nothing to lose, nothing to win

10 08 2011

David Broder argues that the left has to be honest about the counter-productive nature of Britain’s riots

“It’s not just this country, there’s uprisings everywhere. It’s the whole world. Everyone’s fed up, no one has anything” – Hackney pensioners quoted in Socialist Worker, 9th August 2011

Watching the BBC’s rather tabloid coverage of the current riots, one would imagine it was simply a wave of criminality. As if coming from nowhere, young people suddenly have no respect for authority: they can only be kept down by bolder use of state force. Reporting their own coverage as ‘mounting calls for police action’, the BBC implicitly admit that the only way to appease the rioters is the muzzle, that there is no carrot but only stick.

The main leftist response to this has been to stress the context behind the disturbances: poverty, racism, police brutality. The idea is to downplay the significance of the rioters’ actions as compared to violence and oppression in society as a whole. But this is only half the picture: if this ‘context’ explains reasons why young people feel angry and alienated, why should they choose this particular means of response?

We hear a lot about how these kids have ‘nothing to lose’: one of the reasons they are so willing to resort to open defiance of the law, whether smashing windows in broad daylight or torching cars. The sheer extent of the disturbances has doubtless emboldened a spirit of recklessness, giving the impression it is possible to get away with looting: but these are also the actions of people without a stake in society. However, if they have ‘nothing to lose’, the rioters also have ‘nothing to win’: they have such little hope of any alternative that individual looting seems like a better way of getting ahead than does making common cause with other working-class people.

Days of rage

The left response to the current rioting in London has been rather confused. For sure, many have been quick to point to the bubbling social malaise underpinning the rebellion, but few have come close to open support for the rioters’ actions. Perhaps the closest yet was today’s Socialist Worker, and its  front page headline ‘Rage erupts against injustice’. This timeless, vacuous wording of the headline of course merely reflects the uncertainty of their position: if this were really some great rebellion of the dispossessed, why not join in?

The riots have wrong-footed left opinion because it is untenable to condone attacks on ordinary people’s homes and cars. Many complain about establishment hypocrisy: but if the ‘real’ violence is war or the ‘real’ looting is the City of London, it is also hypocritical to ignore the damaging effects that these riots also have on Britain’s communities. I really struggle to imagine how you would sell a paper with a front page glorifying the riots, to anyone whose neighbour had their car torched or whose estate was beset by vandalism.

In a sense, this confusion on the left is nothing new. Reflecting its own inability to pose a positive alternative, for decades socialist groups have increasingly tailed just any form of resistance to the powers-that-be. For instance, supporting Islamist groups fighting against imperialism shows a bankruptcy of purpose where, recognising our own weakness, we can contract out our ‘resistance’ to forces with totally different objectives. So the argument goes: never mind what they intend to achieve: they are downtrodden, they suffer real oppression, and they are fighting our enemies. Leftists concerned only with the feelings of politicians can enjoy their predicament whilst ignoring the suffering of these rebels’ victims. Their motto: the resistance is everything, the end goal is nothing.

Left-wing support for rioters – even if they are attacking working-class people’s homes, even if they have no positive idea what they want – is essentially another version of the same phenomenon. Equally, the very fact of the riot is an expression of the weakness of radical or alternative ideas: unlike the Brixton or Toxteth riots of thirty years ago, there is no struggle and no enemy, simply an explosive reaction to being angry, fed-up and downtrodden.

Con-Dem nation

The point, however, is not to ‘condemn’ or ‘condone’ the rioters. There is nothing to ‘condone’ or support; ‘condemning’ them is not a means of engaging with them, only an expression of submission to the dominant media and political discourse. Far from it: we are against arrests, we are against more police powers, and we are against the imprisonment of the people involved. We are opposed to the punishment of the dispossessed and opposed to more state power in the name of law-and-order.

And yes, we should try and engage the rioters in a positive alternative to a capitalist system which keeps them downtrodden. Yes, they should struggle against being shat upon. But that does not mean their current actions are part of the answer. That is a discussion to be had openly and honestly: if there is no point shaming these young people by wagging our fingers in moral disapproval, it is no better to patronisingly imagine they are not capable of better than this.

As communists we believe in a means of struggle which reflects a radically different set of social relations. To that end our fight against the government includes as many people as possible, organises in a democratic way, and seeks to promote an alternative social order in the here and now. This is a quite different attitude from blindly cheerleading any ‘resistance’ against the powers-that-be: it is a programme for collectively changing our mutual relations, a mass of people able to engage with each other in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical way.  We don’t just want to make it known that we’re fed up, we want to revolutionise society.

Unfortunately the attitudes of the left, and its defeats in recent decades, mean that such ideas have had far too little weight in the current wave of struggles around the world: from the mass protests in Greece to the square camps in Spain, or even the Arab uprisings, they express mass anger without being able to articulate what they want instead. Despite the intentions and heroism of those involved, a lack of such perspective ultimately means besieging the ruling class with pressure until they come up with some means of appeasing the movement. This ultimately reproduces an order where decisions are made for us by others and large numbers of people have no stake in society at all.

The riots are a reflection of poverty and anger, and an extreme expression of the lack of any widespread positive vision for an alternative to the current society. But it is not enough just to try and politicise them a bit more by inviting the participants to existing left activity like TUC demos or the rally against the Tory conference. In the immediate that seems a very unlikely prospect, and it also skims over the need to draw lessons from what is happening. We must also be honest that the current riots are not even the embryo of the kind of movement we want. This is counter-productive behaviour whose only results will be division amongst working-class communities and an excuse for the state to step up its use of force.

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73 responses

10 08 2011
Dr Paul

Good article. Below is from the next New Interventions, fairly similar in tone I reckon:

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

First of all, we must ask: why should the fatal shooting by the police of a young black man lead within little more than a day to the most serious rioting that Britain has seen for over 25 years? The shooting of someone by the police is still front-page news in Britain, it is still considered as a serious incident. When, as in this case, the question of race intrudes, then it often becomes a politically volatile matter. But this was different: something far more deep, far more fundamental occurred. It is clear that the shooting of Mark Duggan was a trigger, a catalyst, that ignited an extremely explosive mixture that had long been fermenting within Britain’s inner-city areas.

The usual explanations do not suffice. One can treat those coming from the right — that it was pure criminality — with contempt. They are evading the real issues. Liberals and left-wingers promote the idea that the Coalition government’s austerity measures, particularly the public expenditure cuts that are closing youth clubs and especially those bodies trying to deal positively with teenage gangs, are fundamentally to blame, along with rising unemployment and the lack of genuine opportunities for youngsters. This is indubitably true, but the closure of this or that facility or the lack of work cannot explain the truly visceral nature of this outburst.

Unlike some anarchists, who see the riots as a carnival of the oppressed, socialists cannot be so sanguine. Riots express anger, but are no solution to the underlying problems. Their primal, explosive nature mean that innocent people are hurt and even killed, small shops looted and put out of business, homes and local infrastructure damaged or destroyed. Community relations can be worsened, as, for example in North London, Turkish and Kurdish shop-owners systematically tooled up to repel (mainly) black would-be looters, and trust will be hard to rebuild. And, of course, the state will be using these disturbances to devise new ways to survey and control the population at large.

The current stage of capitalism, in which social relations are increasingly reduced to whether human activities are immediately profitable, has resulted in social disaggregation. Old institutions, from the organised labour movement to organised religion, which in their various ways gave shape and coherence to society have declined and decayed, with nothing coming in to replace them. People feel more isolated these days, and current mores encourage a more selfish, self-centred attitude amongst people. All this, combined with long-term unemployment and social deprivation and the consequent feeling of hopelessness, has resulted in a certain degree of lumpenisation, especially amongst young people. Disaffected youth often attempt to deal with their situation through the fake solidarity of the local gang, which can bring them into criminal activities and further alienation from mainstream society. These young people have a deep hostility to the institutions of the state and to the political establishment, but it often expresses itself in anti-social attitudes and activities.

Fish rot from the head, and the Tories and their friends will not be keen to point to a whole range of manifestations whose insidious consequences have seeped deeply into the pores of society. Politicians and big-businessmen demand austerity whilst jealously defending their own incomes. The recent Murdoch scandal has shown how his empire established corrupt relations with politicians and the police, and did not hesitate in breaking the law when tapping thousands of people’s telephones. Bankers continue to pay themselves huge bonuses even after losing billions and having had to be bailed out by the state. Large numbers of well-paid MPs happily claimed excessive expenses or fiddled them outright. Successive British governments have thought nothing of attacking and invading foreign countries that posed no threat, and covering their reasons for so doing with lies and distortions.

What are people to assume from this? That one can lie, fiddle, bribe, be hypocritical, break the law and attack others with impunity. If the rich and powerful are doing all this, when they are bending and breaking their own laws, then why should a young person, unemployed, treated with contempt by the authorities, with no sense of belonging to society, not feel that he has a right to lash out, to seize what he feels could be his?

Those who have participated in or have encouraged such behaviour should not be surprised when others, especially those who feel excluded from society, act in a similar manner. And that is the central problem of the riots that we have seen in Britain: they are both a product and a reflection of the rottenness of British capitalism. Riots will not even start to solve the deep-running problems facing Britain’s inner-cities; all they can do is point to a deep-running malaise. Socialists have an obligation to explain why such events happen, and do what they can to direct popular discontent in a more constructive and more effective direction.

Arthur Trusscott

10 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Good article – it puts your case pretty strongly and directly, but I don’t like its conclusion, because at root it seems to replicate the same failure on the libertarian left I always bang on about, the failure to engage. That is to say, the criticism of all the players is good and spot-on, but you in the end basically give up on finding a way to relate to these people. In fact, what I can say for the Socialist Worker, and my own article, is that it at least tries to draw in this eruption, it manages not to continue the failure of our liberal capitalist society in that it has not left these people out in the cold. But there is none of that here, I just don’t think there is anything we can offer anyone from what is written here, we have nothing really to say to the man whose house was destroyed, and nothing to this entire underclass either. It is all just a great problem at the end of which we shrug and walk on to the next event.

I also don’t think that support for these people’s plight is comparable to SWP support for islamist groups either. What I detect here is a traditional disdain for the lumpen-proletariat, in that the unemployed underclass is not seen as a real part of the socialist cause, they are just nobodies, and certainly not worth the same attention as the good working class people you mention. There is positive content in this looting, it is I think the best anti-capitalist action that could be made in these circumstances, a massive refusal of the normal commercial relations under capitalism. Of course there are awful reactionary, racist and downright stupid aspects to this too, it is what you would expect when the left cannot bring itself to articulate these people’s grievances as though they were their own.

So on the whole I think a good article, but it basically expresses a failure on our part.

10 08 2011
VM

What I detect here is a traditional disdain for the lumpen-proletariat, in that the unemployed underclass is not seen as a real part of the socialist cause… and therefore needing a Leninist vanguard (w/ Bachelors degree or higher, please) to interpret the objectively correct meaning of their actions.

10 08 2011
davidbroder

It has nothing to do with Lenin or vanguardism (what are you talking about?), that is ridiculous. A fine posture, but what do you have to say about the substantive content of the article? You can hardly pretend not to have an opinion on what the riots will result in, or their effect on other working class people.

