Posts Tagged ‘National Workshops’

Regenerating the High Street through National Workshops

January 7, 2019

Last week Tweezer announced her plan to revitalize Britain’s failing high streets. Many of our shops are closing as customers and retailers move onto the internet. City centres are being hit hard as shop fronts are left vacant, inviting further vandalism, and further economic decline as shoppers are put off by empty stores and smashed shop windows. In America, it’s been forecast that half of the country’s malls are due to close in the next few years. Tweezer announced that she was going to try reverse this trend in Britain by allocating government money to local authorities, for which they would have to bid.

I’m suspicious of this scheme, partly because of the way it’s being managed. In my experience, the Conservatives’ policy of forcing local authorities to bid for needed funding is simply another way of stopping some places from getting the money they need under the guise of business practice or democracy or however they want to present it. It’s the same way Thatcher would always delay the date when she’d give local authorities they funding they needed for the next year. It’s a way of disguising the fact that they’re making cuts, or simply not giving the money that’s really needed.

As for how local authorities could regenerate their town centres, I wonder if it could be done through a form of the national workshops suggested by the 19th century French socialist, Louis Blanc. During the Revolution of 1848, Blanc proposed a scheme to provide jobs for France’s unemployed by setting up a series of state-owned workshops. These would be run as co-operatives. The workers would share the profits, a certain proportion of which would be set aside to purchase other businesses. This would eventually lead to the socialization of French industry.

Needless to say, the scheme failed through official hostility. The scheme was adopted, by the state undermined it through giving the unemployed on it pointless and demeaning jobs to do. Like digging ditches for no particular reason. It thus petered out as unemployed workers did their best to avoid the scheme. There’s a kind of parallel there to the way the Conservatives and New Labour tried to stop people going on Jobseeker’s Allowance by making it as degrading and unpleasant as possible, and by the workfare industry. This last provides absolutely no benefit whatsoever to workers on it, but gives cheap labour to the firms participating in the scheme, like the big supermarkets.

The national workshops, on the other hand, were at least intended to provide work and empower France’s working people.

In his Fabian Essay, ‘The Transition to Social Democracy’, George Bernard Shaw suggested that Britain could painlessly become a truly socialized economy and society through the gradual extension of municipalization. Town councils would gradually take over more and more parts of the local economy and industry. He pointed to the way the local authorities were already providing lighting, hospitals and other services.

I therefore wonder if it would be better to try to create new businesses in Britain’s town centres by renting the empty shops to groups of workers to run them as cooperatives. They’d share the profits, part of which would be put aside to buy up more businesses, which would also be turned into co-ops.
Already local businesses in many cities have benefited by some radical socialist ideas. In this case, it’s the local currencies, which are based on the number of hours of labour required to produce an article or provide a service, an idea that goes all the way back to anarchist thinkers like Proudhon and Lysander Spooner in the 19th century. These schemes serve to put money back into the local community and businesses.

I realise that this is actually extremely utopian. Local governments are perfectly willing to provide some funding to local co-ops, if they provide an important service. I’ve heard that in Bristol there’s a co-op in Stokes Croft that has been funded by the council because it employs former convicts and drug addicts. However, you can imagine the Tories’ sheer rage, and that of private business and the right-wing press, if a local council tried to put a system of locally owned co-operatives into practice. It would be attacked as ‘loony left’ madness and a threat to proper, privately owned business and jobs.

But it could be what is needed, if only partly, to regenerate our streets: by creating businesses that create jobs and genuinely empower their workers and provide services uniquely tailored to their communities.

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An Argument for a Mixed Economy Supporting Welfare Services from Martian SF

November 6, 2018

Yesterday I blogged about a passage in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars, in which one of the future colonists of the Red Planet at a constitutional congress advocates the transformation of businesses into worker owned co-operatives against a supporter of free enterprise capitalism. The Martians have also been supplementing standard capitalist economics with a gift economy similar to that used by some indigenous cultures today. One of the other delegates at the congress objects to part of the character’s proposals on the grounds that they would be moving away from this part of their economy as well. Vlad Taneev, the character advocating the co-operatives, responds thus.

