What is to be done?

1. What is the cause of our troubles? It is that we do not make our own arrangements for our day-to-day lives, consciously and democratically planning among ourselves what we want to do, but instead allow our lives to be organised for us by the market and the state. What we do every day gives rise to a predictable structure, or patterning, of activities – a system of society. The main features of the system we live under – for example, the organization of productive activity into separate competing businesses that then sell their goods on a market, the organization by the state of the rest of life according to the needs of these businesses, the creation of a whole class of people who must make their living as subservient employees – arose recently in historical time. Whenever and wherever this system has been tried, or attempts to expand, it meets with violent opposition. It is resisted not because people are stupid and don’t know what’s good for them, but because they don’t like having their economic and political life subordinated to immoral principles. Our system is based on the rule of money and results in the production of misery and death – perhaps even total ecological collapse – on a grand scale.

2. This system – call it ‘capitalism’ – is a modern version of slavery. Under slavery, the rich bought slaves on a market, who were then responsible for setting the slaves to work and providing for their upkeep and welfare. Whether this was done well or badly, whether the slaves were treated kindly or brutally, depended at least partly on the market value of replacement slaves. Under capitalism, the rich buy wage-slaves on a market, and are then responsible for setting them to work, and giving them a wage so that the slaves can organise their upkeep and welfare for themselves. Whether this is done well or badly depends at least partly on the market value of the work performed and the wage paid.

3. With a few important exceptions such as sexism and racism, no question – political, social, moral, sexual, academic, scientific, you name it – makes sense or can be answered unless it is put in the context of this broader system of slavery.

4. In our society, this view of the world is not widespread and does not immediately strike everyone as obviously true for two main reasons. The first is that the system, as the outcome of what we do every day, appears to us as natural and inevitable. Only when we become aware of or imagine alternatives can we even begin to question this. The second is that the very worst crimes and acts of terrorism carried out by businesses and our own governments are committed abroad rather than at home, and given a progressive and humanitarian sheen by a huge media and PR industry, which exists to manufacture consent. Our governments organize massacre and murder abroad and manage boredom and cynicism at home.

5. However, there is hope. Humanity may be destroyed, but never defeated. Even under capitalism, a system of human values exists that is worth embracing, insisting on, defending, and expanding. These values – call them ‘Christianity’ and ‘liberalism’ – were themselves born (or reborn) in revolutions. They can be reduced to a single demand – for democracy, liberty and justice.

6. Voting for a change of government once every five years or so is not democracy, but a sham. Democracy means individuals coming together into a community and taking collective responsibility for their own lives. Both individuals and communities are strengthened by this, and is the cure for anxiety, depression, stress and exhaustion. What we desperately need are spaces where we can deliberate on our problems and come to democratic decisions – and not just in the political sphere, but in the economic one too.

7. Because the system that enslaves and depresses us is a result of our daily activity, it is our daily activity that must change if we are to work towards a world of democracy, liberty and justice. We must act as if we are already free. This is impossible, but we must do it anyway. Every act of resistance against capitalism and for democracy is then not only good for your health – it is a revolutionary act. You can start anywhere – from changing your shopping habits to standing up to workplace bullying to giving up your car to organising a street party to chaining yourself to bulldozers to setting up a newsletter to organising a revolution. All power to your imagination.

8. Our hope is that these small acts will culminate, eventually, in a world organised entirely on the principles of democracy, liberty and justice. Anthropology (for example, the study of the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers and other ‘traditionally organised’ peoples) and history (for example, the study of previous revolutionary transformations such as the Paris Commune) give us the confidence that our beliefs are well founded in science. Humanity has before known worlds of democratic participation, mutual aid and collective joy. It can experience them again – and does so, in fact, in millions of ways in our own world every day, but these experiments in democracy remain hidden to us if we don’t search them out because they are not considered newsworthy. However, considering that no attempt to organise the modern world in industrialised countries in this way has ever been entirely successful, we must concede that that may be because it’s not possible. We act, then, on the faith that it is, in the knowledge that it’s worth fighting for whether it is or not, and with tolerance and respect for other views and perspectives.

Owen Jones’s masterful manifesto

Politics is the art of the possible, said someone once, and repeated since by everyone everywhere. It’s a cliché because it’s true. But it’s truer for some politicos than for others.

By “politics”, most people understand the kind of horse-trading that goes on in Westminster or the town hall, and most people, quite sensibly, take no interest in it (most people have no horse to gain or lose by, or, even if they do, don’t believe they can influence the trade either way). The art of the possible, then, is the art of an elite. Only the elite themselves or connoisseurs need take any interest.

