Tag Archives: critical theory

Still “lower than vermin” – liveblogging the Tory conference

In 1948 Anuerin Bevan (the son of a Welsh coalminer and Labour MP who founded the NHS) made a speech in Parliament which started “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”. As the Conservative Party Conference creaks on,  #lowerthanvermin is making the rounds on Twitter, as true as it was 64 years ago when Bevan first created the hashtag. I don’t know if it’s a pleasing historical continuity or just a sign of how far we haven’t come. As well as outlining plans to cut welfare by £10bn, demonising the unemployed during a recession exacerbated by the Government’s own economic policies and having a large number of their members protesting against gay marriage (LOWER! THAN! VERMIN!), George Osborne unveiled another big idea.

It is a plan that workers receive shares in return for giving up some of their rights. This situation is less like being unable to distinguish between The Thick of It and the actual Government, and more like being unable to distinguish between the Guardian and the Daily Mash. Obviously, £100m spent on a scheme to give tax breaks to shareholders of small businesses is very much part of the Tory property-owning dream. The money would be better spent on Sure Start centres or bursaries for low-income students or investing in green energy. But whatever. It won’t help with deficit reduction, but then again we all know that “deficit reduction” is a vehicle for reducing the size of the state, and ensuring workers’ rights are upheld is clearly a part of the state Osborne would like to see trimmed.

It’s not the worst idea in the world until you get to the part that says people will be able to purchase these shares in exchange for giving up their workers’ rights. Like their right to unfair dismissal. Like their rights to request flexible working hours. Like certain aspects of the right to maternity leave. I don’t think it would be possible to conceive of a single policy more illustrative of the conservative mindset.  It simultaneously aims to puts a price on the rights that people have fought for for centuries, and then puts a false tension between possible material benefit for oneself and one’s support of universal human rights. I mean, surely Osborne could just spend £100m on giving out these tax breaks if he wanted to? But his borderline sadistic political mindset sees a  Government doing something beneficial for a population presumably as akin to having a Nanny State . I mean, what if people just bought these shares and benefited from them?! They might get a taste for voting for Governments which proposed redistributive measures to improve their lives, and then where would we be? STUCK IN A CYCLE OF SLAVISH STATE DEPENDENCY.

The idea that workers’ rights are in some kind of opposition to the concept of employee-owned shares is a false dichotomy. I am all for employees having a share in their business, but then that’s because I’m a Marxist who sees capitalism as inherently exploitative. For the same reason, workers’ rights are a good thing. For most people, more universal rights are synonymous with them (as the Tories put it) “getting on in life”. This is only untrue for a tiny minority at the top who profit from lax workers’ rights, and as usual, the Tories are conflating the interests of the 1% with the interests of the population as a whole. It’s also classist dogwhistling of the most tiresome sort, dividing the country into the sort of (entrepreneurial) types who want to own shares in a company and the (lazy) ones who think workers’ rights are important.  The Conservative party conference has been doing this over and over again – not content with painting the unemployed as people living a life of total luxury on £50 per week through sheer fecklessness, they are now trying to portray working people who want to keep their rights as in opposition to responsible shareholders. I know, I know, The Pope is a Catholic, bears shit in the woods and Tories try and sell their policies through divisive, classist rhetoric.

They just don’t get that people may support universal rights for reasons bigger and more profound than the capital those rights may allow them to accrue. Unable to conceive of anyone holding motivations larger than their own self interest, this is an ideological move to undermine the solidarity of workers who have organised for decades to fight for these rights, because the conservative mindset can only view mass organised movements with suspicion.

I could write something about how this commodification of the very concept of workers’ rights represents a new frontier for capitalism. About how when George Lukacs wrote about the commodification of greater and greater aspects of the human experience, he probably didn’t think this would one day come to include putting a price tag on workers’ rights. About how Marx must be turning in his grave.

Instead I thought I’d draft some policy ideas which I’m sure we’ll see the Chancellor announce in due course:

–          Students to swap right to protest in exchange for £1000 off their tuition fees  (rising to £2000 in their final year for a clean track record of no political action whatsoever apart from the occasional Port & Policy session).

–          Parents could swap their right to parental leave in exchange for vouchers for private schooling for their firstborn.

–          The disabled could swap their right to accessible workplaces in exchange for keeping their disability benefit.

Honestly, this is so easy, I don’t know why I’m still unemployed when I could easily be working as a Conservative policy advisor.

#lowerthanvermin indeed!

Why Occupy?

So it turns out the BBC don’t have to reply to your complaint in 10 days… I don’t know what kind of reply I expected, anyway. An Occupation has started at my university! I’m not staying there, but I have been down every day for General Assemblies and to help out in other ways, and I’ll be dragging my more apolitical friends to every talk I can persuade them to attend. We’ve got lecturers from loads of different departments doing some really good talks, and my big idea is to try and get some, essentially, free-market cheerleaders in to debate with us “unwashed socialists”, as a charming member of the Conservative Party Society here at Warwick referred to us. This was followed by a suggestion (ironic, of course) that someone should come along in the middle of the night and gas everyone sleeping in their tents. I guess raising that level of vitriol from the right must mean we’re doing something to challenge their worldview (subconsciously, of course). Anyway, I think it’d be great to have a big debate going in a public space, where passing students can listen and join in, and find out just why so many of their fellow students feel so strongly about these economic issues that we’re willing to sleep outside in November.

So, my thoughts on the situation. What I am desperate to do is get as many people as possible on our side. I want to make people understand what is happening, and I know that the message needs to be clear and concise if the Occupy movements have any chance of fundamentally changing the narrative, and we need to change the narrative before we can change anything else. People, ordinary people, need to get really angry before change will come about. People who have never protested before need to realise the extent of the problem, and we need to get those people out on the streets. And this might sound simplistic, but the most important thing I want people witnessing the protests to come away with, is a sense that the current system is something that can be changed.

Free-market capitalism has sold itself as the logical outcome of every other economic and social order that ever existed. For me, this demonstrates its moral and intellectual failings; it is presented as the only option we have for organising society, rather than one of many. If Cameron would stand up and make an intellectual argument about the benefits of privatising the NHS, we could prove his points wrong. It would also simply be  a nice change to hear the man announce his real beliefs for once, but that’s another story. It’s clear that he wants a smaller state, it’s clear that he thinks the unemployment and disenfranchisement of millions of people is a price worth paying to keep a wealthy elite as rich as they are now, and he no doubt justifies this to himself through calling himself a realist, doing nothing more than following the dictactes of global capital, which is apparently now the main responsibility role of any world leader in 2012.

Being brought up in a society where you are made to believe that not only you, as an individual, are powerless to change anything, but that people as a whole have no power to shape their own societies and economies, is criminally dispiriting. It’s a huge sapping of morale and resistance. Dictatorships expend a lot of energy indoctrinating their citizens with propoganda about how their tinpot country is the greatest and best in the world, constantly beseiged by enemies. We aren’t even given a moral or intellectual case for the neo-liberalism we live under. There is no alternative. There is nothing to argue against. There is no debate. It’s a sad intellectual climate to grow up in. This isn’t to negate or ignore the left-wing sentiment that exists all over the world, and in Britain. But it’s simply that free-market capitalism can only be understood as a totalizing theory in a way that a mixed economy or socialism aren’t. You can’t argue that capitalism works brilliantly for some things, terribly for others, and needs to be regulated heavily in any case due to the inequality it causes, within the ideological framework of free markets. Most mainstream views of socialism aren’t anti-capitalist at all, they just see capitalism as one element within a balanced society, not a way to organise the entire thing. It’s this attempt to explain everything through one totalizing system, despite the huge human suffering it causes, that I think will make the next century look back on the intellectual prison of classical economics in the same we consider doctrinaire Marxism today.

