After 35 years of neoliberal economics working class Britain is not doing well. A recently published report shows that in 2011 nine out of the ten poorest regions in North West EU countries were in Britain (1). The figures for 2009-10 in the UNICEF report ‘Child well-being in rich countries-a comparative overview’ puts Britain fourteenth out of the twenty nine ‘most advanced economies’ (2). That doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that is pretty much last place out of NW European countries with a similar post WWII experience. Also reported this summer was that out of the twenty eight EU countries the UK comes in twenty sixth in terms of loneliness- that is not having someone you could turn to and rely on in a crisis (3). After three decades of what Harvey termed the economics of class war (4) the British working class is atomised, alienated, lonely, precarious and increasingly skint. We live in an ill society that generates ill people. Studies show that individuals are happier within societies that are more equal — wide disparities of income and wealth create societies that are less happy and more ill at ease. The UK has high rates of inequality, one of the consequences being the prevalence of mental illness and the use of anti-depressants. In a society marked by inequality, exploitation and environmental degradation people are struggling with unease and alienation and a lack of an alternative to ‘what is’.
Since the industrial revolution of the mid 1700s capitalism has concentrated power in the hands of the owners of the means of production — factories, land, mines, distribution — and has separated the vast majority of people from those means. Power and wealth have been and are accrued by an elite while the rest of us hope to pay our bills. This plus the commodification of the necessities of life -food, shelter, heating etc — means that the working class are forced to sell their labour, whether mental or physical, in order to survive above destitution. Within capitalism the wealth of the few and the exploitation of the many is linked, the worker spends her day adding value to the assets of the company, at the end of the day that work/added value is taken by the company who then gives the worker a wage that is less than the value they have generated pocketing the difference. They pay enough to keep the workforce functional-unless they can get the government to subsidise those wages via Working Family Tax Credit etc- as they need their labour and thus each day the shareholders/boss/company gets richer while the worker struggles on, hoping they might win the lottery or looking forward to the next weekend.
Capitalism is exploitative, oppressive, alienating and instrumentalist. The worker is alienated from their work, having to carry out tasks assigned to them, the benefit of that work being largely accrued by someone else; from their colleagues who they are taught to see as competitors, as threat; from themselves as they wonder how they ended up doing this, being this. And the worker functions as an instrument, a means to someone else’s ends. In post industrial work there has been a change, industrial capitalism demanded the worker’s body but was often uninterested in their mind or ‘soul’, their thoughts, relational skills, communication abilities, however post industrial work wants those aspects as well. 21st century work often demands all of the worker leaving her with little to construct a meaningful life outside of work. In industrial work there was a chance to find meaning, community in unions, political/social clubs etc but often the modern worker is drained of all energies and goes home to watch TV and get ready for tomorrow. As this goes on the only place of meaning in her life becomes work, the very place that incapacitates her for anything else (5).
Since the 1980s neoliberal capitalism has dominated UK politics, an ideology of free markets, small state provision (for the workers, though not for corporations), individualisation, privatisation and a continual dismantling of workers rights and protections, concessions gained since the Second World War. In short class war waged by the rich to cite Atari Teenage Riot (6). Neoliberal capitalism and politics have reconfigured institutions (governments, schools etc), individuals and society into it’s own image. Brought up in a commodification environment that promotes work and individualised consumption as the highest goal people have been reduced to objects, women especially valued according to their physicality-and make of handbag. Capitalism’s most brazen trick is to try and pass itself off as natural, or ‘god ordained’ in a bygone era, attempting to convince us that this is how it is meant to be, that no other world is possible. The Situationists wrote about this in 1950s/60s referring to it as ‘the spectacle’ (7) — how advanced industrial societies are represented to themselves by the elite, so effectively that the oppressed internalise those values, those views. Society and culture dominated by a seamless representation of a capitalist version of the world via the media, state and corporations (7), where any dissent is marginalised or co-opted. Gramsci referred to something similar as ‘cultural hegemony’ (8).
And over this society that is a material expression of capitalist interests exists the state, hierarchical, coercive, serving the interests of the political and corporate elite. The capitalist state is a capitalist construction expressing capitalist’s interests, configuring society to the interests of capital. Between 1945 and the 70s there was a respite from the state/corporate amalgam as unions and the Labour Party gained concessions for the working class but since the 1980s the state has re-assumed its historic role of enforcing capitalist interests. Where there has been resistance, as in the Miner’s Strike of 1980s, the coercive nature of the state has come to the fore, undisguised and brutal. The state’s authority rests ultimately on the use, or threat, of force, it is normally structured and bureaucratic but if it has to be more violent to achieve it’s ends it will be. The modern capitalist state is inherently hierarchical, coercive, patriarchal and militaristic.