For lefties, however, politics has quite a different meaning. While not denying the importance of possible tactics, even in horse-trading, we want to see bigger changes in society – the kind that most people agree are desirable, but dismiss as impossible. Part of the task, for left politics, is getting people to change their minds about what is or is not possible, to think about how they might prevent their horses getting flogged off at a huge discount then rented back to them at inflated prices. For lefties, politics is more the art of making the impossible seem possible – and desirable, and within reach.

This is difficult. It is so difficult that veterans of the art are sometimes led to believe that if someone has made it look too easy, then something must be wrong. Such veterans often end up as cynics – not with the youthful, helpful kind of cynicism that helps us see through the false claims of authority, but with the aged, tired kind of cynicism that wears us down by seeing through everything.

Which is a long and roundabout way of saying that you really should read this very impressive piece of political writing by Owen Jones. In it he outlines a nine-point political manifesto – the kind of thing that is totally off the wall and impossible from the point of view of “the gentlemen’s agreement” that passes for political commentary and common sense in the mainstream media and in the main political parties, but that is actually pretty mild stuff and the basis of the common sense of a majority of people in this country (people who therefore find themselves without political representation in what is ostensibly a democracy).

I’ve already seen some socialists object to the manifesto on the basis that it’s not radical enough. This misses the point. The point is that it’s too radical to be accepted by any mainstream political party or mainstream commentator, even though what is proposed is totally reasonable, based on the common-sense thinking of a majority of the electorate, easily achievable, and would provide instant relief of desperate suffering for huge numbers of people. Whatever else you may think of Owen Jones, this article proves him to be something of an adept at the art of making the impossible seem possible. Go and see a master at work: click here.

Ed Balls’ austerity programme

Ed Balls, the Labour party’s finance-minister-in-waiting, recently gave a speech committing his party to pursuing the very same austerity programme they deride when it is pushed by the Conservatives. This has led to some on the left to argue for a good dose of stimulus instead. Who’s right?

If you try to follow the argument as it is conducted by various pundits and experts, you might, unless you are paying particularly close attention, quickly get lost. Even with the best effort in the world, the argument often generates more heat than light. You could be forgiven for emerging from the debate none the wiser.

This is where an overarching framework for understanding can be helpful – a way of stepping back from the details of the debate, and looking at the bigger picture, the overall environment in which the argument is taking place. Marxism provides just such a framework.

So what is the Marxian view? It is that both sides are right!

The argument for austerity is rooted in a view of how capitalist economies work and are supposed to work. In this view, the only way out of capitalist crisis and recession is a “deflationary bust” – a wave of “creative destruction” that will destroy old capital (by shutting down unprofitable businesses, mothballing old machinery, pulling down old factories and offices, laying off workers, etc) and lay the basis for a new round of value-creating business enterprise and growth. This is how we got out of a deep economic hole the last time it happened in the 1930s – a combination of the Second World War literally destroying old capital by flattening Europe, and, when the soldiers left standing came home, the suburbanisation of the United States and consequent rise of the modern consumer, and so on. 

The Marxian view says that this argument is basically correct – that such “creative destruction” is indeed a “natural” and “inevitable” aspect of the capital-accumulation process – but that it’s impossible to be as sanguine about it as the Austerians are, because the process is not cyclical but spiral – in other words, the costs of the bust become ever higher as time goes on. A deflationary bust can no longer just be about a banker or two losing their shirts, as it was in the days when the canonical economic texts expounding the Austerian view were written, because increasingly the whole globe depends on the capitalist process to earn their living.

A deflationary bust of the kind that occurred in the 1930s, and that we have been teetering on the brink of for the past six years or so, would mean we all lose our shirts – and maybe our dinners too. Allowing creative destruction would have extremely dangerous consequences for political and social stability – just look at what is currently happening in Greece, for example. Letting such austerity rip on a global scale would not just be dangerous for the ruling class (in terms of political revolutions and so on), it could be lethal for us all. (It took a catastrophic world war last time, there’s no guarantee humanity would survive such a thing the next.)