Vlad shook his head impatiently. ‘I believe in the underground economy, I assure you, but it has always been a mixed economy. Pure gift exchange co-existed with a monetary exchange, in which neoclassical market rationality, that is to say the profit mechanism, was bracketed and contained by society to direct it to serve higher values, such as justice and freedom. Economic rationality is simply not the highest value. It is a tool to calculate costs and benefits, only one part of large equation concerning human welfare. The larger equation is called a mixed economy, and that is what we are constructing here. We are proposing a complex system, with public and private spheres of economic activity. It may be that we ask people to give, throughout their lives, about a year of their work to the public good, as in Switzerland’s national service. That labour pool, plus taxes on private co-ops for use of the land and its resources, will enable us to guarantee the so-called social rights we have been discussing – housing, health care, food, education – things that should not be at the mercy of market rationality. Because la salute no si paga, as the Italian workers used to say. Health is not for sale!’ (p. 149).

To the objection that this will leave nothing to the market, Vlad replies

‘No no no,’ Vlad said, waving at Antar more irritably than ever. ‘The market will always exist. It is the mechanism by which things and services are exchanged. Competition to provide the best product at the best price, this is inevitable and healthy. But on Mars it will be directed by society in a more active way. There will be not-for-profit status to vital life support matters, and then the freest part of the market will be directed away from the basics of existence towards non-essentials, where venture enterprises can be undertaken by worker-owned co-ops, who will be free to try what they like. When the basics are secured and when the workers own their own businesses, why not? It is the process of creation we are talking about.’ (pp. 149-50).

A few paragraphs later the character also urges the creation of strong environmental courts, perhaps as part of the constitutional court, which would estimate the costs to the environment of economic activities, and help to co-ordinate plans impacting the environment. This is based on a clause in the Dorsa Brevia document, the initial constitutional agreement on which the Martians draw in their attempts to formulate a full constitution. This clause states that the land, air and water of Mars belong to no-one, and they are merely its stewards for later generations. (p. 150).

As I said in my previous piece about the fictional economics of this future Mars, it’s refreshing to see an SF writer proposing a form of socialist economics, when so many other SF writers advocated those of libertarian capitalism, like Robert A. Heinlein.

Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t promised complete industrial democracy, but he does intend to give a measure of it to workers in firms with over a certain number of employees, as well as restoring union and other workers’ rights.

As for combining competition with socialism, the 19th century socialist, Louis Blanc, who believed that the state should combat unemployment by setting up state-funded worker’s co-ops, which would then use their profits to buy up the rest of industry, said that it was like combining eunuchs with hermaphrodites. But as it is set out here, it could work.

And we definitely need for housing and health care to be taken out of free market economics. The sale of council houses to private landlords and management corporations, and the Tories’ ban on any more being built, has contributed immensely to the homelessness crisis now afflicting Britain. For all that the building companies are supposed to build a certain number of ‘affordable housing’, in very many cases the majority of homes built are for the top end of the market with only the minimum number of homes for people on modest incomes being built.

And the privatization of the health service has created a massive crisis in healthcare in this country. And it is done with the deliberate, but very carefully unstated intention of forcing people to take out private healthcare insurance as part of the process towards full privatization.

It’s time this was halted, utterly and forever. And only Corbyn can be trusted to do this, as New Labour were as keen on the idea as the Tories.

And the Italian workers’ slogan is excellent: La salute non si paga – ‘Health is not for sale’. This should be our slogan too, printed on leaflets, on placards and T-Shirts and made very clear, every time we protest against the Tories and their privatization of modern Britain’s greatest achievement.

Solving Unemployment through Trade Union-Run Cooperatives

April 2, 2016

The German-born anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, devotes a passage in his Anarcho-Syndicalism (London: Pluto Press 1989) to Robert Owen’s proposal in the early 1830s to set up a Grand Consolidated Trade Union which would include all the working people in every trade, its plans for supporting unemployed workers, and finally its gradual decline in the 1840s. See pages 57-66. The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was intended to supersede the existing situation where the workers were divided into separate trade unions according to their different trades and industries. At the same time, the new, umbrella union would be organised into different divisions for the workers in specific branches of industry. The ultimate aim was for the workers themselves to take over production, which they would then market themselves through special shops, according to the cost of manufacturing the article. Instead of conventional currency, special labour notes, representing labour value, would be exchanged for these products. To support unemployed workers, the trade unions would also invest in land, which would be worked by unemployed workers, and co-operatives, which would also provide the unemployed with work, producing needed goods that would be purchased by the other members of the Union.

Rocker quotes the following passage from the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union’s statement of its aims.

