World politics, long waves and the decline of capitalism

Are we facing a new ‘long slump’ like the 1930s or is the recent financial crisis merely a blip in a larger picture of capitalist expansion? And how does the decline of capitalism fit into the picture? In an article in the Weekly Worker Mike Macnair examines the issues

Arthur Bough’s letters (December 10 and December 18 2009), and his fuller version of the argument of these letters on his blog [1], reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the CPGB’s discussion on the issues of the economic crisis.

To some extent this was the result of unclarities in Peter Manson’s brief report (December 3) of my opening on this issue at the November 29 CPGB aggregate. We had intended to transcribe and edit my opening for publication, but this was held up for various reasons. In fact in the December 3 paper we printed the opening I gave at the November 28 Hands Off the People of Iran annual general meeting on the policy of US imperialism. This argued that the decline of US world dominance, paralleling but different from the decline of British world dominance in the later 19th century, was the primary driver of international economic and political dynamics in the present period.

The primary purpose of my November 29 opening, upon which this article is based, was to stress both the real uncertainty of the immediate economic situation and the need to take seriously the arguments that what is involved may be merely a ‘blip’ and avoid staking all our political orientation on ‘slumpism’.

My personal opinion is that a ‘second leg down’ of the recession in 2010 – driven by concerns about state finances, leading to public expenditure cuts and other forms of withdrawal of liquidity which hold down consumer demand – is now more likely than not. However, I also emphasise both the level of uncertainty in all predictions, and that it is not the business of Marxists to hope for crashes and slumps to make our politics attractive; and that much of the left which does predict a severe crisis does so precisely in the hope that a slump will make their rather unattractive alternative to capitalism attractive. In reality, such a slump is more likely to benefit the far right.

In discussion comrade John Bridge criticised my opening as tending to reduce the problem with capitalism to that of cycles and to offer a cyclical theory of history more generally (this relates to my Hopi opening). It was in this context that he made the point that “it was not just a question of capitalism’s cyclical crises that ought to concern us, but the fact that it is a system in long-term decline”.[2]

My reply to the discussion was to a considerable extent addressed to the question of the decline of capitalism and the meaning and limits of this idea. I address this question again at the end of this article.

Economic conjuncture

Looking at the immediate indicators, there has been a rise in global markets over the last few months, and the general expectation is that the increase in unemployment will be reversed now that confidence has returned in the financial markets and the ‘real’ economy – there is some data indicating a rise in actual output. In theory UK output is still in decline, but whether this is accurate remains to be seen. There was a brief acute bout of nerves on the market following the Dubai government defaulting on its debts. But it is not clear if this is a complete default, and this is essentially a huge, but single property development which has gone bust.

The nerves caused by its collapse show the fear which exists amongst the investing section of the capitalist class that we are in a similar phase as 1929-31 – after the first crash, but yet to fall off the precipice, when the downturn hits the material economy and unemployment sky-rockets, masses of factories close, there is major deflation, etc. There is a perception among both Marxist and bourgeois economists that this is a possibility. At the same time there are those on both sides who argue this will not happen and that what has occurred can be compared to the market crashes of 1987, 1998 or 2001; a big financial crash, but one which capitalist states can manage by interventions to ensure liquidity.

It is important to be clear that having a Marxist methodology does not give us an answer to this question. Why this is the case can best be explained by looking at the attempts of Marxists to explain the current crisis as a minor financial bubble. Permanent Revolution takes this line, and a recent article by PR’s Bill Jeffries argues that the underlying trend is a massive recovery of capitalist profitability, which has continued since the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, and the rise of capitalist zones and foreign investment in China.[3]

Long waves

Capitalism goes into crisis because it runs up against limits to the profitable investment of capital, the consequence being that it shifts into speculative activities and the search for short-term liquidity. Hence there is an overproduction of fictitious capital (a bubble), leading in due course to a financial crash, which temporarily chokes commercial credit, resulting in depression and recession in the real economy. But Jeffries argues, broadly following Trotsky’s argument around long waves in the capitalist economy, that fundamental transformations in global conditions may allow for capitalist investment in new areas. Whether they take the form of new technology, a world-historical defeat of the working class or capitalism expanding into pre-capitalist countries, the new possibility of investment creates the conditions for a major revival in the profitability of productive industry and therefore a sustained expansion in investment. This does not do away with the business cycle, but mitigates the effects of it. The downturns are less acute and shorter, and the ‘up’ phases are stronger and more persistent. In PR’s view the fall of the Stalinist regimes and the market turn in China and Vietnam created the same effect as, in the 19th century, capital breaking into Africa or east Asia, opening up large fields for profitable investment.

In this view the underlying condition since the late 1990s is one of long-term boom analogous to the period of capitalist expansion in the late 19th century, or the 1950s boom and capitalist realignment. Why did World War II open up the possibility for profitable investment? Because it broke up the British and French colonial empires, which to a large extent kept US business out of their colonies. The effect of British dependence on the US was that Britain had to hand over large quantities of overseas investments, to be passed on to US corporations, in payment for the arms which were supplied. Britain and France were also compelled to agree to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt 1), which managed trade between the main capitalist powers, but centrally broke down the old imperial protection system and allowed US capital to dramatically expand into British and French territory.

Arthur Bough, an ex-member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has an alternative view which must be taken seriously, though he is an individual rather than representing a group, since he offers considered economic arguments. His argument draws on Kondratiev rather than Trotsky. Kondratiev argued that over the long term there was an (approximately) 50-year cycle running concurrently with the usual short cycle of booms and slumps of capitalism. In the first half of the cycle there are strong booms and weak recessions, and in the second half there are weak booms and heavy recessions. In Bough’s view the recessionary phase of the cycle opened in the early 1970s and closed in the 1990s, so we are about 10 years into the boom phase.

Kondratiev never offered a serious causal explanation of why there should be a long cycle, or why the periodisation should be 50 years. A variety of causal mechanisms have been offered ranging from technical innovations to long-range weather changes which affect harvests and hence food prices. None of them are really satisfactory.

The idea of fixed-period cycles is itself generally problematic. The short boom-bust cycle takes very approximately six to 10 years. Marx made some attempt to theorise this periodisation on the basis of the turnover time of fixed capital. That is, to simplify grossly, capitalists all buy machines and buildings at the same time, causing a forward push for a boom, then demand for these ‘capital goods’ necessarily falls and a downturn results until the fixed capital has to be replaced, triggering another upturn. There is correspondence between Marx and Engels where Marx is looking for evidence that the turnover of fixed capital accounts for the boom-bust cycle and so the latter can be reduced to a mathematical certainty. Engels – who was engaged in running a capitalist business at the time – denied the importance of this, telling Marx that capitalist decision-making was often based on guesstimates and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

There is an approximate regularity, and it is certainly the case that free-market capitalism cannot go longer than 10 or 12 years without a recession caused by a financial crash (if it is not triggered earlier by state action, as it was by the ‘demand management’ of the 1950s-70s). But talking about a range between six and 10 years is not the same thing as the ability to predict the date of crashes, and so on; there are many contributory factors in the determination of the cycle.

If this is the case with short cycles, why should there be a 50-year cycle over the long term? It is worthwhile pointing out that Kondratiev conceived the 50-year cycle based on 100 years worth of data – hardly sufficient to demonstrate a trend. In contrast, we know that the short business cycle has a considerable degree of regularity, including from the data going back to 1760s Britain.

This was Trotsky’s original criticism of Kondratiev – that there was not enough data to draw such a firm conclusion. Hence Trotsky’s ‘long waves’ were both less definitely periodised, and driven by aspects of the class struggle and capitalist expansion rather than ‘internal’ capitalist dynamics.

Both Kondratiev cycles and Trotsky’s long waves gained popularity among Marxist economists because of the long boom in the 1950s and 60s. In this period there was sustained material growth in the imperialist centres and colonial countries, as well as in the USSR and China, and there was a mitigated form of the business cycle: that is, neither booms nor busts ran away. It was a standard Marxist idea that with imperialism, capitalism had reached its terminal stage, and would tend to stagnation and persistent, repetitive crisis. That worked pretty well as a characterisation of the world between 1914 and 1948, but the question was how Marxists could explain the new stage of the 1950s and 60s. Long cycle theories came to be used to address this problem.

While comrade Bough’s argument is over-dependent on the dubious long waves of Kondratiev, Permanent Revolution’s argument has a considerably stronger basis: what happened in 1989-91. The Stalinist regimes were half-inside the capitalist economy; their purchase of higher-tech production equipment from the west gave a significant stimulus to ‘department I’ (capital goods) industries, with the usual multiplier effects for the rest of the economy. They also sold raw materials on a large scale to the capitalist economies. So, although the domestic relations of production in the USSR, etc were not straightforwardly those of capitalist production, the productive activity of those countries was in a contradictory sense part of the capitalist world economy.

In that sense, the breakdown of those economies and in particular that of the former USSR was the equivalent of an enormous bankruptcy. A fundamental part of the Marxist theory of cycles and crisis is that at the end of the boom period over-investment of capital occurs, and in order to clear this, particularly in certain sectors, a wave of bankruptcies is necessary. This is the crisis phase of the cycle and opens the way to new growth by devalorising a section of capital. From that point of view, it is correct to say, as Permanent Revolution does, that in this period we saw an enormous devalorisation of fixed capital – factories, etc – in the formerly Stalinist states. This devalorisation and reduction in barriers to trade opened the way for a substantial increase in potential capitalist investment, considerably so in China and Vietnam, but also in eastern Europe.

