with increased powers, but subject to annual elections on a ward-by-ward basis. It is far less likely councillors will vote for cuts, school closures and privatisation if they have to get themselves re-elected more regularly. The Socialist Party also stands against the system of privileges available to councillors; such as generous expenses, large allowances for sitting on committees and so on.

Whilst democratic structures are of course important the policies of councillors and political parties are far more important. Therefore, whilst we support the fullest democratic structure we are totally opposed to job losses, cuts, closures and privatisation.
There are two main reasons for opposing the mayoralty, aside from the disastrous record of the office's two incumbents. To begin with the council leader and cabinet system is far from perfect, but is far more accountable to public pressure than an elected mayor. There are no mechanisms for accountability in between four-yearly elections and under the mayoral system councillors have little power. The mayor can safely ignore them and drive through whatever policy they wish. The only way the 'no' campaign can pretend their preference is more democratic is due to the appearance of greater democracy afforded by direct election, but in reality electing a mayor is choosing between who gets to dictate policy in Stoke for four years.

Then there is the anti-fascist argument. Put simply, it is more difficult for the BNP to win control of Stoke-on-Trent if we bring back the council leader system. And the fascists know it too, which is why they're opportunistically backing the 'no' campaign. If the council leader option is rejected then the BNP is in with a shout of winning the mayoral election due to take place May/June next year. Therefore the principled anti-fascist position is to vote yes. It won't stop the need to fight against their influence, but it will make the task of turning Stoke from the jewel in their crown into their political graveyard that little bit easier.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Short Adventures in Marxist Economics

I've been lucky enough to attend two discussions on economics these last couple of days, and I'm sure they won't be the last before the month is out. First of all was our weekly Socialist Students discussion, which we billed as 'what could a socialist economy look like?' Unfortunately, most of the discussion was spent on what one wouldn't look like, which, nevertheless was quite useful.

He gave us an introduction to some of the more sophisticated market-based objections to socialism. Going back to Marx's labour theory of value (last week) this theory was disputed by Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in what came to be known as the economic calculation debate, and it turned on different theories of value. For Marx, though it is true the capitalists leach off the value realised by their expropriation of workers' surplus labour, it remains the case that the value of commodities is determined by the (simple) labour socially necessary for their production. Marx's critics however argued value could not be determined objectively. What counted was the usefulness of a commodity to consumers and it was this that determined value. Because value is subjective, it is impossible to set prices through any kind of economic planning. Such an agency cannot possibly know everyone's preferences, but the decentralised interplay of the market can, which is why, as far as they were concerned, the state needs to keep out of the economy. Any intervention would disrupt the delicate equilibrium and throw the whole thing into crisis.

Some of these issues have been addressed before. One interesting point came up in discussion about the ideological effects of the subjective theory of value. The labour theory of value has the advantage of simply determining the base value of any commodity at any given time, whereas marginal utility hides it behind a cloak of complexity. This confers capitalists an enormous amount of latitude on determining price. They can push price way above value or, when there is a glut, slash the price beneath it to either recoup costs and/or drive out rivals with less of a capital cushion. Price is a weapon for pursuing their material interests. Market forces and "complexity" is so much waffle to cover this.

Earlier today I attended an economics day school on the contemporary crisis. We were treated to sessions on sub prime lending, and theories of the American labour movement. Not being an economist I found them challenging to follow. But luckily they were ended by a session more suitable to a lay audience. Keith Tribe gave a talk entitled 'Marxism as a Critique of Bourgeois Economics', which was really one for Marx geeks and bibliophiles. His argument was quite simple. Back in the day when the Spiked/LM crowd traded openly as the RCP, they were said to argue one could not understand Marx's Capital unless it was read in the original German. Tribe had a different take. The 1872-5 French edition was the last revision Marx worked on that was published in his life time. What is important about it is the revision deals with material not incorporated into the translation widely available in the English-speaking world. Also, in his opinion, a 'Marxist economics' as such hasn't really been developed, which he defined as an enterprise engaging and critiquing mainstream economic theory. He approvingly cited Bukharin's 1919 book, Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, and Paul Sweezy's The Theory of Capitalist Development (1942) as examples, but that was all. As far as Tribe was concerned, a big gap in Marxist thinking needs to be filled. Perhaps we'd better start cracking then!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Riding High Upon a Deep Depression?

