Lindsey German on post-Covid reconstruction and the politics of free speech
The John Lewis store in Birmingham was a central feature of the huge shopping centre redevelopment at the main New Street station when it opened five years ago. Last week the company announced its closure, along with several other major stores, and the loss of thousands of jobs. Boots also announced job losses, both companies indicative of the severe problems on British high streets, which predated but have been greatly exacerbated by the lockdown.
The unemployment shock which is hitting Britain is only now becoming clear. Manufacturing industry has been badly affected. Civil aviation and car manufacture are in serious trouble. The airline industry and associated businesses have seen their profits plummet. Restaurants and pubs are either still closed or severely restricted. Non-essential retail is facing closures and uncertainty.
The government’s response to this has been pitiful despite the millions of livelihoods at stake. Rishi Sunak’s summer budget offers us a voucher to eat out (if we can afford it and only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August), cuts in VAT for the hospitality industry, and a boost to buy to let landlords through the changes to stamp duty.
The scheme to help alleviate youth unemployment is aimed at supporting low wage and insecure jobs in industries such as hospitality. The £1000 a head for furloughed workers still employed in January will be a handout to employers who were likely to keep on these workers anyway and will do nothing for those whose jobs may go at the end of the furlough period.
Sunak’s feeble measures happened on the day that the John Lewis and Boots announcements were made. They highlight just how inadequate is the government response. That’s because Johnson and Sunak have no intention of restructuring the economy in order to deal with the crisis, and no desire to move away from the low wage, low productivity and often insecure jobs which characterise so much of British industry.
So the message is, get back to business as usual as quickly as possible. We must refuse this offer. Our health depends on it. The number of cases and deaths in England are still far too high, there is not even the pretence of ‘following the science’ any more, testing is random and grossly inadequate, and the government itself knows that there will be a second spike. Some of the poorest areas of the country are the ones now worst affected by coronavirus: Leicester, Bradford, Oldham, Merthyr, Rhondda, Kirklees.
There is considerable evidence that poverty and ethnicity help make people more susceptible. There are also connections between unsafe workplaces – clothing sweatshops in Leicester and meat processing plants in several parts of the country – and the spread of the virus. So business as usual will put more workers at risk, and as we have already seen from Leicester the workplace regulations are all too often ignored, with no adequate inspection regime in place.
But it isn’t just the risk of coronavirus, it is that we shouldn’t return to the bad old business as usual. Insecurity, pressure at work, low pay, lack of training are all hallmarks of British jobs. This is a political choice as well as an economic one. It has resulted in growing levels of inequality. Add to that the way that public services are now highly dependent on deals with private capital – witness all the property development deals between London councils and building firms, or the reliance of councils like Luton on part ownership of its airport to fund council services, or the creeping privatisation of the NHS – and we can see a private profit driven model which is simply not working.
The immediate alternative could be creating green jobs to build council houses, trains and buses, schools, hospitals, make good quality prepared meals and protective equipment. Delivery services, which have proved so valuable in recent months and which are a significant part of economic distribution, should be publicly owned and with much improved employment rights. Decent wages and security would be further enhanced by rent controls and less long-distance commuting. This would all mean a change in where and how people worked.
If Pret a Manger can only survive because people commute to big office blocks and have no time to prepare their own food, then maybe there is something wrong with that business model. If many retail stores close because people are no longer in a position – either economically or physically – to buy goods that they do not need, then there was something wrong with that system in the first place. And if airlines survive because they fly stag parties to Prague or Barcelona – at great environmental cost to those cities and to the wider society – then perhaps we need to think again about who needs to fly and why.
The economic, social and environmental costs of globalised capitalism have been brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. It is – and you wouldn’t know this from the mainstream media – getting worse on a global scale, so there are many very big challenges ahead. We can rely neither on the government to keep us safe, nor on the opposition from Keir Starmer, which has challenged none of the fundamentals and priorities put forward by Johnson. The battles which lie ahead, especially in the workplaces where we will be forced to defend our conditions, will be crucial in shaping our society.
