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Neil Faulkner

Cuts, counter-reforms, and the class struggle

(22 July 2010)

Published online by Counterfire, 22 July 2010.
Copied with thanks from the Counterfire Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Neil Faulkner argues that every socialist, green activist, trade unionist, and anti-capitalist needs to see building mass action against the cuts as the central political priority.

The Cameron-Clegg Government’s £113 billion of cuts and tax rises will wreck the lives of millions. Jobs, pay, pensions, benefits, and public services will be devastated.

The £11 billion of welfare cuts, the rise in VAT to 20%, and the 25% reductions in departmental spending will target the most vulnerable – the disabled, single parents, those on housing benefit, students, pensioners, migrant workers, and ethnic minority communities.

Women are expected to carry three-quarters of the burden. The poorest will be hit six times harder than the richest. Internal Treasury documents estimate 1.3 million job losses.

At the same time, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have been restored to pre-crash levels. Oxfam has proposed that Osborne’s £2 billion bank levy should be £20 billion. Even the IMF thinks it should be £6 billion. These modest figures should be set against the £90 billion in profits and bonuses that British bankers are expected to rake in next year.

The Big Lie is that there is no alternative. The arrogance of this is truly awesome. It amounts to saying that there is no alternative to the rich keeping their wealth while the working class pays for the economic crisis caused by their greed.

What they really mean, of course, is that there is no alternative if the issue is the survival of British capitalism in its present form. The Government could take control of the banks (already partly nationalised), tax the rich, slash the defence budget, and launch a massive programme of public works to create jobs and begin the transition to a green economy.

They could, but they do not. There is an alternative, but they do not take it. Instead, they make a choice – a political choice – a class choice – to protect the rich while imposing the biggest austerity package since the 1930s. We need to understand why they are doing this.

There is, for a start, the status of the City of London as one of the world’s leading centres of financial speculation and profiteering. Full nationalisation under democratic control would put an end to all that.

The national debt has become a mechanism by which international finance-capital disciplines the British ruling class. The bankers’ message is this: protect profits and impose cuts or we sell British financial assets and create a Greek-style crisis of state solvency. In short, it is the City or the NHS. The Con-Dem Government has chosen the City. New Labour, of course, would have done the same.

But it runs deeper than that. The alternative is a radical one. It would involve challenging the prerogatives of big business and the greed of the rich head-on, and, in effect, using the state to redistribute wealth from capital to labour, that is, from profit to wages and welfare.

A Keynesian policy of using state power to commandeer resources, channel investment, and create jobs would reverse 30 years of neoliberalism. Instead of ‘rolling back the boundaries of the state’, it would involve prioritising collective provision, public service, and human need. Any such shift would be bound to raise the expectations and confidence of working people. It would, in a word, move society to the left.

The neoliberal project of privatisation is designed to marketise public services, fragment society, and atomise the working class. If it is reversed, the danger is that the accumulated bitterness at the base of society might gain traction. If it did, anything could happen.

So Cameron and Clegg have made a class choice on behalf of the millionaires they represent. And because the crisis is deep and protracted, they are playing for high stakes in a long game. The deflationary turn is no short-term fix. For them, the economic crisis is both a challenge and an opportunity – nothing less, in fact, than an opportunity to push the neoliberal offensive to its logical conclusion and overturn the entire postwar welfare consensus.

Fear is central to that project. The fear engendered by a world without the protection of collective organisation or the security of public provision – a world, that is, without unions or welfare.

There are presently 2.5 million on the dole. The cuts will ratchet the total up to well over 3 million, perhaps 3.5, perhaps more. Millions of others will be trapped in part-time, low-paid, dead-end jobs. Millions who are not will be anxious to cling onto the ‘decent jobs’ they have.

Unemployment is an acid that eats into confidence, solidarity, and militancy. It can turn worker against worker. It is a weapon in the class struggle. Fear of the dole might break resistance to the cuts and the counter-reforms that are planned over the next five years. Higher unemployment is therefore part of the Con-Dem strategy.

That is not all. Alongside the cuts and the tax rises, there is planned neoliberal restructuring of benefits, schools, hospitals, and universities. Not only are state services to be cut back heavily; they are to be part-privatised and rationed on a class basis.

Underlying the vicious targeting of the poorest and most powerless is a political necessity to blame the victims for their fate. For, if British capitalism is to be restructured, the welfare state must be dismantled. And if welfare is to be cut, it must be that the poor are undeserving.

So the disabled, single mothers, and the unemployed are to be branded ‘work-shy’ and bullied by the threat of destitution into low-wage exploitation. As the Cameron-Clegg Government destroys jobs, it plans to hound the jobless and the impoverished that its own policies create.