I guess our blogs might be documents future social historians could refer to when they talk about the great stock market crashes of 2008. In general left blogs have acquitted themselves well, in my opinion. There are no hostages to fortune, no predictions of imminent economic apocalypse or an unravelling of capitalist relations of production. Most I've seen have soberly analysed/commented on the crisis, noting its immediate impacts, the strategies open to governments and how capitalism might be reshaped in the longer term.

But what about left bloggers themselves? We're very good setting out what we're thinking, but what are we feeling? I guess it's something we're not used to talking about seeing as we are part of an activist culture that always tempers moral outrage with scientific analysis. But then there's the question of how to feel when it comes to something as large as this crisis. For most of our class at present (and leaving aside the ridiculous increases in food prices this past year) it is something intangible and abstract, and whatever we might be feeling right now is not yet coloured by the misery and despair crisis drags in its wake. But I am going to stick my neck out, and say a few things that might come back and haunt me at a later date.

Despite the scale of what's unfolding before our eyes, I'm not feeling the same sense of foreboding that clouded my brain in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. I cannot avoid schadenfreude. It feels good to see the arrogant financiers, bankers and other witch doctors of voodoo economics despair as their world crashes around them. Its pleasing to see Thatcherite dogma disintegrate in the face of great events as the free marketeers of yesterday go cap in hand to previously neoliberal governments for bail outs. And very, very satisfying to see these former masters of the universe thrash around for some kind of explanation, no matter how absurd.

But there's more than a touch of self-satisfaction. I'm filled with a sense of political optimism I haven't felt in a long time. Can one have the audacity to hope, again? What is sure is the old neoliberal certainty is gone, even if its rotten stench might linger around for a while yet. But there is a new space for ideas. Keynes has been disinterred from his crypt and the necromancy of the 'new' state intervention is reanimating his ideas. But more importantly the spectre of Marx is abroad once again, haunting the nightmares of the bourgeoisie. The attempts at exorcism by the likes of Simon Heffer and Rowan Williams just go to show how anxious they are.

In this period of ideological flux there is an opening of political space that hasn't meaningfully existed in Britain since Labour's defeat at the 1992 general election. There are new opportunities for socialism to provide answers and alternatives to new audiences, and deep down every socialist knows this. If you do have a bit of a spring in your step, there's no need to feel guilty about it because millions are facing unemployment and hardship. Embrace that feeling, get active and organise!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Socialism and the Law

Recently Jim did a tally of the socialist books that had the biggest impact on him, sparking off a short meme followed on several other blogs. I was too busy to join in the fun at the time, but, if you would be so kind to indulge me, there's one book (among others) that has left a lasting impression on my appreciation of socialist politics, and that is Ralph Miliband's Socialism for a Sceptical Age. I don't think its publication received much comment at the time, probably because academic leftism was plumbing the depths of postmodern nihilism, neoliberalism was hegemonic and socialist ideas were in retreat. But now capitalism is convulsed by its most severe crisis in almost 80 years and its favoured ruling ideology lies in tatters, there's no better time for socialists to set out our stall. And, in my opinion, Miliband's book can help us do just that.

Its also worth noting Marx and Engels avoided speculating about the course future socialist societies could take, with good reason. Both grew up in a political context dominated by the schemes and blueprints of utopian socialists. Unlike the utopians, Marx and Engels argued socialism is a real movement in capitalist society, which is negatively realised in increased corporate and state planning (which the system as a whole is dependent on), and the consciousness of world wide labour movements today. We cannot predict in detail the conditions under which socialism becomes victorious nor the specific problems it has to overcome. But this doesn't mean revolutionary socialists should avoid thinking beyond sloganeering and 'building the party'.

There are three key chapters in Miliband's book dealing with socialist democracy, politics and economics and he teases out a series of general problems and contradictions the building socialist societies are likely to encounter, despite the different contexts and political traditions that vary from country to country. These for Miliband are the relationship between law and democratisation, the tension between the need for strong governance, democracy and constitutional checks and balances, where public (socialised) property ends and private property begins, and problems of bureaucratic organisation. In this short piece I'll take a quick look at some general issues regarding socialism and the law, and leave other matters for future posts.

