16 May 2010

Or Else

Ted Mycock asks, in the style of the time, "Why should WE pay for THEIR crisis?"

I'm going to answer that question with another question: Why are WE paying for THEIR crisis?

"Or else".

Remember the purpose of the state is to negotiate tensions between the classes; and does so in proportion to the relative power of those classes.

If all of society was at a high level of class consciousness (but absent a revolution), then wealth would be redistributed, on the balance, downward; the rich would be taxed at a high rate and the money would pay for services for the working class. In a certain rough-justice sense, this would be basically the ruling class paying off the working class in order to keep the working class from having all the bankers guillotined.

Instead, we have a relatively low & quite deflected level of class consciousness among the working class. So while the vast majority of potential power, as always, is in the hands of the working class, the vast majority of applied power is in the hands of the ruling class.

Therefore, the state funnels wealth upwards; we, as a class, are paying the bankers off, with the implicit threat that things would be made far, far worse for the working class if they didn't. Sometimes this threat isn't implicit; how many times, when arguing with the right wing, have we been asked "but did you really want the banks to fail completely?" (Of course we didn't; if the banks were nationalised & rationalised under democratic control, they'd be rock-solid, and if they'd been bought out at their actual value instead of their magic-pixie-dust pretend value, we wouldn't have sunk £700 billion into the process.)

Threatening the working class is nothing new; the state is, always has been and can only be Engels' "gangs of armed men". The question is, who controls the state? If it fuels wealth from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie, it is a bourgeois state. Why, if the working class produces the wealth and holds the vast majority of potential power, is it still a bourgeois state? That is, why hasn't the revolution happened yet?

The working class is not at a sufficient level of class consciousness.

The argument, by the way, that we should make concessions to the bankers now in order to avoid worse concessions being forced on us is New Labour's "dented shield" argument. What's wrong with New Labour's approach? New Labour, in formulating its response, has quietly abandoned the task of raising working class consciousness, a task which is absolutely necessary for any organisation which calls itself "socialist".

Old Labour, the strange chimera of a "bourgeois workers' party" that existed before the days of Kinnock and Blair, didn't have it exactly right either though. The mainstream of Old Labour, as embodied in the Fabian Society in particular, insisted that, as a party in government, it could carry out the transformation of the state on its own, purely through state channels, on behalf of the workers it represented. It achieved concessions, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. These concessions came at a price: the working class became more dependent on a state that was still in ruling class hands (remember, the government is not the whole state). The concessions of the "postwar consensus", which saw the foundation of the NHS and the nationalisation of a quarter of the economy, were clearly acceptable to the ruling class, not as a payoff to the working class but rather as something that, in the short term, reinforced bourgeois rule. Old Labour was wrong in two fundamental, intimately bound ways: one, it regarded reform as an end in itself, rather than a means to preparing the working class for revolution; and two, it saw working-class revolution as unnecessary, obviated by the existence of the Labour Party operating on the working class's behalf. In other words, Old Labour was substitutionist.

Substitutionism, when a party starts acting in the place of the working class, has a long and storied history in the left, from the Narodniks on up, and it always fails. Generally, it comes from the well-meaning middle class, educated people who look down on the working class and think them incapable of liberating themselves. It has strong echoes in the left of the Green movement today; you don't have to look hard to find some well-intentioned radical environmentalist who, for example, regards the liberation of the working class from wage-slavery and the liberation of cows from factory farming as being the same struggle. Isn't the real message of these people that, in their eyes, the working class are no better than food animals?

We, as socialists, are not going to have the revolution for the working class; rather, we, as a Socialist Party, are a specialised part of the working class, and if we are doing things correctly then we are always with the working class. Our task is not to go out in the streets on our own and try to deliver the proletariat a changed world; we'll never have the numbers, for a start. Nor indeed is our task to sit in the comfort of home and write essays about how the working class should go out and fight for its liberation, and shame on them for not having done so already. Instead, our highest purpose is as guides and educators, being an organ of the working class that helps elevate the consciousness of the class as a whole (and as an organ, we're not even the brain nor the heart; we're more like the thyroid gland). If the consciousness of the working class is raised to a sufficient level, the revolution will happen whether we bid it or not.

This is why we ask the question, "why should WE pay for THEIR crisis?" The implied answer is "we bloody shouldn't"; but what would a real answer to this question entail? We would necessarily have a state that refused to make the working class pay for the bourgeoisie's failures, a state that didn't prop up the bourgeoisie at the workers' expense: in other words, a workers' state. The proposal, a state that works for the people, is eminently reasonable and sounds attainable; but at the same time, the proposal is utterly unacceptable to the bourgeoisie (or at least the grand bourgeoisie), and as such, to developed capitalism as a whole. The question, when asked, provides an opportunity to connect an immediate problem with a natural, radical solution -- a chance to raise the consciousness of the person asked.

In other words, the implied answer to the question is a transitional demand.

"Why should WE pay for THEIR crisis?" A seven-word question: and in those seven words a lightning tour of Marx & Engels (the nature of the state), Lenin (the role of the revolutionary party) and Trotsky (the transitional programme). Such compactness, such elegance! If only more people could write like that...

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