The hardest nettle to grasp

It is still early in the morning as I write this and some people will not have heard the news yet, while others who have been up all night still haven’t even had breakfast, but already the finger-pointing has started.

And there are, of course, many easy culprits to blame for the devastating outcome of yesterday’s referendum vote on Britain’s EU membership.

Most obviously there is David Cameron. A taxi driver of Pakistani origin I spoke to yesterday (who insisted – perhaps like many others –  on seeing the referendum as a choice between Cameron and Boris Johnson) kept repeating, ‘Why? Why did he have to do this? There was no need. Politicians are always breaking manifesto promises’. And it is a common view that this most shallow man was prepared to risk Britain’s future simply as a lazy way of dealing with the Tory Party’s right wing to bring about some semblance of unity and marginalise UKIP in the run-up to the last general election (which, it is widely thought, he wasn’t even expecting the Tories to win). It is also widely believed that Boris Johnson was playing an even more cynical game: wanting Cameron’s job as Tory leader and gambling that the majority of Tories would vote to leave the EU (leaving him as the most popular potential successor) but that Britain would be held back from the brink by Labour, Lib-Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters. This would leave him as Conservative leader without any real challenge to the technocratic neoliberal global regime with which he still identifies.

Alternatively we can blame the populist right, whipping up xenophobic hatred (in alliance with the toxic popular press) to take advantage of the gullibility and disillusion of the working class victims of neoliberal globalisation to redirect their anger at refugees and immigrants.

Or – and this is a heavy weight for its recipients to bear – we can blame the Blairite centre left for identifying its interests with that same technocratic neoliberal globalisation project, contributing directly to that disillusion and anger and leaving traditional Labour supporters with nowhere else to go, with compromises that continued under Miliband’s leadership (Remember those ‘controls on immigration’ mugs produced as part of Labour’s campaign in the last general election – a campaign that also failed to challenge austerity?).

This anger undoubtedly led to the huge wave of support for Corbyn in last year’s Labour leadership campaign. But his leadership is not immune from blame either, albeit from several different contradictory directions. I woke this morning to the sound of Kate Hoey on Radio 4 blaming him for not taking the lead in a Labour Brexit campaign. Others think he did not campaign strongly enough for staying in the EU.

It seems to me that, whoever is blamed, the predicament that we are now in results from a fundamental contradiction in the nature of capitalism that social democratic parties and the trade unions have shied away from addressing directly over many decades,  whose full horrors are only emerging now,  in what might be regarded as the full maturity of globalisation.

This contradiction relates to what Marxists call the ‘reserve army of labour’ and how it is deployed under capitalism. I will be brief now (breakfast calls) but in essence the problem is this: the only way that workers can exert any control over their circumstances against a capitalist employer determined to extract as much profit as possible from their labour is to organise: to protect their safety; to be able to say ‘enough is enough’; to earn enough to survive. And the only way this organisation can lead to results is by ensuring some solidarity: if everybody agrees not to work more than a certain number of hours, or not to accept wages below a certain level, then the employer can be obliged to abide by these terms. From such beginnings trade unions grew. For employers, the easiest strategy to circumvent these requirements – especially important during periods when their profits are squeezed – is to bring in different workers who will accept poorer conditions and lower wages.

When Marx and Engels were writing, these workers were, by and large, drawn from an indigenous pool of unemployed people desperate for any means of earning a livelihood – the ‘reserve army’. Historically this reserve army has always extended beyond national borders. The canals and railways that provided the infrastructure for the expansion of British capitalism were largely built by Irish navvies; the South Wales steel industry in the 19th century drew in workers from as far afield as Spain, and of course the British Empire was built on slave and plantation and ‘coolie’ labour across the world. The reserve army also extended into the household, drawing in the labour of women and children, paid below the level of an adult male, so that the entire family had to work to survive.

The logic of the way this reserve army is deployed pits worker against worker. It is objectively in the interests of organised groups of workers to keep out any outsiders who will work for less, or, if they are admitted, to ensure that they are only admitted on terms that do not allow them to undercut the existing workforce. And this same logic, of course, disadvantages those whose starting position is as outsiders, whether because of gender, ethnicity or some other factor.

Nevertheless, in historical periods when the nation state was dominant, and most capitalists nationally based, it was possible for socialists to overcome this contradiction. The means for doing so was to go beyond making demands for particular groups of workers, represented by particular trade unions, to making general demands for the working class as a whole. In the 20th century this took the form of developing national welfare states: creating universal health and education services and social protection systems that would mean that the unemployed were never so destitute and desperate that they would take any work that was going, to the detriment of organised labour.

In our current era of neoliberal globalisation it is this pattern that has unravelled. Since the end of the cold war, employers have been able to access a reserve army that extends across the world, an army that can be accessed in multiple ways. They can do it by exporting the jobs to parts of the world with cheap labour, or by bringing in the cheap labour to the sites where the jobs have been traditionally carried out. The losers from this process are the native working class.

And this referendum vote can be seen as the revolt of these losers. The tragedy is that although they know what they are against they do not seem to have any clear vision of what alternative they want or how it will be achieved. The danger is that someone will reinvent National Socialism as a ‘solution’.

To categorise them as racist is to miss the point. But solutions can, nevertheless, not be found until racism has been tackled.

This is the painful nettle that Labour has to grasp. Urgently!

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One Response to The hardest nettle to grasp

  1. Steven Colatrella says:

    Good piece, thanks. Great job by the author explaining the logic of how working class organization, and immigration and its use by capitalists, works, about the most succinct I have ever seen. But like it or not we need to make clear that the answer regarding immigration cannot be either walls and closing the borders or opening the borders or abolishing them. To have a community, and ultimately the left project must be to make our countries into communities and then create a community of communities worldwide, means that the community has some ability to control and regulate how many people and who and under what conditions people can come to live and work there. This has to be done according to labor rights and democracy criteria, and not according to labor market logic and profits. There is no way for labor to regulate capital and business if labor cannot regulate the capitalist use of labor. But that means solidarity with the struggles of people in other lands, something that has all but evaporated in recent decades.

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