Pause for thought

We do not live in a democracy, we live in a ‘rule of law’ state, argues Mike Macnair

The Christmas vacation will inevitably involve a pause in the student campaign against fee rises and cuts in universities and colleges and – in the 6th forms and further education sector – in defence of the education maintenance allowance (EMA). This is in the nature of things: it is harder for students to mobilise out of term. The pause will be and should be a pause for thought: where does the campaign go when everyone comes back next term?

This article is an attempt to contribute to that process of thought. I don’t want to claim that its answers are certainly right or should be the end of a discussion, but rather to contribute to the necessary discussion. I offer three basic points.

First: the use of force against the Con-Dems, their paymasters, and the paymasters’ other agents, is morally justified. This point has to be emphasised and repeated as often as it takes, because we are already seeing a media campaign against ‘violence’ and fraudulent allegations that it is the work of ‘infiltrators’, and we will certainly see more of this crap in the next period.

Second, and however: the display of student anger through what remain minority attempts to use force has real tactical limits, and those limits are rapidly approaching. We have seen militant demonstrations which have displayed a laudable fighting spirit. But when the police have had their act together – which has varied – the numbers have not been enough to break the ‘kettles’ or to deter police attacks. The demonstrators represent broader support, but remain a minority. The movement needs to dig deeper into building up and connecting with the mass support – so far passive – for the cause, which certainly exists.

Third: the movement needs to aim higher in what it fights for. Immediate defence of what exists against the Con-Dems’ obvious attempt to make it worse is an understandable starting point. But ‘what exists’ is already massively deformed by previous neo-liberal ‘reforms’ and the existing student fees arrangements. So there is a risk that by sticking to ‘defence of what exists’ the pass is sold: the campaign lacks an alternative vision, the Con-Dems are able to win grudging acceptance of the principle of their attack from people who aren’t students, lecturers or otherwise immediately involved, and the mobilisation peters out in a grumbling retreat.

The responsibility for aiming higher rests in the first place with the left. United campaigns are excellent. But we also need a united party of the Marxist left to intervene in the public debates about the issue with an alternative to the neo-liberal ‘human capital’ theory of education which claims that education recipients should pay for ‘what they get’.

Justified force

The use of force by demonstrators – from the assault on Millbank to fighting back against the police kettles, to attempting to put fear on the royals – is morally justified. This is, as I said, the first and most fundamental point. It is the most fundamental because we are already having it drummed into us, and will hear it over and over again, that it is morally unjustified, will damage the campaign, is the work of ‘extremists’ and ‘infiltrators’, and so on.

Fortunately, the initial gut reaction of many people to the ‘student unrest’ has been “good on them!” The Daily Mail was most disappointed to find in a poll of its readers that the majority still supported students. This was almost certainly an artificial result; but the artificial poll result reflected a certain reality: relatively few people are led by the ‘violence’ to want to express an opinion against the students.

However, the tidal wave of media against the most militant students will inevitably shift the climate to some extent. It is hard, if you are constantly lied to over a prolonged period, to hang on even to prior knowledge inconsistent with the lies – let alone to hang on to a mere gut instinct that it’s a good thing someone is fighting. We need to counter this wave of lies by explaining, patiently, over and over again, why the use of force against this government is morally justified.

The basic starting point is that the use of force is a normal and humdrum element of modern capitalist society (and of all the societies that went before it back to the beginnings of class society). Suppose you don’t pay your rent, mortgage or taxes. A court order will be obtained and bailiffs will come to enforce it. If significant resistance is anticipated, the bailiffs will be backed up by the police. Suppose you arm yourself sufficiently to drive the police away (say, with a gun) police marksmen will come and kill you. Suppose, like the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993, a larger group of you arm yourself sufficiently to defeat the police marksmen, full-scale military weapons (tanks and artillery) will be used against you.

Such extreme cases are rare. But this rarity is because most people, most of the time, think that the law is legitimate and acceptable and put up with it, even if they grumble, when they lose out by law. For those who don’t put up, the ordinary humdrum laws remain backed by willingness of the state, if push comes to shove, to use extreme force to enforce them.

The escalation does not always happen. Sometimes the state backs off from law enforcement. For this to happen there have to be either powerful interests opposed to the law, or broad masses of people who think that the law, or its enforcement in this case, is illegitimate.

