Posts Tagged ‘P.-J. Proudhon’

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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Are the Blairites Trying to Discredit Parliamentary Democracy?

July 12, 2016

To the revolutionary far left, parliamentary politics are a corrupt sham. The parliamentary system, and the parties represented in it, always represent the interests of the capitalists, the industrials and aristocrats, against the peasants and the working class. Despite major disagreements in doctrine and tactics, this is the attitude that unites Anarchists, Anarcho-Syndicalists and Communists. Although not an advocate of the revolutionary overthrow of existing society, P.J. Proudhon, one of the founders of Anarchism, described democracy as the process by which the people elect their jailers.

The same hostility also extends to moderate, reformist Socialist parties and their leaders. Moderate socialist parties, like the Labour party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany and Austria, and their reformist and gradualist counterparts in France, Italy and elsewhere were despised by the revolutionary Left for betraying the working class, as they saw it, to capitalism and the bosses. Revolutionary Anarchists, Syndicalists and Communists bitterly denounced mainstream Socialists for calling an end to strikes and clamping down on working class militancy in order to preserve, as they saw it, their position of leadership in the working class movement. The great Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, bitterly reproached the Italian Socialist party for ending the occupation of the factory, and thus ending a period working class militancy that could have resulted in a revolution similar to that of the Soviet Union.

In most cases, the analysis is wrong. By and large, there has been little support for the ultra-left and revolutionary organisations and parties in western Europe, and they have always been a minority. However, I’m starting to wonder if the Blairites in the Labour party are trying to prove the hard-left critique of parliamentary democracy true. Jeremy Corbyn is immensely popular with the Labour rank-and-file. He is certainly not a Communist, despite the ranting of the right-wing press and media. Standing for the renationalisation of the railways, free, state education and healthcare, does not make anyone even remotely like Lenin. But to the Blairites, this is all too much. They are trying to destroy Corbyn’s leadership and smear both him and his supporters. And they do represent the interests of the bosses.

Blair was impressed by Margaret Thatcher, neo-liberal economics, and the rich. One of the first things he did in Downing Street was invited Margaret Thatcher round for tea. She reciprocated by proclaiming ‘New Labour’ her greatest achievement. He went even further in privatising Britain’s industries, including the NHS, than the Tories. He also reduced the welfare state even further. It was Blair that introduced the infamous work capability tests, which has seen severely disabled people unfairly thrown off benefits after they’ve been judged ‘fit to work’. He also introduced workfare, which effectively operates as a form of cheap, subsidised labour for big business. He appointed some of the most grasping, exploitative, and sheer murderous businessmen to government departments, and declared that ‘this government is extremely relaxed about getting rich’. But if there’s one thing he disliked and distrusted, it was the unions. Despite having got into politics through being sponsored by one of them, he also threatened to cut the Labour party’s ties with them. As they were founding, constituent elements of the Labour party, which was established partly to defend their interests, this was a major attack on the party itself.

And Blair and his coteries have been amply rewarded. Private industry donated vast sums to the party, sponsoring conferences and all manner of other events. And when he retired, Blair went off on very lucrative speaking tours, and got himself a job as ‘peace envoy’ to the Middle East. Which sounds like a very, very sick joke.

The result of this for ordinary people has been the removal of workers’ rights, wages cut to a minimum, and the threat of poverty and unemployment through zero hours contracts and welfare cuts. And all so that the party could win the votes of middle class voters in swing marginals.

Meanwhile, the working class became increasingly alienated and disenfranchised. New Labour took them for granted, and expected to continue having their support, regardless of what they did. But they didn’t. Between 1997 and 2008 or so, Labour lost five million votes. Many people have said repeatedly that they don’t vote, because there’s no difference between the parties. A few years ago the press reported on how there was a mood in this country of angry disenfranchisement.

This appears to be what Angela Eagle, Tristram Hunt and co all want to bring back. A Labour party that is just a pale imitation of the Tories, that has no interest in doing anything for the working poor beyond a few, minimal policies. A party that sees itself as pursuing the policies of rich industrialists. And in doing so, a party that appears to corroborate everything the revolutionary Left has ever said about the failure and corruption of parliamentary politics.

In my view, only Jeremy Corbyn stands for genuinely creating a real alternative to the Tories, and reinvigorating not just the Labour party, but the moribund, cynical state of parliamentary politics itself.

