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Jul 20 2015

Anti-Capitalist Meetup: A Tale of Two Countries

By NY Brit Expat

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only (Charles Dickens, 1859, A Tale of Two Cities, Book I, Chapter 1).”

The British Summer Budget

While these Malthusian and Benthamite lines of thought have been clear from the Tories for a while, it has been further codified in the latest British Summer Budget where among other atrocious policies, both child tax credits and housing benefits will only be given to 2 children maximum. To add insult to injury, Harriet Harman (the acting leader of the Labour party awaiting results of its leadership contest) has argued that they will not fight against this latest pile of Malthusian crap coming from the Tories (so if you go over the magic number 2, you will not get tax credits for your kiddies nor will your housing benefit allowance rise after 2017; needless to say that this impacts horrifically upon working class women who are in paid employment).

Harriet’s pink van or bus was used during the election period (in which Labour did so spectacularly poorly and which left the county in the hands of Tory politicians whose policies would have only been in Margaret Thatcher’s whisky fuelled fantasies).  Harman initially claimed to want to use to reach out to women; well it clearly got a flat tyre (tire for my American friends) in areas where upper class women live as she clearly is not hearing the voices of working class women (so probably the van never made it to those areas) … anyway …

The Summer Budget in Britain has given us the full Tory workup with £12 billion in benefit reductions. Benefit freezes will continue until April 2021 saving £4billion by 2020-2021. £6 billion cuts to tax credits (with no more than 2 children being covered from April 2017). They abolished the family element in child tax credit.  There are cuts to work allowances which means that the amount that people in work can earn before benefits are reduced has been dropped from £6420 to £3850. The overall benefit cap has been reduced from a measly £500/week for families and £350 for single persons (inclusive of housing benefit) from April 2016 to £442.31 and £295.35 respectively in London; outside London that falls to £384.62 and £257.69 respectively.

• In London to £23000 per year or £442.31 for families and £15,410 per year or £296.25 per week for single persons

• Outside London to £20000 per year or £384.62 per week for families and £13400 per year or £257.69 per week for single persons

• The single person’s amount used to be 70% of the families amount and has also been reduced to 67% as the figures show. This is an unannounced move and will mean that a single person renting privately in London who loses their job will lose their privately rented property (https://speye.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/the-budget-and-social-housing-and-e-g-752704-children-made-homeless/).

According to Andrew Hood of the IFS, this amounts to a 4.8% real cut given projections of the changes in the consumer price index with 13 million families losing £260/year on average (with the 7.4 million in work losing £280/year on average).

According to Joe Halewood:

“These new lower caps will affect at a best estimate 229,291 households and put 752,074 children at severe risk of homelessness together with 357,694 adults (https://speye.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/the-budget-and-social-housing-and-e-g-752704-children-made-homeless/).”

There is a social rent cap (1% increase only) that applies to Council and Housing Association tenants only in England which will mean lower rental income to English social landlords which will mean that they will cut back on services in social housing; this amounts to £1.4 billion in cuts. There is also a “pay more to stay” being introduced which will further isolate those in social housing (making it for those that are unemployed mostly and thereby destroying the idea of social housing for the working class whether in paid employment or not that was the original policy). As such, those in paid employment will have to pay more rent to stay in social housing with the additional rent going to the Treasury rather than to local councils. According to Halewood, this means a total of £776 million MORE will be charged to social tenants and means 212,000 or so social tenants will be hit by this policy not the 34,000 figure of the government.

The Tories have proposed a “national minimum wage” which has been laughably touted as a “living wage” will be increased from £7.20 currently, to £7.70 in 2016 to £9/hour in 2020. But it is also quite obvious that this minimal increase in the wage is not compensating the loss of benefit income. Since much of what is being taken away impacts upon child benefit and housing benefits, there is no doubt whatsoever that women will be more strongly effected than men and this is continuing with what has been the situation up to this latest budget. Again, social housing is strongly populated by women and people with disabilities.