As land is the source of the first necessaries of life, and as, without the possession of it, the producing classes were ever remain in a greater or less degree subservient to the money capitalists, and subsequent upon the fluctuations of trade and commerce, this committee advises that a great effort should now be made by the unions to secure such portions of it on lease as their funds will permit, in order that in all turn-outs the men may be employed in rearing the greater part, if not the whole, of their subsistence under the direction of practical agricultural superintendents, which arrangements would not have the effect of lowering the price of labour in any trade, but on the contrary would rather tend to in increase it by drawing off the at present superfluous supply to the manufacturers.

The committee would, nevertheless, earnestly recommend in all cases of strikes and turn-outs, where it is practicable, that the men be employed in the making or producing of all such commodities as would be in demand among their brother unionists; and that to effect this, each lodge should be provided with a workroom or shop in which those commodities may be manufactured on account of such lodge, which shall make proper arrangements for the supply of the necessary materials.

That in all cases where it is practicable, each district or branch should establish one or more depots of provisions and articles in general domestic use: by which means the working man may be supplied with the best commodities at little above wholesale prices. (Pp.61-2)

Rocker notes how this was greeted by the radical paper, The Poor Man’s Guardian

But far different from the paltry objects of all former combinations is that now aimed at by the congress of delegates. Their reports show that an entire change in society-a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing order of the world-is contemplated by the working classes. They aspire to be at the top instead of the bottom of society-or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all. (p. 59).

Rocker then describes the mass agitation for a general strike to bring about a ten-hour working day, the denunciations and persecution of the union, trade unionists in general, and political agitators, and how the G.N.C. finally petered out. Many of its members left to join the Chartists, while the events on the Continent in the 1840s also worked against working class radicalism.

The G.N.C.’s supporters made it very clear in their debates with other radicals, who wanted the political reform of the franchise and the House of Commons, that after the G.N.C. took power parliament would be made totally redundant.

Rocker writes

If, for example, one reads The Pioneer, the organ of the G.N.C. managed by James Morrison, one frequently encounters arguments that sound thoroughly modern. This is revealed especially in the discussions with the political reformers, who had inscribed on their banner the democratic reconstruction of the House of Commons. They were told in reply that the workers had no interest whatever in efforts of that sort, since an economic transformation of society in the Socialist sense would render the House of Commons superfluous. Its place would be taken by the labour boards and the industrial federations, which would concern themselves merely with problems of production and consumption in the interest of the people. These organisations were destined to take over the functions of the present entrepreneurs; with common ownership of all social wealth there would no longer be any need for political institutions. The wealth of the nation would no longer be determined by the quantity of goods produced, but by the personal advantage that every individual derived from them. The House of Commons would in the future be merely a House of Trades. (pp. 62-3).

It’s a hopelessly utopian dream. Unfortunately the need for legislation and a democratic parliament isn’t removed by the almost complete socialisation of the land and industry, as the former USSR shows. The various shops set up to sell goods according to the labour theory of value collapsed because they didn’t take into account demand for the goods. Nevertheless, the system has been revived on a small scale by communities running various local currency schemes, in which vouchers are exchanged for so many hours of work, and these have had some success. As these schemes are locally based, they have stimulated the revival of local, small businesses.

As for the idea of the Union purchasing land, that’s very much part of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the early 19th century. It’s similar to Bronterre O’Brien’s demand at the Manchester Guardian of ’40 acres and a mule’. As many of the new urban workers either themselves had been, or were the children of migrants to the towns from the country, the idea of going back to the land to gain a livelihood, away from the horrors of urban life, was obviously attractive.

There are also links to the ideas of the French Utopian Socialist, Louis Blanc, during the Revolutions of 1848 for ‘National Workshops’. These would be stare run workshops for the unemployed, which would be managed as co-operatives. Any profits made would be put back into buying up other factories and workshops, until gradually the whole of French industry would be nationalised. Although these workshops were set up, they were deliberately run down and mismanaged so that the scheme eventually collapsed. It was given to a minister or civil servant who hated the idea, and the workers employed in them were given pointless tasks, such as digging ditches, only to fill them in again.

Despite this, I do like these ideas. And I do wonder now long workfare would last, if a trade union set up a genuine workers’ co-operative on the Owenite model, and then applied to join the government’s wretched scheme as a ‘workfare provider’. All workers receiving some form of reward for their labour beyond their jobseekers allowance, with the workshop aiming to buy out other factories, or at least, some of the other ‘workfare providers’.

Somehow, I can imagine that going down at all well with the Tories. They’d be utterly aghast, and try to find all kinds of reasons not to take it on. I sort of wish someone would try, if only to see the ‘welfare to work’ industry turned on its head to support unemployed workers, not the overpaid heads of outsourcing companies and big businesses like Sainsbury’s, Tescos, or various charities like the Salvation Army, who are just seeking to exploit an easy supply of cheap labour.

Lloyd George, Keynsianism, Mosley and the Tory Privatisation of Government Job Creation

April 19, 2014

David_Lloyd_George

British Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George, used government work creation schemes to combat unemployment.

A few weeks ago, Alittleecon on his blog suggested that unemployment could be combatted through a government programme of public works. The unemployed could be retrained as the workers and professionals the economy needs, and the scheme would itself stimulate further economic growth. The money spent by the government would thus pay for itself several times over. See his post, ‘If the Private Sector’s Not Doing It, Doesn’t Mean Its Not Worth Doing’ at http://alittleecon.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/if-the-private-sectors-not-doing-it-doesnt-mean-its-not-worth-doing/

Alittleecon is very definitely a person of the left, and governments across the political spectrum under the influence of Keynsian economic have adopted similar public works programmes to stimulate the economy. The Japanese government, for example, has embarked on a massive campaign of road construction, as well as building airports and other parts of the transport infrastructure in order to counter the massive depression their economy experienced in the late 1990s and noughties.

Oswald Mosley and Government Public Works for Creating Employment

The British would-be Fascist dictator, Oswald Mosley, also recommended using a programme of public works and employee retraining to tackle unemployment in his 1968 autobiography, My Life (London: Thomas Nelson). He wrote:

The other sphere in which the government must give a decisive lead is in the organisation of public works on a great scale. In an island or even a continental economy overheating, with the result of inflation, can occur in a condition of full employment. On the other hand, to maintain a large pool of unemployment is inhuman and disastrous to the general morale. The answer to this dilemma of the present system is to avoid overheating and inflation by the restraints of credit policy, while taking up the consequent slack of unemployment in public works. No man should be unemployed, and work should be available to all on a reasonable standard of life in a large public works programme, but there should be sufficient differential to provide incentive to return as soon as possible to normal employment; re-training and re-deployment of labour schemes should always accompany of public works system.

Public works should now be in active preparation in all Western countries to replace in due time the distortions of the economy of the Western world, which are initially caused by the semi-wartime basis of America. When peace finally breaks out, we should be ready with the constructive works of peace to replace the destructive works of America’s small wars and the concomitant arms race. The inflationary movement, resting largely on America’s deficit financing of its wars and arms, can at any time come abruptly to an end, either through peace of the objections of other nations to this financial process. So far, armament race and minor wars have taken up the slack of unemployment which would normally represent the difference between modern industrial potential and effective market demand. This has only been done by distorting the economy and aggravating the eventual problem of peace. To maintain full employment in a real period of peace only two methods are available – inflation, or public works on a great scale. We have already seen the results of inflation in an overheated economy leading to over-full employment, and wages chasing prices in a vicious spiral whose end must be a crash.

The only alternative is a stable price level maintained by a strong credit policy, with the resultant unemployment taken up in public works. The economic effect of public works in dealing with unemployment can be the same as the armament boom, without the disastrous exaggeration of deficit financing. Yet the difference in national, or I hope continental, well-being can be vital. The public works of peace can be integrated in general economic policy and can serve it rather than distort it. State action can prepare the way in works too large for private enterprise, and can thus assist rather than impede it. Such public works of peace in terms of unemployment policy can replace abnormal armament demand, can build rather than damage the economy, can benefit the nation and reduce the menace to mankind. (pp. 493-4).

He also recommended that the government public works programme should be used to replenish and upgrade the housing stock in a campaign of slum clearance and house building to provide homes for young people unable to get on the property ladder.

There is no such waste of wealth and the human spirit as unemployment. It is avoidable, and in a continental economy easily avoidable; it is simply a question of the mechanics of economics which mind and will can master. When demand flags, the market falters and unemployment follows, but we should remember there is no ‘natural’ limit to demand; the only limitation is the failure of our intelligence and will. It sounded fantastic long ago in the House of Commons when a wise Labour leader of clear mind and calm character, J.R. Clynes, said there is no limit to real demand until every street in our cities looks like the front of the Doge’s Palace at Venice; and not even then. He was quite right, there is no limit to demand, only to our power to produce, and then to organise distribution. Certainly, there is no limit to demand while the slums disgrace our main cities and young married couples have to live with their parents for lack of accommodation. for years I have urged a national housing programme like an operation of war; the phrase was picked up and used long after as what is called a gimmick in contemporary politics; yet nothing was done about it. I meant it, and it can be done. (p. 495).