As a classless society will not be ushered in over night, a variety of contradictions and conflicts will remain when power has been won by our class. Law in some form will be needed for all kinds of reasons - to institutionalise and legitimise the new constitutional set up for one, specifying the remits of democratically constituted bodies, individual and collective rights, definitions of socialised property, etc. This is in addition to the more 'mundane' functions it performs in the present day regarding crime, redress, adjudication of disputes and remedies. Miliband suggests this will require we retain a feature of capitalist jurisprudence - an independent judiciary.

However, though this will be superficial in form (we cannot say whether wigs will be retained) it will be very different in content. For starters it must be *democratically* expunged of the reactionary politics and prejudices the judiciary have accumulated over the decades. It must go from being a bastion of the old order to the legal guarantor of the new, while nevertheless preserving its independence. No doubt this will be difficult, but it is an important principle to retain. One danger a fledgling socialist society could face is the arbitrary exercise of power. If a government is to be more democratic and accountable than anything capitalism can devise, the power of judicial review can be built into this accountability process. In other words, instead of acting as a break on democratic aspirations it can act to enhance them.

But how to ensure an independent judiciary do not over reach themselves and become an organised political opposition? There are a number of lessons from the US experience with elected judges that may be useful. For example, fixed term elections and/or the banning of the judiciary from political activity might be considered. Also as the law is revised to reflect the passing away of class society, its arcane and overly complex character could be simplified, making it more accessible to the lay person. Making everyone a legal professional so there are no legal professionals may be a long way off, but it is a first step on that road, and it opens judicial decisions to wider scrutiny.

There are other ways of administering the law that could bypass the need for a judiciary. For example, it is possible there may be a rotation of magistrates in the same way juries are randomly selected from the population for minor cases, and an expansion of the remit of juries and maybe an increase in grand juries. Whatever the case, the building of socialism will be a time of legal experimentation and innovation likely to draw millions into determining the rules of their self-governance, a process so far unparalleled in history.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

SWP Demand Stoke Anti-Fascists Pay £1,800

I write the following in my capacity as an individual member of North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF).

Back in late July, when a posse of UAF (i.e. SWP) visited Stoke for a leafleting session in Bentilee (one of two wards in the city where the BNP have all three councillors), Weyman Bennett delivered Stoke Socialist Party a lecture on anti-fascism. We weren't comfortable with the liberal finger-wagging tone of the leaflets, and said we'd be handing out our own. Weyman replied the bottom line for him was the building of a broad-based coalition against the fascists.

Since then the SWP in its UAF and LMHR guises have been coming up to Stoke for the odd event. UAF have had a stall at Stoke gay pride, spoke at meetings of the local anti-fascist group, NorSCARF, played a part organising the September 20th rally and carnival against the BNP, and last weekend's 75-strong discussion of anti-fascist strategy. Unfortunately, far from aiding the cause of unity the SWP/UAF/LMHR have done everything to rub NorSCARF activists up the wrong way.

The first problem has been the question of personnel. The SWP's two local activists are friendly and well-liked comrades, who have tact, patience, sensitivity and local understanding; in short, the qualities needed for coalition building. Sadly, neither were in a position to work for the UAF and/or LMHR full time. I say sadly because the SWP sent up a party worker totally devoid of these attributes. Bunny Laroche, a full timer who previously excelled herself by making the SWP's name mud in Kent, has spent the odd week in Stoke as a 'LMHR organiser'. At the gay pride festival a local activist was selling UAF t-shirts she had personally purchased to raise funds for NorSCARF. As this was in direct competition with her own similarly decked out UAF stall, she accused the activist of stealing them from her. She then changed tack and said she was "not allowed" to sell the shirts and demanded they be removed. She was ignored.

Bunny came into her unpleasant element again when she ran up against Stoke SP comrades. She went from sweetness and light at the founding meeting of North Staffs NSSN to an aggressive bully at the anti-fascist rally held a few days later. When we turned up at the rally with our banner she *commanded*(!) we take it down because "it was agreed" no party banners or placards were allowed (we refused). Needless to say her concern for this spurious agreement (if indeed it ever existed) evaporated when her fellow SWP'ers disembarked their coaches and broke out their SWP-branded 'Smash the BNP' plaques. Then at last week's debate, she harassed our paper sellers and leafleters by telling them where and when they could/couldn't sell/leaflet, led the charge in shouting down - with some Labour people - one of our comrades who pointed out the rise of the BNP in Stoke might have something to do with the identikit policies of the mainstream parties, snapped at the coffee attendant to make sure one of our comrades paid for his drink, and curled her lip at the activist on the NorSCARF stall - for the crime of daring to carry Searchlight material. It beggars belief someone obviously unsuited to this kind of work, let alone a full time position in a socialist organisation, has been so appointed. What does this say about the SWP?