The fall of the Soviet Union and semi-marketisation of the eastern regimes should, therefore, in theory have paved the way for a prolonged period of capitalist growth. However, as pointed out by other Marxists, including Hillel Ticktin and István Mészáros, there was so much standing overcapacity in the capitalist economy that it is not clear if the collapse of the Stalinist economies provided that much of an opening for new profitable productive investment. Unemployment and underutilisation of capacity still afflicted the western and ‘southern’ economies. Though money profits rose after 1989, this overcapacity and underutilisation persisted through the 1990s. It remained the case that there were factories in the US and Mexico running at 60% of their capacity. So it is not clear that the fall of the Stalinist economies provided a real help in dealing with this overcapacity. In the ‘third world’ countries, production has shifted around more from one location to another: for example, from Latin America to China.

It is not clear that if we crunched the global numbers they would show an actual increase in total productive output, as opposed to goods being cheapened by major reductions in global average wage costs. What is clear is that in many peripheral countries there is endemic mass unemployment. Indeed in the core capitalist countries there is both endemic unemployment and underemployment in productive industry. The real level of unemployment is masked in a variety of ways. In the UK, this has been performed by transferring workers to sickness benefit, by the increase in training schemes and by expansion of higher education. The latter has not been undertaken because of a growing demand for highly skilled labour – overwhelmingly the demands of capital are for part-time, casual labour: flipping burgers, fruit picking, cleaning and so on. It has almost entirely been a device to mask unemployment.

The state also runs what are effectively white-collar job-creation schemes, duplicating work and multiplying bureaucracy. Local councils, for example, employ significant numbers processing claims for housing benefit, mostly from tenants in council housing. They also employ significant numbers to chase those tenants to pay their rent, which is, under legislation introduced by the Conservatives and continued by Labour, theoretically based on ‘market values’. It would actually be cheaper and more efficient for the council to lease the houses rent-free to benefit claimants, or to equalise the values of the rent and housing benefit. Housing benefit is a pure recycling of notional money as a way to keep clerical staff in work.

Projects like this and NHS marketisation create many a form-filling job for white-collar staff and managers. Privatisation has produced a series of regulatory quangos, and also multiple companies with their own bureaucracies and staff duplicating the same functions. In the case of the utility companies we have infrastructure monopolies (Transco and the electricity distribution companies) providing ‘services’ to a series of pure rentier/speculator companies running their multiple billing departments. The value of such companies is not based on any fixed capital or control over infrastructure, but on artificially created markets in gas or electricity futures – another form of fictitious capital.

If there had been a real global rise in the real rate of return of productive industry post-1989, one would have expected to see a substantial expansion of capitalist operations in Russia and eastern Europe, but in reality this has been quite marginal. When the US took power in Iraq, one could have expected huge investments by US capital flowing into Iraq, as when Britain took over parts of India. On the contrary, what we have seen is capitalist firms pretending to invest in Iraq as a way of stealing money from the US government – and the Iraqi government to the extent that it has to pay for reconstruction – for fraudulent construction projects.

If Permanent Revolution’s theory is correct, capitalists should be showing confidence that investment in material productive activities will yield above-average profit. They are not behaving this way; indeed predominantly their attitude is that material production will yield no profit, or not an adequate one for the investment, compared to ripping off the state through PFIs, through financial speculation and so on. Their behaviour would indicate they do not believe the rate of return on material production to be high enough to support a sustained expansion in the material productive economy. This is not the 1930s. But it is also not the 1950s.

Is it the case – as Permanent Revolution, Arthur Bough and Michel Husson, among others, argue – that there was a rise in the underlying global rate of profit in productive activities from the late 1980s? It is at least arguable that the statistics used to judge this are so contaminated by unproductive activities that what they reveal is not movements in the rate of profit in productive activities, but simply the ability of the US and the financial services sector to rip everyone else off to a greater extent. Aggregate GDP and profitability figures include the activities of lawyers, accountants, business consultants and the like; and these do not represent new production of material surplus, only the redistribution of surplus.

The point is that PR’s theory is a tenable one, but whether the available evidence really supports that theory is highly debatable. Some economists like Andrew Kliman have attempted to ‘get behind’ these figures, and drawn the conclusion that profitability was high in the 1950s and 60s, then declined and has remained at a low level since. Part of the problem with this approach is that it relies on statistics on productive output by sector (which can then be used to disaggregate the productive and unproductive sectors) which are only published every six years. So it is possible to explain events half a business cycle ago, but impossible to predict future movements in more than the broadest outline.

The view that we are in a phase of long-wave expansion triggered by 1989-91 is on its face theoretically tenable, but appears empirically problematic unless the ‘world economy’ is treated as merely an aggregate of the national ‘advanced economies’ and marginalist aggregate and average statistics, which fail to differentiate productive from unproductive activity, are taken at face value. Why?

My own take – for what it is worth, which is limited – is that the ‘long wave’ phenomenon reflects at least partly the shift between the positive effects of an ascendant world-dominant capitalist state (as creating fairly stable world money and ‘order’ conditions for global trade and productive expansion) and the negative effects of a declining world-dominant state (as exacting financial and other tribute from rising countries and protecting exhausted sectors of its own industry). On this basis a new phase of long-wave capitalist expansion like the 1950s is possible, but depends on the overthrow of the military power of the USA by capitalist rivals and the creation of a replacement world-dominant power: ie, a new 1914-45, which is not on the immediate agenda.

Hence, though in other respects the conditions exist for a new phase of capitalist dynamism and progress, what we actually get is a succession of bubbles and crises against a backdrop of endemic overcapacity and inability of capitalism to break beyond the auto/aerospace/petrochemicals economy. The other side of this coin is increasing irrationalism in politics and the persistence and deepening of the export of death and destruction in the form of the ‘war on terror’.

Against slumpism

PR may be right or wrong. But why does this matter? Of course, it matters to Marxists whether or not we are entering a big depression, but it is not vital for us to know the exact time or place that crisis will hit first. The fundamental points of Marxism’s critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy are, firstly, that cycles are unavoidable and there will be booms and busts – no amount of management will do away with the business cycle. Secondly, that free markets spontaneously tend towards radical inequality – the concentration of wealth in the hands of an increasingly small number and the relative impoverishment of an ever larger number of workers and petty proprietors. Whether the current crisis is another great depression or another short-cycle financial crisis like those of 1987, 1998 and 2001 but on a larger scale is completely immaterial to these facts about capitalism.

Permanent Revolution’s argument is a negation of that of the Workers Power group from which PR came. WP argues that capitalism entered its terminal phase in 1914, and that the working class needs to create a state like the early Soviet Union, complete with the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the leadership over the party. In this view, the more there is economic chaos and war-induced recession, the more workers will move into action. The Transitional programme is the other side of this coin: people will move into action based on immediate economic concerns, not a vision of an alternative future, and revolutionaries can lever them, step by step, through wage demands, etc, then soviets, into taking power. Without the masses having the idea in their heads that the parliamentary regime is corrupt and unacceptable or that it is possible to institute an alternative socialist order. Without a prolonged period of building up forces, delegitimising the existing state regime and spreading the idea that an alternative system is not just better than capitalism in the depths of recession, but better than capitalism in its boom phase.

The consequence of this strategy is that it becomes essential to predict, as Workers Power does, an enormous slump, which will bring with it street violence, mass strikes, the formation of councils of action and so on. In this situation the small group (whether it be WP, the Spartacists or indeed the Socialist Workers Party) can manoeuvre the masses into taking power. For these groups crisis is fundamental because it leads to the only conditions – if their theory of capitalism is correct – in which masses of workers might conceivably be desperate enough to think it would be good idea to give all power to the central committee of the SWP (or the equivalent ‘Leninist combat party’ group of your choice).

The method is the same; the small cog driving the bigger wheel; the enlightened vanguard vested with dictatorial powers. It is only when crisis gets so severe as to totally dislocate the capitalist economy that it is plausible that broad masses of the working class would consider this a serious alternative to capitalism. Even under these conditions it seems dubious. In a sense we can see this in the failure of the revolution in Germany, in Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution and the split in Comintern in 1921. The majority of the west European working class did not view the regime in Moscow as representing a superior alternative to capitalism – in spite of World War I, the acute economic contradictions following it and, in the case of Germany, in spite of the brutality with which Noske, Ebert and Scheidemann in alliance with the military right suppressed the radical wing of the workers’ movement.

Because the strategic conceptions of the far left stake everything on slump, there actually develops a desire for it. Crisis is transparently irrational – because of overproduction and overinvestment, people are laid off, reduced to poverty and starved. Too much wealth produces poverty. But actually wanting to experience slump conditions is an irrationality of its own sort, certainly if our aim is the self-emancipation of the working class majority, rather than a coup d’etat by the central committee of your choice.

Uncertain

To return to the present economic situation, the only possible thing to say is that it is uncertain. It may be that the fiscal stimulus from the Bank of England will be enough to re-inflate the financial bubble, at least in the core economies. If that happens there will still be acute crises in the periphery economies, examples of which we have seen already, including the instability in Ireland and eastern Europe.

Each past cyclical bust -1987, 1998, 2001 – has had severe consequences for some periphery countries, like the Argentinian crisis in 2000-01. Millions lost their savings, banks closed, and the country still has many cooperatives formed by factory occupations, such was the acuteness of economic dislocation. Ireland has seen a mass movement spring up. Even if stimulus packages were enough to re-inflate the bubble in the US, western Europe and perhaps China, this would still be at the expense of major recession in several peripheral countries.