As individuals we are ‘socialised’ by the societies and cultures we are reared in, we imbibe their values and embody their world views. We listen to their fairy tales of royalty, hierarchy and the sinister ‘other’ both as children and adults and believe them. We take the norms of our societies and believe them to be nature, believing this is how it is meant to be rather than seeing them as top down constructs, the result of class war that has been waged particularly ruthlessly by the rich over the last 30 years.
Capitalism and the nation state system have been responsible for the misery and deaths of countless millions over the last 300 years. The state communist system proved little different to capitalism perpetuating the same old patterns of hierarchy, instrumentalism, elitism and coercion. However throughout history there has been another way of organising society, economics and politics that has been glimpsed, sometimes poorly, sometimes more fully explored; anarchism. Anarchy is a word often used by the media to describe disorder, violence and chaos and the Sex Pistols did it no favours either! Anarchism has been misrepresented by many people for various reasons. There have been violent anarchist who in the 1800s believed in ‘propaganda by deed’, the idea that the assassination of a leading industrialist or politician would stir the working class to revolution, they were wrong, and it enabled the state to represent anarchists as violent and to crack down on non existent global anarchist networks (9).
However anarchism did not go away and has hung around waiting its time-which should be about now!
Anarchism is the belief that communities of people are capable of self organisation for the common good and don’t need to be told what to do by bosses of whatever kind and that in fact being socialised to look to a parental figure to always adjudicate or direct holds people back from maturity. In an anarchist community all people are equal there is no hierarchy, no patriarchy, no racism. All people take part in making decisions about those things that affect the community, the decision being reached by discussion that concludes when every one has agreed or is at least happy not to block the consensus.
The means of production — land, machinery, natural resources, distribution — are held by the community there is no private ownership of the means of production and people organise and work in co-operatives of equals. Obviously some people have certain skills and abilities and that would not be neglected but certain roles would not bestow special status on anyone, all valid work is of equal worth. Production would be primarily on the basis of need, consumption also, the maxim ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’ is appropriate here.
Because production would be organised on the basis of people’s needs not profit there would be more leisure time available for people to explore their creativity. An anarchist community should be a place of creativity, arts, crafts and relationships. Communities would be voluntary associations of willing participants whose concern would be for the common good knowing that their own well being and the well being of others is intricately linked.
Lots of anarchists are federalists, realising that autonomy is different from independence they favour local or regional councils made up of recallable representatives from different communities. These councils could resolve difficulties or coordinate actions to do with production etc.
Syndicalist anarchists would see anarchism as applicable to the function based, spread out world of industrial work as well as geographical communities.
Some anarchists have been preoccupied with individual freedom while others see it as the only reliable path to social justice and equality as its structures preclude anyone from accumulating wealth or power. Over time people brought up in anarchism would be socialised into a different way of being, of co-operation and collaboration and of seeing people as equals to be worked with rather than as objects to be used.
Obviously production in an anarchist economy would use less natural resources and energy due to holding many goods collectively and producing primarily on the basis of need this would stop the rapid exhaustion of the earth’s resources and with the decentralisation of energy production slow global warming
In an anarchist community where things are held collectively, everyone’s needs are met and status goods are irrelevant so crimes of appropriation would fall, however in instances of violent crime a period of supervision or even exile may be appropriate, disciplining action would have to be agreed by the community and be victim centred aimed at healing, restitution and rehabilitation.
So how do we get there from here? The classic anarchist answer is to begin ‘building the new in the shell of the old’, to disregard the structures and powers that be and to do something better instead. Capitalism according to John Holloway is a verb, it is something we do rather than it existing independent of us (10). It will end when we stop doing it! Some think there would be a period of conflict, that the powerful are not going to allow the source of their wealth and power-the working class- to turn away and reconstruct society without a struggle. However anarchists have nothing to gain by the use of violence because 1. not enough people would be prepared to get involved; 2. there is no point taking on the capitalist state at it’s point of strength; 3. your means must be consistent with your aims, if they are not you won’t hit the ends you were aiming for, ends are shaped by means; 4. if you believe it is acceptable to use violence to achieve your objective you have to cede the same right to your opponent.