There is nothing uniquely Fascist about this programme. Mosley was an early convert to Keynsianism, and took his idea of using public works to combat unemployment from Lloyd George. In the ‘Mosley Memorandum’ he issued in 1929 when he was a member of the Labour party, he recommended using a mixture of public works and purchasing credits issued to the population as a means of stimulating the economy. Economists looking at this policy since then have given their approval, and believed that it would have worked. This does not, of course, justify anything else Mosley advocated, such as the megalomania that saw him as the future British dictator, the hatred of democracy and liberal British institutions, the violence, the bizarre ideas of using evolution to create a new, higher human type, and the poisonous and vicious racism and anti-Semitism that would have led Mosley in power to create an apartheid state. Despite Mosley’s claims to the contrary, his biographer, Stephen Dorril, has stated that if he had come to power and allied with Nazi Germany, then he would have become an accomplice in Hitler’s genocide of the Jews.

louis_blanc_1878

Louis Blanc and 19th Century National Workshops in France

In fact, the use of public works as a means of lowering unemployment was used as early as 1848 in France. The pioneering French Socialist, Louis Blanc, had recommended setting up a system of ‘National Workshops’ to provide jobs for unemployed workers, who would be paid at the rate of two Francs a day. The profits made from these jobs would be used to purchase more workshops until the economy was completely socialised. This met with very strong opposition from the French government, including the minister charged with implementing the policy. Blanc was not included on the five-man Executive Commission which replaced the provisional government. the Comte de Falloux, the leading spokesman for the Conservative right, attacked the Workshops because he believed they constituted the threat of working class, Socialist revolution. The jobs created were thus pointless, miserably paid tasks like digging ditches, only to fill them in at the end of the day and the Workshops themselves were later closed down in June 1848.

A proper policy today of creating new jobs through public works and retraining, such as that recommended by Mosley, would almost certainly be strongly opposed by the current political class. It contradicts Neoliberal dogma that private enterprise is always better for the economy and society, and that state interference should be as limited as possible. Obama’s bail-out of the American banks and his policies designed to combat the recession that followed, have been strongly attacked by Libertarians. Following von Hayek and Mises, they see government policies as making the crisis worse and prolonging it. It would also be attacked for contradicting the government’s austerity programme, and the automatic assumption that the only fiscally responsible course of action to adopt in a recession is to cut public expenditure. I also have no doubt that some of the arguments used against such a policy would be that it was recommended and used by Fascist dictators and leaders like Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley.

workfare-isnt-working

Workfare Not Programme to Create Jobs, but Supply Cheap Labour to Industry

Nevertheless, there is the expectation that the government should act positively to combat unemployment, rather than leave the economy to correct itself automatically. The various job creation schemes like the Youth Opportunities Programme in the 1980s, and the Work Programme, as well as various internships and trainee schemes launched by private industry in partnership with the government are proof of this. So also are the various retraining schemes that have also been launched by successive administrations, like the computer courses Blair set up for the unemployed. The Coalition has, however, tried to avoid actually creating any real jobs directly through the use of private contractors. Instead of unemployment being created through the economy and the structure of society, the Tories and Tory Democrats instead have adopted the old Victorian view that it is caused by the idleness or moral weakness of the jobless themselves. Hence the bullying and humiliation by jobcentre staff and the system of sanctions, ostensibly intended to motivate the unemployed to look harder for work. Neoliberal economics recommends a constant unemployment rate of 6 per cent to keep wages low, and the Work Programme, internships and trainee schemes, as well as various apprenticeship programmes are structured not to create work, but to keep the contracting business supplied with cheap labour. They are intended to present the illusion that the government is seriously tackling the problem of unemployment, while really doing as little as possible to tackle it seriously.

These highly exploitative schemes should be discontinued, and the government instead should embark on a genuine programme of state job creation following the interventionist ideas of Louis Blanc, Lloyd George and Keynes. But I doubt this will ever occur. It would contradict decades-old Thatcherite notions of what constitutes government expenditure, as well as outrage the Conservatives and big business with the prospect of a revived, working class, which would not have to depend on private industry for the privilege of obtaining unpaid or low paid jobs.

