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  • Published in Conference 2013

How can socialists relate to the millions being radicalised by economic crisis,  austerity and war? The Counterfire steering committee presents the following article for discussion at our annual conference

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Politics in Britain and abroad have been dominated in recent years by two elements: a crisis of the old core of the world economy that shows no sign of being resolved, and that has assumed a more serious form than any capitalist crisis since the 1930s; and a connected crisis of imperialism which is still being played out in the Middle East and south Asia, and which threatens to deepen as the economic crisis maintains its grip and the newly established industrial rivals to the US, especially China, grow economically and militarily.

All this is underpinned by the global race to the bottom, accelerated since 2008, but rooted in the neoliberal counteroffensive going back 30 years, and taking the form of a frontal attack on the postwar welfare settlement which is increasing inequality, eroding the social fabric, and feeding a crisis of establishment legitimacy.

Building the movement

The question for the left is how do we, with very slim resources, relate to the large numbers of people who are suffering as a result of the crisis. More specifically, how do we work with a very large radicalised minority in society who are opposed to austerity, oppose war and support the Palestinians, want a fairer and more equal society, and are fed up with the pro-capitalist policies of the mainstream Labour and Socialist parties?

This question is of crucial importance precisely because there is such a substantial radicalised minority [see on this Adrian Cousins’ Crisis of the British regime]. The gap between the needs of working class people, facing real attacks in their living standards and onslaughts on welfare, and the left’s weakness inside the working class leads to a number of difficult strategic and tactical decisions. It also leads to a frustration among the best activists, which sometimes means not locating ourselves at the centre of those who want to fight as part of a wider movement, and creates ultra-left or sectarian approaches to the problems of politics.

First we should be aware of how deep and existential this crisis is for the system itself. As we approach the fifth year of economic crisis following the banking crash of 2008, it is clear that it remains deep and intractable. No recovery appears possible through ‘normal’ market mechanisms, despite ruling class talk of a market bounce back.

Recovery in most countries is weak or non-existent. The US remains in deep debt to its rivals, borrowing from China to fund its economy and reliant at the same time on its lender for the imports of manufactured goods. Countries such as Brazil are also lending considerably to its northern neighbour. Increasingly dependent on loans and imports, the

US finds itself under greater pressure from its rivals than for 100 years.

The capitalist class response to the recession has been to attack working people even harder. The increase in the rate of exploitation that has become such a feature of globalisation in the past two decades has been accelerated. Workers are expected to work longer for less pay in real terms, and to suffer worse conditions at work. They are told to - and often do - accept these attacks because the alternative is unemployment. Precarity at work, with enforced part time working (an estimated 1.5million in Britain who work part time would be full time if the jobs were there), short term and temporary contracts, the weakening of trade union organisation, greater supervision at work and the erosion of conditions have all made it easier for the capitalist class to increase its profits at our expense.

This is an international phenomenon, but it affects different countries at different tempos. Greece has borne the brunt of the Eurocrisis, with savage attacks on living standards forced through by the hated Troika against bitter opposition from the working class there and across society. People are suffering a return to conditions traditionally associated with the 1930s - soup kitchens and food banks, long dole queues, big attacks on pensions and benefits. Similar austerity measures have been attempted in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they have been met with mass resistance at least in the latter two countries.

Greece has seen the rise of the far left party Syriza, to commanding a quarter or more of the popular vote, and putting forward policies opposed to austerity to a mass audience.

This is a very important development that should be welcomed and built on, avoiding the sectarianism displayed by some parties on the Greek left. It is important to point a way out of the crisis for working people, to show that there is an alternative to austerity and not least to provide a left wing pole of attraction in opposition to the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn, which is at around 12% in polls, but is also terrorising immigrants and other minorities.

The situation in Greece is a picture of the future elsewhere: the main parties losing support because of their pro-austerity policies; the polarisation to far left and far right; wide levels of resistance which nonetheless have not so far broken through and reversed government policies.

The crisis of imperialism sits alongside the economic crisis. The US and its allies launched the so-called war on terror eleven years ago to try to overcome the contradictions in their foreign policy; the war, aimed at securing US influence particularly in the Middle East, has succeeded only in making things worse for them. The war in Afghanistan, which still holds down over 100,000 western troops (mostly US and British), is a costly failure. Its economic cost has risen as it has manifestly failed to stop the spread of terrorism, its declared aim.

The proposed withdrawal date of 2014 will, if adhered to, leave the US even more isolated in the region than before. Already, opinion in Pakistan has been hardened by the drone attacks that have killed thousands in the border areas.