10 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I think the vanguard point is not right in this case, but there is this funny problem which I’ve talked about elsewhere. That is, that we have criticise the Leninist model and its vanguardism, don’t have an organising model really of our own and so are left hanging. In this case of this article, you object to the SWP’s use of this crisis on the basis I suppose of vanguardism, but you have refused their position for yourself, but like them you are still on the outside of this struggle. You feel no strong ownership or identification with it, you are still external, not a vanguard and not a comrade – a sort of suspended animation on the left I suppose.

10 08 2011
abetternhs

From my perspective (I live on the Narrow Way in Hackney and have worked as a GP in Hackney for the last 10 years listening to the tales of ‘the lumpen proletariat’) I think that the rioting was ‘anarcho-street-capitalism’ in action, just as my patient’s £50k a year crack habit and the other illegal workers, gang-masters and people smugglers are ‘anarcho-capitalists’. They’ve all given in to the system, they haven’t opted out. There are those that have, but they are few, many of them have escaped persecution and have come here to campaign in relative safety. I fear that one reason the ‘unemployed underclass is not seen as a real part of the socialist cause’ is because they are not socialists, nor do they wish to become socialists. They want to become successful capitalists. The power of capitalism is the dream of wealth and wealth is relative so it means standing on the remains of others.
The message I have taken from the riots is that capitalism breeds violence at every level and we’ve ignored it for too long because until now it hasn’t been on our doorsteps.

10 08 2011
Boffy

As I said a few days ago in my blog Set Up Workers Defence Squads To Defend Our Communitries, the rioters are now our friends or allies. However much we understand the causes of the riots, the people involved, and the riots themselves are not progressive. They are the same kind of lumpen elements who are attracted to the EDL. Their extreme individualism is reflected in the attraction to those kinds of ideologies, and to simple criminal activity. We have to defend ourselves against them as much as we would the EDL or other such groups.

Its amazing to see how many such Defence Squads have been spontaneously created to defend communties. But, what a surprise. When people in Birmingham organised themselves, and then found that some thug killed three Asian youths by driving a car at them, the Police who had been compeltely absent from stopping the thugs, turned up in force, and in full riot gear to palce themselves outside the hospital where the three young men lay dying!!!!

We need the Labour Movement to take a lead in helping to organise and co-ordinate these defence Squads, to link them up, tie them to local Trades Councils, TRA’s etc. But, we also need to ensure that through these measures they are given a proper democratic structure. They need to be regularised, so that they are seen as a permanent feature of life, as a repalcement for the Capitalist police.

10 08 2011
Boffy

That should read “not our friends or allies”.

10 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Yes, I think I definately hit the nail on the head with the lumpen point then.

10 08 2011
David

My point about Islamists was a rough logical analogy, e.g. yes most of the people who support them are oppressed in various ways, but their answer to this oppression is totally wrong. Rejecting the dominant ideology or way of running things is not enough, you have to have some positive alternative which would appeal to large numbers of people.

Dan, your point about the left not supporting the lumpen-proletariat is misplaced because what is important is not sociological categories (the left does not agree with what all working-class people think, which could mean anything rather it supports such struggles as show and cement class solidarity).

I absolutely advocate involving these kids in political activity, precisely what we would like to do. But that doesn’t mean supporting what they are doing now, because what they are doing now doesn’t cement class solidarity or imply any better, non-capitalist way of doing things. As such the riots are not part of the ‘socialist cause’ even if the people involved potentially could be.

10 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

David: I can’t really fault the logic of that, except that I think you place too much of the burden onto the people you are talking about. Unless you meet them and identify with them then they will never join in any such projects, and won’t feel the need to. It sounds very plausible and right, but it just doesn’t account for the reality that exists, or acknowledge the near inevitability that this kind of phenomena will be the outcome of our current economic system.

I retain my own belief that the message has to be, we support you, we feel the same as you do, but what you are doing is wrong politically, you need to think much more radically than you are right now if you want to change things. You’re with them and you’re driving them towards a better outcome at the same time. But abandoning them to be crushed by the state-media apparatus is just going to reinforce their abandonment and waste the opportunity for engagement.

10 08 2011
Rising

Boffy said: “.. However much we understand the causes of the riots, the people involved, and the riots themselves are not progressive. They are the same kind of lumpen elements who are attracted to the EDL..” – This is so definite in affirming what this phenomenon of disconnectedness already is. But Mr Bough doesn’t want to know what they can become, for him they are a type already defined and limited to the EDL category. Today we find that the thinking people now behind the EDL, are mobilising their version of the Frei Korps gangs to ‘street-ready protect’ the cities precisely against these disaffected robbers with hoods masking both black and white youth. It’s true that the robbers do not have progressive expressions or a semblance of a perspective to connect their actions with, they don’t ‘feel’ the workers movement YET. They need to be ‘arrested by socialist ideas’ in their quest to find and identify themselves. Not by pandering to ignorance or backwardness but by giving them a cause they can understand – otherwise they and many more behind them can become a beaten fodder for the right-wing who will have cars available to mow down people of various races and leftist persuasions.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I agree Rising. This is the most significant rebellion this country has seen in decades and the senior members of the commune valiantly stride in and take up positions to the right of the SWP. I find it just extraordinary.

11 08 2011
David

” positions to the right of the SWP”

That doesn’t make any sense. It is not ‘left wing’ to blindly ignore the actual consequences of the riots and ignore what effect this has on other working class people’s mindset.

If it is a rebellion, what is it for? What could it hope to achieve? Is it working? You can’t just cheerlead without answering all these questions, which is what Socialist Worker does.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Is this not an unsettling parallel with conservative rhetoric about what effect ‘irresponsible’ strikes will have on public opinion? Or being told, that you oppose austerity but can’t give any credible alternative? If you just look at the images, if you soak in the unbelievable propaganda offensive on the british television at the moment, the establishment rhetoric, and endless talk about clamping down on ‘sick’ neighbourhoods, I don’t think you can possibly have the opinion that it is anything other than a rebellion. What is it for? Maybe just to be noticed? You know, that is enough of a cause for me really, given the state of unbelievable neglect and contempt for the underclass in this country. I don’t expect erudite political communication from these people, and people who do probably were never sympathetic to their position anyway.

11 08 2011
David

But the claim of a parallel is just general and speculative. You can’t decide your attitude purely through the prism of reaction against what the media say.

This doesn’t address any of the concrete points I make and nor does what you write recognise the central contradiction of the riots, which is that most of the victims are themselves also in a very bad position. I don’t think you appreciate the extent to which this is a real problem, structuring the whole dynamic.

If indeed we do sympathise with downtrodden working class youth, as you rightly say, then we should be responsible and say what we think the likely results of their actions are.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I don’t know how you take from this from what I said that I am purely driven by reaction against the media, there were a lot of other points there. Edit: But I should add David that you should follow your own rules on this score in that if I can’t react against the capitalist media then neither can you simply react to whatever the frontpage of the Socialist Worker happens to say.

I have addressed the first point in your article about the downtrodden youth no longer wanting to make common cause with other working class people by asking us to reach out the hand ourselves, and show them solidarity which they clearly have no experience of.

I have addressed your second point about the vacuousness of the SWP support by saying that simply showing that you identify yourselves with them is a step in the right direction – “rage against injustice” is hollow sounding but I think it is still communicates this better than all the nuanced commune criticism is capable of doing. Edit: And, for all its vapidity it is still better than “nothing to lose, nothing to win” – that is a headline fit for the guardian.

I’ve addressed the third point about the “general and speculative” actually, parallel with Islamists and the underclass by saying that I think keeping them at arms-length in that way unduly cements the alienation of that class in our movement.

I’ve addressed your final slightly hollow assertions about including them in some appropriate activities at a later time by asking what that would even mean, and why it would even be important to these people after we basically ignore their attempts to strike out, however ineffectively.

And I think I have addressed the point about the “central contradiction” that the people effected by these struggles are ordinary people by simply restating the blindingly obvious fact, that this is the case with all struggle against power and authority, is used by said authorities to quell disobedience, and that we rightly continue anyway.

I think you’re right about being honest about what the consequences of their actions are, but I think we should achieve this without offering patronising dismissals of their actions, or empty offers for them to participate in our activities, or restating establishment views about the disruptiveness of their resistance, or by chasing them away by rushing into anti-fascist activity when what they need is to be shown the political alternative rather than demonising them.

11 08 2011
Rising

Dave B says: “It is not ‘left wing’ to blindly ignore the actual consequences of the riots and ignore what effect this has on other working class people’s mindset..” – The fact that the vast majority of the older generation of the working class do not understand, and are unable themselves to explain the societal breakdown emanating from the material prostration of long-outmoded capitalism amongst their own youth, does not mean that Marxists should attempt to identify the alienated youth from ‘an average w/class mindset’ at this time. Who sets mindsets – the prevailing ideology – bourgeois, ruling, idealist individualism. The alienated w/class youth are not an homogeneous bundle, they reflect all sorts of ignorance in all sorts of ways – but it is not the self-satisfied ignorance of the bourgeois nor the ‘keep your head down and hope things don’t get worse’ of Labour, Trade Union leaders AND with this later finding reflection in their parents and communities, which is itself a reflection of the ruling ideology. The dialectic of the class struggle takes contradictory forms on the surface and an unrecognisable moment of ‘being’ within this conflict of material class interests, requires understanding that firstly requires a moment, and I do mean a moment, of scepticism, to acquaint the mind with the originality of the appearance. Not scepticism as an unknowable method but as a necessary part of cognition itself. Set minds are most dangerous of philosophical ‘outlooks’ for they start from within and the ruling class display these reactionary and conservative methods of thinking most consistently because they and their representatives have to the most to lose – and they know that above all other ‘things’.

11 08 2011
Rising

I apologise for quoting Dave B when I should have said David.

11 08 2011
Hackney Lefty

I haven’t totally clarified what I think – as really I haven’t heard from many people who were involved in the riots. But as to where our practical support goes I would think that a. supporting the 49 households in Haringey who have lost their homes in their re-housing from the council and b. exploring the possibility of an anti stop and search campaign – as a means of engaging over something concrete and also as a way of finding out what really happens day to day with these kids and the police as I suspect it is worse than we think- the level of rage in Hackney directed against the police was crazy.

But in recognising the destructive and negative nature of a lot of the rioting I’m not just tapping into feeling in the right wing media – I’m tapping into feeling in Tottenham for example where people are understandably absolutely livid with anger about homes and businesses being destroyed. So any engagement with the riots has to take account of this. There are no two ways about it. To be honest we are only going to become fully aware of the complexities involved through starting work with teenagers – for example – gangs of teenagers are not only dispossessed and fucked over themselves, they also fuck other people over, where they live.

I also think David makes a good point about protests, riots that are simply just expressions of anger and discontent – perhaps unavoidable – which leave it to the ruling class to decide what the response to that anger is… However, I don’t think we know what the outcome of the riots will be yet… the riots in the 1980s did mean that ‘stop and search’ wasn’t introduced again until two years ago… also in the 1980s the government also said that it was just mindless thugs but some pretty concrete things came out of the riots… such as the re-building of Broadwater Farm estate – and funding for youth projects (but then I suppose the Left was stronger then). Also it is true that a political point has been made by the riots – whether intentional or not – when I was watching the riots in Hackney I found it really strange because I had also pretty much ignored the teenagers who lived ten minutes away from my house. I think it is more likely we might be able to push for an end to the IPCC now as well.

