Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
- Killed Coal: Now Kill Public Health Care?
- BHS legally burglarised
- Submissive Socialism?
- In Praise of State Socialism
- Losing the War on Terror
- China’s Irresponsible Dissidents
Thatcher could sound like an authentic conservative. She was actually radical-right, an ideology that did vast damage to many British traditions, some of them worth preserving. But after the confusion of the 1970s she sounded reassuring, even as she did immense damage to core British values.
In the 1984–85 miners’ strike, Arthur Scargill destroyed his own power-base. This paved the way for the total destruction of Britain’s coal-mining industry. Had Thatcher been an authentic conservative, she would have cherished the Nottingham miners who had helped her defeat Scargill. As things were, Thatcher was happy to see coal mining in Nottingham evaporate like the rest of the industry. The ‘Union of Democratic Mineworkers’ went into ignominious decline, with one of its leaders convicted for fraud.[A] The resultant social vacuum is just what the radical-right wanted.
Thatcher was always cautious about touching the National Health Service, aware of how it was cherished by her voters. It was Tony Blair and New Labour who started the nonsensical and ineffective marketisation of the NHS. Now the Tories are trying to complete the process, happy to wreck something that the Tory elite have no need of.
“The government has fatally damaged its case with a flat refusal to consider a sensible cross-party compromise, supported even by the Daily Mail and Sunday Times, to set up pilot schemes to test if the contract does reduce weekend death rates.
“Dismissing the plan with a rude tweet, Hunt and David Cameron expect to beat the doctors into submission – treating this as their ‘miners’ strike moment’. Give in now, they reckon, and the whole public sector will follow. But if the government does impose this contract, they may find it a very pyrrhic victory: winning a battle but igniting a public sector war.
“Consultants are hugely supportive of their juniors, with presidents of 10 royal colleges sending a last-minute plea to Cameron to return to the table, for fear of ‘demoralising a group of staff on whom the future of the NHS depends’. They and the nurses now fear conflict over Cameron’s seven-day NHS manifesto pledge, promised without a penny extra to implement it. As with all public employees, after long years of a freeze any pay rise is capped at just 1%, while national average pay rose over 3% last year. The NHS and local government have only survived austere cuts by this unprecedented real cut in public sector pay. The lid can’t stay on that pressure cooker for 10 years.”[B]
But the world is now different. People did see Scargill as a threat, part of a looming ‘Soviet Menace’ that was taken very seriously right up to its ignominious collapse in 1989-91. Nowadays there is increasing distrust of the Radical Right. (Though sadly it often boosts something equally nasty, a narrow nationalist and sometimes racist right.)
The positive side is that New Labour is discredited everywhere except among Labour MPs, and those MPs have their future to think about. Resistance is far from futile.
British Home Stores,[C] though started by Americans in 1928, represents another chunk of British tradition being lost. Authentic conservatives might have protected it – but authentic conservatives are now marginal.
There are real problems, with on-line shopping and newer brands. But what’s raising outrage are signs that huge amounts of money have been taken out of what is now presented as an entity with no net value.
“When Sir Philip Green bought BHS in May 2000, he insisted it would not be rocket science to revive the ailing high street retailer. After paying £200m, he was convinced he had the skills to secure its future and make it the foundation of a sprawling retail empire.
“But last year, after failing in his mission, Green sold BHS for £1 to a little known group of investors who have steered it into collapse in just over 12 months. His dreams for the chain may have come to nothing, but Green’s family have still been big winners from BHS, taking out more than £580m in dividends, rental payments and interest on loans to help fund a lavish lifestyle.
“As the pensions regulator considers whether to pursue Green for between £200m and £300m – to help fill the black hole in BHS’s pension schemes that had developed since 2000 – he is awaiting delivery of his latest toy: a $150m (£100m) superyacht named Lionheart. The 90-metre vessel will join Green’s two other yachts, speedboat, helicopter and Gulfstream jet, which comes in handy for his weekly trips to and from Monaco to visit his family.”[D]
The Radical Right justifies its policies by saying that ‘market discipline’ will improve any business. Reality has been something else. In the real world, ‘loot and bail out’ has been a very viable strategy.
The Tories have been backing down on a number of issues, faced with internal protests and a vigorous opposition from Jeremy Corbyn. Which happened almost by accident. The other Labour leadership candidates would have been scared of being seen as leftist. Would have capitulated on almost everything.
Having lost three elections to Thatcher and then a fourth to John Major, the former student radicals who had taken over the Labour Party might have concluded that they’d been a bit naïve. That they should have had more respect for the traditional Labour Right, which had achieved many substantial socialist measures over the years.