The Demands of the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee

February 22, 2014

1848 Revolution Germany

F.G. Nordmann: The Barricades on the Kronen- and Freidrichstrasse on the 18th March 1848 by an Eyewitness

I found this manifesto of the demands by the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee during the continental revolutions of 1848 in the ‘Vormarz’ volume of the anthologies of German literature published by Reclam. Although it was written over a century and a half ago in Germany, their demands are still acutely relevant to early 21st century Britain. Over half of the demands made by the Berlin workers have or are being attacked by the Cameron and Clegg. I thought that these demands were worth putting up here, both as an historical document showing the aspirations of 19th century German workers, and as a comment on the way the Coalition’s reactionary regime is trying to destroy everything that has been achieved to improve working peoples’ lives since then.

I last did German at school over twenty years ago, and so I apologise for my highly rocky German. If anyone with a better grasp of German than me wishes to revise some of this, let me know, and I’ll post up the original for them to see and comment on.

The Demands of the Berlin Workers’ Central Committee, 18th June 1847

1. Determination of a minimum wage and working hours through a commission of workers and masters or employers.

2. Workers to unite for the maintenance of the living wage.

3. Lifting of indirect taxes, introduction of progressive incomes tax with the exemption of those, who only have life’s necessities.

4. The state to undertake free instruction, and, where it is necessary, the free education of youth with supervision for their abilities.

5. Free public libraries.

6. Regulation of the number of people learning a trade, which a master is allowed to have, through a commission of workers and employers.

7. Lifting of all exceptional laws on workers’ travel, namely those expressed in the itinerary books.
[This refers to the laws in Wilhelmine Germany limiting a worker’s ability to travel in search of work. Every worker was supposed to have a book listing his employment history. The laws were eventually abolished. The Labour Books, however, returned with the conscription of labour under the Nazis in the Third Reich.]

8. Lowering the voting age to 24.

9. Employment of the unemployed in state institutions, to which the state should provide a measure existence for their human needs.

10. Establishment of model workshops and the expansion of the already constituted public artisans’ workshops for the education of able workers.

11.The state to provide for the helpless and all invalided through work.

12. Comprehensive right to native country and freedom of movement.
[This is another attack on the laws limiting the right of workers to move around Germany. In this case, the laws that prevented them from going back to their homes.]

13. Limiting official tyranny over working people.

The above are only to be dismissed from their places through the decisive judgement of a Committee.

In its demands for commissions of workers and employers, the manifesto shows the influence of the continental system of ‘concertation’, in which both workers’ and employers’ groups are consulted and represented in governmental decision-making. It’s the type of corporativism that Edward Heath attempted to introduce into Britain in the 1970s, and which was abolished by Thatcher. What Thatcher resented was not corporativism per se, no matter what she might have said about promoting free trade, but the inclusion of workers’ groups and organisation in the process. Her government still continued to include private industry in the process of government, so that the Thatcher administration has been fairly described as ‘corporativism without the workers’.

The demands for the unemployed to be given work in state workshops, and for the establishment of model workshops, is less a demand for workhouses after the British model, than for a system of National Workshops as was proposed by the French Socialist, Louis Blanc. These were to be set up by the government, but managed co-operatively by the workers themselves. They were set up by the French government in that year, but deliberately poor funding and management by the authorities, which made the work pointless and degrading, undermined them and led to their collapse.

Now let’s see how these demands are faring under Cameron and Clegg.

1. The minimum wage and working hours. Almost from the start, the Coalition has introduced a series of measure designed to get round them. This has been done through workfare, which allows the participating firms to benefit from the unpaid labour of the unemployed; internships, where aspiring young trainees are also taken on without being paid; the new apprenticeship system, which also seems less concerned with training young workers as with allowing employers to pay them less than the minimum wage.

The zero hours system has also allowed employers to cut wages, by tying workers to their employers, who only employ them when they’re needed, and so don’t pay for them when they are not. The rest of the working population, on the other hand, has suffered from a massive expansion of the working week.

2. Union of workers for the fixed wage. Since Thatcher, successive governments have shown themselves hostile to labour unions, and have done their level best to undermine them and reduce the legislation protecting workers. New Labour in its last year or so of government repealed a vast tranche of labour legislation. The Coalition is, if anything, even more opposed to union and labour legislation, with Vince Cable sputtering all kinds of threats when the public sector unions threatened to strike a year or so ago.

3. Lifting of indirect taxes and introduction of progressive income tax. The Conservatives have hated and demanded the removal of incomes tax since the 1980s. I can remember the Sunday Times demanding the removal of incomes tax and its replacement by indirect taxes following the recommendations of the decade’s monetarist economists. Now George Osborne has raised VAT to 20 per cent, and cut incomes tax for the very right. The result has been a massive transfer of wealth from the working to the upper classes.