But I do think Dan that you underestimate the environment – these aren’t kids who want to be won over to ‘socialism’… they want to get out and make as much money as possible but they can’t because they don’t have the opportunities or they don’t know how to. And honestly this is a pretty understandable feeling. Even through petty dealing and ‘gangster’ activity – you actually make a pretty shitty wage and a lot of them live with their mothers whilst doing it. It isn’t that I don’t want to try and do political education but ‘a better nhs’ is right in the sense that often these environments are pretty fucking individualistic (for very practical reasons). So any engagement in Left activity would actually have to provide a means of social mobility for kids/ teenagers at the same time… or a concrete gain… because these kids are not stupid. They probably don’t want to be engaged in talking about communism/ engaging in difficult campaigns that might not win… they need a way out from where they are, as individuals, as well. And the riots were probably not a collective expression of a desire for societal change – and we shouldn’t pretend they were. But then why should these kids be expected to “revolt against injustice” – if I were living there I’d want to look out for myself first as well.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Yes HL, what is said there may be completely accurate, and probably is, but it is still an ideological statement. What you are saying is that these people are intrinsically like this because of their environment, and the only outcome of this for us is to either conform to that or abandon the effort. That is conservatism.

11 08 2011
Boffy

The actual revolutionary forces that have been unleashed, and to which the Left should be concerning themselves rather than a few hundred lumpen youths is the working-class communities that have established their own Defence Squads. These are working-class communties that have been ignored by the Capitalist State too, for a long time, including in relation to having to put up with anti-social behaviour from the very lumpen elements now running loose. In Germany in the 1930′s, it would have been necessary, yes, to think about how you tried to include the disaffected, lumpen elements being attracted to the fascists, but the primary task rmeained to concentrate your resources on the organised working-class, on equipping it to defend itself against those very same lumpen elements. If there is a fire, the first thing to do is put it out, not start an investigation about what caused it, or how to prevent it in future.

There was an interesting interview on TV last night with an Irish bloke in Enfield. He had not been part of the “Enfield Army”, but had got together with a number of other blokes to defend his area, and the petrol station. His approach seemed spot on. He said, the polie were part of the problem, and should keep out, the answer was not to criminalise the kids involved, but for the local community to stop them, and give them a clip around the ear, and send them on their way. That also seems to be the approach of the Turks and Kurds in Dalston, which is a traditionally left-wing community.

Of course, there is scope for the EDL and others to try to infiltrate such groups, but that is all the more reaon for the left and the Labour Movement to get involved and minimise their effect, to ensure that these groups are brought under democratic community control, the control of local Trades Unions, Trades Councils etc. If we are scared of setting things up, because they might be infiltrated by fascists, we would never set anything up – meanwhile the fascists would!

11 08 2011
Hackney Lefty

Could you clarify what you mean by “conform to that or abandon the effort”? Thanks.

No I don’t think it is conservatism – but I do acknowledge that it pulls on some liberal values. I simply meant that any future Left activity/ political engagement with kids in such environments would need to address their individual concerns as well and provide them with some social mobility/ opportunities. The problem with a lot of youth work (not to de-value it) is that part of what it does is to only encourage kids to fit in with existing society and not act out. The problem with a lot of Left activism is that it doesn’t actually help people address their individual issues- which is partly why the Left is so middle class now. So I was asking the question a bit clumsily I think of how do we manage to do both – enable social mobility, i.e. fitting in to an extent, but also politicisation – through youth work/ education. And yes this does pull on liberal values to an extent but only because being able to function in society as it stands is also important to peoples’ well-being – why else do we demand jobs… why else do we say that unemployment is a problem.

But I also didn’t mean to say that the riots weren’t political in some sense… The strange thing about this is that both seem to be true- it was about individualism but was also political (because motivated by political and economic inequality and anger)… I think I was also saying that you can’t assume that people want to be won over to socialism… or that the riots are an indication of the possibility of this.

11 08 2011
David

” What you are saying is that these people are intrinsically like this because of their environment”

I don’t think that’s at all a fair reflection of what she meant. She is explaining the reasons it is difficult for the left to engage with the people engaged in rioting, which is also a point I touch on in the article.

What is less ‘engaged’ is to cheerlead the rioters’ actions and assume that they are not capable of better. My point, as I keep saying, is not to condemn the rioters or still less to patronise them. But I don’t think it’s patronising to say you think what someone is doing is counter-productive or mistaken; saying what you think honestly is the only way to engage with people as equals

The point that the establishment always portray other working-class people as the victim of strikes and demos is a valid point worth making. But the difference here, I think, is that the revolt itself does not create any sense of solidarity or collectivity or cement class feeling, as to mitigate against its negative effects. This is unlike e.g. a post or tube strike where the action does bring people together and express some sense of common purpose, even if alienating service users.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

No, ok HL, it was a very quick comment, and reading your clarification, I do actually agree with you about meeting people’s personal needs in some way. This is something which I have said before elsewhere in a different context. It in fact gets at the heart of my disagreement with David here, because it is this failure to meet these people where they are, as they are, and in their actions, that I basically think is going to mean that we lose them and reinforce the left’s middle-class composition. What I mean is that I do not want to get to people by reinforcing how they currently feel, and I don’t want to reinforce their abandonment by detaching from them on the basis that they are not “behaving themselves”, in our terms, now.

But David, I don’t think that what I am doing is communicating with these people dishonestly, in fact I am saying exactly what I feel, and criticising their current activity from a political perspective. At the same time, I do actually identify myself with what they are doing, I am on their side here and I am willing to communicate this in a way which doesn’t maintain this critical distance that exists in David’s writing. That is I think the other most critical part of treating someone equally, the willingness to have your own ego take the same knocks as theirs, to share the confrontation with the state.

What you call cheer-leading is not another form of conservatism where I assume they are capable of better, it is in fact the opposite, it is the refusal to abandon them in their moment of confrontation with the state precisely on the assumption that I do actually think they are capable of political and class consciousness. I do not expect them to conform to my own desire of what class-struggle should like, I expect them to be disruptive and create a moment of crisis which should shock people and even alienate them – protest and civil-disobedience is not about making people feel comfortable, and it is something which is meant to divide society politically and create a clear separation between ourselves and the dominant social order.

11 08 2011
David

But I don’t think you do actually identify with what they doing any more than I do. If you really did, you would surely join in. If all you mean is you don’t want them to get arrested and want to change their conditions, then I agree, but that is a totally different question.

The point is not only to differentiate ourselves from the existing social order or shock or upset people, but pose something better instead. Mass struggles may have unfortunate side-effects but their central purpose is to empower working-class people, not to be disruptive or shocking in the abstract. As many have said, looting is a small-scale reflection of the social order rather than an alternative to it.

11 08 2011
Hackney Lefty

I guess I would have a question Dan: what do you advise on the level of our practical activity? Because there was a disjunction between what we were saying: you were talking on a very abstract level and it is much easier to have a clear point of view when doing this. I think my point was that when you get down to the practicalities of organising and people’s emotions there is much more to bear in mind and things become more complex. I will give an example of what I mean:

Sometimes on estates there is a political issue for a. some of the teenagers and b. those people who are badly affected by the activities of some (not all) teenagers (such as for example I know someone whose son sometimes refuses to leave the house because he is scared.) Right? So there is an issue for both sets of people – any people engaged in activity that negatively impacts on other people very often have a political case and a lot to be angry about BUT so do the other people who are negatively affected by their behaviour. And with the riots (now I am not saying that the rioters are usually engaged in violent or anti-social activity because I don’t know whether this is the case) but the rioters have a political basis but then so do the people that are now very very scared and have had their homes/ businesses burnt. And we need to deal with both. And that is hard – and therefore it is difficult for us to get our heads round it.

11 08 2011
Henry

If I were part of the underclass I would try to link up with other members of the underclass and then form a powerful force within society. I would be telling the looters that their actions have been counter productive but are better than simply taking all the shit society has to throw at them. The working class have proved to be totally incapable of transforming society in any progressive way, the lumpen elements cannot afford to wait for these vegetables to stir into life.

The looters have shown more initiative and more consciousness than the rest of society. The ‘workers’ are the reactionary bribed tool of the tabloid media. The lump make the middle classes sick at breakfast. All power to the lump.

11 08 2011
David

@Henry: easy words.

Have ‘lumpen elements’ as you so charmingly call them, proved able to transform society in a progressive way?

Your comments simply ignore the question of whether the riots will achieve anything, which suggests to me you don’t actually care all that much about the people involved. Instead you just use them as a stick to beat the working class.

To say the working class are ‘vegetables’ or have been bought off by the tabloid media is deeply patronising and alienating. Equally it suggests you are unable to comprehend the notion that we very much are able to organise together in a collective, progressive way.

The point of my article is to ask what *we* should do to further the class struggle, which is why I explain why certain actions are not productive. But I have no interest in abstract, general denunciations of the working class because they fail to live up to your expectations of them.

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I am not exactly descending from my ivory tower to the real world here, because actually I don’t think I can do this without actually being engaged in the same practical activity that you obviously are. Yet at the same I know that my own ideological, theoretical understanding has changed, and it has transformed how I relate to the world on a very practical level because everything I do is now different to how it would have been otherwise. So I would ask from the beginning that you both don’t underestimate the power of ideas to transform people and relationships.

And this is part of my contention with David, who as one of what I would describe in friendly terms as one of the senior empiricists in the commune, I am constantly trying to communicate things which seem immaterial, flighty, insubstantial – the subjective stuff, psycho-babble even – but I think are vital in shaping how we relate to each other and ‘the class’ actually. it actually shapes our politics and at the moment makes some of our behaviour really quite conservative without realising it.

On David’s first point, no I don’t ‘just want’ these concrete empirical things, this grates with me a bit like when I hear certain persons identify the end of capitalism as the end of wage-labour, but in reality there is no one demand or substantial thing that ‘is’ capitalism. This is me flying above people’s everyday concerns again, but I don’t actually care about the arrests and conditions in and of themselves, but actually what they reflect, what they say about people’s subjective sense of personal value, what they say about class-distinctions, and how they instantiate the invisible social superstructure.

So when we talk about solidarity, it is not something which is about correcting certain concrete realities in the real world exactly, if it was we could achieve this much better by being mainstream politicians, but it is our relationship to these people in the immaterial world of social relations. That is the only link I have with these rioters, the psychological bond in my own mind which is maybe a figment of the imagination, but still enough to make me write incendiary articles and comments, and feel it to be an important problem for me to grapple with.

And on the other side, the simple illusion that some people feel that bond towards you is enough to change the way you relate to them practically, and this is how something as silly as a headline and a certain sentiment in an article can have a powerful effect on whether you succeed in relating to some people. In the end, the relationship is a simple mutual recognition which binds two people together in a mutual understanding about their society, out of which will flow a shared socialist practice. This is why the Socialist Worker frontpage still has a content and importance, despite looking shallow – the simple recognition counts for a lot.