In the Middle East, the situation is even more difficult. The failure of Israel to drive home its attack on Gaza in November, and the central role of Egypt’s president Morsi in getting a settlement, reflected the very changed political settlement in the region following the Arab spring and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in particular. Israel and the US can no longer rely on compliant Arab dictators to keep their populations in check. This makes the situation even more pressing for them. The fairly overt intervention in Syria increased dramatically since the US election with the recognition of a new ‘government in waiting’ and the military and financial intervention by pro-western powers, especially Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in the region. William Hague’s claim that Assad was prepared to use chemical weapons had echoes of government propaganda a decade ago and may well presage direct intervention in favour of a no-fly zone and air strikes in the New Year.

The support for the opposition in Syria in what has now become a civil war is clearly about reshaping the region; hitting Syria and therefore taking out an ally of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Iran, which, as chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs let slip on the Today programme is what the Gaza attack was all about. Israel is determined to attack Iran and is trying to get the US and other allies on board for the coming year.

Meanwhile there are new tensions in the Pacific, with an arms race involving China and Japan, which now has a new nationalist prime minister. Economic tensions in the region are likely to spill over into conflicts involving the two major powers. China is also spreading its economic and military influence in south Asia including Afghanistan, and in Africa.

British capitalism is weak

For Britain, these general features are coming to assume an acute form. The British economy is uniquely badly exposed to the general decline of Western capitalism. The debt-driven boom of the 2000s has burned out, in spectacular style, with the crash of 2007-8: the British economy contracted more sharply than any OECD county, and UK national output remains nearly 14% below its 2008 peak, compared to 8% growth in the US and 109% in China. Productivity growth, the key determinant of growth more generally for developed countries, remains stagnant where other large economies have recovered.

It carries the highest levels of private-sector debt of any G8 country (although its public sector debt is comparable to US, Germany and other G8 economies, despite Coalition claims). Its small manufacturing base cannot sustain Tory fantasies of “export-led growth” and indeed the UK’s near-permanent trade deficit has reached record levels under David Cameron.

Over the longer-term, there are few reasons to expect a relatively small island to continue as a major world economy. For the UK, decades of underinvestment by the domestic ruling class have produced an economy uniquely unable to manage this steady decline from economic power. They appear, for most purposes, to have given up trying: austerity, as some Marxists have argued, can be seen as attempt to strip costs from British capitalism, like (in their terms) an expensive welfare state and relatively high wages and salaries. If costs are cut, profits can be boosted. Spending cuts are already clawing chunks from long-established benefits with hugely more threatened, while average real earnings have fallen sharply since the crash. But this is not the whole picture: austerity, as Keynesians like Paul Krugman have stressed, is self-defeating. It sucks demand out of the economy, prolonging the stagnation – just as it did during the Great Depression, as John Maynard Keynes argued, and, more particularly, as Marx had indicated many years before. It is all very well cutting wages to boost profits. If no one can afford to buy what you are selling, however, you as a capitalist will not actually receive those profits.

The Coalition government initially fantasised, via the “Office for Budget Responsibility”, that this contradiction would be overcome by an immense investment boom and huge new exports abroad. They expected investment by businesses, this year, to be growing nearly 11%; it has in fact grown only 4%, and remains well below its earlier peak – which was already low by international standards. And a sharp devaluation of the pound has made those abroad no more substantially inclined to buy UK products.

Given the collapse of this fantasy, and in the absence of viable alternatives, the British ruling class, keen to maintain whatever advantages it can hold in the world, is leaning increasingly heavily on its two clear international advantages: a large military that it deploy across the globe; and a financial centre that is integral to the functioning of the global system.

Domestic politics, at least the official level of Parliament and the press, is increasingly coming to structure itself around those two poles, and little else: the military intrudes itself into public life, from the Olympic opening ceremony to the expansion of the annual Poppy Appeal, while – despite intense public hatred for bankers and their works – the financial system remains, four years after the great crash, virtually unreformed. Indeed, senior Tories like Cameron and Boris Johnson regularly brave public opinion to declare an immediate end to “banker bashing”: as if bankers had, in any serious, meaningful sense, been “bashed”.

These two strategic priorities for the UK ruling class define, in turn, the strategic priorities for the left. No serious new left can be built that does not place both opposition to war and to finance at its heart, since this is where our own ruling class must concentrate its efforts – and yet where they are also running dead-set into public opinion. Lenin described the necessity of grasping the “weak link” in the chain of events, in order to break the whole chain: UK capitalism, economically faltering but strategically positioned globally, is a weak link.

