Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher

The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher died on the morning of April 8 and tributes to her have poured in from ruling class politicians the world over.
‘We have lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.’ said David Cameron. ‘The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend’, said Barack Obama.
For Tony Blair she was ‘a towering political figure’ and for Peter Robinson, ‘She was undoubtedly one of the greatest political figures of post-war Britain and she changed the face of our United Kingdom forever’. ‘She was great - great as a woman, great as an MP, great as the first woman PM, great as a winner of the war,’ was Ian Paisley’s response.
George Bush hailed her as ‘an inspirational leader who stood on principle and guided her nation with confidence and clarity’, and Angela Merkel said: ‘She was one of the greatest leaders in world politics of her time. The freedom of the individual was at the centre of her beliefs’.
‘Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved to end Communism,’ said Nancy Reagan. Nato Secretary General Anders Rasmussen called ‘an extraordinary politician who was a staunch defender of freedom, a powerful advocate of Nato and the transatlantic bond’.
Even those establishment politicians whose history or current political base rules out enthusiastic endorsement are very respectful e.g.  Enda Kenny, (‘a formidable political leader who had a significant impact on British, European and world politics’) and Ed Miliband, (‘She will be remembered as a unique figure…we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength’.)
In stark contrast we have David Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners' Association. ‘The death of Margaret Thatcher was a "great day" for coal miners…It looks like one of the best birthdays I have ever had’.
And it is clear that David Hopper here was speaking not only for miners, who had a particular reason to hate Thatcher, but for millions of working people in Britain and across the world. In Brixton revelers took the streets on Monday night (the night of Thatcher’s death) as they did in Glasgow and there will have been innumerable pints drunk in her ‘honour’ from Sheffield to Swansea and Derby to Derry.  Indeed there was also a party that night in the Cobblestone pub at Smithfield in Dublin.
This extremely polarized reaction mirrors very precisely the class division in British society and the division between oppressors and the oppressed everywhere. To understand it we have only to look at what Thatcher actually did. From first to last she was a warrior – a warrior for her class and for free market capitalism.
When Thatcher first served as a minister in the Heath Tory Government of 1970-74 she became known as ‘Maggie Thatcher –Milk Snatcher’ for ending the supply of free milk to children in schools. When she defeated Ted Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975 it signified the Tory Party’s and the ruling class’s punishment of Heath for his defeat at the hands of the miners (and other trade unionists) in 1972 and 1974. she was elected to reverse and revenge those defeats.
In the run up to the General Election of 1979 she deliberately played the racist card saying, ‘People are really afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture.’ It was no coincidence that the police operation, involving large scale harassment, which sparked the Brixton riot of 1981, was called Operation Swamp.
Similarly she condemned Nelson Mandela as a terrorist while backing South African Apartheid. This was a time when Young Conservatives, great fans of Thatcher, were permitted to wear badges saying ‘Hang Mandela’.
Intellectually Thatcher was heavily influenced by the right wing free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, followers of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman – the gurus of monetarism and neo-liberalism. She was committed to the view that the main, almost the only, economic evil was inflation which had to be curbed by strict control of the money supply (including cuts in public spending) regardless of the consequences for employment or industry.
When Thatcher became PM in 1979 she immediately presided over a deep recession and mass unemployment, which rose rapidly to levels not seen since the 1930s. It was not Thatcher who caused the recession; that was the contradictions of capitalism (the recession was international) but her harsh policies did absolutely nothing to mitigate its devastating effects on working class people, on the contrary they made it worse. This was when she famously proclaimed, ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’.
It was in these first years of her rule that much of the destruction of British industry occurred and that she earned the undying hatred of large swathes of the British working class, especially in areas such as South Wales and the North where the recession hit hardest.
The same stone hearted indifference to human suffering which was Thatcher’s reaction to mass unemployment was brought to bear on the Irish Republican hunger strikers in 1981. The attempt to criminalize Republican prisoners of war had been begun by the Labour Government in 1976, but Thatcher pursued it with a vengeance. Even after Bobby Sands was elected MP in the middle of his strike Thatcher persisted in the manifestly absurd claim that he was merely a common criminal. ‘We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political’, she told the House of Commons. And when Bobby Sands died she showed no regret saying, ‘Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims’.