Which leads to your really practical points HL, about how you deal with these complicated social issues and contradictions. Well from my perspective I think it is necessary to be honest, to simply acknowledge the terrible wrenching contradictions in the people’s lives and share your understanding of how they came about. It is not resolving the immediate issues, because you can’t do that, you cannot overturn the superstructure of society in these people’s lives as a single activist. What matters is the relationship itself, the recognition, mutual understanding and so on, because that is the actual substance of solidarity.

11 08 2011
Boffy

David,

I think the point made about strikes is interesting. Of course, in general, strikes do not involve inflicting actual physical harm on other workers, or in causing them other injury such as having their car or house burned down, their place of work destroyed, and so on. However, the point was made by Marx himself that strikes, and otehr such Trade UNion actions are very limited, precisely because they are sectional, and act as much to divide as to unite workers.

The lesson from that surely, is that as Marxists we seek to go beyond mere strikes. The workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, organsied a work-in. In 1968, French strikers precisely because strikes posed the potential for harming vulnerable sections of society, occupied, and restrated production udner workers control, ensuring hospitals etc. could continue to function. This is what constitutes real revolutionary action, because it DOES fundamentally challenge the nature of Capital, of Capitalist proprty relations, and of the Capitalist State. That is why the actions of workers in taking back control of their estates, and setting up Defence Squads to protect them, is revolutionary, whereas, the actions of the thugs and looters is reactionary.

11 08 2011
Henry

My denunciations are based on the evidence. We have had over 100 years of state education and the workers have not advanced an inch. By linking up and acting collectively the ‘lumpen’ class have taken some small steps. I would advise this section of society to join together as a political force, it works for the corporate lobbyists who vandalise society, it might work for them. What I wouldn’t advise the ‘lumpen’ elements to do is rely in the working class to bring about their salvation, that would be an absurd interpretaion of the facts.

11 08 2011
jubayr

i’m running out the door, so i only have time for a quick comment/question. i admit i have not read all of the comments on this thread, so maybe this has already been answered, but i have 1 comment and 1 question.

i agree with the point in the article that the impulse to condemn or condone stems — in part — from a Left that stands on the sidelines instead of being a part of the practical activity of the class.

what is the importance, if any, in the distinction between the everyday burglary and vandalism that takes place on an individual basis, and the mass character of these riots?

11 08 2011
David

“We have had over 100 years of state education and the workers have not advanced an inch”

Actually the working class has won all sorts of gains in struggle, including various civil liberties, better wages and conditions, won many battles against redundancies, won improved albeit limited rights to organise etc. This is not the revolution but marks an important experience of collective action. To dismiss that as zero is absurd. Although not quite as outrageous as your absurd slander that working class people are ‘vegetables’ Confidence and belief in victory could only ever be built gradually, over time, not some big bang revolution where people are simply hurled into struggle by crisis, separate from their own volition.

Meanwhile you blandly assert that the riots have made steps towards revolution. What steps?

I would like these young people to engage in politics, yes, together with other working class people and in a collective, focused way. That does not necessarily mean waiting for others but ultimately struggles are far more effective the more people they involve. The purpose of such class struggle would be to realise a different, communist way of running things – egalitarian, democratic, participatory. Within the class struggle we should promote unity across sectional/geographic/racial etc divides as to make those kind of social relations possible. The riots do not encompass that spirit.

As for what you say about corporate lobbyists, the problem is not just ‘big’ business or ‘corrupt’ politicians, but a whole set of social relations. Where most of us have to sell our capacity to work in order to get by, and are constantly trod down at school, work, by the police etc. That is what we need to fight, hierarchy and alienation, not a few rogue individuals external to ‘society’. The point of class struggle is to empower working-class people, not to satisfy your fantasy of rebellion.

But for precisely that reason the means of struggle we use matter, because they have to give the mass of people confidence, to change their mutual relations, to empower them as a democratic class. Your contempt for the working class could only ever serve to reinforce its passivity and inability to change things.

11 08 2011
David

@ Jubayr:

That’s a very interesting question. Will think about it, my initial response would be:

I suppose they ultimately stem from similar causes, but maybe the riots are more effective in raising public discussion of what those causes are? But I don’t know if that’s down to their ‘collective’-ness, or just their sheer extent.

11 08 2011
Barry

Those who wish to see a pure riot will never live to see one. I agree with Daniel that Davids view is distant and patronising. There is the sarcasm of the Label “Great rebellion of the dispossed” and the haughty dismissal of the current riots as “not even the embryo of the kind of movement we want”. If the commune were leaders of an outbreak of spontaneous anger, no doubt the riot whould have proceeded according to a plan in which only the rich and their political representatives would have been targeted with smart politics with no collateral damage. The description of Davids position as Leninist is not entirely accurate, but there is a smell of Leninism in his distrust of spontaneity. The emphasis on normality and people who do not break the the rules seems to echo the opinions of respectable society. David finds the rioters inarticulate without a positive vision. Well some might find the communs programme rather lacking or insufficiently educated in Marxism. Who educates the educators? But seriously the history of the struggle aganst capitalism including riots,strikes and revolutions more often than not have begun with blind anger,narrow demands and inadequate political programmes. In this process of revolt there has often been outrage distress division even among the working class. For instance dynamite in train rolling stock which was not always used to transport scab labour, obstacles placed on railway lines, breaking shop windows and looting bakeries and other small businesses. Actions which shocked respectable workers. All examples from wales in the early part of the 20th century. And what about these words to describe the current riots : a profoundly unconscious assault upon respectability,unexpected irrational violence, repressed to long, they wanted to live and take chances. But these are words used to describe the great Labour unrest 1910/14.

11 08 2011
Quentin Hapsburg

The average guy on the streets reaction to these events is for me a reaction against selfish, aimless action. People are outraged because these looters have no obvious political aim beyond consumer goods. This plays into many people’s innate distrust of the pursuit of material possessions and their own self loathing at being susceptible to its grip. They see in the looters their own naked greed and their own vulnerabilities. This is why people tend to loathe those on benefits but look up to rich fraudsters.

If the appeal of the masses is key to any tactical thinking then the left must be clear in its aims and consistent in its targets. UK uncut was a better example of effective action than looting the corner shop.

11 08 2011
David

The argument about ‘purity’ is a red herring, it can cover all manner of sins. People defend all sorts of things by saying they are not ‘pure’ (the Chávez government, the SWP, Tony Benn) but this tells us nothing about their specific dynamics.

The mere fact that the riots are unpopular, or that other riots happened in the past, is not evidence of their revolutionary power.

I can only ask again: do these actions enhance the power and solidarity of working-class people?

11 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I certainly think they enhance the power, strength and self-respect of the people who rioted. I certainly think they managed to seriously embarrass the ruling class. And I definitely think there are going to be a lot of people who take the underclass a hell of a lot more seriously than they did a week ago. So yes, yes I do.

12 08 2011
c0mmunard

I think Dan’s probably wrong on that, but it’s not the point. Whether or not something enhances the power of a group or not depends in large part on how it is perceived by the broader working class. What they think about it, and what they will do, in various contexts, to defend it.

So we can’t simply look at the effect it had, ask what the popular reaction is, and then determine our response. We have to ask (as well!), what the popular reaction ought to be.

I think that, while Dan’s article was too enthusiastic, David’s is a little too cool – that’s my guess. Our basic attitude ought to be that we are in favour of the inner city working class taking the streets, attacking the police, and smashing a few things up as they go. Some shit things happened in the mix, but what distinguishes us from the liberals is that we don’t fundamentally have a problem with looting or burning, we just want it to be more ambitious and targeted.

There is a further question, which is: does the subjective constitution of the rioters make such an idea abstract and fantastical. Are too many of the people involved too damaged by their environment to make their own positive program? I think this is the undercurrent in alot of what gets said. I think it may even have a certain truth to it, but also that it is much exaggerated. They only way to have a sensible answer to these things is a closer enquiry. Speaking to more people involved. Anything apart from that will be… nothing much.

12 08 2011
David

“what distinguishes us from the liberals is that we don’t fundamentally have a problem with looting or burning, we just want it to be more ambitious and targeted.”

That is at most one minor aspect of the difference between communists and liberals. A communist favours the masses entering the stage of politics and doing things for themselves, whereas liberals look to elite reformers to make minor and superficial changes to the established order.

Precisely the contradiction of this question is that one small part of the working class is taking action, but not in a collective way and much to the detriment of others. If we have to ask what the popular reaction ‘ought’ to be, that is also determined by what’s actually happening, e.g. people who are intimidated have every right to do so. To say ‘burn less houses, and more police cars’ is all very well and good, but requires a recognition that that would be a totally different struggle to this one, with very different subjective intentions.

Dan, it’s ridiculous to make sweeping generalisations that it is wrong to judge other people’s behaviour, and quite a boring polemical tool. Very self-righteous, but ultimately leaves you unable to say anything about anything. Basically it strikes me as patronising dismissal of the people involved, an assumption they are doomed to being unreasonable and self-destructive. As I said your bold assertions of solidarity with their actions are rather empty since you wouldn’t dream of joining in yourself… because you know such behaviour is beneath you.

This is also the mistake behind your charge that I am ‘empiricist’. I don’t just say “which side is better, police or rioters” but rather ask what the dynamic effect of this is, e.g. what will it do to working-class consciousness, and who will really benefit from it in the long term.

12 08 2011
jubayr

i’m still only half way through the comments, but i wanted to throw in my two cents anyway, even if it’s already been said, addressed, or altogether refuted.

for starters, one thing David i’m pulling from what David is say, which i think is correct, is that the response by the Left to either uncritically “cheer lead” or condemn altogether is evident of the utter shallowness of the Left in both thought and practice.

there is, i believe, a strong empirical current that has animated much of the analyses that i have read on the riots/revolts. “it’s happening at the same time as all these other revolts, such as Spain, Greece, and the Arab world, so it must be connected; it must be a part of the crisis.” there is almost no abstraction that takes place, which allows us to deepen and expand our own theory and practice.

but i don’t think this contradicts what i think Daniel is saying, which is that we need a theory, a praxis, a strategy for engagement in and with the rioters/rebels. (and if i’ve read correctly David disagrees with this as a possibility. maybe not?)

in at least a very limited way this riot/revolt does exist as a positive movement, and i believe this is evident in the point i raised earlier: the mass character of these riots distinguishes it from petty, individualized forms of vandalism, assault and burglary.

so in sum, i’ll say that David is correct: there is a poverty of philosophy, so to speak, on the Left; and Daniel is correct: there is a poverty of activity on the Left.

the mass character of much of these movements (Tottenham, Spain, Greece, the Arab world) points to the fact that there is a social rupture taking place, which cannot be ignored (even if we try). a major problem, however, (and i forget who put it this way) is that these movements have not found there voice yet; they have not found the positive ideological forms to transform and develop the content of their activity. this is related to the degeneration of the Left, which is itself another historical phenomenon.

but i’ll stop rambling, and try to make my way through more of these comments.