Is there a problem with cancel culture?
How do we on the left deal with debate, with criticism and sometimes with ideas which we find completely unacceptable? The inspired removal of the Colston statue in Bristol during a Black Lives Matter demo led to the accusation that those on the left wanted to destroy or cancel our history. This claim too has come from some of the most rich and powerful but has received an echo among some of those who are very far from such prestigious positions.
The far right in turn tried to use the issue to dress up their hatred of everything that Black Lives Matter stands for in supposed concern for the protection of statues and learning about history. Instead, the demonstrators have highlighted some of the aspects of history which our rulers would prefer to keep hidden, and which black people rightly insist is not just their but everyone’s history.
Social media has reverberated with rows over ‘cancel culture’. Most recently it was the subject of a letter in Harper’s Magazine signed by over 150 public figures. Although they included the veteran left winger Noam Chomsky, they were also a rollcall of some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, who – far from being denied a platform for their views – have repeatedly given their often offensive and occasionally dangerous opinions on a range of issues. These include the end of history man Francis Fukuyama, right wing novelist Martin Amis, and George Bush speechwriter David Frum, who invented the warmongering term ‘axis of evil’.
So the left is absolutely justified in not taking their complaints too seriously. But more generally the issue of free speech and how differing views should be handled has come to the fore in recent months.
The first point to make is that in general debate is something that we should welcome and should see as essential to political advance. This is not a liberal point but a socialist one – socialism means control by working people and this can only be achieved and maintained through the maximum democratic debate.
The second point however is that this debate does not take place within an equal society. The liberal idea of free speech assumes an even playing field where everyone has an equal ability to express their views. There isn’t one, and there are many divisions, not least those of race, sex, and gender. The greatest division and the most fundamental is that of class. Working class people are denied a voice and any real power within capitalist society, even though they are the basis on which that society is built. This is because to recognise the exploitation and oppression of the majority of society is not possible without an acknowledgement that such a society has to be overthrown.
So when working class and oppressed people find a voice it is an important step forward, a means of challenging the dominant class in society and of building the confidence of those around them. But we then need to win those ideas among wider layers of working class and oppressed people.
That means above all debate, discussion and argument. We don’t have to compromise over principles – socialists should be against racism without qualification. But that doesn’t mean they don’t work with, have family connections, socialise with and go on strike with people who hold at least some racist ideas. At least a portion can be won but won’t be by simply being told they should check their privilege or go off and educate themselves. It will be by showing both in terms of ideas and in practice that racism serves only to divide people and therefore to weaken the exploited and oppressed.
The fight against oppression is also a fight against the class society which perpetuates it. It is not primarily therefore a moral question, nor one of establishing hierarchies of oppression, but of understanding the nature of the society which links these oppressions together. Not everyone agrees on this analysis - there are many different views on the left about racism, women’s oppression and LGBT oppression. That is perfectly healthy and many of them have been clarified by debate over time.
There is no homogenous position taken by all members of an oppressed group. There are Marxist feminists, radical feminists and liberal feminists. There are black separatists, black Marxists and black social democrats.
The only way to develop our theory and practice is through debate and experience of the struggle. To do so isn’t to make concessions to the right or to give the exploiters and oppressors a free pass. Our concern should not be for the sensitivities of the rich and powerful but for something much more important – the need for the left to be completely honest, accountable and engaged with the wider movement in order to advance the struggle.
Many years ago I wrote an article about when the tactic of no platforming should be used. The article has stood the test of time quite well, I think, and makes the case that the tactic should pretty much be reserved for the refusal of platforms to fascists and those very closely aligned to them. Anything else would be self-defeating because it would be to deny free speech to ideas which might be reprehensible, but which had to be defeated politically.
That is still my view. Socialists should not be closing down debate or claiming that it is unacceptable for others on the left to express views which challenge their own. The more the left looks outward and gains confidence in its ideas, the more it will be able to fight effectively against the class society which oppresses us all.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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