Weyman Bennett hasn't exactly covered himself, the UAF or the SWP in glory either. At the debate, he took a local Labour activist to one side and told her to "be careful" because "the SP will try and take NorSCARF over". Physician, heal thyself! Seeing as NorSCARF and the SP/Militant branch have a history of consistent activity in the Potteries going back 30+ years, you might think we would have done it by now if we were so minded! But far more serious than Weyman's silly sectarianism is the SWP's bypassing of local anti-fascists when it comes to the actions of the day. At the last NorSCARF meeting Weyman attended, he assured us UAF were going to take a back seat on the 20th September. They were going to be there to support its decisions. But in practice, it was very much the other way round. Two routes were agreed from the vigil/rally point to the carnival with the police, depending on the numbers turning up. One meant going through the city centre if there were under 50 people, and avoiding it if more came along. Approximately 200 went on the march, which meant the latter route came into play. However, it seems the SWP had other plans. As it set off its activists rushed to the front of the demo without any consideration for the NorSCARF banner (where has that happened before?) Then in defiance of the agreed plan the SWP tried to break through police lines to try and march through Hanley. As well as trampling on NorSCARF's wishes, there were children on the demo too, so trying to provoke the police into a ruck wasn't the wisest of moves.

The icing on the SWP/UAF/LMHR cake was announced at last Monday's NorSCARF meeting. During the debate a couple of days before, the PCS rep announced to much applause that the union would be donating £2,000 to NorSCARF in recognition of its vital work against the BNP. It seems the announcement was noted by Weyman and Bunny too, as an itemised bill bearing LMHR's name was received by NorSCARF on Monday morning demanding almost £1,800! Of course, it was the first anyone heard we were going to be charged for LMHR's assistance. After all, the far left isn't in the general habit of getting involved in solidarity actions and campaigns and billing them for our work, so why is this different? A trade union rep who regularly attends the Stoke LMHR group has confirmed its deliberations have never discussed charging NorSCARF. Only those who compiled and sent the bill know why they did, but whatever the reason they have successfully pissed away the goodwill of the majority of NorSCARF activists. Another job well done, comrades!

You can almost see it now. Undoubtedly some will feign offence and incredulity that I bring this story to public attention in times such as these. But tough. There is a real political crisis in Stoke. If the BNP's ambitions aren't thwarted here the city can be their springboard into the political big time, which, given the political volatility that is sure to follow the economic crisis, could be dangerous for us all. To be blunt the stakes are too high for the SWP's arrogant and alienating shenanigans, and until it learns to act differently its shoddy behaviour deserves exposure in front of the entire movement.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Crisis Talk

Keele Socialist Students got together on a wind swept Tuesday evening to talk economics, Marx and the crisis. Due to a cock up it fell to me to provide some talking points for the discussion. As someone who hasn't opened my copy of Capital for some time nor has anything but a rudimentary knowledge of economics, I gave my advanced apologies for mangling basic Marxist concepts and my understanding of Neo-Classical economics and Keynesianism on crisis.

I began with the observation that bourgeois economics believes buying and selling tends toward an equilibrium. Take the relationship between profit rates and interest rates, for example. If investment falls, so does the demand for investment funds (i.e. loans), which drives down the cost of credit and makes investment an attractive option. It is therefore the job of monetary policy to stand guard over this balance. If it does become unbalanced and go into crisis, then some external event has upset it, which can either be government policy, the distorting effects of monopolies, "unscrupulous" individuals, etc. Keynes did not differ that much from the Neo-Classical position, except for him weak institutional arrangements cause disequilibria in markets, therefore all that is required is occasional nudges here and interventions there by the state to ensure things remain rosy.