The online learning site ‘Futurelearn’ (11) runs a course called ‘The Secret Power of Brands’ (12) which includes the idea of a Venn diagram in which one circle contains the felt needs of your target group, the other circle your organisation’s attributes-in the overlap of the two circles are the aspects of your organisation that meets those felt needs, the aspects that the organisation needs to communicate (12). Obviously this is to do with businesses but is transposable to other spheres. In an online article ‘The Left Can Win’ Pablo Inglesias of the Spanish Podemos party-that emerged from the Indignados movement- makes the point that the Left needs to communicate in a language that people understand about things that people are bothered about, that there has to be a tie up between what we are talking about and what people are experiencing or we are irrelevant while having the correct analysis (13).We need to disrupt the top down dominant discourses that people read and hear by listening to people and talking with them about the things that matter to them in a way that alerts people to the misleading, elite-serving, disempowering narratives they have been given and empowers people to engage and create change.
A recent ‘Red Pepper’ article/interview with another Podemos member Eduardo Maura comments that the Left needs to have a better grasp of “class compositions and identities” (14) which are far more complex and fragmented than before the neoliberal era, and to have a better understanding of people’s lived experiences so that it can communicate effectively (14). Podemos seems to have managed to embed itself in local communities with many local branches as well as using social media/ the internet extensively in order to enable involvement and participation in discussion and decision making for as many people as possible (14). This model of a movement with multiple access points so that people with busy fragmented lives can get involved in the way they can manage has to be taken seriously as for many people an initial involvement that includes conferences, reading lengthy books and protests may be a bit too much. The above examples are peculiar to time and place, in circumstances different to our own but they do give us clues as to how anarchism could engage more effectively with the world around us- exploring how anarchism answers the felt needs people have, listening to people and their concerns and then trying to give them a better analysis of the causes of their problems in a language they understand, having a localised and online movement that has multiple points of access so that people can learn, understand more clearly, engage and participate in a way they can manage. It will almost certainly be a bit messy and include mistakes but the need for a clearer, more effective communication of anarchist politics is paramount.
Many people in the industrialised world are experiencing alienation, lack of community, purpose and fulfilment-they know something is wrong with their lives, with the way we are organised but they are distracted and anesthetised by TV and the tabloid press which keeps them away from alternative narratives and visions. What is needed is the propagation of an anarchist alternative and an example of what it looks like in practice so it can be seen and experienced.
The future is not necessarily anarchist, it could be even more authoritarian capitalism or environmental meltdown but if we want to avoid these two then the working class are going to have to decide to change our direction, to find ways of discussing and exploring how we can move towards a more equal, just and free tomorrow. The challenge for anarchists is how to facilitate this, a mass movement towards a just, equitable society-how to move out and engage in a project of coordinated education and activism.
(1) Rickman, D. (2014) ‘Are 9 of the poorest region in northern Europe really in the UK? http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/are-9-of-the-poorest-regions-in-northern-europe-really-in-the-uk–eJ0axHCqmx
(2)’Child well-being in rich countries-a comparative overview’ UNICEF UK https://www.unicef.org.uk/Images/…/Report%20card%20briefing2b.pdf
(3) Bingham, J. ‘Britain the loneliness capital of Europe’ . 18-6-14. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/10909524/Britain-the-loneliness-capital-of-Europe.html
(4) Harvey, D. (2005 ) ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.
(5) Berardi, F. (2009) ‘The Soul at Work’, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles.
(6) Atari Teenage Riot, ‘Black Flag’ on ‘Is this Hyperreal?’ Digital Hardcore, 2010.
(7) Debord, G. (1968) ‘The Society of the Spectacle’. Black and Red, USA.
(8) Thomas, M. (ed)(2012) ‘Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary’, Workers’ Liberty, London
(9) Butterworth, A. (2010) ‘The World that Never Was. A true story of dreamers, schemers, anarchists and dreamers’. The Bodley Head, London.
(10) Holloway J. (2010), ‘Crack Capitalism’ Pluto Press, London and New York.
(12) ‘The Secret Power of Brands’ UEA https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/the-secret-power-of-brands
(13) Inglesias, P. (2014) ‘The Left Can Win’ 12-9-2014 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/pablo-iglesias-podemos-left-speech/
(14) Dolan, A. (2014) ‘Si se puede’ in Red Pepper, Issue 199, Dec/Jan 2015, Socialist Newspaper (Publications), London