I suppose it is all ancient history now, given that the legislation has already passed, the pundits have commented and the articles they wrote are now so much fish-and-chips wrappings, but I still feel compelled to write a little something about my experiences of the protests on the 26th of March, and of the subsequent media attention.
For me, the whole day was exhausting, amazing and heartening. Despite the police’s activities in Oxford Street and Piccadilly, the main protest had a carnival atmosphere and was all-in-all good-natured. I don’t actually feel inclined to put the boot in about the black block and the supposed “thugs” who tore up Fortnums, the Ritz and Santander, because ultimately I have a-lot of sympathy with the raw feelings they were expressing. There are times when I’d like to take a baseball bat to the demiurges of corporate consumerism (the institutions, I hasten to add, not the people) – but I don’t because I believe that violence begets more violence. So instead of grandly condemning them as criminals, I do what, frankly, politicians should be doing, and interpret the destruction of property as a sign that there is at least one section of society that isn’t being listened to. Furthermore, when the police willfully deceive protestors about their intentions, my instinct is that further adding to the hysterical vilifications is not a good idea.
All in all, I met a collection of wonderful, passionate people, all of whom believed passionately that there is another way of running a country. I also met some non-protestors, who believed adamantly that there wasn’t. The question they asked was a simple one, and one that I’ve been thinking about a-lot – “What is the alternative?” This sentiment was not one merely voiced by the owner of a cornershop I spoke to; it is one I have heard from the lips of many people who aren’t involved in the resistance against the cuts agenda.
I think the fact that a large part of the public are asking this question illustrates a deeper issue. The Left have, since the fall of state socialism, faced a singular lack of a unifying vision. Direct state control of the market is no longer a concept which has much political backing, from anybody outside the SWP. Deprived of what was for decades was the foundation-stone of our political-economic model, the Left has been reduced to quibbling over details. “The Free Market is great, of course” people seem to say “but couldn’t we tax the rich a little more? Increase welfare programmes maybe? Or regulate the corporate sector more strictly?”
Well yes, we could. And sometimes we do. The Labour Party made great strides in providing public services that helped redistribute the wealth that corporations create. But the problem with this system is quite clear – it’s fundamentally disempowering. Rather than giving working class people control over their own finances and working lives, through a welfare-based system you essentially make them clients of the state. It’s a benevolent dictator, but a dictator nonetheless. They can, of course, make use of this largess to hop across the class boundary, go to a good university and get a job as a lawyer or a doctor, but that doesn’t really solve the problem: you will always have people who aren’t academically inclined enough to get the qualifications necessary to make the jump to a higher-paid job. Furthermore, as service-dominated though our economy is, you will always need cleaners, orderlies, binmen and shop assistants. The question of who cleans the loos in a socialist utopia is, I think, worth considering.
Basically, Labour’s way of doing things (and I’m parroting Phillip Blond here) creates a system of clientage. Interpreted in those terms, the direction we were marching in a fortnight ago seems a rather bleak one – we were marching in favor of keeping the state as our feudal overlord, rather than having to be passed into the greedy hands of corporate, unaccountable monopolies. But there’s a bigger problem. If you accept that the current economic system is fundamentally on the right track, then you can’t argue with the market’s demands for deficit reduction. The size of our deficit spooks international investors, which means the country is less able to borrow money, which makes us a more risky investment, which spooks investors… basically, we become an economic pariah. In other words, even if redistribution of wealth were a good idea – in the current economic system we’re being held to ransom by the whims of global capitalist interests and the international financial institutions that represent them. They want to make a profit, and if we look unprofitable, we won’t get any of the investment we need from them.
So what’s the alternative? Clearly, the sort of stuff the mainstream left is discussing (Keynesian fiscal stimulation, delayed cuts) isn’t really plausible, given the dominance of capitalist vested interests. It seems to me that a much better direction to move in (the REAL alternative, if you’ll forgive the rhetorical flourish) would be a radical redistribution of ownership – so that instead of allowing corporate fat-cats or political oligarchs to hold all the power, we redistribute of power (rather than wealth) throughout society.
Now, this clearly sounds somewhat “Big Society”-esque. And to be honest, I’m not ashamed of that. Me and David Cameron live in a similar part of the world (we both live in leafy, rural Oxfordshire); one that is characterised by a healthy amount of volunteering, social entrepreneurship and community sentiment. But unlike Big Dave, I don’t believe that you can just expect the society to kick in if you roll-back state support from deprived and economically stagnant areas. Our inner-cities, our isolated rural areas, our poor need help. But the help they need isn’t (just) handouts. What they need is reform – reform of the economy on which they rely, so that instead of being tied to ever greater growth, it gives everyone the opportunity to work meaningfully, and to get a fair and decent return on that investment of labour. To be honest, I think that’s not just an alternative – it’s the only real option.