Sunday, May 21, 2006

[UK] "Class War Over !"
Old 'Communist' wonders what to do next

Brian McNair declares "Class War Over". We suggest that although Mr McNair considers the Class War is over, for the unskilled, the unwaged, the working class and the newest recruits: our American and British Middle Classes, are pushing Class War issues to the political foreground.

This new Class War doesn't bear the sterotypical 'hoodie-wearing' confrontational young adult, or a leftist/communist/anarchist/marxist stereotype or indeed, any of the usual suspects.

Read of McNair's meeting with Rupert Murdoch on the 'road to Damascus:

An old communist confesses: the class war is over and even Rupert Murdoch makes sense … what do lefties do now?

By Brian McNair Sunday Herald/Euston Group

EVERYONE remembers where they were the first time they found themselves agreeing with Rupert Murdoch. I was at my desk, circa-1995, reading a speech he had given on the global impact of new technologies. These, he said, were proving “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere”. Fax machines, direct dial telephones, primitive e-mail (this was before the internet really got going) were eroding state control over media and culture, all over the world. As a result, “the Bosnian Serbs cannot hide their atrocities from the probing eyes of BBC, CNN and Sky News cameras … the extraordinary living standards provided by free-enterprise capitalism cannot be kept secret”.

Before that moment the only thing I had in common with Murdoch, apart from our Scottish heritage, was the fact that we both kept busts of Lenin on our desks as students. He abandoned any attachment to Marxism in order to become a master of the media universe. I left the Communist Party at the age of 26, but continued to see myself as a man of the left. What else could you be in the west of Scotland during the Thatcher years? This was Red Clydeside, my city, the place where tanks once parked in George Square to prevent Bolshevik-inspired revolution. We were proletarian in our hearts, even if now we went to universities and became academics and teachers and social workers. We had read our Marx, and some of us our Stalin, and so knew that capitalism was doomed to collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions. We admired the Cuban revolution, and defended the Soviet Union even as Gorbachev was telling us how much the whole sorry experiment stank of stagnation and decay.

We were naive about the virtues of those “actually existing socialist societies”, and prone to the suspicion that if Thatcher said something was right, it must be wrong. Privatise council housing and give people control of their lives? Never. Share-owning democracy? Pull the other one. Reform of a bloated and paternalistic public sector? One more cut, Thatcher’s throat! But we weren’t merely “useful idiots”. Our left-wing tendencies were informed by the experiences handed down by our parents and grandparents, and the knowledge that without the struggles of working people in trade unions and Labour parties we’d still be doing 14-hour days down the mines and living in damp-ridden tenement blocks with outside toilets. To be a socialist in Scotland, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, with their tacit support for South American death squads and dictators like Pinochet, even of apartheid in South Africa, was self-evidently the correct thing, the only moral choice for a person who felt some affinity with the ideas of justice, progress and equality. And here I was, nodding in agreement with the man who for more than a decade acted as cheerleader-in-chief for the Iron Lady. What was going on?

For a start, the Soviet Union was gone, and with it the model for an alternative path to progress. I lived in Moscow for a year in the mid-1980s, much of it funded by the Scotland-USSR Friendship Society. Not even my youthful faith in the possibility of a happy land where there was no crime, no unemployment and no inequality could disguise the oppressive reality of a totalitarian state where abortion was the officially preferred means of contraception, and a trip to Paris or a holiday in Majorca was beyond the wildest dreams of the average working person. The cold war was over, not because capitalism had triumphed, but because socialism had failed. And as the scale of the failure emerged after 1989, those ideological certainties which had seemed so reliable began to be questioned.

The rise of New Labour was a necessary response to that fact. Taking from the right to renew the left, Tony Blair dumped Clause Four and banished the old left dogmas which had kept the party in opposition for nearly two decades. In Scotland, where old leftism was and remains stronger than just about anywhere in the UK, that was a double-edged sword. Yes, because of New Labour’s election victory we got devolution, and huge cuts in unemployment, and record increases in public spending, and a Chancellor who was a Scot … but was it real socialism any more? Did it matter? Not to me, because the sterile battles between left and right were clearly losing their relevance to a world no longer driven by class war. That was the reality which allowed Blair and his senior colleagues to end Labour’s feud with Rupert Murdoch in 1995. For me, lowly leftist as I was, it changed him from bogeyman to mere businessman.

My values hadn’t changed and neither, I imagine, had his. The world had changed, though, and now, free of the old left prism through which we used to filter every reference to “democracy” and “free enterprise”, and in the absence of a credible socialist alternative, I could share his assessment of the democratising potential of new media, and the demonstration effect cultural globalisation could have on the world’s appetite for capitalism. I saw it with my own eyes in Gorbachov’s Soviet Union, and subsequent events have done nothing to undermine that experience.

Less than a century ago there were no democratic countries anywhere on the planet (if by democratic we mean every adult, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity has a vote). Today, around two-thirds of the world’s states are classified as democracies, even if many are deeply flawed and some, like Iraq and Afghanistan, risk being strangled at birth. Much of this is down to the liberatory effects of new technologies, especially the internet and satellite TV. Al-Jazeera has fuelled the development of a vibrant public sphere in the Arab world and the prospect of democratisation across the region. Bloggers eat away at the foundations of authoritarian information control.

