Thursday, 28 October 2010
There is at present little sign of protest and outrage amongst the public at the announcement of the largest public-sector cuts since the Second World War. Sure, there have been several demos as well as positive sounds emanating from certain quarters, but it's mostly been the usual suspects - the public mood has not as yet definitively swung against the cuts.
Across the channel meanwhile, up to a million French workers and students have taken to the streets over a pension reform that is, when compared to the storm about to hit Britain's public sector, positively insubstantial.
Evidently historical differences must be considered between the country of liberté, égalité and fraternité, and the islands that still shirk the proposition of doing away with the usurping House of Hanover and becoming 'citizens', as opposed to 'subjects'.
And there is little doubt it really does take a special kind of people to indulge multi-millionaires who claim 'we're all in it together'.
However, does the difference between the French response and that of the British not give at least an indication of what the French may actually be protesting against?
Despite what News Corporation sock-puppets such as Kay Burley tell their audience in lieu of the news, there is still a significant proportion even in the West, for whom the Anglo-Saxon model - of market-extremism and the unfettered 'freedom' to be as poor as one wishes - is not some giant party where everybody is two editions of Britain's-Got-Talent away from hanging out with Cheryl Cole and Wayne Rooney.
Indeed, notwithstanding the claims made by the anti-strike wiseacres, the drive behind French protest is far bigger than pension reform alone; it is about an attack on the European social-model by a global-capital still reeling post-financial crisis - and seeking a return to profitability through a push against hard-won worker's rights.
In Britain there are increasing calls from figures such as Boris Johnson and the CBI to limit the right of workers to call a strike. In the age of the phony 'new politics', the smug consensus brands striking workers as 'not pulling their weight', implying of course that they meekly accept the fluffy harmony in which 'we all work together'. What goes unmentioned is the fact that when it comes to the economic rewards for such espirit de corps, most workers are not even on the same planet, let alone in the same boat, as those who are always the most verbose about this new spirit of co-operation.
Will British workers radicalise as the cuts begin to bite? It remains hard to say. What is certain is that those rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of further eroding hard-fought workers-rights gained during the last century deserve a fight.
Alternatively, we can simply leave it for future generations to ask: what did you do to resist this coalition of the privileged?
After all, X-Factor is still on, isn't it?
Saturday, 23 October 2010
Who would have thought when the economic crisis hit in 2008 that two years down the line it would be free-market capitalism that was triumphantly on the march?
The Coalition currently enjoys around 60% approval for its slash-and-burn deficit reduction plan; and it is again fashionable to hear it being said that the "state got too big". The media's political commentators too appear to have long-forgotten it was the state's under-regulation of the financial sector, not its overbearing influence, that was to blame for the near-collapse of the banking system back in 2008.
Most surprisingly of all perhaps is that rather than a flourishing of alternative ideas to free-market ideology, recent times have seen an even stronger consensus around the notion of there being "no alternative" to greater deregulation, more privatisation, and as of this week, the deepest cuts in public services for over 50 years.
In the House of Commons, through fear of appearing "ideological", Labour leader Ed Miliband timidly looked across the floor at David Cameron's Conservatives like a schoolboy asking for the return of his appropriated dinner money, while actual ideologues cheered and waved order papers as they threw people out of work and slashed welfare payments for the disabled.
Alan Johnson is correct to say that these cuts are exactly what lots of Conservatives entered Parliament for. What is less certain is the purpose for which many of those sitting opposite the Tories entered Parliament - so obsessed have Labour become with sticking to the political centre-ground that they've not noticed their opponents busily defining it.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Labour's performance over recent years is that a majority of people now appear to believe it was the state, rather than the market, which was to blame for the economic predicament in which we currently find ourselves.
When the banking crisis first hit it would have sounded surreal to have been told that two years on, it would be the gains of social democracy, rather than the excesses of the market, that would be enthusiastically rolled-back with so little opposition.
An oft-heard layman's rebuttal to the sort of timidity presently being shown by Labour is for one to "grow some balls". It seems however that in the age of fashionable austerity, the Labour Party is too cowardly even to allow the only senior Labour Party figure with a modestly social-democratic alternative anywhere near the treasury.
Brace yourselves for the double-dip.