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Iain Duncan Smith (Minister of Works and Pensions) at the Summer Budget Announcements positively orgasmic at the possibility of putting the screws to the unemployed, women and children.

Impacts of distributional effects of the implementation of this budget have been estimated by Andrew Hood of the IFS who shows that it is the 3 poorest income deciles that again bear the brunt of these changes, with the working poor the hardest hit yet again and with the removal of wealthier people from receipt of benefits thereby transforming the nature of the social welfare state from a universal one towards one only for the poorest (http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/budgets/Budgets%202015/Summer/Hood_distributional_analysis.pdf, p.12).

Why A Tale of Two Cities?

The Dickensianism I am feeling is more of A Tale of Two Cities Dickens rather than A Christmas Carol Dickens … you know the one, with the comparison between Britain and France and bourgeois democratic revolutions … the one that ends with the Reign of Terror in the French revolution where Sidney Carton goes to his death so that the French aristocrat Charles Evrémonde (aka Darnay) may live to make dear Lucie happy… you know the one, Carton’s last words are some of the most famous ones to appear in English literature:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Yes, that one. What could be causing this shift in my Dickensian feelings? There is still the element of A Christmas Carol or even Great Expectations (wherein Pip discovers that a working class boy will never be accepted by the ruling class no matter how hard he tries, that he is a dupe used by an eccentric wealthy woman abandoned at the altar, and discovers that the funds for his attempt to flee his working class roots comes from a convict he has helped escape out of fear). It does amaze me at times that the stories written in the 19th century are still relevant today. Clearly, economic policy has unfortunately not shifted, but one would think that stories written in a certain context would remain contextual …

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3 July 2015: Demonstration for voting NO in front of the Greek parliament,

Syntagma Square, Athens

Perhaps it is the high of a Greek population voting OXI (NO) in a rare triumph of democracy of people over the needs of banks and the demands of a capitalist economic system to reject a Troika-led bailout. Then my celebrations (at least there was that one night) plummeting as despite the clear rejection of the Greek population against the conditions imposed by the Troika, there is the deal proposed by Tsipras, for a minor amount of debt relief while accepting some increased austerity (a worse deal could not have been had especially since the population overwhelmingly rejected any more suffering by a sizable 61.31%).

Then there is the Troika and the German mainstream right, represented by the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble saying that the Greek government is not doing enough to cause further misery and demands and that a “haircut” wasn’t sufficient and that there be even more increased austerity demanded from the Greek working class. There is then a vote in the Greek Parliament on Tsipras’s proposals for negotiations including £13 billion of austerity measures where quite honestly left-wing members of Syriza were hard pressed to vote in favour with 17 abstentions and 2 outright rejections.

Whither Bourgeois Democracy?

This is then capped off by my repulsion of the perfidy of politicians instituting austerity on a servile British population with the sole purpose of destroying all the gains for which so many fought and the destruction of the social welfare net.

In one case, the British vote their own continuing austerity into office and are facing far worse measures than what was clearly stated during the election (they talked about cuts to the social welfare state, but not how much of the cuts would come from there and what they would actually hit) and in another country, Greece, voters overwhelmingly reject further imposition of austerity and yet this continuing austerity is accepted by the Greek Parliament.

But I think that it is the pretences of bourgeois democracy by which so much is being destroyed for so many that has added to my feelings of disgust and despair. When bourgeois democracy cannot cope with the needs demands of vast majorities in its desire to protect the capitalist economic system, and its banks and finance capital, then we hopefully become aware that Lenin may actually have been on the right track in his description of bourgeois democracy as a phenomenon limited by the need of capitalism to ensure the exploitation of the non-propertied classes:

“In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that “they cannot be bothered with democracy”, “cannot be bothered with politics”; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.

Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the “petty” – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for “paupers”!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy (V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Ch. 5: The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State).

You may ask how do I see A Tale of Two Cities in all this mess in which we find ourselves in Greece and Britain? The thing was in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s own “middle class” fear of the mob becomes rather apparent  … his fear of the danger of the terror of the mob is quite clear as he compares Britain to revolutionary France. It is one thing to sympathise in a benign paternalistic manner with the plight of working class people, it is quite another thing when working class people actually lead movements and take things a bit further than what the scions of the ruling class or the then rising capitalist class is comfortable and that is where I get A Tale of Two Cities moment. This is what is behind a lot of the comments by mainstream politicians that the Greeks were acting like children for refusing to continue austerity in the face of a huge humanitarian crisis caused by the Troika’s policies (of course these politicians themselves are not being childish for saying that there would be no deal if Tsipras remained Prime Minister). Again, we are childish for not facing our responsibilities as that is what children do; but the Greeks themselves have not caused this crisis, this was the actions of finance capital, the ECB, the IMF and the EU which imposed austerity and essentially destroyed the Greek economy. So why should they agree to bear the responsibility for the actions of others?

As we await the outcome of negotiations between Greece and the Troika on whether to open negotiations on a third round of rescue in 5 years and I hope desperately that the Greek government either finally pulls the plug on the Euro or that the Eurozone pulls the plug on them so that at least Tsipras can claim that he tried everything to stay in the Eurozone, but really the criterion that they ran under of “no sacrifices for the euro” has already been met.  

Interestingly, it seems that there is talk of a temporary Greek exit from the Euro if no deal is reached tonight and a “deal” appears to not be likely irrespective of Tsipras’s claims to the contrary (why does he not simply accept a Grexit is beyond me at this point as that would certainly help Greece and bring a whole set of problems for the legitimacy of the policies underlying the eurozone). Angela Merkel has now demanded that Greece surrender fiscal sovereignty to receive another bailout (and if Tsipras agrees to this he is a fool, a danger to the Greeks and will preside over one of the worst catastrophes for the left in recent times).

Quite honestly, at this point, Tsipras does have a mandate for rejecting further austerity, he may not have one to leave the Euro, but he does have the former, while the latter is implied, so maybe you are not hoping that they leave or are tossed out, but I am.

Moreover, and even weirder, I find myself agreeing with Joseph Stiglitz. While I often find myself agreeing with post-Keynesians, it is far rarer that I do so with New Keynesians. It was not only a question of voting no in the referendum, but the obvious reasons for doing so and what it implied for remaining in the Eurozone with which I found agreement. But when New Keynesians (who are mainstream economists) whose job it is to prop up the capitalist system despite its inherent contradictions are talking about democracy and how the EU just dodged a bullet

“But think of it this way: we have just witnessed Greece stand up to a truly vile campaign of bullying and intimidation, an attempt to scare the Greek public, not just into accepting creditor demands, but into getting rid of their government. It was a shameful moment in modern European history, and would have set a truly ugly precedent if it had succeeded (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/05/europe-wins/?_r=0).”

then it may perhaps be time that the true nature of bourgeois democracies are revealing a bit too much of their inner contradiction for the comfort of liberals.

Perhaps instead of the sadness of mourning while living the life of the poor in Άπονη ζωή (Aponi Zoi), we can use a little more militancy like this song from the Greek Partisans, Αρνιέμαι (Arnieme; I Refuse)

And this brings us back to the need for revolution yet again!

Άπονη ζωή (Aponi Zoi; Ruthless Life)

“Merciless life, you have us thrown to the curb you treated us unfairly Not a moment you said, you fend off our tears, you chased us …

Our shame difficult, you have given birth to us poor embittered with the heart, full of worries

Merciless life, we did not want, that you give us palaces and Stars …

A morsel of bread you have gave us, can treat orphaned pigeons,

The north wind has beaten us, the rain has us, the blood of the heart drunk, because we are poor (http://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.greeklyrics.de/uebersetzungen/17-laika/653-aponi-zoi.html&prev=search).”

I am feeling a wee bit Dickensian; normally when I feel this way it has to do with attacks on the rights of the poor in the face of arguments articulating either Benthamite or Malthusian positions on how to address poverty which is unfortunately becoming the sole manner of response of the ruling class to the poverty and inequality brought about by the capitalist system. And yes, there is a part of that going on …