What they actually did was to decide that ‘capitalism’ was irresistible, but that they might freely indulge themselves on social radicalism, openly gay ministers etc. This was very compatible with the way the Radical Rightists within the Tory Party wished to go. And Blair also went along with the half-baked doctrine of Fukuyama: that Liberal Capitalism was now the global victor and could be easily imposed on everyone.
Ed Miliband had a vague wish to be something else, but not the guts to carry through. When the Tories claimed that the 2008 crisis was caused by excessive spending by the Labour government, he should have roundly denounced it. Called the Tories either liars or fools, because nothing that any British government could have done could have caused a global crisis caused by decades of uncontrolled speculation. But the heritage of 1960s radicalism made him reluctant to credit the state with anything good. His father, the non-Leninist Marxist Ralph Miliband, fed into this 1960s mood with The State in Capitalist Society, which completely misses the usefulness of state power for socialist causes.
Now we have Jeremy Corbyn as leader. He was strongly influenced by Tony Benn: and Benn was at least a state-orientated socialist, whatever else he got wrong. That’s a new hope.
The remnants of New Labour are appalled by Corbyn’s serious militancy, treating Radical-Right policies as malignant nonsense rather than a grim necessity. And now we have a lot of the Labour Party apparatus hoping to unseat him by sitting on their hands and hoping Labour will do badly in the May 5th local government elections.
It won’t work. Even if there is an electoral disaster, I’d expect the bulk of the membership to stick with Corbyn, regardless. I doubt I’m alone in reckoning it would be far more productive to lose on a principled basis than strengthen the enemy the way that Blair and New Labour did.
It’s not ideal, but it has a solid record of useful achievement. Labour radicals in the 1970s should have built on past achievements, rather than treating them as failures and betrayals.
The theory was that if you could discredit rival versions of socialism, your own would win out. The reality was that anti-socialist ideologies had a strong revival.
But the New Right or Libertarian creed has worked a lot worse than state socialism. Call it ‘corporatism’ if you like: it was a massive success and was an optimum for the USA, Britain and the rest of Western Europe.
The emphasis on profit from the 1980s has led to an absurd mix of overwork and unemployment. Some people get pressurised into working absurd hours, and staying constantly in touch with e-mail. Others with decent talents and a will to work can get no job at all.
The claim was that market forces would solve it all. But Britain has never got back to the levels of growth it managed in the 1950s or 1960s. Or even the crisis-hit 1970s. Most people have been cheated: less income than they might have expected had Thatcher been an authentic conservative. 90% have lost out: 9% have broken even. Enormous gains go to the richest 1%, who also dominate the media and politics in general.
The richest 1% can raise up aspiring politicians to be part of their number, as with Tony Blair. It used to be that you needed to be dishonest to enter politics ordinary and leave it rich. Now it can all be done openly, legally and even be considered decent.
Now I must get heretical – a fix has to be done using state power. This is the point at which I’ll lose a lot of centrist and left-wing readers who agreed with condemnations of Thatcherism. This is the holdover from 1960s radicals, who successfully undermined state-enforced rules about gender and marriage that had held good since the neolithic. On that matter, the withdrawal of state power on some matters produced results that most people see as better than the Old Order. But it wasn’t a blanket rejection of state power: the shift also included stronger action regarding domestic abuse. Also stronger enforcement of existing laws regarding rape and underage sex. But the need for enforcement on such matters is seen in isolation. They retain an instinctive aversion to state power on most matters.
I’m anarchic myself: but I’ve looked long and hard at the possibility of actual anarchism. I’ve decided it just won’t work. Humans live either as tribes or within a state that can enforce its will – sometimes though not always the collective will of the state’s inhabitants. Tribes are much more intrusive on individual rights, invariably having very strict rules on what you can and can’t do. This can seem fine if nothing you feel like doing is on the list of prohibitions: but no two tribes have the same rules. That, I assume, is why state power evolved in the first place.
State power mostly stayed out of the matter of food production, which is indeed best decided at a local and usually a family level. But both markets and larger-scale production always were regulated, sometimes by the state but more often by an unofficial monopoly that maybe got state endorsement. Yet when society shifted to large-scale and industrial production, it became possible for the few to grossly exploit the many and put the whole society at risk. In Britain, it was the Tory Party that introduced the first Factory Acts, limiting child labour to a maximum of 12 hours a day. Market forces had created the problem and only state power fixed it.
The problem nowadays is partly overwork, but much more importantly the regular destruction of jobs. The drive for profits means that employment is cut back to the minimum unavoidable, often doing long-term damage but boosting share prices in the short term. And increasingly dehumanising our lives.
Does anyone prefer pressing buttons to get through a long maze of options when making a simple phone call to some corporation or state body? It’s much nicer to talk directly to some friendly receptionist who might be able to answer the query, or else can put one right through to the right person. This tends to be the case still when you could easily take your business elsewhere. When it would take considerable hassle to move to another corporation that might be just as bad, they make you jump through hoops and minimise the number of people they need. Meantime new jobs are created in telesales, to hassle people with stuff they mostly don’t need. To waste your time at minimal cost to whoever hired them.
