Posts Tagged ‘‘The Transition to Socialism’’

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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Vox Political: Jeremy Corbyn to Recommend Councils Run Local Services

February 7, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political reported a story on BBC News, that Jeremy Corbyn was about to tell a conference in Nottingham that privatisation did not work, and that local authorities should take over the management of local services. Corbyn said

After a generation of forced privatisation and outsourcing of public services, the evidence has built up that handing services over to private companies routinely delivers poorer quality, higher cost, worse terms and conditions for the workforce, less transparency and less say for the public.

Mike’s article is at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/06/jeremy-corbyn-councils-should-run-local-services/. Go and read it for further information.

This is really going to put the cat among the pigeons. Privatisation was supposed to solve all this, by taking local services out of the hands of bureaucrats and giving them to entrepreneurs, who automatically knew far better than anyone else how they should be run. Local services would be better managed, more efficient, and there would be more ‘choice’. This was one of Thatcher’s favourite terms, it was her automatic buzzword for the supposed benefits of capitalism.

Except that, in many cases, the ‘choice’ was illusory. There were no other companies lining up to take over services. Or if there were, they were targeting the most profitable areas, for obvious reasons. In Bristol First Bus and its fellow subsidiaries have the monopoly of the bus service. There are other providers, but they only operate sporadic services. I think there is more competition over in Bath, but this has produced different problems. I once bought a return from one bus company over there, thinking that it would apply to buses generally, only to be told I couldn’t use it when I got on the bus run by that company’s rival.

What Corbyn is recommending is ‘municipalisation’. There was a lot of talk about it in the mid-1990s, when Bliar scrapped Clause 4. Of course, the talk was a sop to Old Labour about the traditional basis of Socialism – the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Of course, Bliar and the other New Labourites were convinced Neo-Liberals, and so nothing was done about municipalisation. It was quietly discarded.

In fact, municipalisation was a very old idea and much local industry was already owned and operated by local councils in the late 19th century. Both Liberal and Tory councils, for example, took over the ownership of the local gas and water companies. George Bernard Shaw, in his paper, ‘he Transition to Socialism’ made it the basis for the transformation of the country into a Socialist state, reconstituted as a federation of municipalities.

He wrote:

We now foresee our municipality equipped with land and capital for industrial purposes. At first they will naturally extend the industries they already carry on, road making, gas works, tramways, building and the like …

… Eventually the land and industry of the whole town would pass by the spontaneous action of economic forces into the hands of the municipality; and, so far, the problem of socializing industry would be solved…

This then, is the humdrum programme of the practical Social Democrat to-day. There is not one new item in it. All are applications of principles already admitted, and extensions of practices already in full activity. All have on them that stamp of the vestry which is so congenial to the British mind. None of them compels the use of the words Socialism or Revolution: at no point do they involve guillotining, declaring the Rights of Man, or swearing on the altar of the country, or anything else that is supposed to be essentially un-English. And they are sure to come-landmarks on our course already visible to farsighted politicians even of the party which dreads them.

Elsewhere he said that when he heard people shouting that Socialism would not work, he thought of them getting their gas from the municipal gas works, walking along the municipal movements on their way to the municipal pharmacy or clinic. Of course, Thatcher saw all this coming and it made her ‘frit’ in her own words. So she was determined to privatise everything she could, to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’. Well, the ability of private industry on its own to solve municipal problems has long been disproved. What happened to all the Urban Development Corporations she set up after the 1981 riots? They were supposed to be able to regenerate struggling areas using all the power of private industry, without interference from the politicos. In fact, they were all quietly wound up, one after another. And now its time to look again at municipalisation to turn back the disastrous wave of privatisation under which our nation is sinking.