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LabourList: Socialism – it’s nothing personal

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This post originally appeared on LabourList

I’m almost feeling sorry for Fred the Shred. ‘Humbling of Mister Godwin’, mocked the Daily Mail; ‘Goodwin is shredded’ (geddit?) bellowed the Daily Telegraph; ‘Once A Knight Fred’, echoed the Sun, a newspaper always keen to win the most imaginative pun stakes.

It’s more than tempting for the left to jump on this populist bandwagon. After seething with anger as those who had nothing to do with the crisis have been expected to pay for it, finally, one of the those responsible for the current catastrophe has been held to account in some small way.

But this is where the left should have a different approach to the right. The crisis was not caused by a few “bad eggs”; the odd greedy banker who can be treated as a fall guy, and then we can all move on. It was a system – not a few individuals – which plunged the world into economic catastrophe. This is a crisis of unfettered capitalism, red in tooth and claw, not the unfortunate consequences of some cock-ups by the likes of Fred Goodwin. We forget this at our peril.

I’ll give you an example: James Dyson, a businessman who gave his name to the pioneering vacuum cleaner. He was once hailed as leading a renaissance in British manufacturing, until he shut his British factory down and upped sticks to Malaysia in 2003. It’s not because he’s a bad person, or morally questionable: it’s because capitalism is about making profit, rather than putting the good of society first.

In short, a good slogan could be: “Socialism, it’s nothing personal.” The left stands in opposition to the way society is currently structured, not to the fact there are greedy or selfish individuals running the show.

Apologies for quoting myself, but in the introduction of my book Chavs I wrote: “We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices.” I could be accused of hypocrisy here: after all, like others, I’ve railed against the fact that we currently have a government of multi-millionaires, and the fact that Parliament is full of middle-class professionals. That’s not to say the well-heeled have no place in politics whatsoever: but unless working-class people are properly represented, their interests will not be properly championed (as indeed they’re not). When I asked Hazel Blears why New Labour had let 5 million people languish on social housing waiting lists, for example, one reason she gave was that there simply hadn’t been anyone sufficiently interested in housing. Yet if there were people in Parliament who’d actually experienced the housing crisis, the odds of something being done about it would dramatically increase.

It should be how we understand politics, too. Some on the left offer a lazy critique of New Labour, effectively arguing that the Labour leadership swung to the right in the mid-1990s because a coterie of right-wingers (led by Tony Blair) made it that way. But New Labour was really the product of a whole range of factors: the rise of the New Right, the battering of the labour movement in the 80s, repeated electoral defeats producing massive disorientation and desperation, and the capitalist triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War.

It’s easy, too, to castigate Ed Miliband personally for the concessions the Labour leadership has made to the Tory cuts agenda. But, again, it is in large part a product of the weakness of the left (which barely exists as a coherent political force).

That doesn’t mean individuals should not be beyond criticism: after all, we’re not all robots – we all have agency. Attacking a politician for hypocrisy is completely legitimate. For example, I wrote a pretty blistering attack on Liam Byrne on LabourList back in January. But it was a political, rather than a personal point: if you demonise some of the poorest people in society who receive money from the state while wrongfully claiming far larger sums yourself, then you should expect to face accusations of hypocrisy.

But because the right believe that the left is motivated by personal hatred towards those from privileged backgrounds, there’s nothing they like more than going for “posh” lefties. If you’re from a middle-class background or above and have anything other than a commitment to naked self-interest, then you’re a hypocrite, or so this line of attack goes.

Sometimes this is taken to absurd lengths. For example, one senior right-wing journalist attempted to pressure his fellow columnists to write a piece about the fact my ex-boyfriend was privately educated. I don’t mind right-wingers taking pot-shots at me – it’s what I expect – though I do object to others being dragged into it; at the time, I had to explain to him that he might be about to be publicly outed while he was being treated for cancer. Unpleasant, but the point that the journalist was trying to make was – “oh look, here’s a left-wing journalist who rages against privilege, but look who he’s sleeping with”.

My whinge aside, there’s always been a long tradition of people from relatively privileged backgrounds in the ranks of the left, such as George Orwell and Tony Benn, for example. And as long as they don’t crowd others out, and make sure they defer to working-class experiences, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

Above all, the left’s beef is with a system that is as unjust as it is irrational. Taking pot shots at the odd banker, or those who had no say over which school they went to, misses the point. After all, socialism is nothing personal.

Written by Owen Jones

February 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

LabourList: We need to talk about Socialism

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This article originally appeared on LabourList

I’ve written enough posts bemoaning the genius of the right in transforming a private sector crisis into a crisis of overspending, Yes, it sucks. I’ve also whinged about the failure of the Labour leadership to offer a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to re-order society even further in the interests of the wealthy than it already is. That sucks too. But both problems have a common source: the disappearance of the left as it was traditionally understood.