12 08 2011
Barry

What movement for working classpower and solidarity exits in England the area of the riots? This is daniels fundamental point. We have one day token strikes within the rules of the political game and sectional concerns over pensions. And an anti cuts movement which provIdes foot soldiers for the TUC. Those at the sharp end of the capitalist crises cannot wait for historical ripeness and a movement for workers power. To counterpose the possibility of workers power and solidarity in the future to the riots in order to dismiss the rioters is absract marxism. In the absence of such a movement people will fight back in in what ever way they can. We have to understand why this has happened,to relate to things we can build on such as anger against the police,parliamentary politicians,unemployment,and so on.We cannot allow moral ourage to influence our politics.

Most of the outrage of the media police and politicians is hypocritical. police and governments have tolerated crime on an industrial scale from news International for years. Even an official report on the met concluded that one third of all crime was not even investigated.This includes burglaries against working class homes, particularly in council
estates where often the police do not even repond to the call.

As for the outcry against violence from the respectable establishment these are the same politicians media who do not simply condone but enthusiastically support violence in Libya, and elswhere.The Labour Party has been competing with the coalition government for the title of the party of order. The shadow home secretary when asked if there were social causes behind the riots, such as cuts in benefits and unemployment, refused to aknowledge the question because there can be no excuse for breaking the rules of the political game. Hazel Blears spoke in salford to say the youths broke the rules to grab what they could for themselves. This is the same person who broke parlimentary rules on expenses to grab what she could for herself.

The main demand of the moral outrage has been a call to return to normality. To politically orientate to the average person on the street or the clapham omnibus or the broader working class is to echo that call. To challenge and overthrow capitalism people have to be above average,they have to transform themselves and that includes commune members. In changing the circumstances they change themselves. A riot is not revolution, but there is an element of riot in every revolution.

12 08 2011
princessmob

My problem with this article is that it reduces ‘the riots’ to *only* the shitty elements – attacks on working class homes & cars, violence against people, purely selfish looting. From what I’ve heard, there were also other elements: communal attacks against police (conscious & directed), attacks on commercial property – yes, involving looting, but targeted, the elements of generosity & collectivity within the riots – including people coming together in ways that broke down existing barriers (race, postcode-wars). Things seem to have varied a lot from place to place & across time – it’s impossible to attempt to weight up how much of each of these were present, but I don’t agree that “There is nothing to ‘condone’ or support”.

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

As you know David, I have no problem with placing people’s actions within a political framework that relates it to the structure of society, but I do have an objection to conservative moral condemnations of the subjective element in this riot, which have no relation to that structure, and are meaningless because it is conjuring up a reality that isn’t there.

I say the riots exist, they have happened, and are an expression in the general sense of class in our society. I am not being self-righteous in making the point that we have to be loyal to the event, deal with the eruption as it is, and not sit back and hope the police will neutralise the problem so we can go back to business as usual.

I just don’t think you realise what an important prop the police are in your argument, if they didn’t exist to put this insurrection in line then you would need to deal with the rioters yourself, and what would you say to them? You’d obviously refuse to condemn their subjective feelings but offer them a political critique that showed them why their actions were not radical enough.

But it is not about what “we” are ok with, as Communard likes to say, because we are not people who aspire to impose our will on people, and I refuse to separate myself from the rioters in spirit, even if I don’t join their riot myself because I am a petit-bourgeois student with something to lose and a dissertation to write – me doing that would be really sodding patronising, like Orwell choosing to drink his tea out of the saucer because he thought it made him look working class. But I still aspire to solidarity, and maintain a personal connection which allows their actions to reflect on my ego and status, and that is not nothing.

12 08 2011
David

“an expression in the general sense of class in our society”

What does this mean? That the rioters subjectively believe they are part of a class; that other people think they are?… it could mean anything. What does this tell us?

“Loyal to the event”

?

“I just don’t think you realise what an important prop the police are in your argument”

Doesn’t make any sense. The police exist in reality, which I cannot wish away, but this is the reason I wrote I am opposed to their intervention. I was in favour of people standing up to the police, but not attacking homes/cars/random convenience stores.

As for ordinary people who had to confront violence or attacks from rioters, well I doubt they could have expressed ‘solidarity’ except by arguing with the rioters that what they were doing was counter-productive.

” like Orwell choosing to drink his tea out of the saucer because he thought it made him look working class.”

Not analogous is it, because you claim that the riots are a political action you are in solidarity with. Saying you can’t take part because you have “something to lose” does however somewhat point to the problem, i.e. the question of what the riots achieve.

“I still aspire to solidarity, and maintain a personal connection which allows their actions to reflect on my ego and status”

I don’t understand what that concretely means.

If what you are saying is ‘I sympathise with the rioters’ plight, and am against police oppression of them, and want to help them organise’ I totally agree. Saying we have to support their actions, or describing the necessary change as “more radical” seems totally out of place to me, however.

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

On the fist point I am making a pretty standard Hegelian distinction between ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’ – as in, the riots are objectively about class, but subjectively materialise as a form of consumerism. However I do think there is a dim awareness of class in the rioters. And loyalty to the event/crisis is also pretty standard, it means we have to stick with the conditions as the confront us and not sit back complaining about why they are not different.

You verbally oppose the police but your condemnations of the actions of the riots still implicitely presuppose some force that will make them go away. That can either be police, or the mobs of vigilantes which have appeared composed of ethnic groups and the far-right. But your attitude to the rioters is one which is distant and hostile “not even the embryo of the movement we want” – so any solidarity that you want to construct out of this is presupposed on the idea that they will be crushed.

I think the riots have achieved what I already stated they did before, and that the rioting clearly had subjective benefits for the people who rioted because otherwise it would not have happened. But I recognise that it is an “event” it is something which has just happened and is not something it is possible to control or impose moral judgements upon. Our job has to be to turn an event into a crisis, that is, make it a challenge to the existing society, but you flatly cannot do this because you have aleady presupposed that the cause of the crisis should dissapear, because “they are not even the embryo of the kind of movement we want”.

I can still be solidairty with people who live in totally different objective conditions than I do, that is the point. And I support them within the confines of my own limitations, as they exist at present. And that means that within my own limits, our limits actually, all I can do is refuse to condemn them, have verbal solidarity with them, and absorb the psychological cost of being made out to be a dickhead insurrectionist by my conservative comrades.

And as I have said before, I am not just against police oppression of the rioters in some totally pointless and toothless sense that I say the words, as though it would be nice if the police would put their batons away and give them a break. I am against police oppression of the rioters in the sense that I want the police smashed to bits by the rioters and for the rioters to totally revolutionise and transform our society and themselves in the act of that extreme and radical action.

12 08 2011
David

As I have repeatedly stated I do not ‘condemn’ the riots, and indeed pointedly said so within the main article.

Raising the discussion to the level of philosophical and psychological absolutes does not seem to add any clarity but rather veil the issues in very bold, unfalsifiable statements. It is silly to pose everything as ultimatums to history, as if the only possibilities are (i) the riots as they are or else (ii) they are crushed by the police/far right. The rioters can think about and plan their behaviour without being locked up.

Again you seem to lack any confidence in these young people’s ability to behave differently. I totally oppose the riots being repressed. 100%. But telling the police what to do is hardly the only issue raised in the discussion. Some people on this thread and on Facebook (not particularly Dan) seem to positively revel in the imagery of “lumpen” (appalling word) elements who explode with anger because they are unable to do any differently. I stated in the article that various conditions lead to nihilist, desperate behaviour. But I also have a great confidence in humans’ ability to overcome their conditioning, to change their way of relating to each other, because I believe we can replace capitalist, hierarchical social relations with communist ones, despite ourselves being products of capitalist relations. But that is precisely why the means of struggle matters, since that is itself the process of changing how we interact and shape the world.

I did not ‘make you out to be a dickhead’, I just disagree with you.

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I disagree on the first main point, and am a little surprised to hear it from someone who has spoken before so well about the “primacy of politics.” I really believe in that phrase myself, and I go further than that, I think the high-minded theory and ultimatums to history are totally crucial. I am not a pragmatist in that sense, because we are dragged though life by our ideas and it is the only thing we have which can elevate base actions to a serious political force capable of reshaping the world.

The second point you make is a continued misunderstanding of my position, I of course do not take the “underclass” (it is an underclass in this society, and we shouldn’t be shy about using such rough words) as some kind of fixed and static thing incapable of improvement of behaving ‘better’ in your terms. I don’t know how you can get that from what I am saying, because I agree it is an absurdly conservative assertion.

But! At the same time, we are transformed through our actions. We move from our capitalist conditioning, and as a result of the internal contradictions of that conditioning we begin to break out of it, not perfectly and in one leap. I would love it if these people had immediately set up soviets in their job centres and workplaces and started expropriating all the means of production in their towns. But people do not instantly transcend themselves in that way.

What happens is a shoddy, shuddering, complex process. It starts with resistance which seems to keep the assumptions of society, complaining to higher-ups for instance, and then violent resistance which still imbibes societal logic, nihilistic looting and arson, and then a practise based on an understanding of the contradiction in society, strikes, worker’s committees and everything else. But it is the act of continued struggle, solidarity and criticism, together, which allows this process to develop. So it is the height of stupidity to abandon people at an earlier stage because they haven’t reached a higher one – making the perfect the enemy of the good.

12 08 2011
Barry

Resistance is not everything but it is something. The headline nothing to lose nothing to gain is dismissive. Whats the point should have stayed at home. Add to that the comment the riot will provide an excuse for state repression. This is a conservative view. Any Fight back risks a reaction.Should we do nothing and not risk the danger? Another moderate opinion is the view which has been creeping into commune discourse recently is that we can only proceed on the basis of harmony. The riots created divisions in the working class.In most workers struggles there have been divisions within the class. The miners strike of 1984/5 for example. The RCP famously sat on the fence in one of the greatest strikes in working class history due to their view that the strike was divisive and the vision of plan for coal was inadequate. In the south wales coalfields in 1910/11 during the great labour unrest militants on strike against the union and the state smashed the windows of those who did not recognise the unofficial action.If we go back to the origin of the English working class,the luddites had no positive alternative to industrial capitalism and its technology. But they were not mindless militants. They discouraged and delayed the introduction of tecnology which protected their jobs and made the point that technology should serve the people not profits. They became part of a tradition of challenging capitalism. On sky news today youths explained that they wanted the good life denied to them by capitalist ineqaulity, Denied a job at comet they robbed the store. The sky reporter called them the voice of the unheard. A description by Martin Luther king of the riots in Detroit in the late 1960′s which was part of the spirit of resistance to racism in the USA.

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I think all your historical examples Barry are just brilliant, and I realise I should actually start to properly look at labour history instead of just keeping to the theory all the time. But it’s absolutely right what your saying, and I think it is especially crucial we don’t make the mistake with these young rioters because the consequences of pushing them away and into the arms of the EDL and others at a time like this could be absolutely catastrophic, as Jonathan Tomlinson, the Hackney GP, outlines in his article on the front page at the moment.

I also apologise for a terrible comment I made earlier at communard which I have now deleted, and I hope any readers can forgive such silly personal nonsense being imported into the discussion.

12 08 2011
c0mmunard

Cheers Dan. I agree with Barry. Am writing something which reflects this.

12 08 2011
david

The “primacy of politics” though is precisely what I am talking about in the article: the need for struggles to have purpose and direction, and consideration of how means used reflect desired ends. Anger and a spirit of rebellion is a sufficient condition of successful struggles, but not necessarily enough by itself. The left tends to just celebrate moments of resistance while not asking where they are going, which is a traditional party building trick (manufacture triumphalism).

This is why I refer to Greece, Spain etc., which at a different level and in a different way bear out the same point. We have had decades, centuries even of rebellions and struggles, and the overall success record is rather mixed. This is why there is value of drawing lessons from history, debating ideas and planning actions. That includes the people involved in the riots.

Do I want to involve these young people in struggle? Yes! Of course! Do I condemn what they have done? No. But I don’t think it’s as easy as compartmentalising, well, 50% of the riots (violence) was bad but actually 50% (proletarian shopping) was just great, since many people did a mix of both same time, and it was widely perceived in a negative way, not only by David Cameron or Ed Miliband. This reflects the very contradictory nature of this and the fact people often have contradictory ideas in their heads.

Barry, yes any struggle risks danger. I loathe trade union passivity and efforts to be ‘respectable’ with government like Brendan Barber etc. My only concern is how we can build struggle which is mass and participatory. But we also have to try to think about our actions as to give them purpose and a chance the success will outweigh the likely repression. It is not inherently conservative to say you think a given form of action is unwise, otherwise we would never do anything but go smashing stuff up.

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Oh actually I should take one step back then and say my idea of the primacy of politics is bit a different. I was going to use my own much more effusive phrase I used in the pub at the time “The Transcendent Idea” which is a bit different to what you describe, which sounds a bit cautious to me. Personally I haven’t got much trouble with manufactured triumphalism and the celebration of our moments of resistance. I think I believe much more in the evangelistic approach of taking our ideas to the masses wherever they happen to be, and spreading their content and spirit everywhere without much discernment and planning like that. The thing is that, I worry that your approach gets us bogged down in this silly kind of discussion in your third paragraph, about exactly what bits of this or that action we approve of, and which bits will look good to this or that section of the class. Reality is far more spontaneous and energetic than that, and you will simply be left behind if you constantly talk about building participatory forms of struggle instead of simply getting stuck into the messy reality that exists at the moment. That takes me back to my ‘loyalty to the event’ idea which, taken in tandem with the other one, is meant to act as a massive catalysing agent for the class, seizing on moments of crisis and revving up the struggle in general as opposed to a single party in particular. I outlined this idea originally in the thing I wrote alongside the original alienation articles under a title like “a new form of insurgency”.

12 08 2011
David

You can’t be in favour of “manufacturing triumphalism” unless you ignore the meaning of the words: dishonestly pretending something is a success when you know it is not, effectively instrumentalising people and not respecting them as equals. It is misleading, it is a dead end, it is doomed.

I celebrate such moments of resistance as are worth celebrating, I don’t just blindly claim everything is going well if I know it is not. As I keep saying, the left has had heaps and heaps of failures and dead ends, so maybe it’s worth thinking about what we’re doing.

If reality is ‘spontaneous and energetic’ it is also possible to understand its specific dynamics and what is happening in the world. Your arguments, not least “you will simply be left behind if you constantly talk about building participatory forms of struggle instead of simply getting stuck into the messy reality that exists at the moment” are a cover for all sorts of sins. They could be used to justify literally anything. Islamism, liberal campaigning, Stalinism… anything. The word ‘messy’ in this context is laughable. You can’t just do away with analysis in favour of “sure, things are complicated, but fuck it!”. The point is to change reality, not just accept it.

As I said to someone further up, the point of revolutionary politics is to empower working-class people, you can’t just do away with ‘the participatory bit’ in the name of “radicalism” or “bold gestures”. The radicalism vs. conservativism scale is a useless way of understanding politics, precisely because people unwilling to blindly support struggles which organise in an alienated way do not accept that these are radical, because they see them as a dead end. Given that every revolution in history was a disaster maybe that’s worth bearing in mind.

This kind of argument you are making has been imported into the left by people like Zizek and Badiou. It is basically a Stalinist idea – never mind if the struggle is undemocratic, never mind if people are screwed over, to hell with the consequences: this is *the* movement, *the* struggle, if you are not with us you are against us. ‘Cultural Revolution? Messy. How many revolutions have you ever organised? Ah, see how conservative you are.’ ‘I guess you think the Cuban revolutionaries shouldn’t have bothered’ etc. etc.

Your argument boils down to this: wherever there is rebellion of any kind, our job is to celebrate it unconditionally, bigging up how great it is (even consciously dishonestly) and not asking questions. I think that is totally wrong, that is the polemical target of my article and the central problem of the left… it is a recipe for running round in circles and learning nothing. What you are doing is not “taking our ideas to the masses”, but abandoning our ideas altogether in favour of empty platitudes. What are the ideas? My point is – boldly and openly advocate our politics and view of organising.

Your ‘transcendent idea’ – just a label, what do these words even mean?

12 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

Youch, I got a good pummelling there. I think we are getting a little tied up in knots over what we mean by these terms, but I think you should take it as read that if it sounds like a crappy idea (active dishonesty for example) then that is clearly not my intention. We can take the manufacture of triumphalism for example – I certainly do not mean the kind of awful act of telling people lies about how a particular struggle went, but I do mean a celebratory culture in which we feel empowered in our victories as well as our defeats. I think the conservatism label is appropriate here, because I do not simply take a defeat as a defeat, and something demoralising. This is the intention of the phrase used by that guy you hate, Zizek, via Samuel Beckett, try again, fail again, fail better. I know every revolution has been a failure but I am driven to try again and do a better job than the last one.

And that is my attitude frankly, I am not going to sit around trying to come up with the perfect solution irrespective of what actually exists, I am going to use the materials and time I am given to make the best fist of it in the present, and I don’t think that is Stalinism especially. I know it is a phrase which covers lots of sins, I do not mean liberal campaigning, stalinism or islamism, I mean using exactly what I say, my idea of communism, emancipation, whatever, and driving it into everything which I engage in. It may mean engaging with all the people we don’t like, and it would definitely mean being a total pain in the backside whilst we do it. It means intervening in all those hierarchical meetings and actively prising away all the followers to our own cause, and pushing for our own particpatory way of doing things.

It is not fair to say that I think we should take any rebellion and not ask questions – I do rightly celebrate every act of defiance againt authority, and I do criticise them, I say that I like what you’ve done but you’re not being radical enough, exactly as I did with these riots. I don’t like stalinism, or liberal campaigns, or nihilistic consumerism, because these are not radical, they are not transformative, and I feel my job as a libertarian communist and revolutionary is to make them transformative, to shout at them to be braver and be even more radical in their thinking and their struggle and vision for what they want to achieve.

I don’t think it is right to say this is a recipe for running around and learning nothing, but I understand that what you are saying is informed by the disaster of trotskyism and anarchist activism in this country, and I know that you think you see shadows of these things in what I am saying. But I think it is the opposite of learning nothing, it is getting stuck in (ouch, I bet you hate that) failing and learning, and failing better and better, and sometimes succeeding. And this is where my dreaded phrase attaches itself, because as with my first alienation article, I say that it is my own idea of libertarian, transformative communism which pulls me through all the carnage and difficulties, and all the events and campaigns and struggles, and it is something which I end up projecting out into all the things I am involved with.

In the end, I don’t know what your problem with this is, we are libertarian, we are communists, we want to change the world, so why don’t we just fucking well apply our emancipatory ideas and practice.

12 08 2011
David

Both of us are saying that what we want is to apply our ideas in practice. I am arguing for bold, honest, explicit advocacy of our ideas. You seem to be implying that I am so critical of this movement that this prevents me getting ‘stuck in’ but that is not right at all (OK, time and distance prevented me from being in Hackney, but neither were loads of people writing on this).

Sorry if I did not make myself clear when I used the words ‘manufacturing triumphalism: I had intended the pejorative connotation of each of these words to be clear. This is quite different from celebrating our successes, which of course we do. But you also need to have a critical distance as to also be able to see mistakes, or you can never understand the particular value of our high points.

I think on the left there’s often this belief that critique and ideas are separate from, if not outright counterposed to, action. But I see them as essentially the same thing. Even ‘practical’ action is ultimately a battle of ideas, of consciousness. Where you are standing when you do it doesn’t matter. That is not to advocate just any theory or introspective book-learning, but rather to say that politics is all-determining for actions ‘in the streets’ to be effective. The real opposition is not grey theory versus real practice so much as introverted and politically shy versus bold and outgoing. And there has to be a constant interaction between practice and learning/thinking, either without the other is pointless. But that does include constantly posing the question as to whether what we are doing is effective and whether it is democratic/participatory or drifting into the control of cliques etc.

Which I think you would agree upon. (Part of this dynamic is just usual polarised web discussions accentuating differences, shedding more heat than light etc.) And if you read my article again, its point is about how we can make struggle effective. I will engage with anyone, talk to anyone, take part in anything. I go to loads of trad left demos with rubbish politics. And if I was in Hackney I would have gone along. But in going along I would also be honest what we think. I never have any preconceptions that anyone is too vulnerable or unthinking to engage in serious argument: I think it is patronising to condescend to someone but there is nothing patronising about holding someone to the same standards you would expect of yourself. Whereas e.g. Socialist Worker does just fail to engage with any of the complexity of events.

13 08 2011
Daniel Harvey

I agree with everything you say, and yet I still feel this separation, and that what we are saying, or mean by what we say, is not quite the same. I did make this point about solidarity and criticism being essentially the same thing in one process, on quite a few occasions I think. I did do this in my article, combined solidarity with the call to be a political cause. I think there is a difference in the character of my criticism vs. yours, which is that mine does not feel distant, in the sense that it does not feel qualitatively like an outsider coming in and telling a group of people what they are doing wrong. It just isn’t possible to be an effective critic without being heartfelt in sharing their struggles at the same time, that’s my view anyway. I don’t understand how that is somehow opposed to what you are saying, or even why we are having the violent agreement anyway.

But maybe the difference is just one of how dirty we are willing to get in terms of bold advocacy of our ideas. I certainly think, despite what you say about turning up to the riot and assembly tomorrow, I feel there is this disjuncture. I’ve said it before, that there is something odd about how members of the commune interact in the wider movement, it is a sort of attendance without presence, or rather, all the members being there but no actual shared message to bring. That is how I feel on those marches anyway, that I’m walking along, talking to some people, but in the end just another atomised individual separated from the actual movement.

But I can only reaffirm that I think I can have my cake and eat it on this, I can be a totally committed individual, with all the baleful ardour of the most outrageous WRPer, and still be a total critic, in the sense of driving people on to be ever more emancipatory and transofrmative in their organisation and so on. It is how I feel with the commune anyway, that I commit to it completely, including giving it and its members a huge amount of abuse when I think it is failing in its organisation and practice and so on. Perhaps what I distrust is this diffuse cynicism I remember criticising a while ago. This has come across in turns of phrase that have grated on me “treat it like a tennis club” (sorry to keep bringing it up communard), and other stuff like that.

So again, it doesn’t sound like there is disagreement between us, but somehow I don’t think this argument over the riots and this now, and on the list, and my tensions with the organisation would arise if there is not some fundamental disagreement under the surface somewhere. It could be that you’re all closet tories, or I am a closet stalinist, or maybe it’s something else entirely.