4. Free instruction and free education by the state. State education is something else that has been under attack by the Right since Thatcher. Milton Friedman urged the introduction of education vouchers, so that parents could have a choice between educating their children in the state or private sector. Guy Debord’s Cat has shown how Friedman’s reforms has led to massive inequalities in the Chilean educational system. Nevertheless, education vouchers were taken up by Ann Soper of the Social Democrats, amongst others.

The Coalition is intent on effectively privatising the school system, with schools taken out of the state system even when the governors themselves are opposed to the scheme. One of the left-wing blogs – I believe it may have been Another Angry Voice – also covered a school, which had effectively introduced school fees. The school was being run by an American company, which used its own, copyrighted curriculum. The company therefore charged the parents of the children at the school over £100 per year for their children’s use of the company’s curriculum materials.

5. Free public libraries. These have suffered massively under the Coalition’s ‘localism’ and ‘Big Society’ agendas. Central government funding has been cut, and libraries have been forced to close. The intention was that they should be taken over and run for free by local community groups. In fact, few groups have members with the necessary skills or experience to take over their management. Many of those that have survived have been forced to cut staff and opening hours.

8. Lowering of the voting age. This is again another hot issue, as the Scots Nationalist wish to reduce the voting age north of the border to 16. Young people tend to be more idealistic than their elders, who have had all their dreams of creating a just world hammered out of them by life. In Scotland they also tend to be more nationalistic than their elders. The Tories thus wish to keep the voting age at 18 as at present.

The Coalition have also altered the procedure for registration for voting, with what looks suspiciously like the intention to make it so complicated that many people will be unaware of the new regulations and so lose the franchise through default.

9. Employment of the unemployed in state institutions and support of their human needs. Osborne is a rabid Libertarian, and so despises any attempt by the state to directly interfere to promote growth through a programme of public works. It is nevertheless true that when the country has experienced a spurt of growth under Gideon, it’s been when he has adopted a Keynsian programme. So the modern equivalent of national workshops to provide work for the workers has been attacked and discarded by the Coalition.

There was a system of workshops like those advocated by the Berlin workers for the disabled. The Remploy workshops, however, have now been closed down by the Coalition, adding further hardship and unemployment for those with disabilities.

As for unemployment benefit, this has and continues to be savagely cut in order to create a pool of the unemployed and desperate in order to bring down wages. The result of this is that thousands have been thrown out of work and have no support due to benefit cuts and sanctions. As a result, people are being forced to use private charity and food banks. The country has therefore seen rising starvation and the return of diseases believed to have been banished since the 19th century.

10. Establishment of model workshops and the training of the able workers. The Coalition, as good Libertarians, are hostile to direct government intervention, and so have embarked on a comprehensive system of privatisation and the further undermining of workers’ employment rights. They are keen to support various training programmes for young workers, but these seem less about providing new skills, than inculcating the attitude in the unemployed that their inability to find a job is their own fault, rather than the government’s or the economy’s. As for the acquisition of new skills, this largely seems to be focused on computer literacy. This is indeed a vital skill, but it does not suit everyone and there seems to be little provision for the less academic. As for the new apprenticeship programme, this also seems simply a way to exploit trainee workers by not paying them the minimum wage. It also seems to be just another way to falsify the unemployment figures by claiming that the unemployed are in fact in work, while they are only on work placements and other temporary schemes.

11. The state to provide for the disabled. As with unemployment benefit, this is something else that has been savagely cut and undermined by the Coalition. Like the Jobcentres, Atos have been set quotas for people to be thrown off benefits by being falsely declared fit for work. The result has been a truly colossal death rate. As many as 38,000 per year may have died in poverty and hardship due to the governments cuts.

12. The right to one’s native country and freedom of movement. Britain in the 19th century did not have laws restricting workers’ freedom of movement as in Germany. However, rising housing costs and the Coalition’s cap of Housing Benefit is resulting in ‘social cleansing’, in which the poor are being forced out of more expensive, upmarket areas. This is especially true in London. Poor Black communities have been particularly hit, and there is resentment there about the way gentrification has forced them out of their neighbourhoods as these have been bought up by affluent, often extremely affluent, Whites.

13. Limitation of the tyranny of officials. Actually, the tyranny of officialdom over the unemployed has expanded massively under the Coalition. While there are genuinely understanding, caring staff at the Jobcentres, and even, surprisingly, within Atos, these are very much in the minority. Government policy is designed to make the process of signing on as humiliating and degrading as possible. Hence, you are harangued and pressured when you sign on. Many of the staff have real hate towards the unemployed. One female member of staff at one of the Jobcentres was caught on Facebook describing how she hated claimants and her joy at sanctioning them. Such abuse has been privatised under the Tories. An unemployed friend of mine has been repeatedly rung up at home by an employee of the company, that has the contract for getting him into work from the government. As a result, he is continually harangued by this clerk, who has claimed that they are somehow motivating him to find work.

As for workers only being sacked after a decisive judgement by an employment commission, Blair and New Labour did their level best to repeal these laws, and the Tories are pursuing the same policy with a vengeance. All in the interests of promoting a more fluid labour market, of course.

Many of the demands made by the Berlin workers in the 19th century, or their equivalents, are therefore under attack in Britain in the 21st century by a highly reactionary regime. Thatcher and the Libertarians looked back to the 19th century and Victorian values. As a result, post-Thatcher administrations have done much to remove the successes and advances of the 19th and early 20th centuries in improving the lives of the working and lower middle class. This is being done across the world in the name of globalisation and free trade, for the benefit of the multinationals paying the Tories and governments like them. It needs to be stopped. As Marx and Engels ended the Communist Manifesto, working people of all countries, unite!

P.-J. Proundhon’s Observations on the National Workshops and New Labour’s Indifference to the Working Class

August 10, 2013

One of the arguments anarchists use against the formation of political parties to advance socialism is that such parties, once they have gained power, sell out. They increasingly accept the conventional social and economic attitudes of the ruling classes, and their own desire for power makes them increasingly dictatorial, seeking power eventually only for themselves.

The great French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proundhon, had personal experience of this increasing alienation from the demands for socialism from the working class when he served as a deputy in the French National Assembly. The pioneering French socialist, Louis Blanc, had advocated the establishment of workers’ co-operatives in his 1840 book, L’Organisation du Travail. These were to be workshops in which the workers themselves would both own and operate the means of production, and divide the profits amongst themselves. The French government in 1848 did in fact briefly establish such schemes, though it was unsympathetic to the idea to the extent that they were deliberately designed to fail. The new Minister of Public Works, who was responsible for putting it into practice, despise the whole idea. He did not select workers with the necessary skills for jobs, which they were given. He also did not engage in any projects that would actually turn a profit. The workers were given jobs, like planting trees or digging trenches, which they afterwards filled in again. As a result, the workers lost any kind of enthusiasm in the project and it became the object of contempt and ridicule.

In his book Les Confessions d’un Revolutionaire of 1849, Proudhon stated that due the pressure of his own work as a parliamentary deputy, he remained entirely isolated from and ignorant of the whole affair. He wrote

‘I entered the National Assembly with the timidity of a child, with the ardour of a neophyte. Assiduous, from nine o’clock in the morning, at the meetings of bureaux and committees, I did not quit the Assembly until the evening, and then I was exhausted with fatigue and disgust. As soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in touch with the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current of events. I knew nothing, either of the situation of the national workshops, or the policy of the government, or of the intrigues that were growing up in the heart of the Assembly. One must have lived in that isolator which is called a National Assembly to realise how the men who are most completely ignorant of the state of the country are almost always those who represent it … Most of my colleagues of the left and the extreme left were in the same perplexity of mind, the same ignorance of daily facts. One spoke of the national workshops only with a kind of terror, for fear of the people is the sickness of all those who belong to authority; the people, for those in power, are the enemy.’

Proudhon states that his own failure to become involved in the issue was due solely to his work in the National Assembly taking up his time and energy. Other socialist politicians, however, deliberately joined Conservative governments, discarding their socialist beliefs and integrity as they did so. There was outrage when the French socialist deputy, Millerand, joined the French government in 1899 and immediately sold out. One of the criticisms of the Labour government in Britain when it came to power in the 1930s was that, despite its rhetoric and ideology, it governed according to convention, liberal economic doctrines.

This process explains the inability of the leaders of the parliamentary Labour party to do very much to challenge Tory policies, and their apparent indifference to the suffering experienced by the rest of the working population in order to appeal to the same type of Tory ‘swing voter’. This does not justify revolution and violence in democracies, and the brutality and terror these cause. The only solution is for people to insist that their elected representative take notice of their concerns or else replace them with those who will. And that requires, energy, persistence, and an absolute commitment to making people’s voice heard amongst the shouting of the enraged media barons and the corruption of big business. As someone once said in a previous age, ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’.

Source

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Parliamentary Isolation, in George Woodcock, ed., The Anarchist Reader (Glasgow: Fontana 1977) 110-111.