The people want sensible working hours and a job for anyone with basic talents and an ordinary willingness to work. This was delivered in the 1950s and 1960s, even though there was talk of a looming ‘age of automation’. At the time, the assumption was for fair shares, not the current polarisation between overwork and unemployment, with the sick and disabled harassed into looking for jobs that mostly are not there. Or not there while profit is the goal: in a different system there might be all sorts of light work that anyone might be glad to do.
Automation does not compel us to inflict misery on ourselves. But it would need a wholly improbable improvement in human nature for a better system to be created without some sort of enforcement by laws and regulation. I see this as the road ahead, to a future that definitely can be bright if we’ll allow it.
As I said earlier, Tony Blair and many others accepted the half-arsed doctrine of Fukuyama: that Liberal Capitalism was now the global victor and should be imposed on everyone. This included ‘normalising’ the Arab world, where it was supposed that nasty dictatorships could easily be replace by nice democracies that would happily co-exist with Israel. This was the basis for squeezing many existing dictatorships – though not Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States, which were much too useful to Western interests.
The result was a series of disasters. Brutality against Iraq in the hope of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and then invasion when that failed after vast Iraqi suffering. More and more meddling in the name of the War on Terror.
The War on Terror is a war against something that was marginal in 1991. The secular terrorism of the Palestinians was long extinct. Islamic terrorism was small and mostly directed against Russia, or against the pro-Russian regime they had left behind in Afghanistan.
Everything done since has made the problem worse.
Supposing pest exterminators demanded extra measures against rats. But after 20 years, the rats are fiercer, more aggressive and vastly more numerous. Would you still be rallying behind them?
The Chinese Revolution of 1911-12 produced a Republic that tried to be a simple copy of existing Western systems. And was a total disaster, fragmenting into warlordism. A limited unity was imposed in 1927 by Chiang Kai-shek’s branch of the Kuomintang. But it was a weak and timid regime that never dared take on Western imperialism. That did very little to oppose Japanese annexation of Chinese territory in the north. Chiang had to be held at gunpoint in the Xian Incident before he would start a proper national resistance.
Chiang’s regime was half-effective by being an autocracy that allowed no effective challenges. Mao was vastly more effective with an autocracy that allowed no challenges at all, and tried to impose ideological uniformity. Deng relaxed this: people could mostly believe what they liked, but must not challenge the right of the Communist Party to make all of the important decisions. And this remains the norm.
And the dissidents? None of them show any sign of understanding the issues. This has been shown very clearly by their reaction to an anonymous threatening letter issued against President Xi:
“The letter calling for Xi’s resignation included a point-by-point critique of his leadership failures. It was also written in a style – signed by ‘loyal Communist party members’ – that have left many wondering who authored it.
“‘Comrade Xi Jinping, we feel that you do not possess the capabilities to lead the party and the nation into the future, and we believe that you are no longer suitable for the post of general secretary,’ the letter stated. ‘For the party cause, for the long-term peace and stability of the country, and for your own personal safety and that of your family, we ask you to resign from all positions …’
“Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specialises in the party’s politics, said he did not think the letter originated from a party official. The style and word choice, he said, suggested it was written by a Chinese national abroad.”[E]
Here in Britain, anyone is quite free to call on our Prime Minister to resign. But if they said ‘for your own personal safety and that of your family, we ask you to resign from all positions’, they’d be arrested and everyone would repudiate them. Because such talk is very obviously a threat, and unacceptable in democracy.
Whether the threat was serious is moot. Shanghai’s Green Gang were world-class gangsters, and had huge influence in Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. He was close to them, may have been an actual member. But also gangsters have no idea of how to run a state – fascist regimes may make use of gangsters as foot-soldiers, but leaders are always something else. All of the Nazi leaders came from impeccably law-abiding backgrounds. Things were a bit more mixed in Fascist Italy and also Baathist Iraq, and probably contributed to those regimes never being very solid or embedded in the bulk of the population in the way Nazism undoubtedly was during its years of success. And of course the entire Shanghai Green Gang were among those who fled Shanghai when the Peoples Liberation Army closed in. Some Kuomintang officials talked of making it another Stalingrad: it resembled Stalingrad only in being a major Communist victory. Unlike Nazis, the Kuomintang had little solidity in defeat.
My guess would be that the exiled Green Gang and similar bodies have more sense than to take on the Chinese state. The letter was probably crackpot. But the dissidents showed there complete unfitness by not instantly distancing themselves from it.
Previous Newsnotes can be found at the Labour Affairs website, https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/. And at my own website, https://longrevolution.wordpress.com/newsnotes-historic/.