The Bulgarian Peasant Party’s Solution to the Housing Problem

June 1, 2014

Last week I blogged on the several contemporary issues, which were similar to those tackled by the Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, nearly a hundred years ago. These were a local village power company, which was run as a co-operative by the whole community. It was thus similar to the idea of the Utopian British Socialist, Thomas Spence, for the communal ownership of land by the individual parishes, and also to the idea of the Bulgarian peasants’ party for the transformation of Bulgarian agricultural society through the formation of peasant cooperatives. I also remarked on the way the Bulgarians had also set up a policy of allowing the banks to provide loans on reasonable rates to credit cooperatives as a way of driving out the moneylenders. This is a problem that now besets British society, through the return of loan sharks and payday loan companies, like Wonga, that offer extortionate rates, because of wage freezes and cuts to welfare benefits.

Bulgaria, like modern Britain, also suffered from a housing crisis, made worse by the influx of thousands of refugees displaced by the First World War. They attempted to solve it through a mixture of policies, one of which was similar to the Bedroom Tax. They laid down the maximum amount of space that a family could occupy in a property, so that there would be more space available for the homeless. They also set about building cooperatively owned tenement blocks. R.J. Crampton describes these policies in A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 90).

The principle of maximum holding was applied to urban as well as rural property. The post-war refugee invasion had placed severe strains upon the already hard-pressed housing resources of Bulgaria’s towns, particularly Sofia. According to Agrarian legislation no family was to occupy more than two rooms and a kitchen, with an extra room for every two children over fourteen. Office space was also subject to restriction, and in the case of both domestic and office accommodation commissioners acting on behalf of the ministry of the interior had extensive powers to enforce the new and widely resented regulations. A second and more popular response to the housing shortage, and one much in conformity with Agrarian philosophy, was to encourage the building of new apartment blocks cooperatively financed and thereafter owned by their inhabitants. This reform survived the fall of the Stamboliiski regime and cooperative building continued through the inter-war period.

The German radical Socialist party, the USPD, also had a similar policy in the same period, for the same reasons: to solve the shortage of housing caused by the First World War.

What’s needed isn’t the Bedroom Tax, which is really an excuse to cut Housing Benefit by pretending to withdraw a subsidy that never in fact existed, if tenants of supposedly under-occupied properties don’t move out to suitable homes, which also don’t existed. What is needed to solve the problem is simply building more social and genuinely affordable housing, which the Conservative actively seem to oppose. When the ‘right to buy’ legislation was passed, councils were forbidden from building more council houses, and ‘affordable’ properties are only pegged at 80 per cent of the market worth, which means that in many parts of the London houses are well out of the price range of the very poorest, who need them. It’s possible that cooperation schemes, like those enacted by the Bulgarians, might be part of the solution.

Something like the Bulgarians’ legislation limiting the maximum amount of space families can occupy could also be applied to private housing. The Bulgarian policy was based on the view that you should only possess what you can actually work yourself. Thus there was a maximum amount of land allowed to be cultivated by peasant farmers. Large landowners were forced to sell the excess land to the smaller peasants, so that each peasant farmer had just enough for his needs and those of wider Bulgarian society.

The great French anarchist, P.-J. Proudhon, had a similar view. Much of his Mutualist anarchist system was based on his experience of peasant society in the Jura, where he grew up. While he didn’t set the maximum amount of space people could occupy in their houses, he did recommend that people should lawfully own only what they could actually practically use themselves. Thus, landlords, who held multiple properties, which they rented out, should have all but the property they themselves lived in expropriated and given to the people, who needed them.

I believe a similar policy could be usefully implemented today. Perhaps we need the ‘right to buy’ principle extended to all the private tenants, now forced to rent homes at exorbitant rents because of the way available housing was bought up by people seeking to rent them out later in the housing boom of the 1990s. I also believe that there are many under-occupied private homes, with considerable space going without tenants, in certain parts of London, such as Knightsbridge, Kensington and Westminster.

And possibly Chipping Norton. I can’t see how Dave Cameron, whose government is responsible for the Bedroom Tax, and who has said repeatedly that ‘We’re all in it together’, would possibly object to having to share his home with a couple of crusties.