The ‘powerful interests’ type of case can be seen in the Sunday trading confrontation of 1994, where the large retailers faced down the government, or the fuel duty protests of 2000, where the oil companies backed the trucker protesters and the government backed down.

The ‘mass hostility’ type of case can be seen in the mass squatting movement of 1946, in the case of the Pentonville Five in 1972, where spreading mass strike action defeated the court order to jail the dockers, and in the poll tax struggles of 1989-91 – especially in Scotland, where mass resistance inflicted partial defeats on the bailiffs.

Sunday trading and the fuel duty protests in reality had also an element of mass support behind the opposition to the laws. Christians and shop worker unions did not succeed in persuading a majority that the Sunday trading laws were an acceptable use of state power. Nor did green campaigners succeed in persuading a majority on the fuel duty escalator. Without that mass backing, the state could not face down the retailers’ or the truckers’ defiance of the law.

Law in general claims to set the limits of the legitimate use of force. Most people most of the time accept it as doing so. Even people who are in jail for crimes, though they may think that they ought not to be in jail, mostly think the laws in general justify the use of force against (other) criminals. Conversely, the law defines what counts as ‘force’ in public argument. Action which is legal is called ‘peaceful’ though it involves coercing others; action which is illegal is called ‘violent’ though it is initially merely unlawful entry into property or sitting down in the street.

As the examples of defeats of the law given above show, the enforcement of laws ultimately rests on mass consent to the use of force to enforce them. If broad masses withdraw their consent to a particular law or a particular use of law, the use of force to enforce it may become impracticable.

The consent rests on two pillars. The first is the belief that the laws in general are broadly just. No-one thinks – for example – that the laws against murder, rape or burglary should be abolished. The second pillar is mass acceptance of, or ‘putting up with’, the state as such, or of the constitution. Thus we are constantly told by politicians and the media that ‘violent’ protest is unacceptable in a democracy. The idea is that the procedures by which laws are made bind us all to obey them.

This would be fair enough if we lived in a democracy. Law-making and elections would then be a means by which we take collective decisions; and the minority would have to accept that the majority is entitled to have the decision carried out, even if it is wrong or unjust.

But we do not live in a democracy. We live, on the contrary, in a ‘rule of law’ state. And what this means is that the state is fundamentally committed to defending the interests of property owners and creditors, even if this costs the lives of non-owners and debtors. This commitment is expressed strategically in the ‘rule of law’ itself, but more immediately in the form of institutional corruption.

Elections to parliament are fundamentally governed by institutional corruption and fraud, through the role of the advertising-funded media. Lawsuits and judicial law-making are similarly governed by corruption through the ‘free market in legal services’. The 2010 election was unusually fraudulent, because none of the parties were telling the truth about what they intended to do in relation to the cuts.[1]

Suppose a government has not been democratically elected, but still makes only just laws (like the law against murder). The law would remain a proper moral guide to the legitimate use of force: not because of the procedure by which the law was made, but because of its content.

Suppose, however, a government does not have a democratic basis, but proceeds to make unjust laws. Now there is no case for regarding the law as setting the limits of the legitimate use of force from the content of the law itself; and there is no case for regarding the law as defining the limits of the legitimate use of force from the procedures by which the law has been created. The legislators have, in effect, become criminals: and the use of force against them is just as much morally justified as the use of force against any other criminal.

This is the present situation. The financial industry got itself into deep trouble through speculation. We can admit that this was a necessary consequence of the normal development of the business cycle from boom to bubble: while it lasted, the financiers were still very well paid. The outgoing Labour government then used vast amounts of taxpayers’ money, borrowed money and simply invented money to bail out the financial industry. Now the new government – of parties which were very heavily funded by financiers – proposes that the rest of society should pay for the resulting debts. But the financial industry and the ‘savers’ who gained from the speculation are not – except at trivial levels of new regulations – to pay. Oh no: that would be to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This result is unjust. I do not mean by this that it is not in accord with a transhistorical value of justice or with some general moral standard of distributive justice. I mean that it is conduct which is unjust by the standards of capitalist society: if it was done by anyone other than a government, it would be recognised as theft and attract a substantial jail term.[2]

What we have with the Con-Dem cuts project is theft from the general public, protected by the fact that the electoral system is institutionally corrupt. This fact lies behind the widespread gut feeling that student demonstrators’ expressions of anger by using force are ‘OK’. It lies particularly behind the hostility to the Lib Dem MPs who voted for the fee rise, whose promise to vote against student fee increases turns out to have been in substance dishonestly obtaining MPs’ and ministerial salaries by deception, contrary to section 15 Theft Act 1968 – or, at best, to dishonestly making off without payment, contrary to section 3 Theft Act 1978.