Marxism has a different view of crisis. It rejects the neo-classical assumptions of economic behaviour, which treats its as an aggregate of individual buyers and sellers. Instead it analyses capitalism as a system, an interconnected totality that goes beyond the immediate buying and selling of the market place to the class relations of capitalist production that underpin it. Therefore crisis is a sytemic property of the type of society we live in.

For example, one Marxist approach to crisis - underconsumption - looks at the position of the working class in capitalist production. The working class, generally speaking, sells its labour power for a period of time to their employers (capitalists) in exchange for a wage. Legally speaking, this is a relationship freely entered into by both parties, which can be terminated by either at any time. It is an equal relation. But as far as Marx was concerned, the legal fiction of equality obscures the very unequal relationship between the two. This is because the worker is not paid the full value of their labour power. To illustrate, assume Brother S gets a factory job at the minimum wage working part time for 10 hours a week. In that time our comrade earns approximately £58 while producing commodities worth £174. Also assume £58 is enough to keep Brother S in green tea and ciggies for a week, in other words, an amount sufficient to reproduce himself as a worker. Therefore if Brother S was paid the full value of his labour, he would only need to work for around three hours and 20 minutes. But because he doesn't and works for ten hours, that's six hours and 40 minutes unnecessary surplus labour. The £116 surplus value accrues to the employer, who uses it to pay off loans, rent, bills, etc. The remainder minus other costs is profit. It follows that no matter how hard Brother S works for his employer, even doing overtime at time and a half, he will never be as wealthy as the firm nor will he be able to buy back all the commodities he's produced, only a proportion. If we extrapolate from Brother S to the working class at large, there comes a point where the disproportion of proletarian purchasing power and the realisation of surplus value by the capitalists become so great that the system is thrown into crisis, firms go to the wall and capital and commodities alike are destroyed.

Related to, but not entirely identical to this approach are Marxist theories of overproduction. This emphasises not the relation between labour and capital, but between rival capitals. In their competition with each other over market share they are compelled to make their operations more efficient and profitable by introducing new technique and intensifying the rate of exploitation. For example, Brother S may be required to work on a new machine that produces more, realising more surplus value; or he might have to work an extra hour for no additional pay or take on other tasks in conjunction with his basic duties. As competition intensifies between firms they are compelled to out produce their rivals or face going to the wall. Those that manage to develop some kind of edge, in terms of efficiency savings, technological advantage and/or superior market position will win out. The problem here is two-fold. The forces of production are developed without a direct relationship to markets, leading to a tendency to produce beyond actual demand and glutting them with cheap or unsaleable commodities. And the production arms race demands greater funds are sunk in the latest technique, leading to a diminishing proportion of surplus value that is realised as profit. Production becomes less profitable and the squeeze is put on wages, once again circumscribing proletarian purchase power, meaning the tendency to crisis is organic to the way capitalism operates.

There are ways of postponing capitalism's crisis tendencies. One is finding new markets, another is extending cheap credit, and, as we know, it is the faltering of the latter that has brought the present crisis upon our heads. Having a stab at explaining it, I suggested that if you look at Britain under the Neoliberal consensus disproportionality has come to a head. It has been boom time for big business and the super rich but real wages have stagnated, bumping along with the rate of inflation. But credit has been very cheap and has allowed millions - businesses and people - to live beyond their means. The paralysis in finance can be traced to the creeping fear that as wages have continued to stagnate, question marks over credit, loans and mortgage repayments. The banks have realised their financial position is quite precarious and are no longer inclined to lend out of fear of defaulting. Without this lending the financial system as a whole has frozen up, and those that needed loans to continue trading have either been nationalised, taken over, or met a sticky end.

It's not difficult to see the negative impacts on the "real" economy. Credit becomes more expensive, which threatens the profitability of business and hardship to millions as they struggle to meet mortgage and/or other credit repayments. And this is without factoring likely sharp increases in unemployment. Plus from a stock market point of view expectations of future earnings are depressed, which will wipe billions off the price of shares and shrink the value of pensions.

Social disaster is the epitaph history is chiselling on to Neoliberalism's grave stone.

The discussion was very wide ranging and took in a number of issues. For example, the plight of working class people who find themselves thrown onto an increasingly competitive labour market with "obsolete" skills; whether governments should at all be stepping in to save the financial system; and, in light of each country's panicky scramble to save their banks, if the European Union can author a collective response to the crisis.