Thatcher’s haughty denunciation of crime and the ‘men of violence’ as she liked to call Republicans, did not, of course, extend to criminals and men of violence on her side of the political spectrum. Among those she befriended were General Pinochet, the military dictator of Chile, responsible for the murder of 30,000 Chileans and the torture of many more.
Thanks largely to the recession, Thatcher was extremely unpopular in 1981 but two things saved her political bacon. The first, and probably most important, was the revival of the British economy in 1982-3, and the second was victory in the Falklands/Malvinas War.
The Falklands War of 1982 was classic imperialist war mongering involving the ruthless sacrifice of young lives for political gain. Small islands, 7000 miles away off the coast of Argentina, with a tiny population (the main occupants were sheep), the Falklands/Malvinas’ status as British was a hang over from the days when Britain was a global imperial power. The brutal Argentinean junta occupied the islands as a jingoist distraction from their deep problems at home, in the mistaken belief that Britain would not respond. Thatcher saw her chance and dispatched a task force to the South Atlantic.
Just when there was a real possibility of a negotiated peace Thatcher scuppered it by ordering the torpedoing of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, with the loss of 323 lives, while it was outside the military exclusion zone sailing away from the conflict. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun (Murdoch was one of Thatcher’s closest allies) greeted the event with the infamous bloodthirsty headline ‘GOTCHA’.
Victory in the South Atlantic at the cost of 649 Argentinean and 258 British young men with over 2,500 wounded, led to Thatcher’s second term and the implementation of her carefully planned assault on the trade unions, ‘the enemy within’ as she called them. The ground for this had been prepared by the trade unions’ Social Contract deal with the previous Labour Government, which undermined union organization at the base (much as social partnership did in Ireland). Thatcher then moved on to the offensive with a series of anti-union laws outlawing solidarity (so-called secondary action and secondary picketing), restricting pickets to six and impose compulsory secret ballots for industrial action- laws subsequently maintained by Labour – and a series of set piece confrontations culminating in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.
This strike was forced on the miners by Thatcher’s imposition of a drastic programme of pit closures. The government was well prepared with large coal stock piles and deployed the full force of the state against the miners. The police were awarded big pay increases into ensure their loyalty and as the strike wore on were given to waving their pay packets in the faces of impoverished miners, before brutalizing them in confrontations such as Orgreave and Mansfield.
Nevertheless the miners fought with such determination and courage and attracted so much support from working people across the country and round the world that they came within an inch of winning. In the end it was lack of solidarity from the TUC leadership which sealed their fate (as it did the fate of the Dublin Lockout in 1913).
The crushing of the miners was followed by the breaking of another key bastion of trade union organization, the Fleet St. print unions. This was carried out in conjunction with her pal, Rupert Murdoch, who closed his Fleet St operation, sacked all his workers and opened up with scab labour in Wapping. Again there was fierce resistance but again the full force of the police was used to smash it.
Thatcher’s other ‘achievements’ of these years included the mass sell off council houses which permanently undermined the provision of council housing in Britain and the systematic privatization of state assets – gas, electricity, water, steel and so on.
These triumphs over the unions and ‘socialism’ as she called it, for which the Tory Party and the British ruling class remain deeply grateful, were accompanied at the opposite end of the social spectrum by an economic boom spearheaded by the City of London. This saw the emergence of new social types: ‘City Boys’ with big bonuses and Porsche cars and YUPPIES (young upwardly mobile professionals). This was a time when capitalism was celebrated, conspicuous consumption was ‘in’ and we were told that ‘greed is good’. There was a parallel phenomenon with Wall St. in Reagan’s America.
