22 February 2011

The AV referendum in context

Excerpted from a longer piece being prepared for the Socialist Party's 2011 conference

The AV referendum is not going to be the question that determines whether Britain progresses to socialism or slides to barbarism; it will probably not even be a question whose outcome threatens the Coalition. In discussing how socialists should vote on AV we must remember that the mere fact of the referendum's proposal points to deep shifts within the British state.

Why does Britain have no written constitution? Constitutions are the invention of liberalism, which supposes an absolute natural law to which all in society are subordinate; and the only outright capitalism revolution in England's history, Oliver Cromwell's, was not a liberal revolution (indeed proto-liberals needed an illiberal capitalist revolution to learn from). The notion of Parliamentary supremacy firmly established, Britain's constitution is therefore exceptionally malleable in its superficial aspects; a simple majority vote in Parliament, combined with royal assent, could legally establish a dictatorship, give independence to Scotland, or convert the entire country to Pastafarianism.

Such happenings are rare over the course of history. But the system of government in Britain has, for the past 15 years, been in a state of constant flux. The Jenkins report, considering revisions to the voting system, was proposed by Labour within eight months of their 1997 electoral victory. 1997 also brought the referendums on the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. In addition setting up the London Assembly and Mayor, Labour further tried to devolve power to regional assemblies in the traditional Labour strongholds in the North of England (who didn't want one) while withholding such an offer from the traditional Lib Dem stronghold of Cornwall (who did want one). Finally, Labour revised the makeup of the House of Lords to eliminate the most conservative members.

Since Labour's 2010 collapse, meanwhile, the ConDem coalition has proposed huge constitutional changes of its own, of which the AV referendum is just one piece: the number of MPs is being cut; the Localism Bill will change how local authorities (where the Tories and Lib Dems are, for the moment, stronger) relate to Parliament; Wales has another powers referendum; the coalition is changing the appointment of the Lords by creating Lib Dem and Tory peers en masse; the Coalition denies the franchise to prisoners who would presumably, by and large, not be voting Conservative; and of course the starkest change, the rule under which the government can only be brought down if 55%, rather than half, of MPs vote to do so.

Every big political party, therefore, is playing the dangerous game of re-writing the unwritten constitution to give itself a short-term advantage. The technical economic term for this kind of action is "rent-seeking behavior"; something that comes with no or very little marginal cost (such as for example keeping money in a safe place and accounting for it) is given an artificial higher price (such as a cashpoint "convenience charge", an overdraft fee, a bank account maintenance fee...) in order to make money for the capital-holder above and beyond what the market provides.

Rent-seeking behavior is an aspect of imperial capitalism. The few big firms have run out of new markets to expand into, and therefore can only raise their profits either by taking away the market share of other firms, or by imposing economic rent on their customers.

It is no coincidence that the push for constitutional changes began with New Labour's first government in 1997. What, after all, Labour do in becoming New Labour? It irrevocably abandoned the working class's interests and rushed to seek the same votes as the Lib Dems and Tories, those of people with money. Labour-Lib Dems-Tories, all "firms" pursuing the same "market" of political power and able to do so only by undercutting one another in order to gain political capital. With the degeneration of Britain's bourgeois workers' party, British party politics has entered an imperial phase.

It is also no coincidence that we now enjoy a coalition in Britain, minority governments in the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, intractable government formation in Belgium and immobilization of the parliamentary process in America. Such frustration is a natural consequence of the tendency of the rate of profit to diminish; bourgeois political parties will expend more and more effort to make up smaller and smaller margins, all the while heightening their rhetoric to become shriller and shriller while at the same time becoming more and more similar to each other in policy.

Britain is not alone in this phenomenon, and historically imperial bourgeois democracy does not end gracefully. 150 years ago, the United States was torn asunder in a bloody Civil War between factions representing liberal, industrial capitalism and conservative, slave-owning mercantile capitalism. The years 1787-1860 in the United States leading up to the Civil War were marked by a series of compromises, constitutional changes both in the small-c sense and formally through the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, which made concessions to the South to maintain its loyalty.

Russian capitalists cemented their power through rewriting the constitution, and Putin cemented his control through constitutional change. Constitutional changes also bolstered Yushchenko's victory in the streets over Yanukovich in 2004 and constitutional change was a key demand of the crowd in Tahrir Square in what was now clearly the first phase, a struggle between capitalist factions, in the Egyptian uprising.

Constitutions in bourgeois states are the tools of bourgeois factions. In the absence of organized workers' power, their provisions are contracts between ruling-class groups. In times when the political market of the ruling class is growing, they can remain regarded as "supreme", binding all bourgeois political parties in a mutual agreement.

But imperial capitalism always reaches a limit where the factions resort to force. In the early days of imperial parliamentarism, parties will try to outflank each other through petty legal means, then by re-writing or distorting the constitution. Then they will settle their affairs in the streets.

The 2000 Presidential election in the United States, won by lawyers rather than votes; Canada's minority government, hanging on only through the Conservatives' invocation of the monarchy's reserve powers; Israel's parliament, crippling Arab parties backed by a combined 10% of voters through a pre-election attempt to ban them: all of these are imperial parliaments whose ruling factions only hold power by undermining their competitors legally through the state.

The "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Thailand, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Kyrgyzstan, and the abortive "Green revolution" in Iran: all struggles between one faction of the ruling class and another resolved by physical strength, with the working class sidelined or hijacked and given up as a blood sacrifice for the ends of the rich. The heroes of these revolutions are actors or pop stars, empty vessels; the colors of these revolutions are only colors. Gene Sharp, author of "From Dictatorship to Democracy", is emerging as the capitalists' answer to Lenin, proposing ways for the petty bourgeoisie and low-consciousness proletarians to let themselves be used most effectively by the ruling class.

This is the future of parliamentary democracy in Britain: Labour cutting itself off from the trade unions once and for all, trying instead to win over Lib Dem or Tory voters. Parties distinguishable only by Red, Yellow, Blue and perhaps Green rosettes. Coalition government, minority government, national government. Elections overturned in the courts (as has already happened to Phil Woolas), Tories accusing Labour of being "communists" and Labour accusing Tories of being "fascists" while calling for multipartisanship and compromises that, somehow, will always give more power to big business. Finally, an election decided in the streets, as Labour, Liberal and Conservative supporters all demonstrate against each other in huge, mindless groups, to a soundtrack of slick studio-perfect boy bands.

Divisions within the ruling class are inevitable and they are a precondition of a social revolution. Our role as socialists is not to side with one identical bourgeois faction against another in the streets, nor to smooth over these divisions.

Rather, we must always articulate the workers' alternative: consensual democracy, in the parliaments, the towns, the neighborhoods and in the workplaces, operating on as proportional a system as possible, tied economically to the workers and subject absolutely to scrutiny and recall by the workers.

No comments: