Owen Jones on the SWP’s Eton Mess

Owen Jones article here on socialism losing its way:


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I agree to a large extent with this. The SWP is trying to stir up a left-wing populism based squarely upon class resentment. Resentment leads to a mythological understanding of social problems, and therefore, not only is it an inadequate basis for revolutionary practice, but there are similiarities with the Right in the current conjuncture. But I think that the purpose of this article is not to defend Horatio Whatever, but for Owen Jones to defend his leadership role within the movement. This defence extends to his strategy of trying to bring the Labour Party leftwards, so that they can become a ‘representative party’ that ‘champion[s] the needs and interests of working people’; as well as Jones’ parallel strategy (under, e.g. the People’s Assembly) of building a non-dogmatic, pluralistic and ‘inclusive’ movement, in which middle-class public sector workers, whose furthest reaching demand is that their pay keeps up with inflation, are identified as the vanguard of the Left. My objection with Jones’ article is that, since the working class are oppressed by the capitalist class, the working class need to achieve political power and emancipate themselves – not be ’emancipated’ by their ‘more intellectual’ middle-class comrades, nor ‘encouraged’ into the farce of contemporary British unionism. The tension here – the difficult questions that flow from this – are a product of class struggle and class antagonism. They cannot be magicked away by sentimental assurances that Such and Such ‘has his heart in the right place’.

A dialogue on voting, with a Labour Party supporter

In response to the argument that we need to encourage greater participation in voting, as declining participation in voting is responsible for the success of neoliberalism; furthermore, that voting for the Labour Party is the most progressive option. [I’ve been asked not to repost the original arguments, hence paraphrase.]

A few thoughts.

I think, basically, that your understanding of neoliberalism is inadequate, particularly the focus on voting (I don’t say that as an insult). I think, if we’re to identify (in a schematic and general way) the key characteristic of neoliberal political strategy, this would be the careful, strategic and systematic destruction of the economic, social and political basis of the working-class Left.

So, capital dismantled those industries where working-class organisation was very strong (most famously, the coal industry). It fought and defeated left-wing political organisations (chiefly, trade/industrial unions, but also the Labour Party), and then reconfigured a new, limited role for unions (the LP reconfigured its role in line with this). Neoliberal capital consequently developed new economic sectors, in which working-class organisation and hence political consciousness was not strong. It gradually broke up and gentrified the inner city and working-class neighbourhoods (also e.g. selling off council housing), undermining the social basis of working-class ‘belonging’. It encouraged working-class people to invest themselves in the new arrangement, particularly through new types of work, credit and participation in the housing market. And, of course, neoliberal capital developed effective ideologies that legitimised this attack, shifting public discourse to the right, at the same time as it materially and politically shifted things to the advantage of capital.

So: a monumental economic, social and political shift. The Labour Party responded to this, with Blair, by taking on board the developing neoliberal consensus. It encouraged and facilitated the trends identified above. From appealing to new and established middle class strata, to elaborating ideologies of the dysfunction of the ‘underclass’, as opposed to the strength of the working class, to encouraging the elaboration of financialisation, to participating enthusiastically in neoliberal imperialist projects (Afghanistan, Iraq).

Where does the decline in voting that you identify figure in this? Not as a cause of the success of this neoliberal project, but as a symptom of its success (but also its weaknesses). Firstly, the traditional working-class bases of Labour Party membership have been destroyed, emptying out the party of members, whilst the political roles of other working-class organisations – particularly unions – have been strictly limited. Unions are no longer political organisations; they are workplace negotiators. Secondly, carrying out this shift has involved what Stuart Hall called ‘authoritarian populism’: although there has been popular support neoliberalism, there has also been a lot of resistance. But, the neoliberal project has been pushed through anyway. Indeed, as neoliberal capital has worked to create favourable conditions for itself, it has elaborated new political instituions to ensure and legitimise this – e.g. the EU. Capital has really been able to politically solidify and strengthen its position, to the point where the governments of nation states have very little room to manoeuvre (look at Greece, for example); this is the situation in which debates over the EU are taking place, although this debate is currently dominated by the Right, and mystified through all sorts of bigoted ideologies. This situation – the growing strength of capital; increasingly authoritarian processes of decision making and law and order; the weakness of the Left – has resulted in an undermining of democracy: in the workplace, in the community, in government. The result has been that the political process has, to a large degree, lost legitimacy. Somewhere around here the decline in voting participation figures appears as a symptom of the general malaise.

Do neoliberal capital and its representatives worry about people voting?

I think you are right that capital is concerned when people begin to form movements that might shift the balance of political forces to the left. We saw that, for example, with the harsh repression of student protest and the Occupy movement. These movements were literally described as “terroristic” and dealt with under anti-terror legislation (brought in by Labour, btw: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/jan/22/explainer-terrorism-legislation). That is, apart from ideological battles (mostly lost), the neoliberal state rapidly mobilised to materially contain and destroy these movements, in their infancy. Crucial here, in allowing this to happen, was the Labour Party’s complete failure to ally itself with these movements and to assume any leadership of a growing anti-austerity movement (of young people and public sector workers), which peaked in 2011 with around 1m marching in London, before collapsing in the absence of any coordinated political representation and leadership.

However, this concern with regards to social movements should not be confused with voting. What the neoliberal state fears is the sort of crisis of legitimacy that we saw in 2011 when national rioting occurred. The state gets very concerned when people step outside of the narrow confines of established channels for political action (particularly when it must also negotiate with a disgruntled police force). Participation in voting, in a moment of neoliberal consensus across all contending parties, does not concern capital in the slightest. Rather, it actually encouages it, since it aids legitimacy.

Arguably, this consensus is troubled at the moment: but not from the Left. Rather, it is  Scottish Independence and UKIP that are putting pressure on the consensus. The Right is making gains. In this context, a vote for Labour is a vote to protect neoliberal consensus politics against those elements of the political right that are troubling it. It is not a politically progressive gesture. Anyone who thinks encouraging the ‘masses’ to vote for Labour troubles the neoliberal consensus is deluding themselves.

Hope that sets out my position, and clarifies my disagreement with you. All best.

The Austerity University #2: The composition of UCU membership

So – as I wrote here – it was inevitable that the 2% pay increase would be accepted by UCU.

Dear colleague,
The result of the higher education pay ballot is as follows:
A total of 30,141 valid votes were counted, giving a turnout of 52.6%. The eligible votes were cast as follows –
To accept the offer and call off the marking boycott:
25,239 (83.7%)
To reject the offer and commence the marking boycott at the earliest opportunity possible:
4,902 (16.3%)


What caught my eye, here, were the figures. A few quick points – judging things by eye, to save time.

If 30,141 people is 52.6% of the UCU membership, then total UCU membership is shy of 60,000.

Is that a lot, or not? Well, according to HESA statistics, that’s about one third of total UK academic staff employed by UK HE institutions (i.e. not including non-academic staff, who outnumber academic staff): 2012/13: Total academic staff: 185,585.

Interestingly, HESA break this down further:

Academic staff by academic employment function 2012/13
Activity Full-time Part-time Total
Teaching only 10730 36065 46795
Teaching and research 75710 18890 94600
Research only 34810 7540 42350
Neither teaching or research 1250 590 1840
Total 122500 63085 185585

 So, here we see a breakdown into the (more or less) three categories of academic staff we encounter in the university department: “bona-fide lecturers” (BFLs), Research Assistants (RAs) and Teaching Assistants (TAs).

What’s really interesting is that non-lecturer staff – RAs and TAs – almost equal the number of BFLs. And I remember a survey like this going around, by the by; many TAs are actually PhD students (doing research) or post-docs who are at least trying to find time to research. Consequently, a number of TAs and RAs might be concealed within the ‘Teaching and Research’ fold.

Now, here’s my speculative argument. Most of UCU’s academic members come from the BFL camp. For BFLs joining UCU is a no-brainer. Most of their peers are in UCU. A leaflet comes around. The Department Rep talks to them. It’s not really a question, whether or not they can afford the dues. And they’re going to be sticking around long enough that the  admin involved doesn’t seem a hassle for nothing. Above all, UCU talks to them: UCU is addressed to the BFLs, above all.

Can the same be said of RAs? Who are RAs anyway? Mostly these are postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers. Most of them are in the sciences, embedded within insular research project teams. For most of them, the terms of their fixed-term contracts are fixed: they couldn’t particularly give a shit whether pay goes up 1% or 100%, as it doesn’t affect their stipend. (Plus, they’ve more urgent data to consider!) And, they’re not particularly loyal to any one institution, because loyalty is a bit misplaced when you’re chasing around the country from one fixed-term contract to another.

So, to cut a long story short, I imagine RA recruitment to UCU is the lowest of all of these categories. If you’ll forgive my flippancy, let’s just say that there are around 40,000 non-unionised workers here.

TAs are a different matter, because they are located right at the centre of many of the antagonisms caused by the austerity university: from pinched budgets, to the devaluation of teaching, to the troubled job market, to the introduction of fees. Consequently, they are  more available for recruitment to a project aimed at critiquing and resisting the austerity university. On the other hand, there are a number of problems with TA recruitment. First, the precariousness of TAs is disempowering: they tend to avoid confrontation in the workplace. This is particularly true given the perceived need to keep senior BFLs onside for references and employment opportunities.”In the final analysis”, TAs will put up with almost anything, because they perceive their problems to be temporary – soon they’ll be done with the PhD, soon they’ll get a job, &c.The problems they encounter are always “exceptional” (except, of course, they aren’t at all!). Second, the actual experiences and desires of these TAs can be quite diverse – across departments and faculties, between the arts and social sciences and the hard sciences, and across universities, as well as in terms of the TA’s career position – e.g. a first year PhD student with a fees-waiver or someone 4 years out of the fold, still trying to secure a BFL contract. Consequently, percieved problems, demands and ‘solutions’ may be at odds – e.g. to the unemployed postdoc, fee-waivers might appear to be part of the problem, whilst for the PhD student struggling with their finances, fee-waivers are an opportunity. Third and finally, many TAs do not see UCU as their union, and UCU does very little to engage and recruit them. For example, one of the few UCU campaigns touching on the issues TAs face is the very, very quiet ‘anti-casualisation’ campaign. Many TAs could precisely see this as an attempt to shut them out of HE employment; it certainly doesn’t speak to their concerns and needs in any clear way. Meanwhile, in the workplace, there is next to no attempt to actively raise awareness amongst TAs that they can join UCU and to encourage their participation in local branches.

Again, then, I suspect UCU recruitment of this 40,000 strong body of academic staff is very low. Of my TA friends, about 1 in 20 is in UCU.

All of this is to say:

UCU lost this pay fight. Part of the reason why they lost it is that they are not strong as a union. Why are they not strong? Partly it’s because their membership is only one third of total academic staff. More, they tend to represent the BFLs: that is, the interests of the ‘labour aristocracy’ within academic HE employment. This basic fact leads to the sort of conservative campaigning we’ve seen: a pay-fight on behalf of the (relatively) most comfortable strata of academic workers. How could we expect anything ‘radical’ to occur in this situation? The labour artistocracy identifies its needs with the economic growth and ‘success’ of the university – even if it questions certain priorities and disagrees with the specifics of certain proposals. This massively limits its availability for a project of critiquing and resisting the austerity university (and austerity more generally).

Those who want UCU to be a ‘fighting’ union, then, those who oppose the ‘austerity university’ and want to see a concerted struggle for a ‘radically different’ type of university, should focus on how UCU might recruit this 80,000 strong contingent of precarious workers – and particularly TAs. For it is within the teaching-only staff that many of the antagonisms of the austerity university are focused; consequently, it is from this contingent that the most radical approaches will emerge.

Alternatively, one could suggest this: TAs are not going to get anywhere within UCU, given the burden the lumpen labour aristocracy represents. Perhaps they’d be better taking a lesson from the Tres Cosas campaign – perhaps TAs should start self-consciously organising themselves, through the ‘pop-up union’ model. But, how can the necessary sort of political consciousness emerge amongst the fragmented TA body? That’s a problem I’ve pondered since 2009, when, along with about 10 PhD students, we attempted just this. I still haven’t found an answer.

The Austerity University — #1

Today members of University and College Union (UCU) received a consultative ballot form, asking them to vote on a ‘full and final’ pay increase offer from HE employers of 2%.

This may be a moment, then, to reflect on current trends in Higher Education; to reflect on the ongoing workplace struggles within academic institutions; and to consider the strategic possibilities that are open to those of us who work in HE.

