A report from last week's Manchester People's Assembly session on the relationship between British militarism and the ongoing attacks on the welfare state
The meeting, on the subject of 'welfare not warfare', opened with a general introduction by John Rees. In the following I will attempt to track the main contributions via the themes that emerged.
One of the main topics of discussion was finding reasonable employment for engineers and military service workers in a post military spending/warfare epoch. Several contributors were concerned that meaningful employment would not be found for these people and feared their impoverishment and casualisation. With regard to service personnel, it was highlighted that the majority of military recruiting takes places within the poor and dispossessed, that it was these young men and women that were fighting and dying for the causes of the bourgeoisie and that this consideration should take precedence over employment questions, secondly, regarding engineers and other skilled personnel, it was suggested that a process of demilitarisation occurred after World War Two where 80% of industry was involved with military manufacturing which was no longer needed upon the end of the war. It was also highlighted that Unite and the CND had a body of work available on that question.
One contributor asked what the People's Assembly could be doing to change peoples' minds about war in general, to get them to question its legitimacy in a 'desensitised time'. In response to this it was pointed out that most people already are against war, that war is not a consequence of human nature influenced blood lust but always the result of certain economic causes. It was said that polls have indicated a high level of opposition to war and that while the Stop The War movement may have failed in its main task, it did build a movement and enable mobilisation and collective action by like minded people. It was suggested that the People's Assembly should aim to emulate this.
With regards the changing of consciousness in matters of war (although here the conversation broadened to encompass other broader revolutionary ideals) it was suggested that people need look no further than the 1980s and 1990s. It was pointed out that with the rise of neoliberalism there was a massive ideological assault broadly shifting the consciousness of the working class from collective goals to individual goals. It was said that anyone who doubted that 'human nature' could change should study this period closely.
One contributor was concerned that efforts to demilitarise or undermine the role of the military could threaten to block legitimate military intervention in humanitarian causes. While there was significant sympathy in the room for this view, several contributors were quick to point out that humanitarian intervention rhetoric has often been used historically as a façade for colonial interventions and has often been retrofitted to explain past colonial conflicts. It was said that we should be wary when supporting military intervention in all forms while the UN was controlled by the main purveyors of war. Someone suggested tat the job of the People's Assembly should be to claim the UN for the people it purports to represent. No discussion took place as to how to accomplish this however.
There were several contributions that did not lead to significant debate. One contributor said that the debate needed to be refocussed around class and that we should not forget that the enemy was capitalism and the solution socialism. This received a round of applause from many in the room. The same contributor then suggested everyone join the Labour party and support wavered for his point of view. Another contributor pessimistically pointed out that it was all very well and good discussing this but privatisation, which was wrecking society, would continue regardless of whether we discussed it or not. It was pointed out that workshops focussing on more immediate direct action were taking place throughout the day but given the magnitude of the problem in this workshop, at this stage general consciousness raising by the People's Assembly was considered to be reasonably practicable until it gained greater influence.
The workshop was then closed by a concluding statement from John Rees. He warned of the dangers of humanitarian intervention, suggesting it is are often a mask of colonial agendas, a mindset of rich and powerful nations with powerful military apparatuses believing their might gives them the right to tell 'lesser' nations how to behave. To illustrate this, John told a hypothetical tale of an Egyptian lead military intervention in Ireland to highlight the absurdity. He concluded that in his view, military intervention never achieves its humanitarian aims and that this is confirmed by the experience of history.
Given the enormous magnitude of the problem of warfare and military spending, it was decided that the People's Assembly should focus on consciousness raising and education on the subject.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.
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