The prospect of a new global recession haunts the British ruling class. Historically they have neglected productive investment. For generations they have underinvested compared to their rivals and the result is that Britain is now unable to compete on global markets. They relied on empire and global domination in the 19th Century. The expansion of world trade in the 20th Century helped them continue as a major global power.
Over the past 30 years the British economy has become one of the most de-regulated in the world. This has allowed British capitalists to exploit cheap labour rather than invest as a means of boosting profits. Where there has been investment, it has been speculative in real estate, rather than in improving productivity. Large UK companies prefer to give profits to their shareholders or hold them in tax havens abroad. Small and medium-sized businesses cannot get loans to invest.
As the British economy has de-industrialised over the past 30 years, it has become more and more dependent on banking and services. Investment in production, the life-blood of economic progress in capitalist terms, has been woefully neglected.
As a result, productivity of labour has flat lined since the global recession of 2008 and is 13% below the average for the G7 countries.
Marx explained that when any economic system reaches the point where it is no longer able to develop productive forces, it faces the prospect of revolution. Just as the seemingly unconquerable slave empires of the ancient world and then feudal monarchies of medieval times eventually came up against their own economic limits and were overthrown, a similar fate now stalks capitalism.
Teresa May is pleading with the leaders of British industry to do more to boost the confidence of the public in capitalism. For the first time in generations the British prime minister is warning that capitalism is under threat. There could be no starker illustration of the nightmare the British ruling class is facing.
The pound is frequently under pressure because of uncertainties over Brexit, increasing the price of imports and thus cutting buying power. Yet despite the opportunity this should present to British industry to boost exports, Britain’s trade deficit with the rest of the world keeps widening.
Many jobs are in jeopardy due to Brexit. The Bank of England expects London to lose up to 75,000 jobs as a result of financial services moving elsewhere.
From the point of view of Marxists, whether Britain remains in the EU or whether it leaves is not the fundamental question. This was always a distraction, reflecting attempts by the ruling class to whip up nationalism, xenophobia and the scapegoating of migrant workers.
The problem is capitalism. The EU is an institution of global capitalism. Britain without the EU represents a nostalgic hankering after the capitalism of a bygone era of Empire and Commonwealth. There are plenty of EU ministers who intend to humiliate Britain as they humiliated Greece.
The referendum was a massive blunder by David Cameron. For years there had been a deliberate whipping up of racism by sections of the media, leading to a big increase in votes for UKIP between 2011 and 2014 which the Conservatives saw as a threat to their own parliamentary careers.
The rise of UKIP and the issue of Brexit deflected debate about social justice into nationalistic channels. For Marxists, faced with a rising tide of nationalism, the question was which outcome would lead to less bad conditions for the advancement of socialist ideas? Young people were overwhelmingly against Brexit but less inclined to vote. The older generation, who felt betrayed by all establishment politicians including the Blairites, were more inclined to vote Brexit.
With the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a self-declared Nazi just days before the referendum, it should have been patently obvious to anyone on the left that a win for Brexit would be a boost to the far right. Racist persecution, including violence and murder, directly followed the Brexit victory. (http://greece.greekreporter.com)
But the victory for Brexit also threw the British ruling class into disarray. They rely heavily on cheap migrant labour. 1.4 million Eastern European workers now live in the UK. Entire factories are staffed by migrant workers, with Polish being the main language on the shop floor in some workplaces. The ruling class do not want to lose this supply of cheap labour. And they do not want to lose their trading links with EU countries. Current manufacturing systems require that some components cross the English Channel several times before a product is ready. Tariffs would decimate profits and customs checks would drastically reduce efficiency of trade, taking Europe back to a bygone era.
However, socialists reject the terms of the Brexit debate as they are posed by capitalist politicians. Our task is to fight for workers’ rights and for a cleaner, greener world, whatever type of Brexit is negotiated. We support the free movement of people. The rights of workers from other countries working in the UK should be defended. The free movement of money by the rich is not the same right as the freedom of working people to cross borders.
In the 19th century, when capitalism was still playing a progressive role, it was possible for the British ruling class to plan policies for years and even decades ahead. It almost seemed as though everything their politicians did was right.
Today everything they do is wrong. Establishment politicians are out of touch, cocooned in Westminster and do not understand the mood of anger building up in the lowest depths of society. Teresa May, following David Cameron, stumbles from one monumental blunder to another.
Leading politicians like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel make spectacular fools of themselves. Scandal and depravity are endemic in all parts of the establishment. Sexual abuse is everywhere including the church. Fiddling expenses, police corruption, phone tapping, theft of pension funds by billionaires, royal use of tax havens: we only see the tip of the iceberg. Almost daily, such outrageous news stories are not accidental nor are they purely moral questions. They are a reflection of the deep malaise of British capitalism.