It is also possible that a more severe recession will hit the core economies some time this year. If David Cameron were elected and introduced massive cuts in public expenditure, that would probably trigger a severe material recession. Actually doing what has been promised, to sack vast numbers in the public sector, cut local government funding and attack pensions and benefits, would sharply reduce consumer demand, undermining the service sector and triggering serious material recession.

Which way things will go we cannot know, though it seems unlikely that we are in a long boom and this is just another minor recession without consequences. If states have succeeded in re-blowing the bubble, we will see deepened instability in the peripheral countries; the core will be protected, but only for another four to eight years. There will be another upswing, but this will be dependent on liquidity and hence followed by a more severe version of the 2008-09 financial crash (just as 2008-09 was more severe than 2001, which was more severe than 1998, which was more severe than 1987).

Decline

Comrade Bridge is correct to say that capitalism is in decline. Contrary to comrade Bough, this statement has absolutely nothing to do with Lassalle’s “iron law of wages”,[4] with the idea of a secular tendency for the working class to be impoverished, with the Zusammenbruchstheorie (theory of collapse) criticised by Bernstein and wrongly defended by some of his opponents, with Soviet narratives of “the ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’”, or with Trotsky’s ‘death agony’.[5] Conversely, however, in my opinion when we understand capitalist decline correctly, the fact that capitalism is in decline has only limited implications for the diagnosis of the present economic conjuncture.

Social orders or forms of class rule – the slave-based urbanism of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism – are over historical time replaced by radically different social orders and forms of class rule. That is to say that each individual social order as such rises and declines. We have no reason to suppose that capitalism will be uniquely persistent.

To say that a social order or form of class rule is rising is to say that it plays an increasing role in organising the society’s productive activity and shaping its structure and self-image, replacing any prior social order. To say that it is declining is – obviously – the reverse: that it is decreasingly able to organise the society’s productive activity, that it decreasingly shapes the society’s structure and self-image, that it begins to be displaced by other forms of social order and to lose its legitimacy.

The phase of decline is characterised by statisation. The Roman empire, which artificially created and subsidised cities to keep them alive and attempted to intervene against the potentes, making the free peasants into private clients, represented the decline of the social order of classical antiquity. European monarchical absolutism and the analogous Tokugawa shogunate were forms of the decline of feudalism.

Like certain sorts of coral atolls, social orders may enter into decline at their historical centres even while they are spreading geographically. This is clearest in the case of feudalism. Feudalism was at its apogee in western Europe in the 11th-12th century, but already facing challenges from the rising proto-bourgeoisie and in decline at its core from the 13th century; but it continued to expand geographically both in eastern Europe and in the last phase when as it were ‘neo-feudal’ societies were created by the Spanish state in Latin America in the early modern period.

To say that capitalism is in decline is to say that it is in an analogous phase: declining at the core, while continuing to expand at the periphery at the expense of subsistence and artisan production, forms of feudalism and other pre-capitalist societies. At the core the decline began in the mid-19th century. The rise of the organised workers’ movement, beginning with Chartism and the early trade unions, led to concessions to the working class which had to be organised by the state. The biggest of these concessions was the extension of the suffrage.

This has involved the rise of a different organising principle of society: that of conscious, collective social decision-making: expressed in a distorted form in the form of the growth of state provision and regulation at the expense of market provision.

Meanwhile, the concentration of capital has the result that in several sectors there are firms which are ‘too large’ to be allowed to go bust, and that there are whole sectors which, like transport and agriculture, require permanent subsidies – again resulting in the extension of the capitalist state and of statised capitalism at the expense of the capitalist class in its proper sense.

And the extension of mechanisation has the result that capital needs a more educated proletariat and more extensively educated specific sections of the proletariat. As this extends, the underlying rationality of entrepreneurial ‘one-man management’ – that is, of the social-hierarchical division of labour – declines. This, too, is expressed in distorted forms (the corporate institutional bureaucracies mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy).

It is also expressed, paradoxically, in the fragmentation of the left: there are too many people who are perfectly capable of serving on central committees, as full-timers and so on for the organisation run by long-serving career ‘professional revolutionaries’ to make sense as an organisational form; the result, given that the leaders cling to their positions and control and mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy, is the proliferation of ever smaller and smaller splits (far worse than – for example – the divisions of the British far left before World War I).

The feudalism which Spain exported to Latin America was not the classic feudalism of the central middle ages, but the statised feudalism of the absolute monarchies. In the same way, the capitalism which has expanded geographically at the expense of pre-capitalist social orders and of Stalinism is not the ‘classic’ form of capitalism, but ‘mixed economy’ and corporate, statised capitalism.

In a certain sense, the decline of capitalism is most sharply expressed in the difference between the later 19th century decline of Britain as a world-dominant power and the decline of the US. The first involved Britain – and the other European imperialist powers – exporting population on a large scale to their global empires in an endeavour to create a form of order in the colonies which would serve the metropolitan society. (I do not mean by this to prettify the results of the European colonial empires; the observation is simply that the colonialists did seriously attempt to govern their colonies and protectorates.) Conditions for the working class and middle class in Britain were unpleasant enough to support this process, while the empire was, for Britain and other imperialist states, a source of domestic political legitimacy.

The decline of the US is sharply contrasting. The concessions made by US capital to the working class mean that the US continues to be characterised by large-scale net immigration. Its imperial role is a source, not of domestic political legitimacy, but of domestic political illegitimacy. The overseas operations remain acutely sensitive to US casualties – the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. The result is that the dominant form of US overseas intervention is not to impose any sort of order on the target state, but to impose destruction and chaos. In terms purely of weaponry, metropolitan population and domestic production capacity, the US has more war-fighting power than the British empire ever had: but its decline has set in more quickly than British decline and it is, at the end of the day, weaker in decline than the British empire was.

Decline and crisis

The arguments for seeing capitalism as in decline presented here are arguments in the long term. The analogies should make this obvious: the Roman empire was a form of decline, but lasted for another 500 years in the west and more than 1,000 in the east; feudalism was in decline from the 13th century, but the decisive capitalist breakthrough did not happen till the 17th, or, indeed become Europe-wide until the 19th.

Of course, capitalism develops more rapidly than feudalism (which developed more rapidly than the slave-based urbanism of classical antiquity). We may therefore not unreasonably expect it to ‘burn out’ more rapidly too. But it would be most unwise to use this as an argument that capitalism must be in terminal decay now.

The crisis of 2008-09 is in a certain rather limited sense the product of capitalist decline. This sense is that the immediate trigger of the crisis was financial instruments built on subprime mortgages in the US; and subprime mortgages in the US were a part of the system of controlling the US working class through material concessions, the apogee of the policy of ‘property-owning democracy’ and in a sense the moment at which this policy flew too close to the sun and its wings melted.

Indeed, the more general credit bubble was in part the product of the efforts of the US and other core capitalist states to stave off a crisis which should have produced a more or less severe recession in 1998 by pumping liquidity into the system. If we ask why the recession could not simply be allowed to proceed, the answer is that it was politically unacceptable. It was politically unacceptable because credit expansion and the ‘property-owning democracy’ was the primary means of managing working class expectations after the ‘social-democratic consensus’ was abandoned in the 1970s.

More deeply, however, the failure to break through to a new regime of productive investment is the product not of capitalist decline as such, but of the decline of the USA as a world-dominant power and the specific forms that this decline takes. I do not think that the decline of capitalism as such has proceeded so far that it is excluded that the US can be replaced by a new world-dominant capitalist power, allowing a new long wave of productive growth. The problem is rather the costs of replacing it – namely that the military power of the US has to be broken: the world has to go through another experience of global great-power war like 1914-18 and 1939-45 – and hope that this does not end in the US, in its Götterdämmerung phase (twilight of the gods; the Nazis in 1945), unleashing its nuclear arsenal.

We are as yet some way – probably decades – away from this threat, though the immensely destructive character of the US invasion of Iraq and the millenarian fantasies of the US right already tell us that it is a real one. The idea of a peaceful transfer of power from the US to some other capitalist force (or to a reformed United Nations) is utterly illusory. The only real alternative is if, before the point of global war, the working class can begin to act politically and on at least a continental scale to project its own power as an alternative to capitalist class rule.

We are as of now a long way from this possibility. Hopefully, the workers’ movement will manage to catch up before the processes of US decline reach their end-point.

Notes

  1. http://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/left-risis.html.
  2. ‘The polemical alternative’, December 3 2009.
  3. ‘Whatever happened to the great depression?’, www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/2887.
  4. A Bough, Letters, December 10 2009.
  5. J and H Tudor (eds) Marxism and social democracy Cambridge 1988; R Day The ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’ London 1981; L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm).

Communist Students oppose reactionary men’s societies on BBC

Men’s societies in universities and colleges have nothing to do with promoting equality

Macho revanchism hides an ugly face, argues Chris Strafford

Over the last few years there has been a growing trend of reactionary moves against women’s representation and the women’s movement, and this has been reflected in universities and colleges.

A common argument now being put forward by everyone from the far right to a gaggle of peculiar libertarians is: ‘Women have their own groups and student societies, so men should have them too’. This has resulted in the abolition, merging or downgrading of women’s officers posts in student unions, to the extent that only eight universities now have a full-time women’s officer in student unions that are largely dominated by men. Over the last few weeks ‘Man Collective’ (Oxford) and ‘The Men’s Society’ (Manchester) have been accepted as recognised student societies, resulting in national media coverage. Rightwing commentators have dubbed this ‘men’s liberation’, a supposed reaction to ‘positive discrimination’.