That’s where the other side of austerity versus stimulus debate steps in and says we just can’t afford such dangerous instability because capitalism itself wouldn’t survive it – maybe humanity wouldn’t. So they step in with all kinds of schemes (called Keynesian, but the schemes predate Keynes) to mitigate the dangers and “kick the can down the road” – schemes that vary from the money-printing by central banks we all hear about (quantitative easing) to the programme of public works advocated in the article linked to above. The Austerians deride such measures as the dumb meddling of clueless bureaucrats in an otherwise self-regulating system, and maybe that’s exactly what they are, but given the consequences of not meddling, the ruling class should really should be very careful what it wishes for.

If both sides are right, then what happens? As both Marx and Harry Hill would agree, you get a fight – which is ultimately about who gets left with the losses of devaluation. Different sections of the ruling class try to impose it on each other (by arguing about economics and QE and interest rates and state subsidies etc etc); and all those sections unite to try to impose them on the poor and working class. Who wins depends on power – which is a shame for the latter, as they now have to do without political or trade union representation, and have absolutely no clue what’s going on, at least partly because they’re too focused on Justin Bieber’s latest antics.

So in this context, you can see where Ed Balls is coming from. He’s speaking to the most powerful sections of the ruling class, who are worried that an incoming Labour government might try to impose the losses of the crisis onto them, rather than continuing to impose them on the poor and working class. The precise balance may well be slightly different under Labour – they are competing, after all, for votes, and must distinguish their brand from the basically identical product on the nearby shelf. But the work of creating a genuine alternative that gives working-class people any power in the fight remains very much a work in progress.

Towards a new left party

Five years since the near-collapse of the global financial system, we continue to face economic and social catastrophe. Trillions of dollars have been poured into the private banks to stave off disaster and the result has been to transfer their debts onto the books of national governments causing an immense sovereign debt crisis. The response of governments, led by the Troika of European institutions, has been to adopt extreme and far-reaching austerity policies. In this way they have sought to make the poor pay for the current crisis whilst simultaneously attempting to deal with the systemic crisis of capitalism by reverting to the form it had in the 1930s, without social protections, which meant a visit to the doctor was to be dreaded because of the cost, and every knock on the door could be another debt collector.

That face of capitalism was superseded – temporarily as is now clear – after 1945, as humanising reform elements were adopted under the pressure of the strengthened post-war labour movements and the social democracy that they gave rise to across much of Western Europe. Following the pattern adopted in the Global South where post-colonial reforms were destroyed by the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank, resulting in poverty, environmental destruction, intra-state conflict and increasing violence against women, Europe’s post-1945 social gains are now being brutally reversed. Governments use the excuse of ‘paying off the deficit’ to cut public spending and redistribute society’s wealth in the interests of the ruling class, by reducing wages and destroying the ‘social wage’ of health, education, social services and welfare. The result is that whilst we see the rise of poverty, homelessness and unemployment, the wealth of the richest in our societies continues to grow at an exponential rate. We have entered the age of austerity where in a topsy-turvy world those who are responsible for the economic crisis are making the vast majority, who are not responsible, pay for their greed and profligacy and for the fundamental flaws in their system.

Everything which makes life worth living is being eroded. Hospitals and GP surgeries, schools, welfare systems, libraries and community leisure provision – all have to be closed or privatised to feed the insatiable demands of the debt. All that was fought for and won in the post-war period is now under attack as the ruling class takes the opportunity to turn back history to the 1930s.  In Greece, which is the test case for the most extreme version of these austerity measures, the entire health system is being dismantled. Children are no longer vaccinated for the most common diseases. Youth unemployment there has reached 65% and millions rely on food hand outs just to live. Malnutrition is evident. Here in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, more than half a million rely on food-banks just to feed their families every week. This is a situation which can only worsen. We are, as yet, only in the early stages of this austerity programme with the majority of the cuts still to come.

The urgent questions that faces us are, first, how to stop this offensive by the rich and defend the welfare state and, second, how to extend the social gains, making them permanent and using them as a basis from which to build a fully democratic society – not just political democracy, but social and economic democracy, run by the people for the people. In the past, working people in this country relied on the Labour Party to represent them. Despite its many shortcomings, in some respects the party upheld the interests of ordinary people and for many years worked to advance their standards of living. However, since then, social democracy – whether in Britain or in Greece, Spain or France – has moved sharply to the right. Rather than defending the people who vote for it and support it, it no longer plays its traditional role of ameliorating capitalism.  Instead social democracy defends the barbarism of capitalism and justifies the attacks on the living standards of the majority.