Who knows how long Teresa May’s government can cling on to power, propped up by the homophobic, misogynistic, anti-abortion, paramilitary sympathising, climate-change denying DUP?
Tory MP are falling out with one another as they begin to feel the discontent voiced by their constituents. Universal credit is having an impact so cruel that even some Tory MPs, fearful of losing their seats in the next election, are forced by their constituents to speak out against it.
One of the first signs of an impending revolution is splits within the ruling class. The news agency Reuters has commented on relations among the top Tory hierarchy: “the upper reaches of the governing party are murderous”.
Living standards have flatlined since the global downturn of 2007-2008. For the poorest sections of the population, they have declined in real terms. This is the longest and most significant period of impoverishment for the working class in Britain since the 1860s.
In the past, the British ruling class were able to hold on to power despite their cruelty: they may have sent children down the mines, forced workers to work a twelve or sixteen-hour day, neglected health and safety, let the unemployed starve, allow insanitary slums etc.; but they could justify the existence of their system because the productive forces were developing. It meant that progressively, over several generations, through trade union struggles, it was possible for the mass of the population to win improvements in their living standards. People were not wealthy, but they could at least hope that their children would be slightly better off than themselves. Thus, despite the horrors they inflicted, the ruling class were able to justify their rule.
Today the situation is different. The young people who are just leaving full-time education are much worse off than their parents and, if present trends continue, their children will be worse off than them. Such a disaster is unprecedented in the history of British capitalism.
Four million children live in poverty. More than a million people are living off food banks. Fewer homes are being built by this government than any since the 1920s. Students leave university with debts averaging £55,000. Public sector wages have been squeezed. Schools are starved of funds. Health services are stretched beyond breaking point. According to The Independent, 120,000 deaths can be attributed to cuts implemented by the Tory government.
There is a profound burning anger at the injustices being perpetrated by the rich, the growing gap between rich and poor; a pent-up anger with no organisation through which
to express it. Up until 2007 the ruling class were crowing; they thought they had the whole system firmly in their hands. Now we see that, dialectically, this situation is far more dangerous for the ruling class than they could have possibly imagined.
For thirty years after the defeat of the miners, we were told by editorial writers and learned sociologists that unions were “a thing of the past”. Legislation was introduced to make it more difficult to organise strikes. Yet exploitation has continued and intensified, so it comes as no surprise to Marxists that there is a revival of union activity.
Public-sector unions have challenged the government’s attempt to cap wages. There has been a series of strikes in the railways to defend jobs and protect passenger safety. Post office workers have threatened action against privatisation. Over the summer of 2017 Birmingham bin workers struck to defend jobs and services. There has been a series of strikes by workers defending their pensions.
Furthermore, the “precariat” have begun to organise. Workers never previously organised, in industries difficult to organise, such as McDonald’s, have been on the picket line.
University staff and junior doctors have struck. In the past, many of these highly skilled workers would have considered themselves “middle class” and not identified with union methods of struggle.
Class consciousness may have dwindled with the collapse of the miners’ strike in 1985. Numbers in industrial unions with their traditions of militancy may have declined due to the de-industrialisation of the economy over the past 30 years. But this is only half the picture.
There is a degree of scepticism on the part of workers towards trade unions. The trade union leaders have not always inspired confidence. In 2011 there was a very significant trade union battle, involving health service workers, education staff and civil servants. A united front was developing of several big public sector trade unions in opposition to cuts, pushed by shop stewards and union activists at grass roots level and developed strategically by some unions with a left leadership such as the PCS. By the end of the year it was beginning to show the capacity to organise a general strike. Hundreds of thousands of workers never involved in industrial action before, across all public services, picketed, demonstrated and felt their potential and their power as a class. But this movement was broken because one big union, UNISON, brokered a separate deal, letting the government off the hook. This resulted in the united front breaking down, with an inevitable dampening of the mood.
Temporarily blocked in trade union struggle, the class struggle develops along unforeseen lines. There is a degree of political maturity in the hesitation of some workers towards union action. Under such a reactionary government, surely any trade union action has to be prepared with the utmost recognition of what is at stake? This requires political awareness and a political alternative.
The Labour Party
There is a new mood in Britain – a whiff of revolution in the air. What has changed? Far away from London journalists and Westminster politicians, over several years a massive accumulation of anger had been building up on the estates and in the workplaces. At first the Blairites who headed the Labour Party were oblivious to this mood.
Young people’s frustration at their lack of hope erupted spectacularly, initially in 2010 in the form of student demonstrations following the betrayal of the Liberal Democrats’ promises over student loans, and later in 2011 in a forest fire of youth riots throughout Britain.