However, the boom of the mid-eighties did not resolve the underlying problems of British or international capitalism and on Black Monday, October 19, 1987 the Stock Market crashed internationally including the City of London. The Tories, like the Republicans, abandoned the economic dogmas and, led by the US Federal Reserve, threw vast sums of money at the system to avoid a recession. This worked but only for a short period. Recession returned in 1989.
Before Black Monday Thatcher had gained a third election victory in 1987 but, convinced of her own invincibility, she overreached herself with the Poll Tax. This introduced a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority. It was therefore hugely unfair with an unemployed person paying the same as the Duke of Westminster and correspondingly unpopular. It was implemented first in Scotland, as a ‘trial’ for a year, and then across Britain (but not in Northern Ireland – for fear of the response there).
The result, first in Scotland, then in Britain as a whole, was a mass campaign of non- payment, resulting in the jailing of a number of activists such as Tommy Sheridan, complemented by a series of mass demonstrations culminating in a monster demonstration of 200,000 in London on 31 March 1990 which turned, when attacked by the police, into a huge riot in Trafalgar Square and the surrounding streets.
This broke both the poll tax and Thatcher. In his diaries Tory Minister and Thatcher fan, Alan Clarke records that in the Commons that night Tory MPs were ‘talking openly of ditching the Lady to save their skins’. By November she was gone, brought down by her own backbenchers and cabinet colleagues, indeed ‘to save their skins’.
Today  Thatcher’s apologists advance two main claims on her behalf: that she was a champion of freedom and played a major role in bringing down Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and that she was a ‘feminist icon’  by virtue of being the first woman prime minister of Britain. No one should be fooled by these claims.
 The fall of the Stalinist dictatorships owed nothing to Thatcher. It was the product of their own internal contradictions and economic failure combined with the struggles of their own people such as the Polish workers in Solidarnosc and the East German masses who dismantled the Berlin Wall brick by brick. Thatcher was not a freedom fighter but a reactionary Cold Warrior and war monger who encouraged George Bush snr to launch the first Gulf War for oil in August 1990 and no doubt was bitterly disappointed not to be there for the bombing of Baghdad and the horrible ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqi troups on the road to Basra. The only freedom she championed was the freedom of capitalist markets to trample on working class people.
As for being a feminist icon, the opposite in the case. She was open about her contempt for feminism and no more advanced women’s rights than did Catherine the Great of Russia or Marie Antoinette. Quite apart from what she did to the lives of working class women, she was not even keen to promote other Tory women to her cabinet.
More than enough has now been said to understand why Thatcher’s death is mourned by the rich and the right but by celebrated by working people and socialists. A final point remains to be made. It was her ‘achievement’ to contribute significantly to shifting British and international politics to the right and to pioneering the neo-liberal consensus from which the poor, the disadvantaged and the ordinary people of the world have suffered so much and continue to suffer. Thatcherism is alive and well in the policies of the Cameron government in the UK and the austerity measures of the FG/Labour government here.
For this reason the best way to mark Thatcher’s demise is not only to celebrate but also to continue to develop working class resistance to Thatcherite policies and the capitalist system that breeds them.
John Molyneux
9 April 2013.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Marxist Analysis of Class

This is an extract from by my book The Point is to Change it! An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy by way of a reply to the BBC commissioned 'new  7 class model' of class in Britain.

There is probably no concept more closely associated with Marx and Marxism than class, but there is also no concept so widely misunderstood. Confusion about class reigns at every level: in the media, in every day life and perhaps especially in the academic world.
One of the most common confusions is the notion that class is primarily a matter of people’s social origins, of their position at birth, and of inherited privilege or disadvantage. This is basically a hangover from the from the bourgeoisie’s struggle against feudalism, when the bourgeoisie championed ‘equality’ (of legal rights and opportunity) against inherited privileges and power of the feudal aristocracy. It is this view that leads to the utterly mistaken idea that class is disappearing or becoming less important in modern society (or that America, because it was never feudal and had no aristocracy, is somehow a classless society). Of course it is true that inherited privilege and wealth still play an important role in the most modern capitalism (just look at David Cameron’s cabinet of old Etonians) but it is not the heart of the matter either for Marxist theory or in actual social practice. It is current social position not social origin that is crucial. The child of working class parents, who becomes manager or boss, behaves as a manager or boss not as a worker. The young black kid who grows up to become President of the United States behaves as the political representative of US imperialism not the representative of black people.
