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Marxism for Whores

By Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity; we are everywhere, subsisting on meagre benefits, part-time work and a few occasional jobs. Some of us go into business for ourselves; some of us make websites; some of us fix cars, and some of us do sex work.

I entered sex work, along with so many other people, as a straightforward solution to the awful risks of poverty. I am not a sex worker because of a poignant story. I am not a sex worker because I am mentally ill, or have a history of abuse, or have daddy issues, or because I want attention. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes difficult, and it’s not a job for everyone, but sex work is my job. It is a job that I can do, that I am good at; it provides for me. When I sell my sexuality as a product, the only difference between me and another service worker, or another performer, is in the sexual nature of the work. Of course, sexual labour can be intense, and dangerous, and of course making it illegal does nothing to alleviate these factors. Activist Jenny Pearl, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said;

I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them. Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is twenty-five, before I get the money to pay the bills.

• • •

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Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

By Neil Davidson


How did capitalist states operate before neoliberalism? There are two foundational aspects of capitalism: the ‘horizontal’ competition between capitals and the ‘vertical’ conflict between labour and capital. The role of the capitalist state is to impose a dual social order determined by these two processes: over competing capitals so that market relations do not collapse into ‘the war of all against all’, and over the conflict between capital and labour so that it continues to be resolved in the interest of the former. Beyond this, states also have to establish ‘general conditions of production’, which individual competing capitals would be unwilling or unable to provide, including some basic level of technical infrastructure and welfare. These functions are mainly ‘internal’ to the territory of nation-states, but they must also represent the collective interests of the ‘internal’ capitalist class ‘externally’ in relation to other capitalist states and classes, up to and including the conduct of war.

In order to maintain links to capital in all its multiple incarnations, the state must partly mirror capital's fragmentation. As this suggests, not every action carried out by the state need necessarily be in the direct collective interest of the ruling class – indeed, if it is to give the appearance of adjudicating between different class and other interests then it is essential that they are not, so long as these actions are ultimately subordinated to ruling class interests. Nevertheless, the capitalist state has nevertheless tended not to be run by capitalists themselves. Why not?

The earliest social theorists to concern themselves with the emergent capitalist system – which they tended to refer to as ‘commercial society’ – were unambiguous in their assessment of how narrow business interests were. Since Adam Smith is – quite unfairly – treated as the patron saint of neoliberalism is may be worth reminding ourselves of his still-refreshingly candid views about the capacity of business interests for deception and oppression, and their inability to see beyond their own immediate interests. Nearly a century later in the 1860s, Smith’s greatest successor, Karl Marx, was able to point in Capital to the example of the British Factory Acts as an example of how the state had to intervene to regulate the activities of capital in the face of initial opposition from the capitalists themselves. Reflecting on the entire legislative episode, Marx noted the way in which it took Parliamentary legislation to force capital to accept regulation of the length of the working day. Indeed, the most irreconcilable positions were expressed not by employers but by their ideologues, the most important of whom was Herbert Spencer, who saw – and here we can detect the genuine ancestry of contemporary neoliberalism – the spectre of socialist slavery in any form of state intervention.

The thesis concerning bourgeois incapacity was not only restricted to critical supporters of capitalism like Smith or opponents like Marx. Joseph Schumpeter yielded to no-one in his admiration for the heroic entrepreneur, but also noted during the Second World War that, with the possible exception of the United States, the bourgeoisie was so incapable of self-rule that it required a non-bourgeois group as a ‘master’. Without the kind of constraints provided by this pre-capitalist framework, the more sober instincts of the bourgeois would be overcome by the impulse towards what Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. The delegation of power to the state therefore exists because of the inaptitude of the capitalist class compared to other ruling classes in history: feudal lords combine an economic and political role; capitalists perform only the former – although the necessity for capitalists to devote their time to the process of accumulation and their own multiple internal divisions also militate against their functioning directly as a governing class.

Schumpeter was, however, too pessimistic: from the First World War in particular, the pre-capitalist classes which had acted as the shepherds of capital were increasingly replaced by state managers: the professional politicians and civil servants respectively responsible for the legislative and executive wings of the state. At the most fundamental level, the common interest between capitalists and state managers stems from their common class position: both are part of the bourgeoisie. If we visualise the bourgeoisie as a series of concentric circles, then the capitalist class as such (actual owners and controllers of capital) occupies the centre and a series of other layers radiates outwards, with those closer to the periphery being progressively less directly connected to the core economic activities of production, exploitation, and competition, and more involved with those of the ideological, administrative, or technical aspects, which are nevertheless essential to the reproduction of capitalism. The incomes that state managers are paid from state revenues ultimately derive from the total social surplus value produced by the working class, as are the profits, interest, and rent received by different types of private capitalist. And this applies not simply to the source of their income but also to its level, since the relatively high levels of remuneration, security, and prestige enjoyed by these officials depend on the continued exploitation of wage labour. At that level the interests of state managers and capitalist are the same.

These groups have a shared ideological commitment to capitalism, but their particular interests arise from distinct regions of the totality of capitalism, in its various national manifestations. A shared background in institutions like schools, universities, and clubs helps to consolidate a class consciousness that articulates these interests, but a more fundamental reason is that the activities of states are subordinated to the accumulation of capital. In the British case, the state may not do this as successfully as the capitalist class might wish, but that is an indication of the problems of managing long-term relative decline, not that the state managers have different goals. Regardless of their class origins, state managers and capitalists are drawn together into a series of mutually supportive relationships. The former need the resources provided by individual national capitals, principally through taxation and loans, in order to attend to the needs of the national capital as a whole; the latter need specific policy initiatives to strengthen the competitive position of their sector of the national capital within the global economy. There have nevertheless always been tensions, above all the fear on the part of capitalists that states – which they regard as Weberian autonomous entities with their own interests – will either restrict or abolish their right to private property. What gives these fears plausibility is precisely the fact that state managers have both to facilitate the process of capital accumulation and ameliorate its effects on the population and environment, returning us to the Factory Acts and capitalist responses to them described by Marx in 1867.

Has the neoliberal era seen the capitalist class finally succeeding in ‘binding Leviathan’, to quote the title of an early British neoliberal text by William Waldegrave? We need to be clear that it is not the nature of capitalist states themselves that has changed: they still need to perform the core functions described at the beginning of this section. There is no ‘neoliberal state’, but there are ‘neoliberal regimes’. In the case of the UK the regime began, not with Margaret Thatcher’s General Election victory in 1979, but around half-way through the preceding Labour Government of 1974–9 and it persists, with variations, to this day, whatever the bleating from Polly Toynbee and others on the liberal left about the supposedly fundamental differences between the two main parties.

What has changed is that the relationship between neoliberal regimes and capital since the 1970s has prevented states from acting effectively in the collective, long-term interest of capitalism. Neoliberal regimes have increasingly abandoned any attempt to arrive at an overarching understanding of what the conditions for growth might be, other than the supposed need for lowering taxation and regulation and raising labour flexibility. Apart from these, the interests of the total national capital is seen as an arithmetical aggregate of the interests of individual businesses, some of which, to be sure, have rather more influence with governments than others. In so far as there is a ‘strategic view’ it involves avoiding any policies that might incur corporate displeasure, however minor the inconveniences they might involve for the corporations, which of course includes regulation. These developments have, not unexpectedly, led to complete incomprehension among remaining Keynesians of the liberal left such as Ha-Joon Chang and Will Hutton, but they are not beyond explanation. The reason is not simply because of successful lobbying and PR on behalf of individual businesses or industries, pernicious and pervasive though these increasingly sophisticated activities undoubtedly are. But corporations have always done this: why are state managers now so predisposed to respond positively to their efforts? The answer is in the way in which neoliberalism has reconfigured politics.

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Labour, Pasokified.

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed? What now that neither the ‘Edstone’, nor ‘Milibae’, nor pink buses for women, nor condescending to Scottish voters has been enough to deliver victory?
For Labour, the result is just marginally better than in 2010, when it incurred its worst election defeat since 1918. This was not inevitable. In 2012–3, during which period Labour flirted with opposition to austerity, it consistently led with over 40 percent of the vote. In this election, it gained just over 30 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2010. The only major Tory slayed was the despised Esther McVey in the marginal constituency of Wirral West. In other marginals, such as Nuneaton, the swing to Labour was pitiful. In North Swindon, a safe Tory seat since boundary changes in 2010, the Tories actually gained. Worse still for Labour, Ed Balls supplied the Tories with their ‘Portillo moment’, losing his seat in Morley and Outwood, not from incumbency but from opposition.

Why is Labour’s result so poor? It is not because of the overweening strength of Conservatism. Overall, the Tory vote has barely shifted from 36.1 percent in 2010 to (as of writing) 36.8 percent. The Tories have been in a crisis since 1992, since which time their vote has oscillated between the low to mid-thirties. In previous elections, a vote share of this scale would have left the Tories on the opposition benches. This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge, but the confirmation of a Labour collapse. Labour’s total enervation is also reflected in the turnout, which at 66.1 percent was barely a point above what it was in 2010. And while relatively affluent voters turned out to support Cameron – with a 75 percent turnout in Thornbury and Yate, where the Tories overturned a 7,000 Liberal majority ­– working-class constituencies had some of the lowest turnouts in the country. In Manchester Central, turnout was 52.9 percent. The exceptions to this pattern are where there was some sort of alternative. Across Scotland, turnout was 71.1 percent. In Bristol West, where the Greens came second, turnout was projected to be approximately 85 percent.

So, Miliband’s failure is a confirmation of Labour’s degeneration, its crisis, not of Tory strength. In fact, both Labour and the Conservatives are in the middle of a long-term crisis, which neither has done anything to reverse: the question in this election was, whose crisis is worse?

Unsurprisingly, and highly satisfactorily, the Liberals have been crushed, their share of the vote falling from 23 percent to 7.7 percent. Indeed, this is the big shift in the 2015 election: the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of the smaller parties. I want to point out something of great importance regarding the Liberals. I said previously that the reason their leadership didn’t care about getting mauled in the elections was because they were preparing themselves to act as kingmakers in future coalitions, as exercisers of ‘responsible’ political authority, detached from their base but integrated into the machinery of government. This, let us be honest, is where they’d rather be. And in the last few days, we’ve had Nick Clegg saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy: even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal apparatchiks chose, with the Orange Book coup against the centre-left Kennedy leadership, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.

The obverse of the Liberals in this election is the SNP. Every tendency in advanced post-democracy is being reversed in Scotland, where working-class electoral participation and party membership is rising, not falling. The SNP took fifty-eight seats, up from six in 2010. The tsunami-like proportions of this wipe-out may be exaggerated by the electoral system, but the swing is huge and signifies something far deeper than a shift in voter identifications or, God help us, a ‘protest vote’. Old right-wing Labour stalwarts like Tom Harris, interviewed on STV last night, demonstrate some vague comprehension that since the Independence referendum, something at the deepest strata of Scottish working class consciousness shifted. But neither he nor his political confederates get what shifted, or why.

The referendum ‘No’ coalition signified everything that was wrong with Westminster politics: all the main parties in it together, on the side of militarism and the multinationals. Despite Gordon Brown’s absurd ‘big beast’ posturing, despite all the talk of the ‘UK pension’ and the ‘UK NHS’, Labour attacked independence from the right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service. Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle-class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or Trident. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, mimicked Tory language on welfare, and practically grovelled on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilised position: no austerity, and no demonising the poor or immigrants. In England, Labour aping the Right led to the base staying at home, as they have done in growing numbers since 2001. In Scotland, working-class voters had a tried-and-tested reformist alternative, with an optimistic political identity linked to a profound socio-demographic shift, and were able to rally to it. And now, with England cleaving broadly to the right and Scotland shifting left, it’s hard to see how they current constitutional arrangements are sustainable. Scotland will simply not assent to being governed by the Tories, and Sturgeon will be under huge pressure to deliver another referendum.

There will be more to say, on the other side of the political spectrum, about the farraginous hordes that are banging at Cameron’s door, but for now it’s worth pointing out how many of them there are: almost four million in this election. UKIP is England’s terrified, resentful answer to the SNP. While the SNP were able to capitalise on the sheer detachment of the Westminster centre parties with a centre-left nationalism, UKIP linked Britain’s growing crisis of democracy to European domination and a series of reactionary gripes about immigration, political correctness and uppity Jocks. Only the perversities of the electoral system prevented UKIP from gaining the fifty or sixty seats they would have gained on this basis, if their vote were more geographically concentrated. As it is, Douglas Carswell, the least UKIP of UKIPers, is the only one to have held onto a seat. What is particularly absurd about this is that the distribution of UKIP’s votes points to its political strength: UKIP managed to eat into Labour heartlands almost as much as Tory seats, making UKIP possibly Britain’s first truly successful, cross-class, populist formation. In Sunderland, for example, it drew tens of thousands of voters, a surge first noticed during the city council elections last year when it took almost a quarter of the vote. Of course, the party is still very fragile and schismatic: its momentum may now dissipate, and it will be much weaker now that Farage has resigned the leadership. But the basis upon which they won these votes was ideologically hardcore, with Farage using the televised debates not to broaden his support but to consolidate his base. If the dominant parties are forced to accept PR, as seems increasingly likely, this signifies a major realignment on the Right.