If any single event has given scope for the downtrodden to feel any hope, it was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party. This followed a series of miscalculations by the New Labour parliamentary aristocracy cocooned in its parliamentary bubble, who were blissfully oblivious to the growing mood of rage within the working class. There has not been such ferment in Britain since the mass revolt against the hated poll tax in 1990, which led directly to the abolition of the tax and the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Discontent over indebtedness, job insecurity, rising prices, falling incomes, housing shortages have all been burning beneath the surface for decades. There is a complicated combination of moods, as literally hundreds of thousands of politically inexperienced working-class people and students have started to take an interest in politics.
An ad hoc grassroots organisation sprang up to support Corbyn in the course of two successive Labour leadership elections. Though led by a reformist leadership alarmed by the implications of mobilising what in its eyes could prove a dangerous mass movement, it has nevertheless played some role in organising and giving some expression to the hopes of this new generation. All the organisations involved in the emergence of a new movement on the left will change. As the movement matures they will keep re-inventing themselves.
The movement is brand new, naïve, untainted with the habits and preconceptions of the past.
The foundation for the reformism of the twentieth century has gone: the traditional loyalty to the social-democratic outlook of past Labour leaders, earned as a result of the real reforms introduced by past Labour governments which nationalised basic industries and established the National Health Service. Genuine reforms can only be wrested from the ruling class within a capitalist society which is prospering. The new generation of activists has grown up under the shadow of austerity and have never known a government implementing meaningful reforms. What reforms can they expect from a future Corbyn government? The most they will see is an attempt to begin reversing austerity – only to be met, as in Greece in 2015, with colossal pressure from the banks and big business. We can expect a run on the pound, a flight of capital possibly leading to spiralling inflation. Will the working class passively accept that Labour abandon its programme? Of course the Blairite politicians will advocate this; but they have been implementing not reforms but austerity for the last twenty years. The prevailing mood today is neither reformist nor explicitly revolutionary. It is one of undifferentiated anger at the establishment. This new movement has huge expectations of Corbyn. There will be dozens or even hundreds of oscillations as a new generation of workers tests out its leaders: bolder swings to the left, temporary defeats and reassertions of reaction. It is entirely possible that, as this movement gains experience, a growing section of politically aware workers and young people can move directly to revolutionary initiatives.
The only chance any left government has of defending its election promises would be to move immediately to take economic power out of the hands of the rich: to bring banking and finance into public ownership and take back ownership of the utilities, public transport, the recently privatised health and care services. Any section of the economy powerful enough to be used to blackmail a left government must be owned and run democratically by the working class. Such steps, combined with workers’ control and management of workplaces would provide the political and economic foundation for a government of the working people. It would then be possible to create millions of secure skilled jobs: the building of millions of homes; the development of low carbon energy; the expansion and full staffing of health services, social care and education.
A clip has been circulating on social media, showing a black person of about 30 speaking to a BBC journalist outside Grenfell Tower a couple of days after the fire. He is obviously not in any political organisation and he has a crowd around him. They are cheering and supporting him, so he is not just an isolated individual. The BBC journalist asks him: “So what do you want to happen now?” He replies:
“What do I want to happen? I want there to be a revolution in this country. Fuck the media. Fuck the mainstream. If it had been any other country there would have been a revolution by now. People need a revolution in this country. We have seen how you, the mainstream media, have reacted. For two years you have hounded and demonized Jeremy Corbyn. Said he was unelectable. And you created that narrative and people actually believed your bullshit for a while. But what this election has done it has shown that people are immune to that shit there. That is a vote of confidence, not in terms of Jeremy Corbyn but it dismisses May and it also stands up to you as the mainstream media.”
The Grenfell Tower scandal reminded the ruling class just how dangerous the situation is for them. We are living in a brand new situation. We have to be prepared for huge movements that subvert the paradigms previous generations of Marxists developed. We cannot be categorical with perspectives. There are clearly many conflicting moods within the working class. During the June 2017 election campaign, in some of the most deprived areas the most downtrodden people – people who had never uttered a single word about politics in their life – dared to start hoping that a more equal society might be possible. They were talking politics for the first time. There is a huge, profound change taking place at the very bottom of British society, posing huge dangers to the ruling class.
In France in 1968 ten million workers who had previously never been involved in politics – not members of any political party – within the space of two weeks threw the factory owners out of the factories, set up soviets, and began to organise distribution of food and to control prices. President de Gaulle fled the country. And what was it that diverted this movement back on to the road of parliamentary elections? It was the Communist Party.
We have to be ready for similar sudden explosions anywhere, including Britain.