There were a couple of points I found particularly interesting. First is the hunt for new markets. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan afforded new business opportunities to Western firms - will the demand for new markets realise itself in more acts of "humanitarian" imperialism? And what of conflict between the great powers? How will rivalry between the EU, USA and China play itself out in Africa, for instance? And while everyone is busy talking up the latter as a new global hegemon, what about the maturation of India's giant economy? Will there be renewed rivalry between it and its neighbour to the north east?

And what about the future of capitalism itself? No one is saying the system itself has collapsed, rather what has gone down the tubes is a particular way of organising capitalism. It is too early to tell what could replace it, though a number of participants flagged up the possibility of a more regulated capitalism, albeit it without the welfare and full employment commitments of post-war Keynesian capitalism. It's also likely that Neoliberalism will continue to cast its shadow. Nationalisation may have made an unwelcome comeback in the mainstream political lexicon, but there's no sign New Labour's creeping privatisation of the state assets remaining in the public domain is letting up. In fact the need for new markets may be such that the process could be sped up, with the state dangling a few sweeteners capital's way to entice it on board. That is unless an increase in class struggle prevents them from doing so.

Politically, there will be moments when the crisis will be an opportunity for socialists. But the same applies to the far right also. The situation is fluid, but, the meeting agreed, the way forward for socialist politics now is by rebuilding the trade unions, assisting in workers' struggles, rooting ourselves in our class and publicising the socialist message as far and as wide as we can.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Another Black Monday

The question is, how many more will there be?

FTSE 100 - 4589.19, -391.06 (-7.85%)

Dax - 5387.01, -410.02 (-7.07%)

Cac 40 - 3711.98, -368.77 (-9.04%)

Dow Jones - 9955.50, -369.88 (-3.58%)

Nasdaq - 1862.96, -84.43 (-4.34%)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

NorSCARF Debates Strategy

Feels like all I blog about these days are sex shows on TV and anti-fascist stuff. And I see no reason not to continue, especially as the movement in Stoke against the BNP seems to grow by the day. For instance, who could have envisaged 75 people would turn out for a North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (NorSCARF) discussion about fighting the BNP in Stoke? Proof again the forces of anti-fascism far outnumber those available to the local BNP - but how can we organise this numerical superiority into a decisive strategic advantage?

I must say the contribution of Mark Fisher, Labour MP for Stoke Central, was surprisingly good. He got straight to the heart of the matter – it is not enough we have a broad united coalition campaigning against the fascists, we have to win the support base of the BNP away from their politics. Just fixing the Nazi pin on the fascist donkey is not up to the task. The likes of Elly Walker, a BNP councillor for Abbey Green, might go on television and own up to being a ‘racialist’, and Steve Batkin can openly question the Holocaust in the local paper, but the majority of their support already know this. It doesn't mean thousands of BNP voters have become out and out fascists, instead their profile has beeen built on a combination of appearing to stand up for white working class people and pursuing pavement politics on the ground. Challenging them requires calm and patient explanation (had Fisher been reading an old Militant training manual?) Also, we should not be shy of pointing out the damaging effects of BNP support. There are signs newly trained teachers and local government workers are starting to give Stoke a wide berth, including some in the council who are already moving on. That’s not counting the business case against the BNP – more councillors and/or a BNP mayor will not do investment in the Potteries any good.

Jason Hill, NorSCARF president, said we shouldn’t be under any illusions about the character of the local BNP’s leadership. When the party was run by the absurd figure of John Tyndall, it traded as an openly racist and fascist outfit. The core cadre, people like Batkin and Michael Coleman were recruited under this regime, so there is still some utility in using the fascist and Nazi labels. Jason then moved on to the question of the mayoral referendum and election. At present a directly elected mayor and an unelected council manager run Stoke city council. The government has demanded this system changes, so on October 22nd the question of local governance will be put to referendum. The options are the retention of the mayoral system with a cabinet made up of councillors, or a council leader (elected from the chamber) and cabinet. The BNP have opportunistically supported the former option, because they know they can better concentrate their resources during a mayoral campaign than fighting many separate contests in the council elections. Though NorSCARF cannot have any position on the referendum, this is worth keeping in mind.

