Industry matters: NSSN on the uprisings

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Proletarian writers

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NSSN on the uprisings

The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has issued a statement about the youth uprisings. The statement notes that “in September 2009 TUC general secretary Brendan Barber predicted that the government’s cuts would lead to riots. His prediction has been borne out as riots have broken out across London and other cities.

The initial riots in Tottenham in the borough of Haringey on the 6-7 August were a consequence of the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan. Most of the rioting that has taken place so far has been in areas of high deprivation such as Tottenham where 10,000 people in Haringey are claiming jobseekers allowance.

It goes on to denounce lies from politicians and the media coverage which pretended the uprisings and associated looting were all down to ‘outsiders’ and ‘hooligans’, correctly identifying these developments as a “spontaneous outpouring of the anger of sections of the local population, particularly young people from every ethnic background”.

In its sharpest moment, the NSSN statement points the finger directly at social democracy: “Labour MPs such as David Lammy and Diane Abbott, alongside Haringey Labour council leader Claire Kober and Theresa May, the Tory Home Secretary, have condemned the rioting and looting. But what about the looting of public services and jobs carried out by their parties either through government or council cuts? Whilst Brendan Barber had predicted these riots, he and the TUC have not offered an alternative by demonstrating they are capable of leading a movement to defend living conditions.”

A fly in the ointment comes when the NSSN adds that “The trade-union movement must show there is an alternative in order to counter frustration and social breakdown. ” But what ‘alternative’? It is already clear from a hundred other statements from the NSSN (and from their current guiding lights in the Socialist Party and the PCS) that in practice this ‘alternative’ remains fixed resolutely within the bounds of wage slavery: clip the bankers’ bonuses, crack down on tax evasion by the rich, invest in growth and pray for the crisis to go away.

The promotion of such Keynesian ‘alternatives’, essentially a souped-up version of Brendan Barber’s advice, cannot equip the proletariat with the understanding it will require in order to force the overproduction crisis back down the bourgeois throat. This remains true even when the ‘alternative’ is garnished with oblique references to a hoped-for ‘socialist’ outcome.

Because the NSSN itself lacks a genuinely revolutionary perspective, it signally fails to identify the single most cheering and significant lesson to come out of the uprisings: the demonstration that the fighting spirit of the working class can in the long run be neither conned nor crushed out of existence.

True, in itself “rioting … does not offer a way forward”, and in the accompanying chaos innocents may indeed suffer. But in lamenting that such behaviour is “completely unacceptable” the NSSN undermines all the useful points made earlier in the statement and ends up coming down squarely in the bourgeois camp, especially since its assertion that the riots make it “even more urgent for the labour movement to provide an alternative”, can only be a call for the TUC to work harder at keeping the rebellious working class in check with social democracy!

Those who are serious about wanting to change the system need to bear in mind that it is not actually possible for the proletariat to inflict punishment on the bourgeoisie without itself being hurt to some extent in the process. All focus on the individual proletarians who get hurt, coupled with denunciations of proletarian retaliation against the bourgeoisie as “completely unacceptable”, can only amount in practice to demanding that proletarians should meekly submit to bourgeois rule at all times, no matter how badly the bourgeoisie is treating them.

NSSN lobby of the TUC

The lobby of the TUC conference in London, called by the National Shop Stewards’ Network for 11 September, drew a sizeable attendance of union reps and activists. A pre-lobby meeting was followed by a march to Congress House, where a petition was formally presented urging preparations for a one-day general strike in November.

Though at this stage the Socialist Party (SP) presence remains dominant, the leaflets, flags and banner of the CPGB-ML were splendidly omnipresent, and our slogan went out loud and clear: “Labour, Tory, same old story” and “Fight the cuts, ALL the cuts”.

The main theme stressed throughout by speakers was the demand for the TUC to coordinate a one-day public-sector strike in November, variously extended by some speakers into a strike uniting public and private-sector workers aimed at bringing down the government and a strike exceeding 24 hours. (A few days later came the announcement that the strike/‘day of action’ is to take place on 30 November.)

Many made it clear that what was sought was a political strike. NSSN Chair Rob Williams noted that Brendan Barber had predicted in advance that the cuts would lead to riots, so why were collaborating Labour councils not being held to account? It was time to bring down the government in the same way industrial action brought down the Heath government in the 1970s.

There was also some plain speaking about the political objectives of the struggle. Bob Crow recalled Berlusconi’s reported recent lament (“I’m in the shit!”), and pointed out that the only way out of the “shit” was a “socialist ordered society”. It was capitalism that “squeezed people like lemons”, and the struggle must be against capitalism in general, not just this government.

Mark Serwotka spoke of the disgrace of Ed Miliband denouncing the strikes of teachers and public servants on 30 June, and urged those present to make sure Labour leaders were criticised along with the rest.

In short, the tone of the meeting and subsequent march was militant, anti-capitalist and hostile to Labour. Yet one obvious question never got asked and never got answered. If workers are to demand that the TUC leads a general strike, should we not first examine why it is that only one such strike has ever occurred in this country (in 1926), and why it was that that one was completely sold out by the TUC and the Labour party?

