Friday, 31 December 2010

Why looking to John Lewis for inspiration is a mistake

On Saturday 15th January, UK Uncut is organising an event called "The Feeling is Mutual." This represents the next step in their campaign, going from opposing the present situation to advocating for an alternative. However, what is on offer is not a radical alternative to capitalism, and is at best misguided.

As UK Uncut themselves explain;
An attempt to raise awareness among the public that cooperative businesses such as the Co-op, Co-op bank and the John Lewis partnership should be the inspiration with what the government does regarding Northern Rock and the Post Office over the coming months.

These two institutions should not be privatized but need to mutualized so that the workers, the major stakeholders of these firms, can truly enjoy the fruits of the labour ...- while offering an ethical choice to customers who want to bank ethically.

Having trumpeted the merits of co-operative businesses and banking outside John Lewis we will proceed to HSBC - a bank run entirely according to shareholder value, even where this is contrary to the long term interests of the company, the taxpayer, its customers and its employees and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
The problem with this, as the IWW have argued, is that "collectives are not inherently revolutionary." We still have the problem that "the employing class controls most of the market share and therefore sets the economic conditions in which collectives have to compete" and so "it is not just the boss that we [should] seek to overthrow, but the entire capitalist class."

The Economist has pointed out that, in co-operatives, "lay-offs, short hours and wage cuts can be achieved without strikes, and agreements are reached faster than in companies that must negotiate with unions and government bodies." A fact verified by the point that John Lewis doesn't recognise independent trade unions. Its bosses are in conflict with the interests of the workers in much the same way as bosses anywhere else are. (Hat-tip to Lenin's Tomb for the link.)

The point is made more forcefully by;
Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase, it is a recognition of how capital rules social life. It does this both vertically through the person of the boss, and horizontally, through market forces. Many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy, and so see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism.

However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac. For example, I work in financial services. As you would expect during a financial crisis, we’re feeling the squeeze. There have been redundancies, and the ‘lucky’ survivors are being made to work harder and longer to make up. If we were to turn it into a co-op, those same market forces causing my boss to make cuts would still be there, but we would have nobody to say no to when under pressure to increase the rate of exploitation to survive in a hostile market.
Thus, the lesson is that "we have to learn to stop trying to manage capital and instead try to fight it."

So far, UK Uncut has been one of the most positive things to emerge from the anti-cuts movement. Although the Sun's labelling of it as anarchist was absurd, the grouping's advocacy of "irreverent, flexible ‘culture-jamming’" over "top-down hierarchy" was spot-on.

Likewise, their particular tactics are praiseworthy. Some might question why an anarchist would support a campaign against tax evasion, but the fact is that they are highlighting class antagonism. Those with capital, of the class which state money bailed out, are allowed to avoid paying tax, whilst the class of people who have no choice face savage cuts in the services that our money pays for.

Tax evasion and public sector cuts don't weaken the state. They help it to strengthen capitalism and maintain the structures of our bondage, whilst slashing at the concessions 150 years of struggle have won us.

But in their latest move, they are making the exact same mistake as PCS did at their last national conference.

The union voted for "a motion expressing support for workers’ self management." The only problem was that the actual proposal was to "seek engagement and influence within the commission” that was “set up by Tessa Jowell MP in her speech on 16 December 2009 on Mutualism." That is, the Commission on Ownership which proposed the same model of "public sector cooperatives" as that offered by David Cameron.

I have previously dissected these proposals. Not to mention how the state is using the language of the libertarian left as “a veil for predatory capitalism to hide behind as it attacks the working class.”

I have previously argued that it is vital our fight against government austerity is not merely a defence of the existing order but advocacy of something entirely new. It is equally necessary that what we advocate is a genuine alternative, and not just capitalism made "nicer."