Posted: Wed Aug 02, 2006 10:06 pm Post subject: Marx & Sparks
Righto, ya bastards, everyone's been remarking upon the quietness of the Radish recently, so here's fifteen-hundred words of political musings to get yer teeth into. It will undoubtedly please you all by sounding like someone from the Young Ones, or whatever. Either way, don't say I never give you anything.
PS: Big love to Matt Waddington, from whom I stole the title. And if this wasn't such a peskily interactive publication, I'd have done it without crediting him probably.
Marx & Sparks
“The workers—united—will never be de-feated!”. I've just stood in an auditorium with maybe a thousand people, primarily members of the Socialist Workers Party, chanting this in unison after an Iraqi trade unionist had finished speaking. They had at least waited for his words to be translated into English, which hadn't been the case for some of the earlier spontaneous rounds of applause. Of course, if there is a working-class takeover of power, we won't be the ones in charge; the only people here without University degrees are the ones that are still undergraduates. Although I have no doubt that everyone in this room whole-heartedly believes in working class power in Iraq, I'm not sure whether that's what they want for Britain – they want SWP power, which isn't the same thing. This isn't necessarily a criticism, except of a certain dishonesty in SWP rhetoric. In the modern developed world there's no reason why the workers should be the focus of resistance because it's no longer just the workers that are repressed. This class war rhetoric needs to be resigned to the historical period from which it emerged as an important aspect of anti-capitalist thought, but one which can no longer be applied simplistically to 21st century Britain.
I was in this auditorium as an attendee of Marxism 2006, a “Festival of Resistance” as it was dubbed by the organisers, a reasonably-sized, transnational gathering of the left, during which I spent five days and four nights in London. The days were spent listening to people tell me that “you may not know this, but one company owns almost all the soya processing plants in the Amazon” as if Marx had appeared to them on Mount Sinai and personally charged them with disseminating knowledge of the existence of business monopolies; the nights were spent squatting, sleeping on the floor of a disused University building whose inhabitants could be evicted any day. Every day we would collect a carrier bag of food left over from the lunch and evening Marxism picnics and take it there to share with whoever needed it. On the first night we attempted in vain to get six garbage bags worth of food that had just passed its sell-by date and was thus to be thrown out by Marks & Spencers. And yet everyday I would return to the meeting rooms of ULU and Birkbeck and be told that working class power is the way to a more just future. I'm not working-class (you should see my hands – lily white!), and none of the people I was with are likely to see the inside of a factory anytime soon, and yet we try our best to make the world more humane and more just in small, practical ways. Are our efforts in vain because we're not affiliated to the TUC? Are we really just bourgeois capitalists who will eventually be put in our place by the glorious proletariat revolution?
I don't think so. After all, who the hell is working-class in modern Britain? When Marx was writing, vast swathes of the population filled the dark, satanic mills, and in the first half of the 20th century George Orwell could write about the poverty and degradation of miners communities; but the mines are gone now, and the factories are only heard of when one of the few that remain close down. Most of Britain now works in the comparatively comfortable service industry (however horrible working in McDonald's undoubtedly is, I'd rather do that for eight hours than go down a coal mine for four), and is reasonably affluent, mostly able to afford food, clothes, accommodation and even a few luxuries that would have been unimaginable half a century ago. The idea that there is a class war between the 'uppers' and the 'lowers' ignores the massive proportion of the population that makes up this continuum of middle ground, and leaves the left in a marginalised position, appealing to far too few people to ever make a real impact.