The gut feeling is there because it is true. It is morally justified to use force against the Con-Dems, against their paymasters, and against their paymasters’ other agents.

Tactically limited

A guy points a gun at you and demands your money. It is morally justified to use force to resist him. But this does not mean that it is always the best practical thing to do. On a larger scale, when William the Bastard brought his large gang of armed robbers into England in 1066, the English were certainly morally entitled to fight; but Harold Godwinson would have been better advised to wait for reinforcements rather than – as he did – marching immediately to fight the invasion at Hastings with small forces.

The student direct actions of the last few weeks have not been a real attempt to coerce the Con-Dems by the use of force into giving up their attack. Rather, the use of force has been a – strong – display of anger: a way of dramatically reinforcing the message of the strength of feeling against the government’s unjust scheme for privatising higher education and dumping the cost on graduates. The anger has been displayed. Where next?

One possibility is to try to up the ante: more occupations, more street-fighting, and so on. Meanwhile, the government has upped the ante with more kettling and longer lasting kettles, police cavalry charges, an OTT legal charge of ‘violent disorder’ against Charlie Gilmore over the ‘Cenotaph flag’ incident, and so on. In practice, it is likely that a good part of next term’s student political effort will have to be put into defence of those victimised after these protests. Meanwhile, the government has threatened to up the ante with kite-flying for the use of water cannon.

Where does escalation lead? One historical possibility is May 1968 – all too fresh in the memory of many of today’s leaders of the far left. The injustice of the government’s actions is kept fresh in people’s minds by the street-fighting and brings to mind all the government’s other injustices; workers begin to come out on unofficial strikes, initially in protest against the repression; the political order is thrown into crisis. A more extreme version would be February 1917: both sides up the ante until the government begins to make more widespread use of lethal force; people get killed, but the illegal strikes and street fighting go on: the cops and soldiers begin to refuse orders to fire on demonstrators. That would, of course, be a revolutionary crisis. In these patterns, the initial minority action brings out the broader masses and by doing so brings down the administration and its projects – or, in extreme cases, the state.

Another historical possibility is the fate of direct action supporters in the US and Germany (and other countries) growing out of the later 1960s student movement. The workers do not come out; the street fighting does not trigger a revolutionary crisis. The majority become demoralised and retreat. A minority who are still determined on direct action conclude that ‘you do need a Weatherman’: what you need is more effective use of force against the government and capitalist criminals. Minority direct action slips over into individual terrorism. Terrorism becomes a ground for more widespread repression and consolidates a bloc of political support round the government.

Which is the more likely outcome of a policy of continuation or escalation of minority use of force by the most militant students in 2011? Regrettably, the answer at the moment is the second. There is considerable anger among broad masses at the Con-Dem coalition and its cuts threat. But we have not reached the point which Lenin famously and perceptively identified as the moment of revolutionary crisis: when the rulers cannot go on in the old way and the ruled will not go on in the old way.

Revolutionary crises are less like earthquakes which come completely out of the blue, more like storms which are (usually) preceded by signs warning of the coming storm. The last period has been one of acute weakness of the workers’ movement and low and until recently declining levels of strike action. It is true that this decline has probably bottomed out and that strike action has begun, very slightly, to rise. But the movement remains very weak. In this context, the student direct actions have to be seen as at most a harbinger of a future storm: not its immediate starting point.

The reality this implies is that minority student direct action is unlikely even to mutate into terrorism. If people stick with the direct action tactic past its initial legitimate and effective effect as an expression of anger, it is likely that they will in effect be banging their heads on police batons in preference to finding a brick wall to bang them on. And the result will probably be really what Tory and Blairite commentators call it: ‘1970s re-enactment’, but without much impact.

Dig deeper

What has been said above is not an objection to the use of force or illegal action as such. It is merely a point about the tactical limits of minority forcible action.

