Politics as spectacle By William Bowles

7 November 2013

Failing a real left in this country, it seems that political activity has devolved into little more than spectacle, something implausibly akin to the Olympics or the Queen’s birthday (but without the exposure or corporate support or even the commitment that money buys). The BurnAusterity one day campaign typifies this corporatized and extremely fragmented approach to political activity. It’s almost as if it (BurnAusterity with all the right capitalizations) doesn’t want to reveal itself as even a timid advocate of a ‘socialist’ alternative to the present insanity.

The slogan, ‘BurnAusterity’ is just the kind of thing some media maven would come up with for Guy Fawkes Day. Geddit? Guy Fawkes, Burn? Duh! But where’s the incisiveness of for example the slogan ‘Bread, Peace and Land’, which at the time, Russia in 1917, summed up the three major demands not only of the left but of the great mass of the people (which is where the Bolsheviks got them from). Bread because the people were starving. Peace because they were getting slaughtered in the war with Germany, and Land because the great majority were peasants and were without land, following the abolition of Serfdom. But does the population have any demands?

If only socialist revolution was based on slick slogans aka the ‘colour (counter)revolutions’ waged by Western ‘NGOs’ and state-sponsored psyops campaigns. But alas, socialism has more humble roots than can be afforded by even a slick PR campaign backed by the deep pockets of corporate and state moola.

And BurnAusterity typifies an approach–which is essentially piecemeal–of a left that seems pathologically afraid of the idea of the collective, let alone fighting for its realisation. Worse still, it over-exaggerates its actual, real influence over events. The phrase that became popular this past year with regard to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), possibly the largest of the left parties, was ‘punching above its weight’, which sums up the arrogance of the left as well as its insecurity.

Thus it (the left) thrashes about for a quick fix, something that it can ‘latch onto’. Yet real challenges to the status quo are coming from the most unusual sources; unusual to the left that is, of which UK Uncut is perhaps one of the most interesting as well as the most creative. Yet it professes no politics, as such, at all. Effectively UK Uncut adopts a constitutional position, merely agitating that corporations pay their rightful share of the tax burden. Yet, they’ve had quite an impact on public discourse around the issue of what corporations are getting away with (with the active connivance of the state).

Yet of course, UK Uncut is at best a palliative or stop-gap, it doesn’t address the fundamental contradictions that produce a state now completely owned by big business but then again it doesn’t pretend to. But why aren’t initiatives like UK Uncut not originating from the left?

It might come as shock to young people on the left, but at one time it was the left that was avant garde. It was the left that was cutting edge, and on every front, from theatre to science.

At best, the left merely attempts to ‘infiltrate’ or to manoeuvre groups into what it regards as advantageous to its own objectives. Stop the War Coalition is a prime example of this phenomenon, being as it is an almost wholy-owned subsidiary of the SWP. Which is fine until you realise that the SWP is being totally opportunist in choosing Stop the War as a vehicle for its own brand of so-called socialist agitation. Am I being too hard on the SWP? I think not. It’s time those on the left who occupy positions of authority, wake up and smell the coffee, they’ve been coasting along for decades and have presided over the left’s demise as an important force on the British political landscape.

But this is a phenomenon common to the left in all of the seven so-called most developed nations, and not coincidentally, these are also the seven imperialist states that are doing most of the damage to the planet and its inhabitants.

I’m told by one ex-SWP member ‘of note’ in a recent email about what kind of political activity should a leftie get involved with, aside from a formal, political party, that he was:

“[E]ssentially…talking about community campaigners, environmentalists, trade unions, people who’ve started great community projects, anti-fascists, anarchists, transport campaigners… the list in your town will look something like that. What all these people will have in common is that they are making the world a better place, showing working class communities that they can make a difference and are the most energetic part of progressive, left movements.”

Which begs the question that if this were truly the core of a nascent socialist alternative to capitalism then why is this mixed bag of isms and tivities still merrily doing its own thing and after so many years? Worse still, taken as a whole, they represent a tiny section of British society. What about the rest of the population, who just because they’re not young, old, disabled or immigrants don’t seem to figure in the ‘left’s’ scheme of things? Progressive, left movements? Just because people object to certain events that impact negatively on a community, doesn’t automatically make them progressive. This not to say that their grievances are not justified but it’s an enormous leap from being aggravated about something to becoming a socialist.

It would appear that the traditional left here is locked in a mantra first formulated over 150 years ago, concerning the central role of the (industrial) working class as it was, as the only ‘real’ representative not only of the working class but the major force for a socialist revolution.

But then this begs the question; do the majority want socialism? Clearly not, whatever misgivings they may have about the destruction of the NHS or the selloff of public owned resources at fire sale prices. The kind of cuts the state has enacted, disproportionately affect the minority who don’t have a voice (instead, they have ‘lefties’ speaking for them). So whilst the better off may also ‘suffer’ a reduced standard of living, it ain’t enough to get them moving.

And this is a situation exploited by both the media and the state that between them have managed to demonise and isolate the minority from the rest of society.

Many moons ago my mother was for a time, the secretary of an umbrella organisation called the National Association of Tenant and Residents (NATR) that assisted local tenants organisations in fighting back against slumlords and useless local councils.

Tenants groups tended to spring up to meet a specific need, for example a slum landlord and the NATR tried to help them in their local struggle.

Commensurately, these organisations tended to fizzle out when the specific objectives had been achieved, or not. And if not actually die then end up pretty moribund shadows of their former selves. Likewise, tenants organisations were and I suppose still are, very much confined to public housing estates, where all have a common landlord, the local council.

Worse still, the sell-off of public housing to tenants and housing associations has fragmented these community structures and so, just as with the rest of capitalist society’s ravaging of our collective heritage, we have become atomised and isolated from each other.

Isn’t this why we have political parties, or whatever you want to call them because they coalesce a wide cross-section of interests, to be able to address the specific concerns of the myriad isms out there under a common banner?

What’s interesting is the ex-SWPer’s choice of isms “community campaigners, environmentalists, trade unions, people who’ve started great community projects, anti-fascists, anarchists, transport campaigners
” as it represents a very small percentage of British society and mostly it’s really an even smaller band of activists that we’re talking about.

The inclusion of trade unions raises all kinds of questions about the nature of political action. After all, trade unions are now almost exclusively in the public (state) sector and represent a small percentage of the working population. Hence whilst it’s nice to know that the unions maybe ‘onboard’ the socialist train, I’d be leery of having a political party directly involved with trade unions, whose primary function is after all to represent their members interests. And judging by many of the actions of some of the big unions, it’s very debatable if they even perform this function adequately.

Clearly, whether as individuals or as issue-oriented groups, such a collection would surely have to share a common vision of the proposed alternative to capitalism, else, what’s the point?

They may disagree on specific points, even at times over major objectives or strategies, that’s the breaks but they have to share a common objective; socialism after capitalism. After all, if a specific actor is just along to address their own special interest, whilst it’s fine to have it ‘onboard’, without a sense of the collective

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