And anyway, surely the limited viewpoint that comes about through thinking of things as wars is given its perfect example in our time – specifically in the rubbish about a “War on Terror” that has been so prevalent around us for the past five years. Besides the old chestnut about the difficulty of waging war on an abstract noun, a dangerously narrow way of thinking is revealed by the attempt to weld traditional ways of experiencing warfare onto a new kind of attack. Terrorism is not an army; it is more like a guerilla force. As the US should have learnt in Vietnam, you do not defeat guerillas by carpet bombing, and yet their very first move in this new 'war' was to carpet bomb Afghanistan and fail to achieve their aim. This could at least have been put down to shock, a panicked reaction to an unexpected attack on domestic soil; but subsequent actions have shown that the US administration are not rash, just terminally stupid – they have an unflinching belief that the 'modern' warfare in which they specialise (which is beginning to look so old and inefficient that my first reflex was to call it 'traditional warfare') is applicable to any situation. But this is a discussion for another time – to return to the SWP: a belief that ideologies of class warfare are as applicable to the 21st century as they were to the 19th and 20th is as much a misunderstanding of the situation as that of the US government above.
There is certainly a conflict. But it is not between minority class interests. It is between humanity and the destroying, greedy, crushing force of capitalism. And in modern Britain it is not a conflict that takes the form of a war, with neatly defined battles and skirmishes, generals and lieutenants, trenches and barbed wire. It is more like a quiet annexation of territory. It is less like World War II, and more like the unopposed entry of German troops to the Rhineland, or the handing over of the Sudetanland. The war that capitalism wages is, wherever possible, non-violent – it is a slow and steady stealing of space, a pickpocketing; a burglary rather than a mugging. Capitalism has proved itself to be a parasite that lives not exclusively on the worker, but on humanity in general.
From the slow privatisation of health and education services, to the poor air quality, to the mistreatment of animals, to the fact that you can't turn a bloody corner without seeing a bloody advert for something or other, almost everyone can pinpoint some aspect of modern society that disgusts them. The constant pressure to accumulate is precisely that to most people – a pressure, and one which treats us like slaves, promising us good times and prosperity if we keep producing and consuming, but never fulfilling that promise, instead leaving us more and more disillusioned. Most importantly, this situation affects almost everyone: the man who spews racist rhetoric about asylum seekers is the same man who bemoans the state of the environment; the woman who votes Tory as a sign of social superiority is the same woman that campaigns against the opening of a new Tesco superstore in her town. Both of these people may be disagreeable to me, but I'd rather argue against them while letting them fight many small battles against capitalism than fight one big battle against them to get myself installed as the government of a capitalist system.
This is by no means a perfect situation, and I am not advocating wholesale alliances with people whose views so often differ from ours; indeed, this entire rant is only an embryonic position and makes no claims to any authority. But it seems to me that if we are fighting against capitalism, an enemy which hides physically and mentally amongst the general population, ourselves included, we will not achieve any success through the grand gestures of a traditional war. Instead, we have to fight as guerillas, constantly undermining the system through the smallest acts of individuality and resistance; and we have to mobilise others to do the same. The anti-capitalist is not just someone that subvertises billboards or lives on a tasty fregan diet, but can also be the middle-aged woman who participates in a food co-op, the student who helps at an occupied social centre, or the businessman who cycles to work every day rather than drive. It is through striking individual blow after individual blow upon capitalism, and doing it ourselves rather than waiting for government legislation, that the people will realise their own power and understand that they do not have to live in a way that dissatisfies them so profoundly. The enemy is annexing our space in large chunks – we must annex it back piece by piece.
Brilliant! I needed some anti-capitalist rhetoric after being stuck for a month with a neo-liberal mate on my trip round europe. I do agree with your article on a good day when I am feeling optmistic, but on a bad day I feel that there's no hope and you may as well join them rather than try and lose to them. However I can't shake the feeling that for some of the bigger changes we (unfortunetly for us) need bigger help, ie government. However for some of the most progressive changes we've had (yes there have been some) governments usually changes things way after the general population has changed their minds, jumping on the bandwagon so to speak. So in fact your right, tis what people do. _________________ Big Brother is watching YOU!
Ah teapotty your penchent(sp?) for making occcasionally funny but always stupid comments continues unabated. I don't supppose you have anything serious up your sleeve any time soon _________________ Big Brother is watching YOU!