Friday, 15 October 2010
Moving beyond the sheer boredom induced by listening to the Coalition justify every policy on the basis of "clearing up the mess left by the last Government", - itself ironic considering Labour's emulation of right-wing policies that exacerbated the economic cataclysm - special attention was warranted this week by the release of the Browne report proposing a marketisation of universities - and calling in future for students themselves to pay for an unprecedentedly large chunk of the education they currently receive from the state.
The default argument trotted out by proponents of an increased levy on students is that those who go to university will, as a rule, earn more in their lifetime than those who do not and should therefore pay for the advantage. While the earnings argument holds water - on average graduates will earn more than those who do not attend university - it ignores the fact that many others will also earn more over the course of their lives - those who take over family businesses, inherit property, or just happen to live in more pleasant areas of the country - than those lacking these particular advantages, yet who may have prospered in the at least partially democratic area of educational achievement.
Proponents of the funding of universities via general taxation make the point that in the long term we all benefit from a highly educated workforce. The argument is a straightforward and convincing one: greater education equals greater productivity at work; greater productivity at work equals larger profits; larger profits equals greater growth.
Notwithstanding the increasingly outdated notion of education as a tool with which to learn about the world for its own sake (how radical is that!), the advocates of both arguments tend to view the education system as merely a conveyor belt for the next generation of pliant workers; and the post-financial crisis world offers a pretext with which to eat one's cake as well as have it; as Phil points out:
'we are now facing a situation whereby Under the Tory/LibDem-endorsed Browne report, capital will receive all of those benefits [from a well educated workforce] without having to pay for the cost - in effect, students will be picking up the tab and subsidising their future employers'.
Students already find themselves in a world where capital is calling for increasing productivity and "flexibility" so as to compete with the borderline slave-economies of the east; and in the immediate future it looks as if they will be required to pay back huge sums of money over the course of their working lives merely for the privilege of becoming skilled enough to work for somebody in the first place. Not to mention the fact that for many that have recently graduated there is little sign of the promised "good career" on the back of which tuition fees were originally introduced four years ago.
Much like the trashing of the universality principle in the benefits system, in reality, charging large sums of money to attend university is yet more free-market ideology masquerading as fairness.
Friday, 8 October 2010
The Victorian notion of the undeserving poor has been resurrected from its nineteenth-century grave.
Under the pretext of cutting the deficit, and no doubt to the delight of large swaths of the Conservative Party, there appears at last to be popular support for 'doing something about' those who, according to David Cameron, 'live off the hard work of others'.
Decades of tabloid rhetoric about 'scroungers' - employing the method of finding the most absurd benefit claimant and treating them as the norm - has succeeded in creating the impression that for large swaths of the population benefits are as much a lifestyle choice as, say, breezing through the 'public' schools system and straight into a top city job is for an individual at the more fortunate end of the social spectrum.
Notwithstanding the barely-concealed satisfaction in some quarters at the prospect of unleashing hardships on the most vulnerable members of society, the idea that estates where several generations have been out of work can be transformed simply by giving those that live there less money, shows an astounding contempt for communities that have not yet recovered from the destruction of British industry almost 30 years ago.
The notion that we are each a product of circumstance long ago became unfashionable. Twenty-first century ideas of fairness dwell on the buzzwords of 'choice' and 'opportunity', while shying away from the more uncomfortable questions as to the economic context in which choice and opportunity are exercised - which would pose the even more uncomfortable proposition of confronting the powerful, rather than the easily vilified.
We see this in David Cameron's notion of 'giving people what they deserve' - the premise being that one's lot in life is entirely a matter of free will and that those who happen to find themselves on benefits have as much chance of getting on, as say, a person born into aristocracy and attending Eton.
From certain quarters any reference to Eton or the like will be written-off as 'class hatred'. Yet, in an education system where the very school a child attends - and as a result the grades that child will most likely achieve - is determined almost exclusively by the catchment area one's parents can afford to live in, class hatred in practice functions almost entirely in the opposite direction.
It is correct to define people as 'trapped' on benefits. Yet unless those wishing to do something about the unemployed are prepared to tackle the inequalities in the education system, the lack of work for the low-skilled in areas where benefit claims are most numerous, and the shocking lack of social mobility in twenty-first century Britain, then in practice the benefits trap is almost entirely set by those clamouring the loudest for a crack down.