Another widespread confusion is that class is primarily about income and/or lifestyle. Obviously class plays a major role in determining income and lifestyle, but neither income nor lifestyle determines class. Inequalities of wealth and lifestyle, however wide they may be, nevertheless form a continuum from top to bottom and therefore cannot yield a coherent analysis of the class structure. On the basis of income or lifestyle one could conclude that there are five, ten, or fifteen classes or none: and either way it is arbitrary. Moreover individuals might have the same income and be members of different classes e.g. a skilled manual worker and the owner of a small corner shop, or be members of the same class and live very different lifestyles e.g. miners and nurses (both part of the working class)
In sociology, the academic discipline responsible for class, class is usually defined in terms of different life chances (opportunities for obtaining goods and services, for educational achievement for getting a good job, for living a healthy and long life etc.) and the Marxist theory of class is dealt with roughly as follows:
For Marx, they say, class is defined by ‘relationship to the means of production’ - leading to a two class model of society consisting of a property owning capitalist class or bourgeoisie, and property less working class or proletariat. There was some truth in this, but it is too simple; for the analysis of modern society a more complex model is required and this is provided by Max Weber and his latter day disciples. For Weber class is not just a matter of property ownership or lack of it but of position in the labour market. Between the capitalists and the (manual) workers there is a middle class based on the mental skills and educational qualifications that they bring to the job market. As capitalism becomes technologically more sophisticated this class grows while the working class shrinks. Class polarisation fails to materialise. Moreover there are many other divisions in society based on ‘status’ (social esteem or prestige) – contemporary Weberians would cite particularly gender and ethnicity – which cut across class and are often more important than class in determining people’s identity, and which Marx and Marxists have neglected.
This is a false account of Marx’s theory of class in many respects – Marx didn’t have a simple two class model and was well aware of the existence of intermediate layers, the so-called middle class, and paid a good deal more attention to gender and race issues than Weber ever did – but this is not the key point. The key point is that at the heart of the Marxist theory of class are not unequal life chances (important as they are) but exploitation, the extraction of surplus value discussed in the last section. It is the daily fact of exploitation, the conflict of interest inherent in capitalist social relations, that produces the capitalists and workers as antagonistic classes.
The capitalists are those whose survival (as capitalists) depends on profit, which derives from the surplus value obtained from wage labour. The workers are those whose survival depends on the wages they receive for the sale of their labour power to the capitalist. This relationship locks the former and the latter into perpetual combat. Whether the capitalist inherited or built up his or her capital, or went to public school or was born on a council estate, or whether the worker earns high wages or low, works in an office or school or a factory, or expends principally mental or physical energy does not change the essential conflict of interest.
The conflict of interest which has its source at the point of production extends, like the alienation which it parallels, throughout the society which is based on this production. It becomes a conflict of interest, a class conflict, in every issue of state and public policy from taxation to health services to crime and punishment, to foreign policy, arms spending, war and the preservation of the environment.
Neither Weber nor his sociological heirs, nor the journalists, nor the media commentators, grasp this at all and consequently their criticism of Marx misses its mark completely.  
The middle classes, of which they make so much, certainly exist but their position is determined neither by their status, not their lifestyle (to repeat, status and lifestyle are consequences not causes of class position), but by their role in the processes of exploitation and class conflict.
Between the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) and the proletariat (the working class) there are two quite large social groups. The first is the owners of small businesses, the classical petty bourgeoisie – whose typical representative is the small shopkeeper. This layer is oppressed by big business and even to some extent exploited (via finance capital and the banks) but it is also, and crucially, an exploiter of wage labour. The second group consists of managers who are paid employees but whose function is to oversee the extraction of surplus value from the workers. EXAMPLES
This ‘middle class’ is not really a distinct class; rather it is a hierarchy of intermediate strata whose social role combines (in different proportions at different levels) elements of the capitalist and elements of the proletarian condition. At its upper end the middle class merges into the ruling class (senior corporation managers, senior civil servants, police chiefs are examples) and at its lower end (the self employed plumber or painter and decorator or lower line manager) it merges into the proletariat. In the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class the middle class vacillates acccording to the strength of the gravitational pull of the two fundamental classes.