These developments must be seen within the wider context of a growing macho revanchism and the recent attacks on women, such as through the Welfare Reform Bill, which essentially seeks to impoverish single mothers, new measures against sex workers, the continuing inequality in pay and life opportunities, not to mention the increasing trend to blame women for provoking sexual violence and rape, resulting in a low rate of convictions.

What some are saying is that it is men who are now oppressed – not because of class, ethnicity, sexuality or disability, but because the women’s movement has ‘gone too far’ and now it is not misogyny, but misandry (discrimination against men), that is the problem. To back up this assertion a variety of different ‘facts’ are employed – male underachievement in education, higher rates of suicide, poor investment in male-only cancers …

But these phenomena are produced by class oppression, not misandry. Schooling for the working class is still centred on creating a significant number of semi-skilled or unskilled workers. Most of my school friends never went to university and ended up working in shops, as labourers, on apprenticeships or spent months at a time on the dole. Suicides are undoubtedly higher amongst the working class – unemployment, poverty, alienation and the constant stresses of capitalist society drive individuals to despair. It is also obvious that workers with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are less likely to survive than the rich. The NHS ‘postcode lottery’ is not actually random – life expectancy for men in working class areas of Glasgow is 28 years lower than those living in the lush suburbs.

Another common argument used by supporters of the ‘male backlash’ is that men need to discuss masculinity and to build a ‘positive male identity’. even supposed communists like George Waterhouse of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain has been defending these groups, writing on Facebook: “The main aim of the men’s society is to counteract what we refer to as ‘the fall of man’. Too long have we listened to that serpent and munched upon his proverbial apples.”1

In the abstract there is little problem with men discussing masculinity. Indeed there have been men’s caucuses doing that in order to aid the movement for women’s liberation in parallel with ‘women’s only’ meetings. In other words, male debate may be useful and play a positive role in strengthening the women’s movement. However, the new groups have been formed on a rather different basis.

To understand what they are about and where they are going we need to know who is behind them. In Manchester we have been very successful in exposing them. For example, the founder of the new society is Ben Wild, a rightwing evangelical Christian. Whilst well spoken and polite, Ben thinks that ‘straight pride’ might be a good slogan for a men’s society. Two of the Manchester committee belong to Conservative Future, the Tory Party’s student organisation. Unsurprisingly it is Conservative students who have been at the forefront of attacks on women’s officers posts.

But the Manchester committee also boasts a couple of individuals with links to the Orange Order, who have been quite happy to show their support for Ulster unionist extremists. After pointing this out we were threatened with libel action and violence, and the membership of such Facebook groups seems to have ended. The committee also includes a UK Independence Party supporter, who is notorious for choosing Goebbels as a favourite historical character!

All this may look like name-calling and silly student politics, but it is obvious that this group represents a coalescing of rightwing forces determined to undermine gains women have made over the last few decades. Their opponents have been labelled “feminist Nazi dykes”, “lesbians” and that age-old favourite of rightwing idiots everywhere: “men-hating feminists”.

In response to these moves students across the country have begun mobilising to counter the influence of men’s groups. At Goldsmiths University a move to accept the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ was defeated by a meeting of students. In Manchester supporters of Communist Students, the Socialist Worker Student Society, the Commune and the Anarchist Federation have met to discuss a plan of action for the new term. We are intent on winning the argument on campus. Those of us based in Manchester are looking to link up with other groups in order to present a united response to these attacks.

Notes

  1. th-th.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=75303762887&topic=8079

Report of Hands Off the People of Iran AGM

The following report is by Mark Harrison of The Commune group

Saturday 28th November saw 50-odd people congregate in central London for the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Hands Off The People of Iran campaign. Being a internationalist socialist campaign this gave oneself the chance to mix with some of the more principled elements of the British left, from class struggle anarchists to the LRC.

The day was opened by a report from Hopi secretary Mark Fischer of the CPGB, he explained that the protest movement emerging this summer around the fraudulent elections had vindicated the organisation’s position. He also attacked the leadership of the Stop The War Coalition for continuing to bar Hopi from affiliation due to our “working class common sense” position of opposing both imperialism and the theocratic regime. In June Hopi approached both SPEW and the SWP for a joint solidarity drive but received no response.

Following the June elections the SWP made one of their characteristically cumbersome shifts in position and now seemingly uncritically supports the Green movement (see Socialist Worker Issue 2156, “People power rocks Iran”). However, they tarnish the meaning of socialism less than the Stalinist George Galloway who appeared on Iranian state television shamelessly defending Ahmadinejad’s government and attacking enemies of the ‘Islamic Revolution’.

The second half of comrade Fischer’s presentation included campaigning priorities for the next 12 months: he bemoaned that although we have strengthened links with dissidents within Iran and the Hopi vs LRC cricket match showed the untapped potential for us to explore, our activist base is the same as last year and we have failed to make any significant breakthrough with trade union affiliations. He ended by suggesting that the employment of a part-timer would help fix these problems.

Speaking from the floor, Charlie Pottins (Jewish Socialists Group) and Andrew Coates said they were disappointed that not enough Hopi supporters were attending demonstrations outside the Iranian embassy as this would be an ideal opportunity to spread our message. Tina Becker commented that although she would welcome the suggestion of a part-timer, she doubted that enough money would be available to pay one. Comrade Becker also mentioned the campaign’s attempts to have its voice heard in a wider a wider selection of media: the piece in Red Pepper was the most viewed on their website for a whole month. However attempts to contact The Guardian and The Independent failed to yield any response.

The next session was entitled ‘Imperialism’s need for conflict and the situation in the Middle East’ with Mike Macnair and Moshé Machover. Comrade Macnair (CPGB) demonstrated using historical examples how capitalism required a ‘top dog’ wheather it be The Netherlands, Britain or America due to the needs of credit money and a central bank. He also claimed that American imperialism is in terminal decline and compared the Vietnam war to the Crimea.

Comrade Machover (founder of the Israeli socialist organisation Matzpen) explained that even if Barack Obama wanted to take a more peaceful turn in US foreign policy this would not happen as he is being constantly hounded by the American right and members of this own party. The comrade warned of the growing threat of war. Benny Morris, one of the ‘New Historians’ has been in the media recently justifying an attack on Iran – this could have the gravest of consequences. Moshé Machover brought his speech to a close by moving his motion, ‘For a Middle East Free of Nuclear Weapons and other WMDs’.

An amendment from Tina Becker was passed which deleted the demand for “effective democratic international supervision” for the decommissioning of nuclear weapons as this could be misread to mean the United Nations. Peter Manson of the CPGB proposed an amendment to state that Hopi is against a ‘mullahs’ bomb’. Some criticised this phrasing, and the manner in which it was proposed – as a reaction to criticism by the Trotskyist group AWL – however, an amendment by Ben Lewis (CPGB) and David Broder (The Commune) stating unequivocal opposition to any development of nuclear weapons in Iran was passed by conference.

Gerry Downing (Socialist Fight) opposed the motion on the grounds that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be used to dissuade an American or Israeli attack and this could become a ‘workers’ bomb’ in the future, the comrade continued that the only reason that the Western world did not launch a nuclear attack on the USSR was due to its own nuclear capabilities. Jack Conrad (CPGB) defended the motion by stating there can be no such thing as this ‘workers’ bomb’ if it is intended to destroy other workers. Moreover, the Soviet Union was not able to hit mainland American until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The motion was overwhelmingly passed.

Next came elections to the new steering committee, it was decided as only 11 candidates were standing they should all be elected unless anyone was opposed or wished to stand themselves. One comrade questioned the re-election of Stuart King as he was not present and the comrade also questioned Permanent Revolution’s commitment to Hopi, however the record of Stuart and of PR was defended by a majority of those present. The CPGB now hold four out of the positions on the steering committee although I would reject the notion of Hopi being a Weekly Worker front.

After lunch Marsha-Jane Thompson of the LRC read out a message of support from John McDonnell MP which received a round of applause. Comrade Thompson chaired the session lead by Cyrus Bina who attacked the idea of Iranian demonstrators mostly coming from the middle classes as 3 million people had been on the streets at one point. He also pointed out that sanctions are often a precursor to war and hit the country’s poorest the hardest, as was seen in Iraq from 1990 to 2003 – Hussein and his gang still lived in comfort whilst an estimated 500,000 lives were needlessly lost due to sanctions. (See Unicef reports)

Heading into the final session Iranian exile and Hopi chair Yassamine Mather spoke on the activity of the Iranian workers’ movement since June and moved a motion opposing sanctions which was passed unanimously. As was a motion from Ben Lewis (CPGB) which called for a day of solidarity with Iranian workers.

The final piece of business of the afternoon was a motion entitled ‘No to state murders’ moved by Charlie Pottins. On the 11th of November, Ehsa Fattahian, a Kurdish socialist was killed by the Islamic Republic. Pottins called for workers to oppose the repressive nature of the Iranian regime and the oppression of national minorities like the Kurds. The motion also attacked the Iranian state for becoming a platform for Holocaust deniers as well as refuting capitalist propaganda which compares the Islamicist regime with Hitler’s fascism. I voted for an amendment moved by Gerry Downing which called for a re-wording of the phrase ‘self-determination for all.’ However this amendment was defeated.

I considered the day a success, however it is worrying that we cannot attract more support for our cause.

Is it the oil, stupid?