Everyone knows this happened, so why pretend that there is a cat in hell’s chance of today’s even more reactionary TUC and Labour party behaving any better, however hard workers demand it? At one point, Rob Williams seemed to reflect this frustration, urging delegates “Don’t demand; get even and organise.”

If the idea is to expose in practice (for the umpteenth time) the treachery of the TUC and Labour, then it is surely incumbent on socialists to facilitate this exposure by making a thorough analysis of the material basis of this treachery, of this opportunism which so weakens and divides the proletariat in Britain. But no such analysis is forthcoming from the NSSN or the SP, whose perspective never gets beyond general railing against smug, time-serving union bureaucrats.

Workers need to understand that opportunism in the labour movement has been bought and paid for by imperialist superprofits; that it thrives in the hot-house of a labour aristocracy fed from crumbs from the exploitation table; that the Labour party is at the beck and call of its imperialist masters and that the very unions workers build to defend their interests are themselves suborned into acting as the gendarmes of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement.

Armed with such an understanding, workers can make real progress in reforging their unions as fighting organs of their class; deprived of it, they will remain on the treadmill of social democracy. Understand the material foundations of the opportunist trend, and then you can appreciate how those same foundations are being undermined by the crisis itself, creating opportunities for proletarian advance.

Sure enough, at the ensuing TUC conference Barber went through the motions of challenging the government, warning of “the biggest trade-union mobilisation for a generation” if talks failed, and giving the green light to the strike ballots announced by Unison, Unite and the GMB for 30 November.

Yet when Ed Miliband ascended into the pulpit to denounce the June strikes, praise the Hutton report on pensions and warn that “There are cuts that the Tories will impose that we will not be able to reverse when we return to government,” GMB’s Paul Kenny stood ready at hand to cover Labour’s back. “I have to give him credit for his courage in coming here and speaking frankly to us,” gushed this sycophant, adding that “What comes across is that he is not ashamed of the trade-union links to the Labour party.”

But is it not time that the trade unions themselves were shamed by their own members into breaking those links once and for all?

Overproduction crisis

Two issues barely raised their heads at the NSSN lobby: the overproduction crisis and the fascist assault upon Libya.

Bob Crow noted in general terms that the crisis was worse now than a year ago, but nobody volunteered a plausible analysis of it. Instead, Mark Serwotka (PCS) was given free rein to expound his view that the ConDem government is “using the economic crisis as an excuse to launch an ideological attack on workers”. In a similar vein, Rob Williams said the national debt after World War II was bigger, yet the welfare state got built.

The reality, however, is that it is not the absolute size of the national debt that is decisive, but the context within which it occurs. In 1945, the global overproduction crisis had been resolved through the wiping out of vast amounts of surplus capacity (and millions of people) in Europe (ie, by the second world war). Moreover, austerity Britain for the moment remained possessed of her colonies and was also being fed a Marshall Plan credit line from a USA whose power and wealth flourished as never before. Today, by contrast, the world is in the throes of what promises to become the most devastating overproduction crisis in capitalist history, the Eurozone is in near meltdown and the US economy is on the rocks.

The debt that the British government incurred through bailing out the banks is just the beginning of the story. Even if every fat-cat tax dodger could be shaken by their heels till their millions poured into the treasury, the mountains of unsold commodities and glutted markets that drove capital into so many off-the-wall speculative ventures in the first place would still continue to strangle the economy, reproducing the same conditions as those that sparked the credit crunch. In short, the parallel Rob Williams needs to concentrate on is not post-war 1945 Britain, but the pre-war, depression-sunk Britain of 1929.

When the situation arises where more commodities are being produced than can all be sold at a profit (a situation that repeatedly arises in consequence of the contradiction between the social nature of the labour commanded by capital and the private nature of appropriation by capital), this is termed an overproduction crisis. Such a situation started to develop back in the 1970s and has been with us ever since, breaking to the surface in a number of acute crises along the way.

This is very bad news for capitalism, which can only maintain the expansion of capital (create profit) through the exploitation of living labour (that is, by putting people to work) in the process of commodity production (the creation of goods for sale on the market). For capital, and for the capitalist who must act as capital personified, the motto must be: Expand or die.

When avenues for productive investment readily present themselves to the holders of capital, speculative investment will play less of a role. However, when such avenues for productive investment diminish in number, as they do in times of overproduction crisis, footloose capital is obliged to seek out other ways to expand itself – ways that are increasingly remote from actual production and the actual creation of new value. In short, capitalists turn to speculations and other forms of glorified gambling in which ‘profits’ are accumulated from others’ losses, rather than from the creation of new wealth.

In an effort to stave off the ill consequences of the overproduction crisis, monopoly capitalists have turned increasingly to non-productive investment, swallowing up weaker competitors, destroying surplus capacity through asset-stripping, taking a punt in the derivatives markets and boosting speculative investment in property, information technology or whatever else looked to be the ‘next hot thing’.