Official politics is poisoned

While the government assumes it can get away with it, by using shock and awe tactics in its onslaughts, and by scapegoating immigrants, those on welfare and the poorest in order to divide and rule, they will not be able to do so indefinitely, given that many working people will see their own friends and families suffering the impact of the austerity measure and cuts. The December budget seems to have been something of a turning point in that it brought home to many exactly how unfair the government is. Even before that, there have been signs of increasing protests and resistance over NHS attacks, library closures and so on.

Labour has benefited from Tory/Libdem unpopularity - but not that much. Some mainstream Labour voices are now urging Ed Miliband to do more to oppose the cuts and stand up for working people. But Labour too when in government implemented austerity measures, its councillors are by and large implementing present cuts, and it will not promise to do much different when back in office. Therefore what struggle does take place will involve Labour party members but will take place largely outside official Labour, which we can expect to continue with its timid and pusillanimous approach.

The opposition and the trade unions

There is little enthusiasm for any of the mainstream parties, whose representatives are widely regarded as out of touch, elitist and corrupt. This reflects a wider crisis of British establishment, evidenced by the divisions over the press in Leveson, over the BBC crisis about jimmy Savile, the ‘plebgate’ affair. Far left and right parties have sometimes benefited, although both the BNP and EDL have seen their support wane over the past year. But UKIP has benefited from Tory unpopularity, and George Galloway won for Respect in Bradford, although the party has since itself lost many leading figures.

The trade unions are still the major focus of opposition to austerity in this country, despite the many problems facing the movement. The unity achieved over the pensions dispute in November 30 2011 was not maintained, and the result has essentially been a defeat for the movement. That was one reason the TUC October 20th March was smaller than its 2011 counterpart, even though it still reflected a willingness to fight among the 200,000 who turned out on it. The leadership of the unions has been variable but the best of them, like PCS and Unite, have put forward fighting strategies aimed at beating back the employers, and Unite particularly has been developing a model of trade unionism that can appeal to wider working class communities.

The fact that the TUC passed a unanimous resolution to look into the practicalities of calling a general strike is significant and represents a strength of feeling among activists that the movement has to raise its game in order to defeat the government. However such a move needs serious planning given the weakness of union organisation on the ground.

The role of the left

The left can play a very important role here. Counterfire members in the Coalition of Resistance have been key in arguing for the October 20 demo but also for a People’s Assembly, backed by unions and campaigns, which brings together all the elements of the movement wanting a fight back. This can be part of building for wider industrial action, including a general strike, against the government. The left is weak but can still have a lot of influence if it puts forward the right ideas and proposals for activity.

Here the united front tactic is key. In both CoR and the Stop the War Coalition our members have argued for the maximum unity over specifics, involving people who may not agree with us on a range of issues. Too many on the left seem to have forgotten this tactic, repeating the mistakes made in Germany by the left before Hitler came to power.

It is all too easy to denounce others for selling out. It may be true but to just focus on these issues is a recipe for dividing our forces and ensuring that the mass of union or Labour Party members do not join in our campaigns. It is also very easy to call for general strikes or occupying the TUC without doing the hard work of preparation that is necessary in a movement weakened by years of attacks. Instead, the left approach should be, ‘we don’t agree necessarily with what you’ve done in the past, or how you voted at particular time, but the scale of attack against us is so great that we must unite around issues on which we agree’. This is what produced the Lewisham hospital demo, the Palestine demo and indeed October 20. It remains our central tactic.

What this means concretely is a number of things. We have to be centrally involved in building the movement against austerity, which means the People’s Assembly and CoR. Part of this is involves building an international coordination against austerity, supporting the alter summit in Athens in June and working in the Greece Solidarity Campaign.

All our members should see this activity as central to our work in unions, colleges and local campaigns. In addition, we must maintain our work in Stop the War, building the February conference and campaigning against western intervention in Syria or Iran.

To do this successfully we need to build Counterfire at the same time as a core of socialists arguing for our politics within the movements. [see article on United front and trade union work] It is however clear that there is a great desire for unity on the left, which is, only partly met by united front work. There is no quick or easy way to left unity on a more programmatic basis. But we should do everything we can to urge closer political cooperation on the left, which has been so fragmented in recent years. Counterfire’s open and non-sectarian approach is the right way to engage with those seriously wanting greater unity on the left.

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