Cyrus BinaTo say that oil figures prominently in the Middle East is to state the obvious. However, does this mean that the politics of imperialism in the region should be solely or mainly explained through attempts to gain control over oilfields and pipelines? That has certainly been the approach of much of the left in Britain and elsewhere. Noted US-based academic Cyrus Bina, author of The economics of the oil crisis, disagrees with such crude simplifications. Having studied the oil industry, international relations and global economics for many years, he has developed a sophisticated Marxist theory of the oil crisis, oil rent, and monopoly and competition in the oil industry. Here, in this short, representative, article, first published in 2004, he makes a convincing case that the US under George W Bush was not concerned with obtaining direct control over oilfields.1 With the ongoing US-UK campaign to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, including its huge oil industry, plans for regime change brought about from above and, failing that, a devastating military strike, the left urgently needs to correct past mistakes. Cyrus Bina is about to embark on a speaking tour of Britain that will include meetings in Manchester, Glasgow and London. In particular he will be addressing the November 28 annual general meeting of Hands Off the People of Iran

Saddam Hussein was an ideal enemy and Iraq was an easy target. Iraq had already lost nearly two thirds of its forces and more than 80% of its infrastructure and civil society in the 1990-91 Gulf War and, if that was not enough, it was subjected to frequent American and British bombings, along with nearly 12 years of stringent sanctions. The war against a weak symbolic enemy seemed inevitable.2

In the May 12 2003 issue of The Nation, there appeared a tiny piece entitled, ‘It’s the oil, stupid’, by Michael T Klare, who – like much of the majority of the popular left – is obsessed with oil in connection with the deceitful invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration.

To be sure, the motivation of the Cheney-Wolfowitz gang and the impeachable actions of the president himself all point in the direction of personal gain. Similarly, the fact of the transfer of tens of billions of dollars from the public coffers to the willing hands of a handful of favourite companies that were readily chosen as the beneficiary of this destructive creation is beyond dispute. Yet, to be worthy of analysis, one needs to be brave enough to go beyond surface phenomena in order to grasp the complexities associated with deeper epochal understanding of this bizarre tragedy.

Writers like Klare and George Caffentzis (the latter, incidentally, holds that oil is a “metaphysical” commodity) should realise that their oil scenario, firstly, ignores the analytical periodisation of oil history into: (a) the cartelisation of oil; (b) the transitional period of 1950-72; and (c) the globalisation of the entire oil industry since the mid-1970s. Secondly, it overlooks the distinction between ‘administrative pricing’ and value theoretic price formation. Thirdly, it neglects the nature of property relations, formation of differential oil rents, and character of the Organisation of Oil-Exporting Countries (Opec) in the (post-1974) globalisation of oil. Fourthly, it discounts the pivotal role of the least productive US oilfields that is key to the worldwide pricing of oil. Fifthly, it fails to recognise that Opec prices are constrained by worldwide competitive spot (oil) prices, and thus Opec oil rents are subject to global competition. And finally their oil scenario fails to realise that the unqualified usage of words, such as ‘access’, ‘dependency’ and ‘control’, in the context of a globalised oil industry, is anachronistic.3

Hegemony and mediation

The concept of hegemony is indivisible and ‘organic’ in respect to its constituent economic, political and ideological counterparts. And it is due to the consensual internal dynamics and intrinsic ideological power of the whole that one can exert minimal external and antagonistic power projection. This, in a broad measure, defines hegemony and its relevance to international relations, for instance, during the rise and fall of Pax Americana (1945-79). Gramsci, nevertheless, focuses on the “organic intellectuals” and examines their relationship with the “world of production” mediated through the complex intricacies of “civil society” and “political society”.4

Hegemony, in my view, has four characteristics. It must be: (a) organically consensual; (b) internally driven; (c) historically endowed; and (d) institutionally mediating. The focus here is upon the rise and fall of Pax Americana, a historically specific inter-state transnational system that rose after 1945 and fell in the late 1970s. The matter of hegemony and hegemonic structure is the mutual characteristic of the system as a whole, and not a separate property of the hegemon. Therefore, given the demise of Pax Americana, the claim of American hegemony remains baseless.

The epochal measure of hegemony

In order to see the concrete manifestation of hegemony in the then-ascendant Pax Americana,5 one has to focus on the application of the (tripartite) ‘doctrine of global containment’ after World War II. This doctrine embodied: (a) the containment of the Soviet Union; (b) the containment of democratic/nationalist movements in the ‘third world’; and (c) the containment, cooption and moulding of the social, political and intellectual atmosphere in the United States.6

The example of the first containment is the forceful confinement of the Soviets behind the ‘iron curtain’ and imposition of cold war. The cold war was a multidimensional hegemonic phenomenon, spanning the economy, polity and the entire realm of culture and ideology worldwide.

Evidence of the second type of containment is the declaration of an anti-colonial policy, on the one hand, and subversion of the democratic national movements in the ‘third world’, on the other. This doctrine often led to covert campaigns and coup d’etats that brought a number of dictatorial regimes to power whose contradictory material existence and discursive mirror image have, nevertheless, become an embodiment of Pax Americana itself.7 At the same time, America’s deliberate attempt at the speedy economic transformation of these social formations – for instance, via the introduction and forceful implementation of universal land reform programmes – has led to their hasty inclusion within the capitalist sphere of transnational exploitation and transnational markets.

Finally, the third containment strategy was implemented in terms of US domestic thought control and marginalisation of independent and militant institutions and labour unions within America’s ‘civil society’. Thus, historically, the American state smashed the militant labour unions and political and professional institutions of the left in order to universalise a ‘hegemonic model’ of intellectual emulation that shifted the entire American political spectrum significantly to the reactionary right. McCarthyism was just the tip of the iceberg in this regard.8 Here, underpinning social relations, on the one hand, and the mediating economic, political and ideological institutions, on the other hand, have reflected the measure of hegemony embedded in this system.

At a more concrete level, since the 1970s, it is through the particular historical relationship of state and the manifold social, political and economic integration and disintegration vis-à-vis transnational capital that the US-dominated hierarchy of Pax Americana and thus American hegemony has come to an end. Yet during the ‘golden age’, Soviet containment had its own manifold objectives that proved successful. The containment of democracy and independence in the third world chunk of Pax Americana had, nonetheless, left some degree of formal national sovereignty. And post-war containment of people’s political thought and action in US domestic ‘civil society’ had not led to the establishment of a police state with arbitrary, pre-emptive and systemic totalitarian objectives, if not practices.

In December 2001, the Bush administration unveiled its ‘National strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction’.9 The Bush administration used the unfortunate events of September 11 2001 as a convenient cover in order to advance toward its ‘permanent war’ policy.10 This was a formal annunciation of the Doctrine of pre-emption, a fundamental policy break from the Doctrine of containment, as follows:

“An effective strategy for countering WMD [weapons of mass destruction], including their use and further proliferation, is an integral component of the national security strategy of the United States of America. As with the war on terrorism [ie, invasion of Afghanistan, etc], our strategy for homeland security, and our new concept of deterrence, the US approach to combat WMD represents a fundamental change from the past ….

“Because deterrence may not succeed, and because of the potentially devastating consequences of WMD use against our forces and civilian population, US military forces and appropriate civilian agencies must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through pre-emptive measures. This requires capabilities to detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD assets before these weapons are used” (emphasis added).11

The mismeasure of ‘blood for oil’

Institutionally, the traditional petroleum cartels must be viewed as a precursor to, and not a substitute for, the highly developed contemporary global oil market. Today’s oil sector is globally structured and competitive.12

Here, contrary to the bourgeois reading of the term, competition is neither perfect nor imperfect. It rather reflects the coercive aspect of concentration and centralisation of capital in the oil industry. Yet, the myth of the war-for-oil scenario is hard to resist.

On the right, in an interview, James Schlesinger remarked: “The United States [Bush, the father] has gone to war now, and the American people presume this will lead to a secure oil supply. As a society we have made a choice to secure access to oil by military means. The alternative is to become independent to a large degree of that secure access.”13 On the left, Michael Klare declared: “Two key concerns underlie the administration’s [Bush, the son] thinking: First, the United States is becoming dangerously dependent on imported petroleum to meet its daily energy requirements, and second, Iraq possesses the world’s largest reserves of untapped petroleum after Saudi Arabia.”14

Thus, the positions of the right and the left on the cause of these wars are remarkably identical. The question is, why? Is it because of the correctness of rightwing neoclassical theory in revealing the universal truth? Or is it because of the fallacious economic ideology that is uncritically accepted by the theoryless and clueless left?

Finally, the Indian leftist electronic journal Aspects of India’s economy devoted its entire December 2002 double-issue to ‘What is behind the invasion of Iraq’.15 The authors conclude, among other things, that the attempted conversion of oil revenues from the US dollar to the euro prompted the invasion of Iraq by United States. As Krugman pointed out in a short note, any possible shift from the US dollar to the euro on the part of Opec will result in a “small change”.16

However, the fly-by-night authors do not lose any opportunity to grasp this straw in the midst of dreadful confusion. The globalisation of oil since the mid-1970s has rendered the sui generis categories of ‘access’ and ‘dependency’ meaningless.17 Based on my value-theoretic framework, I distinguish between what is ‘organic’ and what is ‘conjectural’ in the pricing of oil. To be sure, the price of production of the highly explored oilfields within the US lower 48 states is the global centre of gravity of oil prices everywhere. As a result, in competition, the more productive oilfields in the world are potentially able to collect additional profits in terms of oil rents.