Finally, there is the Left. The results for TUSC and Left Unity were predictably nanoscopic. The major left tributary of disaffected Labour voters in England was the Greens, who did well to get 3.7 percent of the vote, a four-fold increase on 2010. In addition to keeping Brighton Pavilion, with a 10 percent swing in their favour, they also came second with a swing of 23 percent in Bristol West, where the sitting Liberal was overturned. And they came a good third in a number of constituencies, such as Norwich South, or Holborn and St Pancras where Natalie Bennett got over 7,000 votes. I think this represents something more than a protest vote. Once more, if we get anything like proportional representation, the game is up: in those circumstances, the Green vote will easily surge past 5 percent toward the double figures, and the Pasokification of Labour will take another lurch forward.

This election has been about the collapse of the Labour Party, of labour-movement politics and more generally of representative politics: precisely as I warned. The hope we were exhorted to embrace has been hugely devalued by overuse and by misapplication. There is no hope in the Labour Party. It has neither the political will nor the resources to reconstitute itself, nor would it have a clue how to do so if it did. The Left has to accept reality, and move on. Rebuilding is a slow, difficult, thankless task. In the meantime, hope is precious: it must be rationed.

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Re-asking the Housing Question

By Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions, are pushing housing to the forefront of political and economic debate in Britain. It is an indication of its breadth and severity that we are spoiled for choice in seeking a headline figure that encapsulates Britain’s housing crisis. A twenty-six percent increase in homelessness since 2010; average house prices more than five times larger than average incomes; ballooning social housing waiting lists; or three quarters of the British public agreeing that there is a housing crisis in Britain – all these things and more point to Britain’s growing inability to house its population.

But its escalating problems are also making housing a site of intensified struggle. A scattering of local defensive actions across London have turned into some of the most vibrant and inspiring campaigns seen in Britain in a long time. For the most part, these are campaigns led not by the usual suspects or dedicated activists, but by people directly affected by housing issues and new to political action. Significantly, for a generation of leftists accustomed to political defeat, housing has also proved the site of some rare, if small, political victories, such as the New Era campaigners ousting their American buyer or Focus E15 forcing part of the Heygate estate into use. The momentum building around housing struggles raises the question of whether housing can be a site of transformative social struggle.

It has been a long time since housing garnered such attention. Significant improvements in housing in the inter- and post-war periods relegated housing to the relative political wilderness. Viewed from a longer perspective, however, housing problems are not new. The nature and inevitability of housing problems, and their potential for transformative change, were discussed by Engels in his pamphlet ‘The Housing Question’ in 1872. Engels argued that capitalist society would fail to provide workers with sufficient or adequate housing, and that the contradictions and uneven development of capitalist society would generate recurrent housing problems. With the housing question resurfacing so forcefully after decades of progress in the middle of the last century, this insight seems highly prescient. However, while there is much in Engels that remains relevant today, the nature of the housing problem has inevitably been transformed by a century and a half of capitalist restructuring. Most notably, the growth of primary and secondary mortgage markets has embroiled housing in financial markets and made housing a site of speculation. To comprehend the present crisis, Engels’s analysis needs updating so that it is able to grasp the novel features acquired by the housing question in the era of financialised capitalism.

Engels’s prognosis for housing was paired with a thesis about the nature of housing struggle. While he granted that housing problems might be temporarily mitigated through the actions of states, capitalists, or workers themselves, Engels ultimately saw housing problems as a reflection of, and subordinate to, the exploitation of labour under capitalist production. Consequently, he argued that the housing problem could only be definitively solved through the overthrow of capitalism and not through isolated struggles around housing:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.
Accordingly, he insisted that workers, not tenants, are the agents of revolutionary change, derisively dismissing Proudhon’s suggestion that ‘[a]s the wage worker in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner’ as ‘patently untrue’. As housing struggles emerge at the forefront of contemporary resistance, this thesis demands to be revisited. In particular, is there anything about the financialised reincarnation of the housing question that alters or elevates the transformative potential of housing struggles today?

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Marxism for Whores

Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity ...

Read more »

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with ...

Read more »

Labour, Pasokified

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed?

Read more »

Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions ...

Read more »