What follows from it is the need to work to increase the numbers actively involved. It is necessary to dig deeper into the broader passive support for the demonstrations and hostility to the government’s project.

This sort of work is less spectacular, more tedious and more localised than direct actions. It means unambiguous recognition that the advertising-funded media is part of the enemy, not an instrument that can be used by the movement. It therefore implies building up counter-networks of communication to allow the activists to speak with the broader masses without media filtering.

E-forms of communication have been creatively used, but in spite of their potential they have their own limits.

Print is needed to make more sustained arguments: leaflets and regular campaign bulletins or local alternative press can counter the integration of the mainstream student press into the ‘journalism career ladder’.

Face to face argument and contact are needed to engage effectively with the arguments put in circulation by the enemy: student activists should be thinking of initiatives like, for example, canvassing the halls of residence door to door. Regular open meetings, not limited to the ‘practicalities’ but discussing wider issues of policy as well, are vital. These spread ideas, develop the ability of activists to defend themselves in argument with the hesitant or the hostile, and can increase the number of activists and their solidarity.

For these tasks the student far left tends to substitute the idea of reconstructing, or democratising, the National Union of Students. A good example is provided by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s leaflet for the December 9 actions: a third of a column on local tasks, itself not bad; slightly more than a column on the NUS, the demand for an emergency NUS conference, and national unity of ‘activist’ student unions – pretty certainly diversionary.[3]

Treating the NUS as if it was a trade union has been a persistent weakness of the student left in the recent past. Focussing on the internal constitutional forms and mechanics of the NUS adds to this mistake the fundamental weakness of the recent policy of the far left in the real trade unions. That is, that the far left has given too much weight to efforts to win ‘left’ policy and elections within the normal bureaucratic framework of the unions, as opposed to efforts to rebuild the rank and file structures of the unions at the base and their effective relationship with their members.

Even so, I doubt any leftist trade union militant would argue for a main focus on the national bureaucratic game in the midst of an actual industrial dispute: and to the very limited extent that student unions can be analogised with trade unions at all, the present struggle with the government over fees is analogous to a dispute. The problem is to mobilise and to organise at the base.

Aim higher

The far left’s comments on the struggle over fees are overwhelmingly simply about the means of fighting this attack. Prominent in most of them is the idea of a student-worker alliance, to be created by students carrying the news of their struggle into the (currently very weak) trade union branches, trades councils, etc, and by giving picket-line solidarity to industrial disputes.[4] The implicit assumption is made that the campaign is simply to defeat this attack – not to fight for anything more.

The problem of building wider unity is necessarily connected to the issue of what the movement is fighting for. Certainly, trades councils (where they survive) and union branch meetings (perhaps, with luck, quorate) will be happy to pass supportive resolutions. Seeking mass support involves larger arguments. For many people who aren’t immediately contemplating going to university in the near future, the false logic of Dearing and Browne – that graduates are the main beneficiaries of higher education (HE) through increased wages, so graduates should pay for it – has some degree of purchase. Activists seeking to mobilise mass support will need to counter these arguments.

There are two possible responses. The first is to suggest ‘realistic’, merely marginal, changes. Thus the AWL leaflet remarks of the NUS that it (presumably meaning its leadership) “wants to tinker around the edges of the payment system but accepts as inevitable (desirable, even) the idea of education as a paid-for commodity.”

A variant is to assert that the money can come from somewhere else – without answering the argument of principle. Thus the Socialist Workers Party suggests that bank bonuses last year were higher than the total university income from student fees in the same year: “Take the bonuses and abolish fees!”[5]

The real alternative is to argue in principle against the idea that HE is or should be a commodity. A step in this direction is taken by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain’s ‘Education workers’ advisory committee steering group’. “The Communist Party regards education not only as a service to individuals which should be provided regardless of ability to pay, but also as a centrally important basic industry vital for the development of all aspects of an advanced society.” They propose that raising UK corporation tax to the average in the G7 central capitalist countries would pay for higher education without fees.[6]

It’s a step in the right direction – but insufficient, for two reasons. The first is the question posed by the person who isn’t contemplating themselves or their kids going to university. OK, the money could be found by increasing corporation tax (assuming this didn’t lead to a flight of capital, causing the higher tax rate to bring in lower returns). But if corporation tax is to be increased, why spend it on students rather than on hospitals, or social services, or nurseries, or any of the other activities facing cuts?