Let us look at a simple exercise, attempting the calculation of the value of all Iraqi proven oil reserves in today’s prices.18 Given the Iraqi proven oil reserves of nearly 110 billion barrels, in two separate assumptions, let us assume two alternative production schedules of 2.5 and 5 million daily barrels, as follows:

If the rate of utilisation of these reserves, ceteris paribus, will be set at 2.5 and 5 million average daily barrels, these oil reserves would be exhausted within nearly 120 years and 60 years, respectively. Accordingly, our respective annual production schedules are:
1. (2.5 x 365 = 912.5) 912.5 million annual barrels
2. (5 x 365 = 1,825) 1,825 million annual barrels.

Assuming $20 per barrel for the price of Iraqi oil (viz the 1990s average market price) and about $10 for the Persian Gulf differential oil rent.19

Let us further assume:
1. an 8% real discount rate;
2. a 3% annual inflation rate;
3. a 3% annual growth rate of addition to the proven reserves.

Scenario 1

1. The assumption of 2.5 million daily barrels: Given an annual production volume of 912.5 million barrels within 120 years and $10 of differential oil rent per barrel, the value of differential oil rents for 120 years is as follows:
912.5 million x 120 = 109.5 billion barrels
109.5 billion x $10 = $1.095 trillion

Given an 8% annual discount rate, a 3% annual rate inflation and a 3% annual growth rate of addition to proven reserves, we have applicable rate of discount of 8%. Thus, the present value of $1.095 trillion at 8% discount rate to be received in a lump sum after 120 years is $106.8 million.

2. The assumption of five million daily barrels: Given an annual production volume of 1,825 million barrels within 60 years and a $10 differential oil rent per barrel, the value of differential oil rents at the end of 60 years is as follows:
1,825 million x 60 = 109.5 billion barrels
109.5 billion x $10 = $1.095 trillion

Given an 8% annual discount rate, a 3% annual rate inflation and a 3% annual growth rate of addition to the proven reserves, we would have applicable rate of discount of 8%. Thus, present value of $1.095 trillion at 8% discount rate to be received in lump sum after 60 years is $10.81 billion.

Based upon the second, much larger figure of the two, the price tag for differential oil rents in Iraq is slightly less than $11 billion. Now, let us assume that the Iraqi oil reserves are underestimated: say, that they are five times the reported figures. Thus, ceteris paribus, one would arrive at $11 billion x 5 = $55 billion. Now, let us double our reasonable figure of $10 for differential rent per barrel. Again, we would never arrive at a figure much larger than $110 billion for the present value of all differential oil rents to be paid to the Iraqis. In other words, the ‘Iraqi oil price tag’ does not exceed $110 billion to be received in lump sum at the end of the period. This is indeed chump change, given the staggering costs associated with prosecuting the war and the unanticipated financial and incalculable human costs of the occupation of Iraq.

Scenario 2

Let us further assume that the proceeds from differential oil rents in Iraq will be received on an annual basis: say, for 55 years. In other words, assume that the Bush administration and its future successors are able to invent a pill that tranquillises not only the people of Iraq, but also the people of the entire world in order to calmly and comfortably steal the Iraqi oil rents for 55 years, till 2058. Now we need to calculate the summation of the present value of annuitised annual Iraqi oil rents for the period of 55 years. This scenario is more realistic, since the payments of oil rents are made on an annual basis. Again, for the sake of argument, we have chosen a much larger average figure of 5 million daily barrels, assuming a very optimistic production schedule:
5 million x 365 = 1.825 billion annual barrels
1.825 billion x $10 = $18.25 billion

The present value of $18.250 billion annual payment, to be paid for 55 consecutive years is equal to $224.8 billion.

According to the Nordhaus estimates, the direct and indirect costs of forceful occupation of Iraq would range somewhere between $120 billion and $1.6 trillion over a 10-year period.20 Should my estimated value of Iraqi oil warrant such a huge undertaking? As we can see, the reductionist view of ‘no blood for oil’ is hardly an answer to the complex objective forces that – despite the misleading intention of new US foreign policy – are underlying the upheavals of present global polity. Rather such misleading intention, and prior and subsequent actions on the part of the US government, are readily explicable by the underlying epochal forces that so irreversibly led to America’s loss of hegemony, on the one hand, and American refusal to accept it gracefully, on the other hand.

This is the main and real cause of the new world disorder rather than this ad hoc ‘oil scenario’ that the popular left harps on about.

Notes

  1. This article originally appeared in Union for Radical Political Economics Newsletter of spring 2004. See www.urpe.org/index.html
  2. See, for instance, a neo-conservative view by Kenneth Adelman: ‘Cakewalk in Iraq’, The Washington Post February 13 2002.
  3. For theoretical underpinnings see C Bina The economics of the oil crisis New York 1985.
  4. A Gramsci The prison notebooks New York1971, p161.
  5. See R Steel Pax Americana New York 1977.
  6. See GF Kennan Memoirs: 1925-1950 Boston 1967.
  7. The 1953 and 1954 CIA coups against Mossadegh and Arbenz are but the two prime examples.
  8. See MB Levin Political hysteria in America: the democratic capacity for repression New York 1971.
  9. One has to distinguish between epochal and temporal reflections of the Bush administration.
  10. The Wolfowitz-Berle neo-conservative project of permanent war, particularly for ‘redrawing’ the map of the Middle East, was formulated long before September 11 2001.
  11. White House The national security strategy of the United States of America September 17 2002, pp1,3.
  12. Here competition is defined in Marxian terms.
  13. J Schlesinger, interview: ‘Will war yield oil security?’ Challenge March-April 1991.
  14. MT Klare, ‘Oiling the wheels of war’ The Nation October 7 2002. As a corollary, the ‘necessity’ of oil exploration from Alaska’s wildlife can also be justified by such arguments.
  15. ‘Behind the invasion of Iraq’ Aspects of India’s economy No33-34, December 2002.
  16. See P Krugman, ‘Nothing for money’, March 14 2003: www.wwsprinceton.edu/~pkrugman/oildollar.html
  17. MT Klare, ‘Oiling the wheels of war’ The Nation October 7 2002.
  18. This is a rough exercise just for the sake of illustration and approximation of the order of magnitude of Iraqi oil rents. One or two points in the discount rate or inflation rate would not make a significant difference in the basic argument. The figure of $224.8 billion is for 55 consecutive years. If the occupation of Iraq is assumed to be for a 10-year period or so, then a fraction of this figure will be relevant, which in turn will be even much smaller in magnitude than the commonly estimated cost of US war and occupation of Iraq.
  19. See C Bina The economics of the oil crisis New York 1985.
  20. WD Nordhaus, ‘Iraq: the economic consequences of war’ New York Review of Books Vol 49 (19), December 5 2002.

SWP: Bring Loftus to account

CWU president addresses union rally

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).

Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action – that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week – had widespread support within the union” (November 14).

Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out – indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.

Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.

Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.

There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.

As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.

Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers – sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.

However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.

SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden – a Reesite Left Platform supporter – has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.

I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.

Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).

Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Respect conference report

‘Delegates’ voted to build election profile

No coalition with ‘son of No2EU’

Issues of left and right are not so clear-cut when it comes to Respect. Mike Macnair reports on its annual conference, held in Birmingham on Saturday November 14

Respect’s annual conference was marked by somewhat confused debates on anti-fascist activity, and on the so far unnamed ‘son of No2EU’ electoral coalition. These have given rise to somewhat ill-tempered exchanges between the participants and among others in the ‘blogosphere’ in the last few days.1

The conference also changed the name of the organisation from ‘Respect – the Unity Coalition’ to ‘The Respect Party’, altered the mode of election of the leadership, and passed a number of leftwing ‘motherhood and apple pie’ resolutions on international questions, and constructive resolutions on constitutional issues and on free public transport.

This report focuses mainly on the controversies. I have tried to give as much as possible of what was argued on the different sides, so that readers can form their own views of the arguments.

The official report of the conference says that 210 delegates attended2 (‘delegates’ were, of course, any Respect members who had agreed to pay the conference fee, rather than people elected by branches). However, I counted around 100 present in the main hall in each of the morning and afternoon sessions, and in the one vote which was counted (to be discussed below) 113 votes were cast; but it may well be that people coming and going or in circulation outside the hall meant that numbers were higher than I saw. Clive Searle reported that Respect now has 850 members, with a significant growth in recruitment in the last months; it would be interesting to know whether these members are concentrated in east London and Birmingham or more widely spread.

At the beginning of the conference a decision was taken to elect the same number of national council (NC) members as there were nominees, avoiding the need for a contested election. The resulting committee of 47 is overlarge from a group of 850, but, of course, the actual leadership will be some body delegated from the NC.

As if to reaffirm this point, almost the last decision taken at the end of the conference was to adopt for the future a variant of the Socialist Workers Party’s method of election of a ‘party council’, with 40% to be elected by the conference and 60% by regional meetings. Clive Searle moved the proposal on behalf of Manchester Respect with classic SWP arguments: election by conference would tend to favour “people who talk a lot”, while “people who do a lot” do not get elected.

In reality, though, most political work consists of ‘talking a lot’ – on the doorstep, on stalls, in trade union meetings, in public meetings, in discussions with colleagues and neighbours. People who “do a lot” turn out to be, as the SWP experience of this form of election reveals … apparatus yes-men and women. Moreover, a regionally-elected NC lacks the clear lines of authority which would allow it to overrule and remove, if necessary, the actual leadership. This was one of the few contentious votes, but the principle of local/regional election was not controverted: Southwark Respect merely proposed election by branches rather than regions. This proposal was opposed by Ger Francis, Salma Yaqoob and Alan Thornett, on the ground of the very variable development of Respect branches across the country, and overwhelmingly defeated.