We are told to believe that all we can do is make conditions as favourable as possible (essentially, by getting rid of workers’ rights and welfare systems) for the forces of global capital to be attracted enough to our country to invest in it, as if instead of the “markets” being about the decisions of a minority of property-owning individuals, they were simply like iron filings irrestibility drawn to the most magnetised states – magnetised being a metaphor for the most neoliberal. And in case you start to wonder about the possibility of living in a society where the distribution of resources had more to do with human need than with the bizarre ideology that considers the desire to acquire vast amounts of wealth for oneself not as a pathology, but the principle around which all of society should be organised, you needn’t bother. We need to make savings. We’re broke. There’s no money left. Obviously there was the £1.5 trillion we added to our debt to bailout the failed banking system, but if we did anything to regulate it after the crisis, well, those natural forces of global capital would depart and OMGZ GREECE. I’d sum it up more eloquently but you’ve read this far, you know the story.

The current system doesn’t work in the interests of most people; only the 1% want it, and yet even Labour politicians tell us there is nothing we can do about it, essentially. The best we can hope for is to try and attract global capital and skim off more of it than the Conservatives would to pay for “non-productive parts of society” like schools and hospitals. Those were the actual words of a Conservative MEP on Question Time this week – this is the rotting effect of neo-liberalism on peoples’ minds – what a failing of intellect, but mainly of empathy, to consider the saving of lives and the education of the young to be non-productive! It makes sense if your only measure of the usefulness of any activity is the capital it produces. To me, that’s an understanding of human experience so limited as to be suggestive of pathology.

If you want a smaller state, argue for it. If you think that taxpayers collectively paying for a free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system is a luxury society can’t afford, and yet bailing out a failed banking system and not making it repay the taxpayer is just the kind of blip we can expect in an otherwise wonderful capitalist system, you need to make that case. No one does, of course, because it’s completely logically inconsistent. So they fall back on TINA – “there is no alternative”. It seems to me that making people believe that the current system is the only viable way in which society can avoid an enormous, yet unspecified, catastrophe is usually more of an indicator of a dictatorship than a democracy.

On a related note, I think the only time I’ve felt respect for a member of the GOP was when John McCain was asked in a debate some bullshit question about Obama being a Nazi or a Kenyan or a Muslim and McCain’s reply was “I may disagree profoundly with Obama’s beliefs and convictions, but he is a good person and you have nothing to fear from his becoming President”. That is having the courage of your convictions, and that is the kind of reasoned line rarely heard from the mouths of free-market cheerleaders.

If I had a daughter, I would tell her this – you are allowed to talk back to your own culture. All of this There is No Alternative bullshit serves to make you believe that resistance is futile. And so you do the best you can in a country with rising unemployment and a world with rising sea levels, and you try and put aside some money for your children and don’t stick your head above the fence. And when school playing fields are sold to Tesco, and when every High Street in the UK contains exactly the same shops, and when train fares go up by half as much again and when the higher fees have made you feel a bit more strongly than university isn’t for everyone, that’s just the way it is. That life is all you can hope for, apparently. That is considered by this ideology to be enough to provide a full human existence. It isn’t.

This is why I’ll be at Occupy Warwick this weekend, and why I’ll be urging everyone I know to listen to the talks, and come to the picket line on Wednesday to support University staff – because accepting that there’s nothing I can do to change the society I live in would make me feel like I was less alive, less human. If the neoliberal worldview managed to provide every human being on Earth with a decent standard of living and a solution to climate change, I would still consider it an ideology that does criminal damage to humanity because of the way it understands all human activity and perception in terms of money. There is nothing that cannot be understood through the medium of the commodity. They seek to turn education into a commodity. As much as I rely on Facebook, the way it has commodified human relationships makes me uneasy. Public space is privatised; the commons are eradicated, and this also has, of course, the side effect of making street protest illegal. To tell people that their moral convictions are pointless is, I think, more damaging than telling them they are wrong. This poisonous ideology renders the oppressed utterly powerless, and the oppressors completely vindicated – they never have to answer the uncomfortable question of just how they sleep at night while their policies damage so many peoples’ lives; after all, There Is No Alternative.

The Occupy movements feel like a small breathing space in the intellectual straightjacket of neo-liberalism we increasingly live under.

To quote Thomas Docherty, an English professor at Warwick, who told us that the purpose of universities was the pursuit of three things, the good, the beautiful and the true, and not a monetary investment, he also said “So next time someone tells you that old lie, Tina, that There Is No Alternative, tell them – What about H.o.p.e? By which I mean “Hey, Other Possibilities Exist”.