We’ve just been subjected to the disturbing spectacle of a week of the Tory party conference and they still have the ability to surprise us with their brutality. On one level it is just a baying pack of bigots and fools, standing up to the weak in their blue suits and shiny shoes. But as always it is part of a pattern, it has a rational, logical content, although it can be a bit difficult to makes sense of it amidst the ideological clouds that engulf us so. Here are some bits of this jigsaw puzzle.
I’ve been reading André Gorz, described as a post-Marxist, although his analysis very much uses Marx’s method and retains many of his assumptions; for example while dismissing the industrial working class as the agent of liberation, he nevertheless interprets some of the changes that have destroyed that potential in terms of the strategies of capital. What he was referring to back in the 80s was a double movement whereby one section of the working class became multi-skilled technicians, elite workers whose interests were at least some of the time allied to those of capital, while the majority were outsourced and/or casualised. The process has continued.
The current government’s coming to power after a brief neo-Keynesian interlude (Brown) was a result of the shock to capitalist accumulation that the banking crashes of 2008 onwards signalled. As Naomi Klein documents, such crises are a great opportunity for capital to impose new regimes of expropriation and accumulation.
Australia’s new government is that of the Liberal party but they are very similar in many ways to the central core of today’s Tory party. “Liberal” is the correct name for them
because they are the political instrument of the capitalism that first consolidated in the cities of England in what is called, maybe misleadingly, the Industrial Revolution. Cameron-Clegg, unsurprisingly conjoined, are classic liberals. Relatively liberal socially (hence support for gay marriage and a relative absence of racism) and completely liberal economically. They worship the autonomous man of liberal economic and social theory (the hard working people of their myth and propaganda). They therefore often stand against conservatism – an ideology and politics with roots in the gentry – although allying tactically and strategically with this remnant of a former power system (as Gramsci would have argued). But of course they also stand against the interests of those who sell their labour power, and those who have limited opportunity to do so – these latter are needed as the reserve army of labour to keep costs down and act as a counterweight to what there still is of labour organisation.
These Liberals then are servants of capital and they are doing their job. It’s no surprise then that in this period in which in response to crisis, capital seeks to repair and rebuild its motor of accumulation, so it can accumulate bigger and faster.
So we have what Gorz documented, the new stratification of labour, not just in industry within a country, but, especially after the various trade and monetary ‘reforms’ of the last 30 years, that new stratification applies across all sectors, agricultural, distribution, services, and in what were public services. It is the continued consolidation of this new order that the Liberal coalition is pursuing.
That accounts for their changes to welfare to further impoverish people on low incomes, making them ever more vulnerable so they will be more available at the lowest price for the casualised, outsourced, zero-hours system by which unskilled and low-skilled tasks are assigned and performed. And the trend is for more and more of work to be of this nature, since (as again Gorz showed) the structure of work is more and more automated, where the machine (physical and social) determines the ‘movements’ of the worker with a precision that Taylor could only dream of, a determination programmed by that privileged minority of elite and flexibly-skilled workers. This is Braverman’s routinisation of labour too.
It accounts for the drive to privatise those sectors that have so far survived: the ‘Royal Mail’ as our socially-owned postal distribution service is so comically called, and that former islet of socialism in a sea of capitalism, where human need triumphed over money and the market for nearly 60 years – the National Health Service. And the education system too. But that isn’t just a way of disciplining the remaining sectors of workers who exercise some collective power and control of their work, it is also a way of converting what is ours – even if remotely – into a source of profits, of capital accumulation. This is the new enclosure of the commons.
It’s probably the same with the attempt to inflate a housing bubble while driving people out of their homes with the simple expedient of a cut to rent subsidy (housing benefit) if they have a room nobody sleeps in every night – the ‘bedroom tax’. The two sides of Liberal housing policy create a new, if gaseous, motor of accumulation, while impoverishing and disciplining a whole sector of workers. They know full well that most people on housing benefit are working, even if the propaganda falls on those out of work. The plan is clearly to drive wages down further, while reducing state expenditure on welfare, so it can be available for propping up the profit generators of the banking and finance sector.
Not for the Liberals a modest policy to curb price increases for domestic energy (however limited in ambition that pledge from Labour may be). No, that would reduce the profits of an important branch of capital, that given full rein by the previous waves of utility privatisation. Instead there will be reduction of the government take from vehicle fuel, so the hydrocarbon interests can maintain their profits. It is also a sop to the rural lobby, since the Liberals need the electoral and parliamentary support of this objectively oppositional faction.
And the ideological war intensifies too. How else to explain the use of the Mail to post its Zinoviev letter about Ralph Miliband? It is necessary to ridicule and demonise the ideals of internationalism, social ownership and critical analysis. Miliband senior neatly personified all three (much more than his equivocating younger son who it has been ironically said, is on a mission to prove his Dad’s thesis in Parliamentary Socialism about the Labour party correct).
Fracking? Climate change denial? All part of the mission to support capital accumulation. Like the socialists who think we can postpone saving the planet until we have social justice (no we have to align the two agendas, such is the ecological emergency), some Liberals indeed are simply in denial, but others are fully aware of the dangers but they simply can’t reconcile the necessary slowing of accumulation with the imperative to continue accumulation. They are ideologically, socially, economically locked in.
This quick and dirty analysis hasn’t focussed on the international dimensions, nor on the problematic of capital accumulation and its Liberal ideological-political support system as but one subsystem within a broader crisis of Eurocentric modernism within which we can understand imperialism, racism, sexism and ecocide. But as a relatively autonomous system within that bigger system of coloniality, the analysis does, I believe, hold.
updated, 4 October, 2013