By Martin Thomas
Myself, when I first read Ed Miliband’s Labour Party conference speech (27 September), I dismissed his attack on “predators” as an unmemorable empty throwaway remark.
I was wrong. If it was throwaway, then it was thrown away onto a terrain where it has been a stifling consensus in mainstream politics for decades to be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (Peter Mandelson, 1998), and yet where now, with the crisis, millions can see that the drive for filthy riches has made society ever more cruel to the majority and economic life ever more destructive.
The “predators” line has reverberated in the media, and provides leverage for the theme which Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have hammered at for the last year and a half: Make Labour fight!
A sharp and unexpected assessment came from Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph (30/09/11).
The “Thatcher settlement, like Attlee’s, proved enduring. Indeed, it was formalised after the general election of 1997, when the victorious Labour prime minister Tony Blair (supported by his chancellor Gordon Brown) explicitly accepted and developed the economic and moral insights of his great predecessor.
The financial collapse of September 2008 drew a line under this period of our history. From that moment, British politics entered uncharted territory, just as it did after the financial disasters of the Seventies...
Hence the importance of Ed Miliband’s party conference address in Liverpool on Tuesday... Miliband... made a tentative step towards tearing up the rules that have defined British economics for the past generation with his cautious critique of capitalism as it has been carried on here for the past 30 years”.
Oborne is a maverick right-winger, described somewhere as “a former Marxist turned Christian country gent”, anti-free marketeer and deliberately spiky in his writing.
Miliband’s critique was “tentative” and “cautious” indeed. His speech included no proposal for action against “predators” other than a continuation of the tax on bankers’ bonuses. He retrospectively endorsed some of Thatcher’s measures in the 1980s.
However, the “ungenerous press” for Miliband’s speech has, in its own way, contributed to shifting the terms of mainstream political debate, bigging up Miliband’s anti-”predator” theme as more than he’d bargained for.
Digby Jones, former CBI chief and a government minister under Gordon Brown, described Miliband’s speech as a “kick in the teeth for the only sector that generates wealth, that pays the tax and creates the jobs this country needs.”
The Sun reported the speech this way: “’Red’ Ed Miliband will vow today to take on big business as he declares the modern capitalist system ‘a failure’.”
It responded to Ed Miliband’s much-applauded line, “I’m not Tony Blair”, with the pithy sneer: “Ed Miliband on the only Labour leader ever to win three elections in a row”.
CBI leader John Cridland told the Sun: “Business people will be scratching their heads and asking why Mr Miliband thinks large numbers of British firms are asset strippers”.
The Express: “Ed Miliband was condemned by business leaders yesterday over his plans to hit ‘predator’ businesses with higher taxes”.
Benedict Brogan, in the Telegraph: Miliband’s “is a model for crushing enterprise in favour of expanding the state”.
Miliband counterposed capitalist “predators” (bad) to capitalist “producers” (good). In modern capitalism the production is almost a sideline to the predation. Over a hundred years ago Frederick Engels wrote: “The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital”. Top managers are part of the capitalist class; but production managers are the least well-paid and lowest-ranking subgroup of managers.
Right-wing writers like Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail cited the truth that in capitalism it is impossible to draw a neat line between production and predation. They used it to gloss up the producing capitalists as “wealth-creators” (in fact, the workers they employ create the wealth) and to excuse predation as a necessary minor sideline: “Miliband contrasted wealth creators with asset-strippers, ignoring the unfortunate truth that some people are both, and that the former depends on the latter”.
Alastair Darling, the last Labour Chancellor, was quoted in the Daily Mail and the Sun as backing the outcry: “If I build in a city centre am I good for investing or bad for speculating? Businesses are there to make money”.
On the other side of it, writers like Seumas Milne in the Guardian were enthusiastic about what they called “the most radical speech by a Labour leader for a generation”.
Whether or not the labour movement, in politics, should seek only damage-limitation under the rule of the market and profit-making, or whether it should move against at least some strands of profiteering, is now an issue in mainstream politics. Socialists should apply leverage to that crack in the consensus. It may close again, but, so far as our efforts can make a difference, we should strive to open it wider.
At one time it was fairly routine for leaders of Labour and similar parties vaguely to condemn profiteers. “Gnomes of Zurich”: Harold Wilson, 1956. “Squeeze rich until the pips squeak”: Denis Healey, 1978. At another time, during and for a while after the early 20th century era of repeated spasmodic crisis, when even conservatives often said that capitalism might well not survive long, Labour leaders would sometimes make vague speeches about replacing capitalism with socialism.
Since the 1990s attitudes like Darling’s or Mandelson’s have dominated. The bit in Miliband’s speech was a shift, not a repeat of something which has been standard.
2011 is not 1980, or 1973, or the 1930s, or 1918. It is not just that Ed Miliband is feeble. At the last general election, May 2010, the biggest slate of activist-left candidates (though it was a small one: TUSC) mostly limited its agitation to “stop the cuts” and “troops out of Afghanistan”, with scarcely a word about capitalism and socialism.
The last 30 years of capitalist storming and then triumphalism have created a great cultural deadweight in politics.
Even young, militant, street-activist movements tend to present themselves as only “indignant citizens”, or advocates of “real democracy”, or “democracy not corporatocracy”, or “another world” (undefined).
Active socialists must both advocate our ideas boldly, without being flattened by the deadweight, and seek leverage for those ideas in the cracks of a culture which has been flattened by the deadweight.
In history there are periods when decades of ideological evolution are condensed into months or weeks. Most of the time, though, decades take decades. Even the periods of rapid tumult are based on previous slow evolutions.
Activists who came into political life in the early 1980s — as many of today’s labour-movement stalwarts did — will have a bias towards dismissing developments as not to be compared with that time. But the early 1980s will never be repeated. New events are what they are, not failed attempts to replicate past eras.
From the past, one of the most relevant experiences to learn from now is the advice that Engels gave to socialists in the USA in the 1880s. They were a small band, mostly German migrants who had been educated in socialist theory back in Germany, operating in a USA where even the most militant workers usually accepted free-market economics.
Agitation developed around the ideas of a quack writer, Henry George, who argued that all social ills could be cured by taxing land.
Marx considered George “utterly backward! He understands nothing about the nature of surplus value”. In theoretical terms, his ideas were “a last attempt — to save the capitalistic regime”.
Yet George’s book and the “sensation” it had stirred up were “significant because [they were] a first, if unsuccessful, attempt at emancipation from the orthodox political economy”. Engels argued that the socialists should explain George’s inadequacies, but not use that as an excuse to stand aside. Rather, they should use the “sensation” to gain maximum leverage for agitation and for pushing along the movement.