As for those “extraordinary living standards” identified by Murdoch as evidence of capitalism’s success, Scots, like the rest of the UK, have seen their personal wealth increase by 300% on average since the 1950s. The streets are choked with cars, the skies full of holiday-makers heading for the sun, our houses full of domestic appliances. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed that “there is no precedent for this in the history of mankind. In developed countries, even the poorest and the most abandoned live immeasurably better than their grandparents did.” In the developing world, too, economic progress has been more rapid than the tenor of most news coverage suggests. The World Bank reports that the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell by a quarter between 1990 and 2001. Growth has been patchy, with GDP falling in Africa while rising fast in the emerging superpowers of Asia, but overall the trend is upward. On current projections, poverty levels will be reduced by another half in the next 10 years.

Not enough, you may say, and you would be right, but looking at these trends it is hard not to conclude that globally, there is more political freedom, and more material wealth, enjoyed by more people than at any previous period in human history. Yes, there is still greed, excess and corruption in every country. But it is evident from the long-term trends that, on balance and overall, globalisation is good. Capitalism works. The Chinese know it. The Indians know it. Deep down in his heart I bet that even Hugo Chavez knows it, and would probably admit it if were he not too busy trying to become the new Fidel.

All of this demands new thinking from what used to be the “left”. We have known this since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the velvet revolutions, but without knowing what direction it should take. Now there are signs of some movement. This Thursday will see the official launch of the Euston Manifesto, an online network dedicated to “the renewal of progressive politics”. It parts company with the old left’s anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-American sloganising and its tolerance of dictators such as Castro. It supports democracy and human rights for everyone, and refuses to accept cultural difference as an excuse for their absence. It calls terrorism “terrorism”, and supports freedom of thought and lifestyle.

Nowhere is the need for fresh thinking of this kind greater than here in Scotland. We have Carol Craig’s Centre For Confidence And Well-Being working to spread the habit of positive thinking, and public intellectuals such as Gerry Hassan have been trying for years to develop a new language for Scottish political culture. Those efforts are welcome. That they still have some way to go in shifting the Scottish mindset is indicated by the Neo-liberal Scotland? conference being held at Strathclyde University this weekend. “Neo-liberalism” refers to a belief in the importance of free trade, open markets, competition and enterprise. An unlikely descriptor, you might think, for a country with public spending at 50% of GDP, a figure described as being at “Eastern bloc levels” by the chairman of Scottish Enterprise just last year, and where South Lanarkshire Labour council leader Eddie McAvoy could think it appropriate to allocate £4450 of local tax payers’ money to a bust of himself (he paid it back after adverse publicity). The question being posed by the conference is whether Scotland is being damaged by “capitalist globalisation and the neo- liberal agenda which shapes it”.

Part of Scotland’s progressive renewal must be to dump once and for all the notion that public is good, private bad. Scotland isn’t a country in economic crisis, by any means, but it is underperforming, not because of the evil deeds of global capital but due to our con tinuing adherence to the culture of paternalistic socialism which gave us the bust of Eddie McAvoy. I recently shopped at the new Chinese super market, which just opened in Possilpark, one of Glasgow’s most deprived and crime-ridden areas. Decades of old Labour paternalism in Glasgow did little to change the prospects of Possil’s people, or to remove the blight of heroin addiction from its streets. Now Chinese and other businesses are moving in, slums are being knocked down and replaced by a mixture of low-cost social and private housing, and you get the sense that maybe, this time, change is in the air. Call it neo-liberalism if you like, but this kind of development is Scotland’s multicultural, entrepreneurial future in the making, and we ought to welcome it.

An advertised highlight of the conference is an appearance at tonight’s closing rally by Tommy Sheridan, fresh from his recent Newsnight Scotland denunciation of the English and their World Cup football team in terms which, were Tony Blair to use them about Scotland, would prompt outraged accusations of racism. The prevalence of crude anti-Englishness in Scotland, and the space routinely given it even at the serious end of the public sphere, is another marker of the distance we have to travel from the old thinking of the past. North of Gretna we are expected to hate the English just as the old left in general hate the Americans. This casual xenophobia exemplifies our insular political culture. A 21st century Scotland should embrace that old Leninist notion of genuine internationalism, starting with our co-Britons south of the Border. With six Scots in Tony Blair’s Cabinet, two of whom are plausible prime ministers, you’d think that was the least we could do.

Speaking of Gordon Brown, one of my last overtly left-wing gestures was to attend the May Day rally on Glasgow Green just after Labour’s 1992 election defeat. We were depressed, as you can imagine. The Tories had just won their fourth straight victory, and we were growing old waiting for what was then still old Labour. Gordon Brown got up to tell us that it was all right, that our time would come, that one more push would do it. We jeered, but he was right about Labour coming back to power one day, and now he’s on the verge of the ultimate political prize. In getting there he, no less than Tony Blair, has had to move beyond the traditional definitions of left and right to a world where effective actions count more than the articulation of exhausted ideologies. John Reid, another ex-communist limbering up for the post-Blair premiership, has made the same journey. It’s time for the rest of us old lefties to climb aboard.

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