The conference started late, and the agenda had to be shuffled because George Galloway, who was supposed to introduce the first session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, was stuck in traffic on the M1, so that the first item taken was the discussion on ‘One society, many cultures’ – in fact on fighting racism and Islamophobia – introduced by Salma Yaqoob. In general, the discussions were quite seriously cramped, with a small number of floor speakers restricted to three minutes.

Racism and fascism

Salma Yaqoob (as usual) started with the personal-political: her experience of growing demonisation of Muslims in the wake of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which brought her into politics, moving on to a recent expensive racist smear-job leaflet about her which has been circulated to white voters only in the Sparkbrook constituency; and from there to mainstream politicians exploiting the Islamophobic climate, while making mealy-mouthed efforts to dissociate themselves from the British National Party. Terrorist radicalisation in this country arose from British state terrorist operations overseas, rather than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reducing the threat of terrorism here. It was not just the English Defence League which had crawled out of the woodwork; mainstream politicians had whipped up issues around immigration and foreigners, to the benefit of the British National Party. They refused to admit that it was their neoliberal economic policies which had led to the present crisis.

She argued that Respect’s stance, in contrast, was to insist on telling the truth. We had told the truth about unjust wars abroad; now we had to tell the truth about immigration. Britain benefited from immigration; even Boris Johnson admitted that half a million illegal immigrants in London needed to be legitimised, since if they were deported the city would grind to a halt. Society is richer for diversity and pluralism. Respect believes in the solidarity of all human beings. There is a 13,000 waiting list for social housing in Birmingham, which breeds resentment. If we invested in social housing, in infrastructure, in the hardworking working class people of this country, we would strike racism at the root. “We will fight together,” she concluded, “black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist, for the betterment of all.”

This was not a sharply contentious speech. However, the second floor speaker, Stuart Richardson of Socialist Resistance, focussed his attention on ‘the anti-fascist struggle’. The context of the rise of the far right was the decline of the framework of working class politics; this made space for the demagogues of fascism. The EDL had come to Birmingham three times. The first time was unopposed. In early August, Asian youth had mobilised against them, but had been regrettably isolated. Unite Against Fascism had issued a statement calling for resistance to the EDL. But when they came the third time UAF refused to mobilise, and called for a police ban. In fact, the only police ban was on a ‘Birmingham United’ meeting called by a local journalist, and the EDL were unopposed. The EDL needed to be opposed whenever they came. And – anticipating the second debate – unless there was a broad left coalition in the coming general election, there would be massive space for the growth of the far right.

Among several very varied non-contentious contributions from the floor, comrade Richardson’s was opposed by a number of speakers, including Ger Francis and Kevin Ovenden, and by Salma Yaqoob in her reply to the debate. The gist of these arguments was that as a matter of tactics the EDL was aiming to cause a ‘race riot’, which could then be exploited to smear Asian/Muslim communities and win votes for the far right. In this situation the problem was how to avoid the youth getting into a ruck with the police; if this happened, said comrade Ovenden, it would not be people like comrade Richardson who ended up in jail. It was tactically necessary to call for police bans, precisely in order to avoid being seen to call for a ruck. If they came into Sparkbrook, said another speaker, a confrontation would be inevitable; but turning small demonstrations in Birmingham city centre into street fights was tactically wrong. Salma Yaqoob argued that we were fighting a propaganda war, not just a barney. The police had initially repeated the EDL lie that it was not a racist organisation, but had been forced to recant on this by UAF’s tactics.

Various blogosphere commentators have described the conference as a shift to the right, and this debate was one of the supposed symptoms. In fact, it is less clear. Both sides in the debate – the supposed ‘left’ as well as the supposed ‘right’ – framed the ‘anti-fascist issue’ within the popular-frontist ‘broadest possible coalition approach’ of UAF. Within this framework, Stuart Richardson’s argument was standard far-left, head-banging, ‘no platform’ politics. His opponents were certainly correct to say that going for a ruck with small EDL demonstrations in Birmingham city centre would have been bad tactics. The defence of Sparkbrook, if it had been posed, or the defence of a Harrow mosque – which actually happened – is a different matter. The point is that the left’s and migrant communities’ response to far-right mobilisations has to both be, and be seen by broad masses to be, clearly defensive.

The question of calling for police bans undoubtedly does place Socialist Resistance on the left of the discussion, as against Ovenden and co. The evidence of history, including recent history, is perfectly clear: police bans are used primarily to assist the far right against its opponents. For the left to call for them serves merely to legitimise the use of similar legal moves against the left. But then, of course, this is also a difference with … the SWP.

At a more fundamental level, comrade Richardson’s argument – connected both to the commitment to UAF, and to his views on ‘son of No2EU’ – is fundamentally mistaken. As Salma Yaqoob and others said, in order to confront far-right racism it is necessary to confront the myths about immigration promoted by the mainstream media and parties. And in order to confront these myths, it is necessary to fight for public services – housing, health, welfare – to meet the needs of all. It follows that a revival of “the framework of working class politics” or a broad left coalition which was unwilling to take on the immigration myths head-on and raise clear demands on production for need, not for profit, would not succeed in defeating the far right. In this respect Salma Yaqoob and co-thinkers have made a partial but fundamental step to the left of the standard Anti-Nazi League/UAF ideology. And so too has Abjol Miah, who spoke to the same point – the need to fight for public services in order to undercut racism – in the second debate.

Electoral strategy

The sharper debate came in the second session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, actually about electoral strategy. The session was opened by Nick Wrack raising a point of order: an emergency motion he and others had proposed calling for support to the ‘son of No2EU’ coalition, had been ruled out of order. The point was deferred to after the lunch break (after George Galloway had introduced the session and there had been a brief question and answer session). It then took the form of Clive Searle giving a conference arrangements committee report, which argued that neither this motion, nor another on anti-fascism moved after the deadline, were genuine emergency motions on the basis of new circumstances.

Nick Wrack now moved reference back of the report. Left unity had been discussed over the last year, and comrades who favoured support for a project of this sort had been constantly told that nothing concrete had been agreed. Now something concrete had been agreed. This was a development since the deadline for motions, and therefore justified an emergency motion. The proposal for reference back was, however, defeated by 79 votes to 34.

From the technical or procedural point of view the conference arrangements committee was right. Nick Wrack and his co-thinkers could perfectly well have proposed before the deadline a motion supporting ‘son of No2EU’ on the assumption that the negotiators for this coalition might agree something. However, from the points of view of a clear, therefore democratic vote on the issues, the decision was wrong. The issue was central to the debate. When it came to the vote at the end of the session, however, both the motions which had been proposed on this issue were accepted nem con. It is reasonably clear that this would not have been the case if Nick Wrack and co’s motion had been allowed to go to the vote. In this sense the decision to rule the motion out of order obfuscated the decision-making process: the vote on the reference-back is left to stand as an indirect proxy for the scale of support for the ‘Wrackite’ position.

George Galloway’s introduction to the session displayed his usual rhetorical skills, targeted on New Labour, on anti-immigration, and on the all-party consensus for cuts – and also on the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. Respect has to offer an alternative, because none of the mainstream parties will; the problem, he argued, is how to do so effectively. Respect is back on its feet and has a good chance of getting three MPs elected: “It is not for us to sew together a coalition which can get 1.8% of the vote. We want a breakthrough into the big time.” Long-standing membership of far-left organisations seems, he said, to be an obstacle to unity because comrades find it hard to break bad habits.

In the question and answer session, among other contributors, Stuart Richardson argued for a coalition; and for the possibility of mass strikes to stop the cuts, as in Ireland. George Barrett, from Barking, asked what help Respect could give to fighting the fascists in Barking. Another contributor asked what vote George would recommend where Respect was not standing. Kevin Ovenden asked what the impact on politics would be if Respect won three MPs.

These questions set the framework for George Galloway’s reply. In the first place, he argued for a Labour vote to try to minimise the Tory landslide. The Tories are worse than Labour because they have no connection with working people, while Labour depends on the trade unions for funding. In Glasgow North East, Labour was running “as insurgents” against the Scottish National Party, and the candidate made himself sound leftwing like a Respect candidate; he was not to be believed, but it reflects pressures Labour is under. Secondly, Respect had to make a choice whether to aim to coalesce with small forces to its left, or with larger forces who are now Labour supporters; this was a strategic choice which needed to be discussed through and settled.

In response to George Barrett, he said that the answer was practically no help could be given and this would remain the case unless Respect got a lot bigger and had more resources. To parachute a far-left candidate into Barking would, if anything, increase Griffin’s chances of success. Stuart Richardson, he said, was living in a fantasy world in relation to mass strikes against cuts. Respect had no leading trade unionists in a position to call for strikes, and in any case the unions had been so weakened that they would have difficulty sustaining such serious action. In some cases, like the NHS, what was needed was not strike action, but unity between workers and services users.

We should not call for a Labour vote across the board, Galloway said, but needed to consider the degree to which Labour candidates were implicated in government, and the degree of their venality, and also the likelihood that left candidates would win the seat rather than give the seat to the Tories. We should support Caroline Lucas (Green Party) in Brighton, and perhaps Peter Tatchell (also Green) in Oxford East. But we needed to avoid “auto-anti-Labourism” (nice to hear a phrase borrowed from this paper … even if it was used in service of the Morning Star’s line).