The second reason is that the argument of principle – that education is “a centrally important basic industry vital for the development of all aspects of an advanced society” – is deeply ambiguous, because it is half-way to being within the terms of the nationalist argument that HE is essential to ‘British competitiveness’. Suppose it turned out that HE didn’t increase national competitiveness. Surely the CPB comrades would still think that it should be provided regardless of ability to pay. But why?

The answer is that education at all levels is not, and should not be, merely training to fill your future assigned role in society. It is, and should be, the provision of the means of access to the riches of choices and culture which the society is capable of providing. Governments ration it out and give it grudgingly in order to keep the poor in their place. HE is, and should be, education for power: for the ability to form your own rational opinions and participate in social discussions in the face of imperfect and contradictory information and uncertainty. This is a political right, an aspect of citizenship.

It is this political character of HE that – on the negative side – produces too many Oxford politics, philosophy and economics graduates in the leaderships of the main parties. It is this political character which makes it obviously and scandalously unjust that graduate MPs who studied under the old grants regime should pull the ladder of access to HE up behind themselves.

This political character means that HE should be available freely to all who want it. There are, of course, practical prerequisites – for example, it is no use trying to do a humanities degree without prior effective literacy or a science degree without fairly well-developed prior maths; but the real prerequisites are a lot lower than the hurdles which are set by the annual competition for university places. This approach, then, means fighting for an expansion of HE, not the mere maintenance of what already exists. It means in particular an expansion of adult education and mature access to university education.

What is involved in aiming higher is an alternative vision of society. For Browne, and the Con-Dems who have adopted his report, their vision is of a society purely governed by the capitalist market: in which everything has a price and nothing a value. The alternative is a society whose aim is the fullest and most rounded possible development of every human being. The name of that aim is communism.

Why aren’t the far left working away in this campaign to propagate this alternative vision of society, which also represents an alternative vision of the role of education? The answer is a combination of two illusions. The first is the illusion that ‘moderate demands but militant action’ (Tony Cliff) is the way forward. ‘Transitional demands’ and ‘the transitional method’, as interpreted by the modern Trotskyist left, is merely a variant on the same idea. The place it leads to is either the cul-de-sac of minority direct action, if we stick to the ‘militant action’ side; or merely tailing the Labourites, if we are willing to settle for less.

The second illusion is sectarianism. The SWP tries to speak to broad masses or ‘newly radicalising forces’ by blocs with the Labourites, and tries to ignore the rest of the far left ‘sects’. The same is true of the Socialist Party in England and Wales … and of the AWL … and so on. The same is most of the way true of the Morning Star’s CPB. But the result is that for each competing group, the level of political argument has to be lowered to fit the aim of a bloc with the Labourites. When broad masses or ‘newly radicalising forces’ are actually engaged in action, what they see of the left is 57 varieties – selling pretty much the same product.

The movement needs the vision of an alternative society that Marxism offers. To present that vision, however, we need to overcome sectarian divisions and create a real – even if, in the first place, small – communist party.
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  1. More detail on these points in my articles in this paper: ‘Sleaze is back’ July 20 2006; ‘It is not enough to call for abolition of anti-union laws’ April 8 2010; ‘From an instrument of deception’ April 29 2010.
  2. I do not mean by this to retract what I said a couple of weeks ago (‘Arming the resistance’ Weekly Worker December 2 2010) about the underlying motive of the cuts being to maintain London’s standing as a global financial centre. Theft is still theft when its underlying motive is not personal enrichment but (for example) to give someone else’s money to charity.
  3. Also and more detail in Dan Randall, ‘NUS fails to back its members: its members must turn it upside down’ December 7 2010,
  4. AWL leaflet, above n3, and editorial, Solidarity December 8; ‘Mass walkout shows the way – now let’s link up students and workers’ Workers’ Power November 27; ‘The fight goes on against fees and cuts’ The Socialist editorial December 8; ‘Workers’ support for students is key’ Socialist Worker December 18.
  5. Socialist Worker editorial December 11.
  6. ‘Education experts set out fair alternative to tuition fees’ Morning Star December 13.

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