Who started the crisis, asked Williams, and answered his own question: The Bankers. Yes, it was indeed the bankers whose speculative binge resulted in their near-bankruptcy. And yes, it was the cost of bailing out the banks that sparked the sovereign debt crisis now threatening to bankrupt Europe. But this begs another question: what drew the banks into such a morass of speculative investment and dodgy lending practices in the first place?

Simply to say ‘irresponsible greed’ explains nothing. Social irresponsibility and avarice are permanent features of the capitalist mentality, reflecting the permanent drive for capital accumulation that lies at the heart of all capitalist commodity production. Capitalist greed is not a new phenomenon and cannot therefore sufficiently explain the turn taken by events. We need to dig deeper to understand the real genesis of the capitalist crisis.

What underlay the financial crisis? The overproduction crisis of the capitalist system. The fundamental problem is neither that capitalist politicians are ideologically pre-set to loathe the working class (though they are), nor that bankers are greedy sociopaths (though they are), but that the deepest contradiction within capitalist commodity production, that between the social character of all wealth-producing labour in our society and the private appropriation by a handful of individuals of that socially-produced wealth, has generated a crisis of overproduction far deeper than that of the 1930s, threatening again to pitch the world into slump, fascism and war.

Far from ‘talking the crisis up’ in order to justify its attack on workers, as Serwotka supposes, the government is in fact underestimating its true severity in an attempt to allay panic and buy time. For capitalism, whether fronted by Labour, Tory or LibDem administrations, there can be only one ‘solution’ to the crisis, and that is to wipe out surplus capacity, slash jobs and conditions, tear up the welfare state and get tooled up for repression of the resultant social unrest.

Under capitalism, there truly is no alternative. The pretence that the real problem is Lord Snooty and his Pals moving into Number Ten and exaggerating the economic crisis in order to impose an arbitrary Tory agenda only serves to conceal from workers the depth of the crisis, the corresponding seriousness of the capitalist class offensive and, most crucially, the opportunity for revolutionary advance.

Don’t mention the war

The other elephant in the Friends Meeting House whose presence was barely acknowledged was the continuing fascist assault upon the Libyan people by British, French and US imperialism.

True, Janice Godrich of PCS opened the meeting by offering a vague salute to all the revolutions against carefully unspecified “brutal dictators” in the Middle East, but nobody had a word of solidarity to offer to the Gaddafi-led resistance struggle against the brutal dictatorship that imperialism is seeking to exercise by means of its mercenary stooges in the ‘National Transitional Council’, backed by all the firepower at Nato’s disposal. Nor was there any mention of the accelerating preparations for war against Syria, stoked up by endless propaganda lies against the Assad government.

The closest the meeting came to talking about the war was a sideswipe from Mick Dooley (UCATT, SP). He suggested that, since “regime change” was all the rage, it was time we organised one of our own, to rid ourselves of the old politicians, old bosses and old union leaders. He might with profit have added that the opportunism of the TUC and the imperialism of the Labour party shared a common root in social democracy, and that the struggle against capitalism in Britain will be strengthened beyond calculation when we have a proletarian leadership that stands in frank solidarity with the forces of resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

When the suspended Unite convenor from Honda in Swindon, Paddy Brennan, spoke of the hate campaign waged against him by the bosses, he told us that the management had dubbed him “Paddafi”. What better recognition of the courage and independence of a class fighter under siege from capitalism could there be than this backhanded compliment from the class enemy?

And what better reminder that the counter-revolutionary violence visited upon Libya today is cut from the same cloth as the counter-revolutionary fascist repression planned against workers here tomorrow?


An example of the continued parasitism of Labour upon the workers’ movement was recently furnished in Bristol. On 3 September, Bristol’s anti-cuts alliance supported public-service unions Unite, Unison and GMB in a ‘Celebrating Public Services Day’ event in Southmead, one of the most impoverished and demoralised working-class areas of Bristol.

The avowed intent of the affair was to use an imminent by-election in that ward to generate public resistance to the cuts being pushed through by the LibDem-run Bristol City Council. (The previous incumbent of the seat was also LibDem.) It became clear at a meeting of the anti-cuts alliance, however, that for some the real agenda is to let the LibDems act as a lightning rod for workers’ anger, allowing Labour to duck responsibility for the cuts with which they are collaborating.

A man from Unite sought to enlist sympathy for Labour councillors, whose quiescence he sought to excuse on the grounds that the LibDems would not tell them what was going on! He said that of course we should challenge all candidates on the cuts – but then in an aside said that this was only because “we are not allowed to support Labour”.

Who he thought was forbidding such open support for Labour was unclear. But perhaps his bashfulness about publicly supporting Labour was more prompted by a dawning awareness of the depth of popular anger against all the parties of capitalism.

Whilst one clairvoyant at the anti-cuts meeting purported to detect a “seismic shift in the Labour group on Bristol City Council”, the uprisings suggest that an infinitely more substantial seismic shift is underway within the working class – and it is not in the direction of social democracy!

> Industry matters – combat labour influence in the union movement and follow the Greek example – August 2011