Across Europe, however, people are fighting back. In Greece there have been more than 23 general strikes. In Portugal, Spain and elsewhere there have been demonstrations of hundreds of thousands. Portugal has seen the biggest movement since the revolution of 1974. In Britain in 2011, half a million people marched against austerity. On 14th November 2012, millions of workers throughout Europe took coordinated strike action and millions more demonstrated in their support. The young people of Europe have occupied the public squares, direct action has grown and many campaigns to defend the welfare systems have been built. However, despite these movements the avalanche of austerity continues to crash down on the peoples of Europe. There have been few victories. In some countries there have been temporary retreats by the ruling elites but nowhere yet has the system been fundamentally shaken by the action of the people.

A third element has emerged alongside the strike wave and the struggles of the youth and the anti-austerity campaigners: the development of new parties of the left throughout Europe. As the ‘socialist’ parties like PASOK in Greece, PSOE in Spain and the Parti Socialiste (PS) in France have moved to the right so left parties have been strengthened and have won substantial support from working people. The situation is most advanced in Greece where PASOK was, until 2012, the party of government receiving 40% of the popular vote. It voted for austerity and made the cuts; now it stands at only 5% in the polls and is a thoroughly discredited political formation. Its place has been taken by Syriza, an anti-austerity party that seeks to form a workers’ government. In Spain the social democratic PSOE is travelling the same path as PASOK, and Izquierda Unida, the United Left – sister party of Syriza – is now at 17% in the polls.

Despite the fact that the Labour Party, like PASOK, PSOE and the PS, has betrayed the labour movement and embraced neo-liberalism over the past twenty years, many find it difficult to imagine the emergence of a new mass left opposition in Britain. Some argue that the political forces which gave rise to the left parties in Europe don’t exist here; that the union link with Labour is too strong, that ‘reclaiming’ Labour is the only possibility. These are factors which need to be considered, but the self-destructive turn by the Labour leadership against the union link must lead to a reassessment by the trade unions of their political location and the necessity of their supporting a new party of the left.

For the reality is that the people of Britain need political representation; they need a party which will fight to defend and advance their interests rather than standing idly by or siding with ruling class attacks. There is a limit to how long working class people can wait for Labour to stand up for them. The welfare state needs defending now. For many, that limit has already been passed. Labour supports the government’s spending cuts and fails to oppose the attacks on the poor and most oppressed groups in society. Its failure to pledge to reverse iniquities like the bedroom tax when in office is reminiscent of the failure of the Labour government after 1997 to reverse Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. Its concessions to racism and xenophobia in the form of anti-immigration policies are the worst form of vote seeking and tailing of far right policies. It is based on craven pandering, both to the government’s scapegoating culture which obscures the reality of the disproportionate impact of the cuts on black people and to its condoning of Islamophobia and refusal to recognise the role of its foreign policy in giving rise to terrorism. Nothing any longer inspires any hope or confidence in the Labour Party to meet the people’s needs, to defend our civil liberties or to fight for policies based on peace and justice. A new left party would stand unequivocally against racism and Islamophobia.

The Labour Party’s support for austerity is not the only reason for founding and building a new party of the left. Throughout its history Labour has backed war and foreign intervention, as well as Britain’s exploitation of other countries for economic gain. Tony Blair’s championing of the Iraq war was in keeping with much of Labour’s historic foreign policy role and the duplicitous way in which he took the country to war – in spite of strong opposition from many within the Labour Party itself – served to underline the moral degeneration of the party leadership; the subsequent parliamentary expenses scandal further eroded trust not only in parliamentary political standards generally but in Labour in particular. This degeneration and abandonment of the core values of the labour movement, together with the failure to champion the needs of ordinary people, is in part responsible for the rise of UKIP.  A new party of the left is needed to stand against war and military intervention, for a drastic reduction of military expenditure for the benefit of social spending, and for a foreign policy based on peace and equality.

The political conditions exist for the creation of a new left party in Britain. In their specifics they are not the same as those that have given rise to new left parties elsewhere in Europe. But the fundamental facts are the same: ordinary people need a party to represent their interests, to defend the welfare state and the past gains of the working class. They also need one that will take those gains forward and work to transform society in a new way, which the Labour Party only ever partly embraced: the full democratisation of politics, society and the economy, by and for the people.

A new left party will stand for an alternative set of values of equality and justice: socialist, feminist, environmentalist and against all forms of discrimination.

We are socialist because our vision of society is one where the meeting of human needs is paramount, not one which is driven by the quest for private profit and the enrichment of a few. The natural wealth, productive resources and social means of existence will be owned in common and democratically run by and for the people as a whole, rather than being owned and controlled by a small minority to enrich themselves. The reversal of the gains made in this direction after 1945 has been catastrophic and underlines the urgency of halting and reversing the neo-liberal onslaught.