We then heard from a collection of trade union speakers. Ann Jarvis from the Midlands NASUWT said a silent majority in Stoke were opposed to the BNP’s bigotry. Confronting them means challenging racism, not letting Islamophobic stories in the press pass without comment and getting trade unions back into community organising. Fi Woods of Staffs Uni Students’ Union said she was working toward making students aware of the responsibilities as citizens and using their votes to keep racism out. Andrew Lloyd of the PCS said unions have to face up to the reality that trade union members are voting for the BNP too. To this end the PCS is putting on courses to educate work place reps about racism and the far right so they are better equipped to take on the arguments in the workplaces, doorsteps and pubs.

Atica Rahman, a local youth worker argued that the best way of challenging the BNP is by taking on racism, as this can indirectly eat into their support. But to do this we must understand what the BNP are saying, how they put their arguments across and what we can do to counter it. He also singled out The Sentinel for the favourable coverage the BNP receives – for example despite the BNP’s “protest” a couple of weeks ago being dwarfed many times over by the anti-fascist counter mobilisation and carnival, guess who got the headlines?

The final platform speaker of the day was Weyman Bennet, once again wearing his UAF hat. He began by noting there were many more on our side then theirs. And when you look at what's on their side, it isn't pretty, supporters like Robert Cottage (who stood as a BNP candidate three times) convicted for possessing a large haul of explosives. But we also must be clear the BNP see Stoke as their launching pad. If they win the mayoralty it will give them a national platform far above anything they've so far achieved. Those are the stakes. Our job is to make NorSCARF the focus of the resistance to the BNP, and called for a conference to plan the necessary work.

Contributions from the floor were a mixed, but nevertheless interesting, bag. Some argued that we have to spell out why the BNP are bad news, but at the same time we have to avoid putting out a relentlessly negative message. Another activist who works with Stoke Forum of the Faiths complained the aggressive language of "fighting" and "smashing" the BNP was putting off more involvement from faith groups. If one wasn't feeling charitable, you could suggest this is an *excuse* not to do more. After all, what's stopping the forum from putting out their own anti-fascist literature? I was more inclined to agree with a SWP comrade who observed we can't "tickle the BNP into submission".

Other contributors complained about the disgraceful behaviour of the council bureaucracy toward anti-fascist activity. One teacher told the meeting that an email was sent from Child Services to the city's head teachers directing their staff not to attend the 20th September anti-fascist rally and carnival. A similar message was sent out to youth workers too. One activist reported how a council boss prevented her from leaving anti-racist and anti-fascist literature at a local youth club supposedly because it was "political". It seems as the BNP's councillor tally grows so do the predilections of the petty-minded bureaucrat.

We also heard from local LibDem and Labour councillors. A couple of LibDems complained about declining rates of voluntary community participation, which has given the BNP something to exploit, while a Labour member launched into a defence of their record in office. But this was nothing compared to the storm called down upon the head of A from Stoke Socialist Party. He made the innocuous and undeniable observation that BNP support can in part be traced to pro-cuts, pro-privatisation policies of the three mainstream parties. Power doesn't like truth spoken to it and he was forced to curtail his contribution under shouts from Labour hecklers, none of whom are noted for their regular attendance at NorSCARF meetings.

The meeting broke up resolved to organise a coordinating conference and continue campaigning in the mean time.

It seems to me NorSCARF is caught between two anti-fascist strategies. The first favoured by Labour, most trade unions and the UAF/LMHR/SWP is about mobilising non-BNP voters in an attempt to swamp the latter's support. Hence the liberal anti-Nazi pleas and lowest common denominator politics. The evidence is very patchy whether it succeeds in doing this, though it is worthwhile noting the BNP wins councillors on the basis of low turn outs. There's no reason why this electoral-based strategy shouldn't work, especially if sharper material is used. But we need to be honest about its limitations. It is a stop gap, a sticking plaster and will not "smash" the BNP.

The second strategy, articulated here by Mark Fisher, long backed by the Socialist Party and pioneered in the Labour party by Jon Cruddas is about winning support away from the BNP, addressing the concerns of the people who back them and articulating positive, progressive policies. This is an explicitly political strategy and one which cannot be assimilated by a cross-party grouping like NorSCARF.

They can compliment one another to a degree, but one is about checking the BNP and the other aims at decisively defeating them. At some point down the line every anti-fascist has to ask themselves which it is to be?