The relevant context here is the neoliberal ‘austerity’ project: not simply cuts to public services, but also the structural factors that caused the financial crisis of 2008, and the ways in which the state and capital seek to use the crisis to restructure political and economic hegemony. First, the crisis was not produced by state overspending, but by a decline in profitability and by consequent problems in capital circulation. The crisis continues not simply because cuts to public services are stunting growth, but because investors are reluctant to invest capital. This is the context in which to understand the vast hordes of capital being accumulated by universities. For example, Lancaster University currently holds around £16.2 million in its coffers.

The UCU have responded to this, asking why these vast sums of money are not invested in staff. But, the probity of this question has been stunted by the moralism and narrow pragmatism in which it has been framed: it is unfair not to raise staff pay, especially given that it is actually possible to do so. I think it worth pushing this a bit further. Several tentative theses emerge here:

1. The crisis, the success of the austerity strategy, and the novelty of the new £9000 fees regime (giving rise to discourses of the ‘student experience’ and ‘new services efficiency’) provide an unprecedented opportunity to cut university wage bills.

2. The novel emergence of a highly competitive HE market has led to an enormous pressure for universities to grow, economically. Consequently, restructuring and investments are increasingly dominated by the profit motive (that is, investment of capital for the purposes of increasing capital). This has had a massively detrimental affect on arts, humanities and social sciences departments, where most of the contractions have been and from which most of the staff unrest has arisen.

3. Following from the above, capital must increasingly be channelled away from consumption and towards investment, so that productivity can be increased. This is a component of neoliberal austerity strategy more generally. Whilst employing more staff could be described as an ‘investment’, the wage bill is increasingly being understood as the ‘unproductive’ consumption of capital by workers.

4. Most attempts to increase productivity occur in HE by increasing the exploitation of non-academic and precarious academic staff (i.e. library staff, caterers, cleaners, but also PhD students, research assistants, teaching assistants). Yet, cuts to pay and pensions, increased working-hours, and diminishing budgets obviously affect full-time academic staff too.

5. Finally – for now at least – there is consequently a changing understanding of the role of the lecturer, within the larger recomposition of class and production (including the HE sector) under austerity. Particularly with the devaluation of teaching in the new HE economy, academic work is becoming less and less about the provision of a specialist service; increasingly it is about the performance of abstract labour. However, because of the pressures described above, as well as the increasing competition around research, this affects different disciplines differently, as well as affecting staff differently within departments. The desperation of the expanding reserve army of academic labour, as well as the emergence of private HE enterprises, compounds this situation.


There is a lot more to write, here, but for now I want to end on this question: has the UCU approach to this emerging struggle engaged any of these broader problems? To be fair, UCU has engaged in a broader (if not broad) critique of austerity, even if it is not entirely clear on what ‘austerity’ might mean. At some institutions connections have been tentatively made between reductions to lecturers’ pay packets and the problems faced by indebted students, intensely exploited non-academic staff, zero-hour contracts and so on (marred obviously by its dove-tailing with the Labour Party line). Less interestingly, they’ve attempted to generate populist resentment about the remuneration of management. Still, the answer is clearly no: UCU have basically fought this as pay dispute. That is to say, they have fought this in the most short-sighted, timid and conservative manner possible.

So, is it any surprise that UCU are now offering this pseudo-ballot, framed by text underscoring how ‘full’ and ‘final’ it is? (The Lancaster branch actually included this line twice, and in bold.) Is it any wonder that the UCU exec is jumping at this exit-strategy with astounded relief? Of course, the ballot offers the possibility of UCU members refusing the pay offer. But, beyond UCU’s obvious preference for capitulation, the way this dispute has been fought – from its timidity to its populist moralism to its general failure to build clear alliances between different groupings of staff and with students – signals clearly to the membership that it is in their interest to vote ‘yes’. The ballot, then, is merely a face-saving exercise – one that allows UCU to walk away with its authority and legitimacy just about intact.

For the real problem UCU faces, right now, surely, is a revolt by the membership. And I don’t mean, here, that its membership is more militant than the leadership. On the contrary: that many must be wondering now why they agreed to strike, when it has resulted only in them losing pay and in a damaged relationship with their students. All of this is to say, having acceded to the pay-cut represented by the pay offer – having lost this fight – building future strike campaigns is going to be more difficult than ever. HE management is thus reaping a double reward here.


So, of course I voted ‘No’ to the pay deal. Firstly, because I’m not a tenured lecturer, but a precarious, under-employed teaching assistant, and this pay-deal represents fuck all for me. I’m screwed either way. Secondly, for the reasons above. Third, because I hate to capitulate. Finally, for the lingering idiocy that goes by the name of ‘hope’: the hope that my ‘no’ vote will meet with the paper voices of all the other mad bad dangerous discontents, and in the ensuing chaos we’ll guillotine a few heads.