At the same time, health minister Andrew Lansley is setting out to break up the NHS. The method here is to force all GPs to join one of between 300 and 500 ‘consortiums’, to give these consortiums control over £70 billion of NHS funding, and thereby to create a market for health services in which public hospitals will compete with one another and with private corporations like Bupa.

Education minister Michael Gove is equally ambitious. Lansley wants to marketise and part-privatise the NHS. Gove wants to create a two-tier education system with new profit opportunities.

On the one hand, he is offering to fund any old group that wants to set up a ‘free school’. The funds will be taken from the existing education budget, forcing other schools to close. On the other, he is encouraging ‘outstanding schools’ to opt out of LEA control and become ‘academies’. Every town will end up with a two-tier system. Better-funded academies and free schools will be oversubscribed and will eventually become selective. The remaining LEA schools will be seen as second-rate ‘sink’ schools.

Universities minister Vince Cable has announced that student fees will be turned into a graduate tax, student numbers will be slashed, struggling state universities will be forced to close, and profit-making private universities will be allowed to flourish.

Little wonder that profiteers touting various education and health services are circling the crumbling state system, looking for opportunities to grab chunks of tax-payer funding.

The Con-Dem Coalition is more than a deficit-cutting government of millionaires determined to make working people pay for the crisis. It is a neoliberal regime committed to dismantling the welfare state, redistributing wealth and power from working people to the rich and big business, and bringing about a permanent restructuring of British capitalism in the interests of the class it represents.

They have launched a class war against the majority. The trillion-pound question is whether our side, the Left and the working class, can create a mass movement of resistance to stop them.

So far, there is little sign of it. But the surface calm may be deceptive. Is the mole of history perhaps at work in the depths of British society?

In the 1980s, when a hard-right government launched a head-on assault on jobs, welfare, and union organisation, it did so with strong support from significant sections of society for its Thatcherite ideology. The present government is weak by contrast. It is a coalition with obvious potential fracture-lines. It includes people who have ditched pretty well every principle and policy they were elected on. It is embarked on a monster programme of cuts and counter-reforms for which it has no electoral mandate. And this programme is deeply contested even within the ruling class itself.

The Ancient Greeks were fascinated by something they called hubris. They meant by it such arrogance of power that its perpetrators were lumbering blindly to their own divinely-ordained destruction – an outcome for which they also had a word: nemesis.

Unfortunately, there are no gods to visit disaster on the ruling class. The only possible agent of nemesis is the working class. At present, it remains a sleeping giant. But the arrogance of the ruling class may disturb it yet. For the Con-Dem Coalition is attacking on every front at once.

Thatcher bided her time, concentrated her forces, and struck a succession of lethal blows at isolated targets. It was a five full years before the attack on the miners. Even so, when it came, the battle raged for a year, and at times was close-run. But the victory was decisive: it broke the resistance of the working class for a generation, allowing the ruling class to drive through the neoliberal restructuring of British capitalism.

The present is not a re-run of the 1980s. The mix of ingredients is quite different. The government is a shaky coalition without a mandate. It has inherited an unwinnable imperialist war which a large majority now opposes. It confronts a working class embittered by neoliberalism, bank bailouts, and the greed of the rich, and an electorate alienated from a political system that is corrupt and undemocratic.

Despite this, dealing with the mother of all economic crises, the regime has launched a generalised offensive against the entire working class, with a programme of cuts and counter-reforms that will – as Cameron brags – change the lives of every family in Britain.

Today’s Greeks have shown us the modern face of nemesis. General strikes and giant demonstrations have rocked the Papandreou Government. When 100,000 march in Athens, it is like a million in London. Greece shows what is possible. Greece may be the model.

But great social movements do not arise spontaneously. They have to be built by argument and action, by meetings and mobilisations, by the agitational work of thousands of activists bringing tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

The anti-cuts campaign needs to be a) very broad, b) very active, and c) very political. We need the widest possible coalition of political forces opposed to the Con-Dem cuts – everyone from disaffected Lib-Dems to hard-core anti-capitalists, from union general secretaries and left-wing MPs to local campaigns against academies, incinerators, and hospital closures.

We need activity, with local meetings, protests, and strikes, and the possibility of these swelling into giant national protests as the regime attempts to drive through its attacks. And we need strong politics – attacking the millionaires and the bank bailouts, highlighting the waste of war and nuclear missiles, and arguing the alternative of job creation, public services, and a green economy.

Henceforward, every socialist, green activist, trade unionist, and anti-capitalist needs to see building mass action against the cuts as the central political priority.

The historical stakes have rarely been higher.

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics and A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals.

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