13 08 2011
Boffy

We are not living in the late 18th Century. The Luddites could be forgiven because no one had come up with a theory of Scientific Socialism. Marx understood theri actions, but condemned it as a reactionary dead-end. We are not in favour of preventing the accumulation of Capital, on the contrary we should as he and Lenin said encourage it. We should just defend workers interests in the process, and point to the need to transform the nature of that process, through workers ownership of the means of production.

Marx understood and welcomed the views of the Utopian Socialists. They both criticised the reactionary aspects of Capitalism, and presented a revolutionary view of a Communist alternative. Their views were only Utopian he said, because they did not, and could not because it did not adequately exist, recognise that the working-class was the vehicle of bringing about that future. Marx and engels reserved their criticism not for the Utopians, but for their followers, who continued to advocate their ideas long after the working-class in England had been formed, and been shown to be that vehicle. It was their continued advocacy of those ideas, long afte their time had passed, which turned the followers of the Utopians into outright reactionaries.

Engels did set out in many of his discussions with the US socialists the very point that what is important is to ensure that the working-class moves as a class, and does not move as individual sections. Read the Condition of the Working Class, and its various Forwards, Prefaces etc. and that is clear. Engels, for example, there even talks about Trades Unions even reducing wages, in order to prevent it breaking apart under the pressure of a trade crisis. Lenin also recognised it, pointing out that class actions are only where the working-class as a whole, or at least in its majority confronts the State. It is only these actions which can act to create a class consciousness. Everything else he says is merely sectional struggle, and can create nothing other than a sectional, class consciousness. Indeed, part of my criticism of Lenin would be that these class actions are very, very rare. If we want to really create a working-class consciousness, then it has to be built over time on something more permanent than that. His answer was instead to look to the revolutionary party to replace it, a failed view that today’s sects mimic in farce as much as tragedy.

I disagree with David. Anger and a spirit of rebellion is NOT a sufficent condition of succesful struggles. It may or may not be a necessary condition, but there have been many such struggles that have ended in failure. The Miners Strike is one. The current strikes in Greece are another. The main function of Marxism, of Scientific Socialism is not to celebrate struggle, but to identify what can make struggles succeed, and to promote it. There has been way too much celebration of valiant acts that cause workers to hurl themselves over the barricades like a modern day Tommy Atkins on the Somme. We need fewer General Haig’s, and more Irwin Rommels.

13 08 2011
David

I misworded my point about anger and a spirit of rebellion. The intention was to say: these are a necessary precondition of effective struggles, but not alone a sufficient one to guarantee success.

13 08 2011
Rising

Boffy says: “.. We are not in favour of preventing the accumulation of Capital, on the contrary we should as he and Lenin said encourage it. We should just defend workers interests in the process, and point to the need to transform the nature of that process, through workers ownership of the means of production..” – Strange reading of revolutionary Marxism here Boffy. Counterpoising Luddites pre-industrialisation ideas to modern credit capitalism, which is not simple accumulation of real surplus product, but one today in which it is itself degenerate parasitic capitalism on its self-elevated valuations, this is bad enough. But to suggest that Marxist revolutionaries can just defend workers interests without joining them in preventing their continued but existent exploitation and further alienation, by not fighting capital and its political representatives within the capital constructed state, at all times – is fruitless empirical determinism. As the commune of 1871 showed, the failure to apprehend and wield the central organs of national capital as exemplary for the WHOLE of France, was their central mistake. Their failure in politics stemmed from this. Every worker knows that the employer has more resources of capital to hold out for longer in a labour strike. Every serious worker knows that looting and firing is not constructively planned or progressive in ‘itself’ he also knows today that a ‘economic strike’ is not sufficient within the political environment of factory or hospital, themselves within nation states within the global economy. But what aspects of the manifestations that capitalism causes does he identify with – repression or expressions of protest. And where does he see the way out of this social predicament.

14 08 2011
Boffy

In what way is it a “Strange reading of revolutionary Marxism”. It is fully in accord with the ideas and principles, as well as atctics and strategy set out by Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as many other revolutionary Marxists. Simplt bring to mind Lenin’s quote that in Russia they were suffering not just from Capitalism, but from “Not enough Capitalism” in his arguments with the Narodniks. It was the Narodniks, who adopted the position of Sismondi, and the Moral Socialists, letting their hostility to the repressive and oppressive nature of Capitalism, get in the way of recognising its historically progressive nature in creating the conditions necessary for Socialism. In the process, they too sought as Lenin demonstrates to hold back Capital accumulation and development. That as lenin, further demonstrates was a thoroughloy reactionary position. Then as now it was the position of the middle class moralists, not of proletarian revolutionaries.

As for modern Credit Capitalism, I’d simply point you to Marx’s writings in Capital. In particular I’d point you to that section where he talks about the transition from Capitalism to Socialism via the development of those tendencies already inherent, and being displayed within Capitalism itself. In particular this:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises. into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”

He goes on,

“The two characteristics immanent in the credit system are, on the one hand, to develop the incentive of capitalist production, enrichment through exploitation of the labour of others, to the purest and most colossal form of gambling and swindling, and to reduce more and more the number of the few who exploit the social wealth; on the other hand, to constitute the form of transition to a new mode of production. It is this ambiguous nature, which endows the principal spokesmen of credit from Law to Isaac Pereire with the pleasant character mixture of swindler and prophet.”

Where in what I said above did I say anything about not fighting Capital? The whole point is to do that whilst as both Marx, Engels and Lenin recognised, to explain to the workers involved in those struggles their limited, and usually doomed nature, and to intervene to suggest a more promising strategy.

And, if your solution here and now is to take hold of the “and wield the central organs of national capital”, you should explain, how, who, and when is this to be achieved. It sounds like “Socialism Now”, rather than a practical solution, here and now, and it also sounds like a very top down, statist solution far removed from Marxism. It puts the cart before the horse. Remember that marx was opposed to the Paris workers revolt, prior to it happening, precisely because he felt they and the conditions were not ripe. It is necessary to prepare the working-class for a long period in advance before a succesful assault on those central organs is likely to be succesful in the longer term, as well as merely the short term. 1917, showed that, and so too did 1871. Marx proved himself right in his prior concerns.

Its not true to say that every serious worker recognises the limits of Economism. Far from it. That is why their consciousness in the vast majority does not extend beyond individualism, let alone sectionalism, or nationalism. That is one of the major problems with which we have to contend. It can be seen by the very few people outside the State capitalist sector who join Trades Unions, it can be seen by the sectionalist struggles that those unions focus upon, and at its very best it amounts to nothing more than the right-wing reformism of the Labour Party. That is the limit of the consciousness of even the serious workers. The vast majority of unserious workers do not even get that far. I think you are falling into the trap of most of the sects of constructing in your head some idealised working-class that is champing at the bit, and only held back by nefarious leaders and bureaucrats. Reality shows different.

In what way is today’s Capitalism “degenerate parasitic capitalism”? That just sounds like some tanky dogma that bases itself on Lenin’s Imperialism from 80 odd years ago, but has nothing to do with the reality of modern Capitalism and Imperialism. Far from being degnerate or parasitic we are going through one of the most dynamic periods of Capitalist development, even surpassing the previous peak achieved during the last Long Wave boom from 1949 to 1974! It has for the first time made the working-class the largest class on the planet, it has rescued millions of peasants in China, India and otehr parts of Asia, Latin America, and increasingly Africa from the idiocy of rural life. It is unleashing productive forces on a scale that previously we would have thought would only ever be possible under Socialism. It has given the majority of workers in the developed economies a standard of living that even fifty years ago, most socialists would have thought only possible under Socialism. It is also creating massive poverty for an increasing minority, it is creating environmental damage in certain areas – though it is also cleaning up much of the damage from previous industrialisation in many other areas, and create the technological developments in relation to green energy that will facilitate much more environmentally friendly growth – it is resulting in periodic crises and so on. But what is new, its Capitalism, it proceeds via contradiction and crises, but that does not mean it is not proceeding, and proceeding exceedingly rapidly and vigorously. If you fail to comprehend that, and remain trapped within a bubble of leninist/stalinist orthodoxy about the death agony of Capitalism you can have no means of udnerstanding the current reality or orienting to it.

14 08 2011
Rising

Boffy chooses to begin by quoting Lenin against Narodnism UNDER TSARIST REGIME. Marxism is no fixed methodological system and with that capitalism had an ascendancy and a rotten ripeness with rotten decline. This is a more real characterisation of the epoch: – “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.
The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.

The bourgeoisie itself sees no way out. In countries where it has already been forced to stake its last upon the card of fascism, it now toboggans with closed eyes toward an economic and military catastrophe. In the historically privileged countries, i.e., in those where the bourgeoisie can still for a certain period permit itself the luxury of democracy at the expense of national accumulations (Great Britain, France, United States, etc.), all of capital’s traditional parties are in a state of perplexity bordering on a paralysis of will.

The “New Deal,” despite its first period of pretentious resoluteness, represents but a special form of political perplexity, possible only in a country where the bourgeoisie succeeded in accumulating incalculable wealth. The present crisis, far from having run its full course, has already succeeded in showing that “New Deal” politics, like Popular Front politics in France, opens no new exit from the economic blind alley.

International relations present no better picture. Under the increasing tension of capitalist disintegration, imperialist antagonisms reach an impasse at the height of which separate clashes and bloody local disturbances (Ethiopia, Spain, the Far East, Central Europe) must inevitably coalesce into a conflagration of world dimensions. The bourgeoisie, of course, is aware of the mortal danger to its domination represented by a new war. But that class is now immeasurably less capable of averting war than on the eve of 1914.

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” – http://marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#op

14 08 2011
David

Posting long Trotsky quotes is daft and tells us nothing. It is sterile and dogmatic and does not engage with the question of the riots at all.

If the real problem is a “crisis of leadership” you could at least bother to argue your position with reference to the world we live in, rather than just assert it is true because Trotsky said so (most readers of this blog are not fans). If we want to read his stuff then it’s easy to find, but the purpose of the comments is to discuss the issues raised in the article. Even if you agree with Trotsky 100%, put your argument in your own words and own context.

14 08 2011
Rising

David and other likeminded fans (?), the quote from Trotsky was distinctly in reply to Boffy’s assertion that capitalism, not only had life in it yet, but, had moreover, progressive tendencies. Opinions regarding my attitude to youthful expressions of alienation I had stated earlier. If I upset your conception of ‘club blogs’ with a certain ‘daftness’ on the general socio-economic environment, I can only retire to more realistic places of discussion – with a sigh.

14 08 2011
David

Your ‘argument’ on the current socio-economic environment is from 73 years ago, not written by you, and without any addition from you. As I say, assertion by appealing to the authority of heroes doesn’t really tell us anything.

15 08 2011
Barry

Hi Boffy

As Hobsbawn explains in his Book, Labouring men ,machine breaking (Luddites) was collective bargaining by Riot.