We need to talk about socialism. No, I don’t mean the “socialism” that made a guest appearance during the Labour leadership debate, when (to caricature slightly) the contenders defined it as people basically being nice to each other. I mean the vision of a different society to the one we currently have – one organised in the interests of working people. For generations, that’s what motivated large numbers of Labour activists – as well, of course, as addressing the basic bread-and-butter issues of the people the party exists to represent. The “vision thing”, if you like.

Times have changed so dramatically that to even talk about “socialism” risks being dismissed as a fringe nutter. In large part, that’s because the left was caught up (cliché alert) in a perfect storm. In the 1970s, capitalism was – like today – in crisis, but, as Peter Oborne puts it: “For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared that the Left was in the ascendancy.” Then Thatcherism swept all before it; the Labour opposition fractured; the trade union movement – the backbone of the left in the broadest sense – was pummelled; and then the Soviet collapse unleashed a tidal wave of capitalist triumphalism that swamped even democratic leftists who abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism.

The combination of these factors appeared to rule out even the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. And – because it all happened when the neo-liberals were the ascendancy – it seemed to write off even the cuddlier welfare capitalism established in the rubble of World War II. As author Mark Fisher puts it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Even after three years of perpetual capitalist crisis – a crisis that remains without any obvious end – that simply has not changed. Capitalism can collapse all it likes, but there does not seem to be any apparent alternative to nip in and take its place.

It’s easy to explain the long-standing existential crisis of socialism. But why do we even need a Labour left? Well, I’d argue that it’s even in the interests of those Labour activists who don’t place themselves on the left of the party. It would help drag the whole political consensus to the left. And it could give the Labour leadership political space it simply does not currently have.

It’s easy to attack Ed Miliband over, for example, buying into the caricature of welfare scroungers. But accusing him of betrayal is pointless, because there is no mass movement to betray. Where is the grassroots movement making the case for the unemployed in modern Britain? The truth is that he is simply tapping into a prejudice that is widespread – including (and in some cases particularly) in working-class communities. If you are in a low-paid job you don’t particularly enjoy and just scraping by in life, the idea of so-called “welfare scroungers” often annoys you more than anyone else.

If there was a strong Labour left, it could make the case about so many people being on benefits because (radical idea here) there aren’t enough jobs to go around; that benefit fraud is exaggerated (costing £1.2 billion compared to £70 billion lost through tax avoidance); and that it is an often complicated phenomenon.

When a business lobby group rounded up 20 right-wing economists to sign up to a letterurging the scrapping of the 50p tax band for those earning £150,000, a Labour left could have counter-attacked by demanding the threshold was dropped to £100,000. It would have transformed the debate.

But of course a socialist wing of the Labour party would not simply jump on bandwagons, or be purely defensive. It would have to outline a coherent vision of a different society – just as the neo-liberals do.

It would need to make that relevant to people’s everyday lives, of course. In truth, most people do not think in terms of left and right: they think of issues that need to be addressed. The right have been so successful that, for many, “the left” simply means taxing them more individually, and subsidising minority groups that aren’t them. A socialist left would have to communicate in everyday, commonsense language, and addresses people’s basic concerns. That would mean socialist answers to issues often abandoned to the right – like crime and anti-social behaviour which (after all) working-class people are more likely to be victims of.

It would have to demonstrate that it could marshal support, too. Blairites are successful at marginalising the left because they portray them as an electoral liability: as self-indulgent radicals who would keep the Tories in office. That’s in part how Tony Blair managed to get away with so many violations of traditional Labour principles: those who experienced 18 years of Thatcherism were desperate to get rid of the Tories, whatever the cost. I remember that desperation among my own (ex-Trotskyist activist) parents. A socialist movement would have to build and demonstrate mass appeal and support.

The actual substance could not just be a regurgitation of 1970s Labour leftism, because British society is completely different. Its starting point would be challenging a society organised around the profit principle. The answer to that isn’t old-style nationalisation, which was bureaucratic and top-down, and didn’t involve either workers or consumers. Instead, it could build a model of social ownership – where representatives of workers and consumers helped manage, say, the railways or the energy companies. It would mean economic planning, but it would be democratically organised – not run by a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall, as happened in the past.

It would have to think in international terms. Capitalism has globalised at a dramatic speed, and it has stripped national governments of autonomy over their own economy. That means the threat of de facto strike action by capitalism against policies that challenge it – through capital flights, for example. This has to be answered by a globalised labour movement – and socialists have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.

I’ve been intentionally vague, because it would be arrogant of me to draw up a detailed agenda for a new socialism. But a new socialism is what needs to be debated. It would be good for Labour and it would be good for working people. And – above all – it would offer an optimistic future, instead of the gloomy austerity being promised by neo-liberalism.

Written by Owen Jones

October 6, 2011 at 8:22 am

Posted in Labour, socialism

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