We are feminist because our vision of society is one without the gender oppression and exploitation which blights the lives of women and girls and makes full human emancipation impossible. We specify our feminism because historical experience shows that the full liberation of women does not automatically follow the nationalisation of productive forces or the reordering of the economy. We fight to advance this goal in the current political context, against the increasing divergence between men’s and women’s incomes, against the increasing poverty among women, against the ‘double burden’ of waged work and unshared domestic labour, and against the increasing violence against women in society and in personal relationships, which is exacerbated by the economic crisis.

We are environmentalist because our vision of society is one which recognises that if humankind is to survive, it has to establish a sustainable relationship with the rest of the natural world – of which it is part and on which it depends. We recognise that an economy based on achieving maximum profits at the lowest cost in the shortest possible time is destroying our planet. The current operation of industry and economy is totally incompatible with the maintenance of the ecosystem through the growing loss of bio and agro diversity, the depletion of resources and increasing climate change. The future of the planet can only be secured through a sustainable, low carbon industrial base designed to meet people’s needs on a global basis.

We are opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether on the basis of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, religion, age or politics. The current economic onslaught disproportionately affects already disadvantaged groups and we oppose their persecution and oppression. We support the free development, opportunity and expression of all, without impinging on the rights of others, and the introduction of legislation and social provision to make this intention a reality. No society is just and equal while some people remain without the support needed to achieve their full potential.

The political practice of the new left party will be democratic, diverse and inclusive, committed to open dialogue and new ways of working. We are committed to mutual respect and tolerance of differences of analysis. We seek to work now in the ways that we wish to see established in a transforming society, which is moving from the brutality of capitalism to a society based on socialist principles. We start from our common humanity and thus the importance of creating the conditions in which everyone is able to develop their full potential within our communities. We reject the corruption of conventional political structures and their reproduction of the gender domination of capitalist society, from which the left thus far has not been exempt. We will redouble our efforts to eradicate these practices from our politics and recognise that the achievement of equality in social relations is a continual struggle which cannot be deferred until a later date.

The new left party will campaign, mobilise and support struggles on a day to day basis, recognising the need for self-organisation in working class communities. We recognise that support for a new left party and its electoral success will only advance to the extent that it is genuinely representative of working class communities, has no interests separate from theirs, and is an organic part of the campaigns and movements which they generate and support.  The new left party will engage in the national and local electoral processes, offering voters a left alternative, while understanding that elections are not the only arena or even the most important arena in which political struggles are fought.

The new left party will be an internationalist party. There are no national solutions to the problems that humanity faces. Capitalism is an international system, highly organised and globalised and its defeat requires not only international solidarity but the linking up and coordination of struggles across Europe and the world. The new left party will seek international links and work to establish active coordination with like-minded movements such as the new European left parties currently organised in the European Left Party, including Syriza, Bloco de Esquerda, Izquierda Unida, Die Linke, Front de Gauche and others. We will also seek to learn from the experience of those parties in Latin America which have challenged and rejected neo-liberal economic policies and are establishing a social and economic alternative in the interests of the majority of their peoples.

We recognise the urgency of the task before us in founding this new party on a basis which will enable it to grow and develop, to be a party of the people and for the people. The rise of the far right across Europe is a stark warning of what may come to pass if the left in Europe fails to be effective and combat the barbarism of capitalism and fascism. Here in Britain we must take our part in that struggle and make our contribution to the full liberation of humanity.

Document of the Left Party Platform of Left Unity

July 2013

Gilbert Achcar, Jay Blackwood, Andrew Burgin, Terry Conway, Gioia Coppola, Merry Cross, Felicity Dowling, John Duveen, Suzy Gillett, Liz Gray, Winmarie Greenland, Joe Hallet, Guy Harper, Louise Harrison, Kate Hudson, Chris Hurley, Nick Jones, Jim Kelly, Rosalie Kelly, Graeme Kirkpatrick, Joe Kisolo-Ssonko, Fred Leplat, Nick Long, Sharon McCourt, Sheila Mosley, Susan Pashkoff, Marc Renwick, Ed Rooksby, Jenny Ross, Barbara Segal, Salman Shaheen, Sean Thompson, Alan Thornett, Doug Thorpe, Bianca Todd, Mike Tucker, Tom Walker, Stuart Watkins, Jake Whitby, Roland Wood.