It was important to avoid illusions in the trade union movement, Galloway concluded; just as EP Thompson showed how the British working class was made, today it has been unmade as a class. We should keep nostalgia for mass strikes or storming the Winter Palace at home, and develop new ideas for a new world. Respect has, he repeated, a real chance of three MPs. If it achieves this goal it will become the magnet around which the left coalesces.

Debate

The afternoon session, after a speech by fraternal speaker Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, saw a continuation of this debate. Kevin Ovenden moved a motion from the outgoing NC, urging that the main aim is to win three MPs in the target seats, but beyond this the importance of flexibility; the Greens have agreed to stand down in Sparkbrook in favour of Salma Yaqoob; we could support, for example, the People’s Party in Blaenau Gwent, Val Wise in Preston, or David Nellist in Coventry. Alan Thornett, moving a motion from Southwark, was carefully ambiguous on the disputed issues: though Respect needed to reach out to its right, he said, it was also necessary to collaborate with others to our left to build up a system of socialist candidates. We should not only support candidates who could win: for example, even if Dave Nellist could not win, we should support him against Bob Ainsworth. At the last resort we should vote Labour. And it was right for Respect to stand in its own name.

Ian Donovan, moving another motion on alliances, spoke in effect for the emergency motion not taken (to which he was a signatory). ‘Son of No2EU’ was more serious than comrade Galloway had suggested: the Communist Party of Britain was not a sect, and comrade Galloway writes for the Morning Star. The general secretaries of three trade unions were on the platform at the RMT conference. This was a partial break by the trade unions from Labour, and leftists should approach it “sympathetically”.

Ger Francis said that comrades were presenting a divide between those for and those against unity. The question was, rather, what sort of unity. The advocates of ‘son of No2EU’ had wanted Respect to stand in the Euro elections (in fact, they wanted Respect to support No2EU in those elections). In contrast, by choosing not to stand then, Respect had prepared the way for a similar action by the Greens in Sparkbrook. ‘Son of No2EU’ was exaggerated: all three general secretaries on the platform had been speaking in a personal capacity. The scheme was too close to the old Socialist Alliance, which got marginal votes.

Nick Wrack said that no-one was denigrating Respect or advocating that Respect not stand in its own name. But we need “a new party which brings together all strands of working class opinion against New Labour”. Respect candidates will only reach perhaps 2-3 million of an electorate of 20-30 million. Comrades were underestimating ‘son of No2EU’: these were not small, unpopular organisations. Many former Labour voters will not vote Labour. What alternative do we offer them? Salma Yaqoob said that the argument was about what sort of unity. By standing down in the Euro elections Respect showed the Greens we were able to work with others. Nick had opposed that.

Fred Leplat from Socialist Resistance argued for the need to collaborate with ‘son of No2EU’. It was a big step to have two trade union general secretaries and a leftwing daily saying they would back candidates to the left of Labour. It was like what was happening in Europe with Die Linke. John Nicholson from Manchester said that unity required an offer of trust. That was what Respect had done with the Greens in the Euro elections. ‘Son of No2EU’ was the opposite: “You do not build up trust by announcing an unnamed coalition shortly before an election and after having refused to work with others in No2EU.”

Curiously, George Galloway’s reply to the debate was held until after the votes had been taken (mostly, as I said, nem con) and a message of support read out from Peter Cranie, the defeated Green candidate in the North West Euro constituency. Comrade Galloway’s reply was quite sharply polemical. He argued that No2EU had “objectively helped Griffin into the European parliament”. Now there was another coalition being set up with no name, which would adopt the same schematic approach to elections. He is against it. There is a clear choice of priorities: if everything is a priority, nothing is. Respect should focus on its target constituencies, not divert resources to building a broader coalition.

It is true, he said, that he writes for the Morning Star, but the Communist Party of Britain is electorally marginal and an electoral liability. He does not want to be in a coalition with communist and Trotskyist groups. He doubts that Brian Caton will be able to swing his members in the Prison Officers Association, who are not exactly leftwingers; or that the RMT or FBU will back the coalition when it comes to the crunch. Even if it gets off the ground, in the vast majority of constituencies the coalition will not be a serious contender, and the right answer will to be to vote Labour. At all costs we need to avoid the possibility of being seen to help the Tories to a landslide victory. We have to be able to say after the election: we stood where we were strong, and in a few constituencies on this or that principle against the sitting Labour MP, but in the main we did what we could to stop the Tories.

I spoke briefly to Nick Wrack in the tea break. He said – as Ian Donovan, and some Socialist Resistance supporters, also did – that there was an underlying issue of direction. Was the orientation of Respect to be to a ‘left’ including the Greens, or, on the other hand, to a working class movement? ‘Son of No2EU’ meant some very tentative steps towards a trade union break with Labour; it was important not to ‘diss’ these steps, but to encourage them.

A move to the right?

Was this a left-right debate and did it, as some blogosphere commentators suggest, amount to a move to the right? It is in my opinion much more ambiguous, and it is necessary to disentangle the different threads. In the first place, neither Galloway’s underlying position that Labour is preferable to the Tories nor his and his co-thinkers’ willingness to reach stand-down agreements with the Greens if possible is a novelty. Respect has always been a project for a ‘left’ defined in non-class or cross-class terms. So this is not a move to the right.

If anything, the arguments of Galloway, Yaqoob and Miah at this conference were posed more in terms of the working class and of collectivism than they were in previous years. (The cause is probably the crash and the threat of massive cuts to public services, which has forced everyone – even sections of the right – to think to some extent in these terms.)

Secondly, he and other platform and floor speakers showed considerable willingness to take on anti-immigration arguments directly and upfront. At the early Respect conferences, Galloway argued explicitly against opposition to immigration controls and I have no idea whether he has actually changed his view on this question (probably not). But the pro-migrant emphasis represents a substantial shift to the left. If it is followed in the run-up to the general election, and if the as-yet-unknown political platform of ‘son of No2EU’ is anything like that of No2EU itself, Respect will be well to the left of it on this front, on constitutional issues and on internationalism.

Thirdly, in my personal opinion Galloway’s judgment of the British political dynamics in the run-up to the coming general election and of the likely success of No2EU is much more realistic than that of the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. The next general election will be fought under conditions of a realistic prospect of a Tory victory, and that will squeeze any ‘left of Labour’ vote, (as happened in 1979), precisely because – though Galloway did not use this expression – Labour remains a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. ‘Son of No2EU’ remains – a little more than four months before the last possible date for an election – without a name, a political platform, target constituencies or candidates selected. It would take a miracle for it to make a serious impact. That said, Galloway and his co-thinkers’ hopes for Respect winning three MPs are also probably overstated: the squeeze on ‘left of Labour’ votes will hit them, too.

In a sense the core issue is, on the one hand, the arguments of the ‘Wrackites’ that ‘son of No2EU’ represents a class movement because of its trade union basis; and, on the other, Galloway’s arguments, casually thrown into his reply to questions, about an “unmaking of the British working class”; and connected, but sitting on one side, the issue of stand-down agreements with the Greens.

The ‘Wrackite’ argument is probably unsound. If ‘son of No2EU’ really involved trade unions turning out large numbers of rank and file activists as canvassers, fundraisers and local activists of the new project, we could really speak of a mass working class movement. No2EU itself, however, involved nothing of the sort. It would be surprising if it had, since the trade unions have never directly mobilised much more than money in support of the Labour Party – the grunt work being done originally by the affiliated socialist groups, later by the constituency and ward parties as a sort of socialist group.

Conversely, while in one sense Galloway is correct to talk of an “unmaking” – that is, the decay from within of the still formally and numerically imposing institutions of the working class – his argument is, like that of the Eurocommunists from which it is derived, overstated. Class is still a large feature of lived experience in Britain and one which has real influence on practical politics; and workers in industry and infrastructure, though fewer than they once were, retain very substantial numbers and are to a considerable extent organised in trade unions. It is this fact, which actually underlies the political dynamics of the general election, which Galloway throws at his opponents.

This in turn affects the issue of the Greens. The Greens are, quite simply, a semi-leftist petty bourgeois party: meaning by that that their financial and activist base is among professionals and small businesspeople. This is reflected in their conduct in local government office, which tends to be similar to that of the Liberal Democrats.

This does not imply that stand-down agreements with the Greens are unprincipled. On the contrary: it would be a perfectly principled tactic for a Communist Party, in order to overcome undemocratic hurdles to electoral representation, to enter into stand-down agreements with leftish petty bourgeois parties, as long as these agreements did not involve ‘mixing the banners’ or pretending that class did not matter.

Respect is, of course, not a Communist Party, but – as constructed – a cross-class, left-populist formation. But, paradoxically, the debate at its 2009 conference shows the ‘right wing’ in some ways closer to the idea of a Communist Party than the ‘left wing’. The reason is that the ‘right wing’ recognises that Labour is in some degraded sense still a workers’ party, and hence is groping towards a policy alternative to Labour. Meanwhile the ‘left wing’, believing Labour has ceased to be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, is hoping to reinvent Labour on the basis of a trade union coalition without any real policy alternative to Labour.

Notes

 

  1. For example, on Liam Mac Uaid’s blog: liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/respect-conference-2/; on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity site: www.socialistunity.com/?p=4884; on Dave Osler’s Dave’s Part: www.davidosler.com/2009/11/respect_dead_end_for_the_serio.html
  2. www.therespectparty.net/breakingnews.php?id=767