On another point, off the thread, the upperclyde ship builders work in was not a challenge to the nature of capitalism, but conformed to the requirements of contract law and employers rights. The work in was precisely that : working to complete the contracts and finish the ships to bring the shipyard to an orderly end. It was a token protest and avoided a real occupation of the shipyard, which would have left the contracts unfinished and the goods and ships in the workers hands. Now that would have challenged the nature of capitalism

15 08 2011
Boffy

Barry,

No it wouldn’t. By saying we refuse to be prevented from working because of the need of Capital, the workers inverted the relation right way up, and once more made Capital the servant of Labour, turning it back from being Capital to being merely means of production. Had the workers simply occupied and made no attempt to bring the means of production under their control by utilising them, they would have retained their existing subordination to Capita. The means of production, would indeed have remained Capital rather than being transformed into means of production.

It also meant the workers could get paid for the work done, rather than allowing Capital to undermine the workers position. Had they been producing something, which other workers immediately consumed, as was the case with the french energy workers in 1968, that would have also meant that Capital could rive a wedge between them and the consumers.

The weakness of the UCS workers was that their perspective was limited to winning a concession from the State, rather than permanetly transforming the property relation. So, they settled for giving up exploitation by a private capitalist for an even more effective exploitation by the State Capitalist. They should have used their position of strength through the work-in to demand ownership be transferred to them, and then continued to run ther yard as a Co-operative, seeking to link up with other shipyard workers thoughout Europe.

15 08 2011
Boffy

PS. On collective bargaining by riot. Whatever phrase you use for it, it was reactionary. Ultimately, collective bargaining in Britain, in the 1960′s by powerful groups of craft workers such as the printers had a simialr effect. It meant that Capital accumulatin was frustrated, because the introduction of new technology was slowed down, and working practiuces did not adjust. The result was then that eventually when the damn did break it resulted in a destruction of print workers power almost completely.

A similar thing could be seen in much of British industry during the time, and contrasted badly with say the West german experience. The Trade Union militancy (Economism) could only have fulfilled a progressive function, if it was tied to an adequate political movement that would have transformed it, in a revolutionary direction. It never was. So it remained as just badly thought out left reformism.

15 08 2011
Barry

Boffy

The machine breakers who rioted under the leadership of general Ludd opposed not technology as such but rioted aganist profit making at whatever social cost. The Luddites were defending their way of life and fighting unemployment created by capital a social relation. technology as progress is bourgeois as any student of the enlightenment and the scottish enlightenment in particualr will tell you. marx did not take the view that capitalist technology was progressive over the Narodniks as he explained in his letter to zasulich which was suppressed by Plekhanov. Technolgy is not the mainspring of progress even though Trotsky repeating 2nd international Marxism thought so.

The upperclyde shipyard workers were led by Jimmy Reed and other stalinists. The work in did not prevent the redundancies notices from ending their employment, nor was it ment to. It was a token protest. the workers could have seized the ships and cargo and challenged the owners. Instead they showed themselves as good servants of capital. respecting contracts and employers rights.

Your comments on print workers and reactionary tactics of delaying technological tactics are even more ignorant and unfortunate,since I was a print worker at the time. The power of the print workers were broken by the politics of Thatcher and the anti union laws and the refusal of the union leadership to wage a struggle against the laws. As print workers we had nothing against new technology as such as long as we maintained our standard of living and our jobs.

16 08 2011
Boffy

But the point is that in opposing the introduction of the machines the Luddites were acting in a reactionary way, because it was precisely the introduction of those machines that was necessary to create the conditions upon which Socialism would be founded. Marx most certainly did take the view that the introduction of technology was progressive for that very reason.

I have demonstrated before that your argument in relation to Marx’s letter to Zasulich is fundamentally flawed. Marx makes the point in that letter that the only possible way that Russia could go straight from the Village Commune to Socialism was precisely because Capitalism had developed technology in the West!!!! It was only that, and the potential thereby for a socialist revolution in the West, which would then facilitate the use of that technology in Russia within the context of Socialism. Of course, as he pointed out, the only reason that such technology was already being used in Russia, was precisely because of its prior development in the West!

How you can say that technology is not the mainspring of progress I really do not know,m because it is that principle which is at the heart of the theory of Historical Materialism, as Engels “Origins of the Family…” amply demonstrates.

What did not prevent the redundancies at UCS was the fact of handing the yard back to the State Capitalist! Of course, its possible that had the workers taken over the yard themselves, they may not have been able to avoid redundancies either, but it would have still meant that the means of production no longer operated as capital, but merely as means of production under the control of the workers whose jobs WERE saved.

The anti-union laws were only a reflection of the fact that the power of Labour had already been weakened as against Capital. The union leaders had not wanted to fight against previous attempts to bring in such laws, yet the strength of rank and file workers had still seen those attempts defeated. They could not do so in the 1980′s because their own strength had already subsided. It had subsided because the economic realities had turned against them. It was not anti-union laws that enabled Eddie Shah to establish his business, but the fact that Capital had responded to the resistance of print workers by introducing new technology that did not require the old craft skills – exactly as Marx predicted would be the response of Capital in his argument with Weston on this very point – and which could be used by new unskilled workers on a greenfield site. And, of course, even had that not been possible then, anti-union laws or not, Capital could and did do in the print, what it has done in other areas – it could have simply shifted the printing overseas.

Your point about as long as we kept our jobs and so on, is precisely the point. The whole basis of introducing new technology is that usually living standards of the workers can only be sustained/improved if it also results in fewer workers being employed. Of course, on a Trade Union basis we would argue that no jobs should be lost, but such a position is simply not compatible with a continuation of capitalist relations. It is only viable if it is put forward as part of some revolutionary strategy. If there is no possibility of revolution, however, then such a position is utopian, and reactionary. It would mean calling on workers to accept a reformist solution to their problems, but on the basis of an untenable proposition for capital. That was essentially the situation too with the Miners Strike. Marxists had to support the Miners not because there was any real economic argument for keeping all of the pits open, but because the strike involved a clear political challenge to Capitalism as a system. It was only defensible on that basis. Or let me make that clearer, Marxists would have supported the workers on strike, but had it not have been for its scope and potential would have had a duty to argue that what was required was a negotiated closure, and so on. We should not lead workers to engage in strikes for limited goals that even though they are limited are ultimately unachievable within the confines of Capitalism.

16 08 2011
Barry

Boffy

A machine cannot found/establish anything. The historical context of the machine breakers was not the foundation of socialism, but the establishment of modern capitalism.

The point of the letter of Marx to zasulich was the social relations of the village commune/community could provide the social base for socialism without going through all the capitalist shit. Marx was clear he did not have a philosophy of history,a general path all nations were fated to tread.

Lenin and Trotsky were admirers of American technology and americal managerial methods(Taylorism) but this was in the context of using the state and destroying workers power/control in the workplace and society.

new technology did not weaken print workers power. New Technolgy had been around for many years. The Hot metal process was twenty years behind the times. But the balance of class forces favoured the print workers who played a key role in the victory of the rank and file dockers in 1972.

The background was the end of the post war boom, but the battle was founght out ,class war with the print workers and miners in the 1980′s. Defeat was not written in the stars or prefigured in technology. Apart from the other factors I have mentioned the scab activity of the ETPU was decisive as was the union of democratic mineworkers and of course the actions of the police. And so on.

There is no metaphysic of productive forces /technology only Living people who make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose. The greatest productive force is humanity. The well being of workers is decisive for socialism not the development of machinery. technology serves the workers not the other way round.

The work in at upper clyde was was governed by capitalist contracts/exploitation. The mass protest was defused and industrial peace restored. Overthrowing capitalism/not on the agenda for the CPGB Or jimmy Reed.

17 08 2011
Boffy

Reply To Barry On Technology

Barry,

You can, of course, argue the position you are putting forward, but you cannot claim it has anything to do with Marxism. It is in, fact, based on the kind of Idealism against, which Marx and Engels argued. Yes, of course, it is human beings who develop ideas, but, it is precisely because they do so in conditions not of their making that limits, and determines those ideas. That is the fundamental basis of Historical Materialism, that as Marx puts it the productive forces change behind men’s backs, and these changes in turn create new property relations, which in turn create new social relations.

What Marx set out in the letter to Zasulich was the fact that the social relations of the Russian Village Commune could ONLY perform that function, BECAUSE Capitalism in the West had developed the technology that would make Socialism possible, and Socialism in Russia was ONLY possible on the basis of those Communes IF it gained access to the technology that Capitalism had developed in the West. I previously set this out in my response to you some months ago, and in my blog Marx & The Progressive Role Of Capitalism, that you chose not to respond to.

A look at what Marx and Engels had to say about India makes the point. Marx describes the role of British Imperialism in destroying the village communes there, and introducing technology, in the form of the railways etc. as the only real social revolution that India had experienced. Although, he deplored the brutal methods of the British, he saw the consequences of that in breaking apart those old Asiatic methods, as progressive. And, in Russia too, Marx was proved right. The Village Communes did NOT, and could NOT go beyond their limited bounds, and when technology was introduced, it acted to dissolve those social relations. It led to a differentiation of the peasantry, and creation of a bourgeoisie, and a Capitalist State, as Lenin sets out in “The Development of Capitalism In Russia.” It did so, despite the attempts of the Narodniks to hold back that development, in the way you argue for now.

It was not just Lenin and Trotsky who admired US technology and Taylorism. So, did Gramsci, the architect of ideas of Workers Control within the factory, and so on. He did so on the basis, precisely of the need for that Workers Control to utilise the most efficient methods in order to raise competitiveness.

New Technology most certainly did play a role in undermining the power of print workers. The example of Eddie Shah demonstrates that, but he was far from the only such employer that was using new print technologies to undermine the power of print unions at the time. That technology had also made possible the establishment of a rash of “Instant Print” workshops in towns and cities up and down the country. There is a good article on this by David Goss in Capital & Class 31. In fact, this is just another example of Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism in action again, as a development of a new type of technology brought about a new social relation. Most of these workshops were non-union so the question of anti-union laws in their development was irrelevant.

It is in fact your philosophical perspective here that is metaphysical precisely because you do not locate ideas, or human actions within the context of the material conditions which shape them. It is an idealist conception in which ideas are simply there in the ether for workers and others to pick up, and use if they so choose in order to shape their own destiny. The idea you put forward that workers’ well being is not in any way related to the development of technology, and the production it makes possible is a clear example of that. It is also why Marx argued that Capitalism would be replaced by Socialism FIRST in a developed economy like Britain, precisely because the development of those productive forces, of technology WAS the precondition for being able to achieve Socialism which requires production to be possible on a far larger, far more efficient scale.

I am not sure how exactly you think the dispute at UCS COULD have led to Capitalism being overthrown??? It was a limited sectional struggle. Like every other such sectional struggle the bounds of that were limited. But, had the workers simply gone on strike, the likelihood is that the yard would have closed, as happened with many other yards, where the workers did pursue that course of action. The reason the work-in undermined Capitalist property as I have set out in my blogs The lessons Of UCS, is that workers turned on its head the law fundamental to Capitalist relations that Labour is employed by Capital. Here it was the workers employing Capital. It was workers saying we will not allow Capital to determine if we work. Their mistake was to then think that the Capitalist State did not also represent Capital, to believe that by handing over the yard to it, they would be safeguarding their future. That was inevitable given the limitation of the Stalinists politics, and of the domination of the Labour Movement and the working-class by the ideas of Statism/reformism.




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