 In normal times, when the ruling class is firmly in the saddle and dominating society as a whole , the middle class – in its large majority – accepts albeit grudgingly the leadership and authority of the upper bourgeoisie. When the grip of the ruling class weakens or goes into crisis sections of the middle class, particularly from its lower strata, can be won over to the side of the working class on condition that the working class appears able to resolve the crisis in society. If the working class appears unable to perform this role the middle classes can swing far to the right and become the social base of fascism.
The different understandings of class in the Marxist and the Weberian or ‘common sense’ perspectives lead to dramatically different pictures of the class structure in modern capitalist. Marx was emphatic that ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed’ and that ‘the proletarian movement is… the movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’ [K.Marx and F.Engels, The Communist Manifesto in D.McLellan, as above p.226 and p. 230]
By contrast in the Weberian/common sense view the development of capitalism leads to a decline of the proletariat as a proportion of the population. The issue cannot be resolved simply by counting heads because it is really a dispute about which heads to count. For the Weberians the proletariat consists only of ‘industrial’ or ‘manual’ workers (these terms are in themselves problematic – does not a typist work with his/her hands, does not an electrician use his/her brain?) who are indeed shrinking in numbers in the developed capitalist countries, while the ‘white collar’ or ‘non-manual’ employees, seen as middle class, expand. From the Marxist standpoint, however, the majority, though not all, of white collar employees (teachers, social workers, civil servants, typists, sectaries, shop worker, nurses etc.) live by the sale of their labour power and are exploited by capitalists. The exploitation of some white collar workers, such as teachers and health workers in the public sector, is less easy to see than that of workers who produce commodities in private industry, but what they are really doing is producing and reproducing the commodity of labour power for the capitalist state ie for the capitalist class and capitalist system as a whole and like other workers they are paid less than the value of what they produce. They are therefore part of the working class  and, in practice, act as such: the PCS (Professional Civil Servants) and the NUT (National Union of Teachers) have been in the forefront of the recent struggles over pension rights in Britain, while teachers and tax collectors have played an important role in the ongoing Egyptian Revolution. Once this is grasped it is clear that the working class or proletariat continues to constitute the large majority of the population in the developed capitalist countries, approximately 70% or more, and is heading towards being the majority in the world as a whole.
It is interesting to note that whereas for most of the bourgeois views of class the division between the working class and the middle class is seen as a division between occupations (e.g. miners and teachers) for Marxists the dividing line runs within occupations. Thus most teachers are workers but head teachers are managers, most social workers are workers but (in Britain) team managers and above are becoming middle class. In the civil service the lower ranks are working class, but the topmost ranks are more or less part of the ruling class. It is also interesting that, whereas most academic sociologists ignore or fail to consider these distinctions, workers, especially trade unionists, who actually do these jobs, are acutely aware of them.
However for Marx the most important feature of his theory of class was his identification of the working class’s revolutionary role. There were three elements to this: first, the working class conflict of interest with the capitalist class (which I have already outlined); second its power; third its ability to create a classless society. The power of the working class derives from the fact that its labour is the main producer of wealth and profit in society, from the dependence of all systems of transport, energy production, communications and all state operations in its labour, and from its concentration in large numbers in workplaces and cities. This power gives the working class the capacity to defeat the bourgeoisie and its state. Its capacity to create a classless society derives from the necessarily collective nature of its struggle (from the smallest local dispute to the widest general strike and insurrection), from the fact that it can only take possession of the means of production collectively, and from its potential, unlike any previous class in history, to be both the producing and ruling class in society at the same time, thus ending the very basis of class division.