Chris Witter

Our Line on Ukraine (April 2014)

A response to: Sunny Hundal, Why Ukraine is past the point of no return with Russia, and we have to get involved (April 15, 2014), Liberal Conspiracy (blog).

Sunny, you’re well off the mark here.

Why should we start demanding our capitalist states mobilise troops to defend another capitalist nation state – one with an openly fascist government, that is a puppet of the Troika and the US? How would that benefit anyone?

Moreover, as even the UK media recognise, this is not a ‘straightforward’ situation of Russia using undercover troops to invade Ukraine. There is popular support for the autonomy of Eastern Ukraine. And part of this is about the crisis of authority of the Kiev government.

Is it the role of the UK Left to call for the repression of dissent in Ukraine and the shoring up – by force – of a capitalist government that includes fascists? No. Clearly it is not. Could this be successful, anyway? No, probably not.

What should the left-wing line be, then? From here in the UK it is hard to really grasp the complex play of forces in the Ukraine. But, we do understand – to some degree – the UK state’s role in global, imperialist capitalism. And we should fight our own battles first – that is, chiefly, our struggle against the neoliberal austerity project. So:

* No to Troika restructuring of the Ukraine.
* No to the UK/EU supporting an openly fascist government.
* No to the UK supporting military intervention in Ukraine.

That is our line.

Inauthenticity and Desire: Cribbing from UKip

A Response to: The Fabian Society, ‘Being Human: Is Greater Authenticity in Politics Possible?’

To answer the title question – ‘Is greater authenticity in politics possible?’ – it is first necessary to interrogate the question itself: what does ‘authenticity’ mean here? Why is its possiblity in doubt?

Cutting to the chase, the real story here is about the decline, over the last 40 years, of the organised labour movement; of labour having a central role within the Labour Party; and of participation by ordinary people in institutional politics (e.g. party memberships down, voting down, &c.) Add to that the decline in working-class people’s standards of living over the last few decades – increasing wealth inequalities, declining wages, high inflation, increasing indebtedness – and you can see why many ordinary people feel antipathetic towards politicians. For, there is a real sense that neither New Labour nor the ConDems have their interests at heart.

What does ‘inauthenticity’ mean in this context, then? First, it means less working-class people participating in politics; second, it means less representation of working-class issues in politics. Consequently, it also means that the electioneering attempts of political parties to ‘appeal to voters’ come across as cynical and patronising attempts by political elites to wink and wave across the gaping disconnect between them and the electorate.

Note: this void is not simply a formal or technical problem, to be solved by ‘changed behaviour’. Rather, this disjunction between the electorate and the elected is highly charged with the politics of class, gender and ethnicity.

If we want ‘authenticity’ in politics we need parties that are really ‘of the people’. Nigel Farage and Ukip’s success is partly based on this desire. But, ultimately, Farage represents only a flimsy and demeaning impersonation of ‘ordinary people’, no more substantial than ‘Vicky Pollard’ or ‘Lauren Cooper.’ He is sure to come unstuck – if not through some gaffe then through the crucial fact that Ukip does not represent the real interests of working-class people.

But, does Miliband’s Labour Party?

The question of ‘inauthenticity’ and of ‘appealing to voters’ is a cynical and blinkered way of approach the real question, at stake here. This question is: how do we locate and cultivate the political agency to the working-class?

The question that necessarily follows from this, however, is exactly the one that Labour organisers don’t want to pursue, as they shuffle towards the next election. That is, ‘is the Labour Party still a means through which the working-class are able to realise their political agency?’ And, given that the clear answer to this is no – ‘can the Labour Party become a means by which the working-class are able to realise their political agency?’

This is still to be decided. But, it won’t happen whilst we look wistfully at Farage’s clowning populism and clothe our envy in the political baby-talk of ‘inauthenticity’, phlegmatically tempered with ‘a firm commitment to door-knocking’.

Jessica Asato, ‘Being human: Is greater authenticity in politics possible?’ (24 March, 2014) Fabian Society Essays, Fabian Society Website. <http://www.fabians.org.uk/being-human-is-greater-authenticity-in-politics-possible/>