The Fire Next Time?
Here is another article text from Organise!, the twice-yearly magazine of the Anarchist Federation. For print copies to order online or to download the entire PDF of the current issue, visit: http://www.afed.org.uk/publications/organise-magazine/407-issue-82-summer-2014.html
Other contents of the current issue #82, Summer 2014: WHERE FROM HERE? Crisis on the Left, crisis in the Anarchist Movement, The Politics of Malatesta, Platformism and the “Fontenis Affair”, The Life of Omar Aziz, The Zoot Suit as Rebellion, book reviews.
The Fire Next Time?
We look at the increasing stresses and strains within modern British society, and within the worldwide capitalist system as a whole. Will this lead to increasing apathy or to a sudden outbreak of protest, of urban uprisings?
“As nations of the world are thrown into a debt crisis, the likes of which have never been seen before, harsh fiscal ‘austerity’ measures will be undertaken in a flawed attempt to service the debts. The result will be the elimination of the middle class. When the middle class is absorbed into the labour class – the lower class – and lose their social, political, and economic foundations, they will riot, rebel, and revolt.” From The Global Economic Crisis: Riots, Rebellion and Revolution. When Empire Hits Home, Part 3: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-global-economic-crisis-riots-rebellion-and-revolution/18529
It is no accident that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is attempting to get a measure through the Greater London Authority about the use of water cannon by the Metropolitan Police. This wily politician, who masquerades as a lovable buffoon, is as sharp as many other members of his class, and has their alert class consciousness. He knows the social pressures are mounting continuously with more and more austerity measures piling up, on what seems like a daily basis. Johnson confirmed that he had made this decision based on the summer riots of 2011, which affected several cities in Britain. As the comedian Jeremy Hardy has noted: “He may seem like a lovable buffoon, but you know he wouldn’t hesitate to line you all up against a wall and have you shot”
In fact the current situation could be compared to that of the horrendous torture and execution device called pressing, of loading ever increasing weights on to a prone victim, bringing about their death via crushing.
The number of suicides as a result of the Department of Work and Pensions campaign against the unemployed, in collusion with its unemployed -bashing mercenaries ATOS, is mounting. Those people who through disability or physical and mental illness are on benefits, are under increasing pressure from this brutal agency, which is paid £100 million (!) a year to do the dirty work. One incontinent woman was told by ATOS to wear a nappy. Another woman dying of breast cancer had her benefits cut by £30 a week. When she appealed, her benefits were reinstated, but she died shortly after. Over half of those who appealed against ATOS decisions were found to be justified, and this increased statistically when they were represented by lawyers or benefits advisers. In retaliation, the Government is planning to withdraw legal aid from appellants. In a coordinated attack on the disabled, the Government announced the closure of 36 Remploy factories, which employed disabled workers. This resulted in compulsory redundancies for 1,700 workers. At the same time, Disability Living Allowance is being cut, which will seriously hinder many disabled people being able to work.
Attack on the Elderly
As a result of cuts to local authority spending over the last four years, at least 250,000 older vulnerable people are being deprived of care over such things as bathing, dressing and eating. The number of older people receiving “Meals on Wheels” dropped by half. Obviously with this came a concomitant cut in the number of care workers. This increased the pressure on family carers and friends, with a resulting increase in hospital entries. As Holly Holder, a co-author of a Nuffield Trust report remarked: “It is highly likely that this is having a negative effect on older people’s health and wellbeing and that of their carers, but without adequate data to assess this impact, the NHS and government are flying blind when it comes to managing demand and planning for the future.” Already one thousand-and rising- people have received letters with instructions on how to get back into work, even though some of them have less than six months to live. One notable recent case involved one person being accounted “fit to work” when they had already died!
These cuts in local authority spending also put pressure on the elderly in terms of day centres being closed, as they also impacted on young people with the closure of youth centres.
The Student Crisis
The student crisis is one that will have long term effects. The axing of student grants in 1998 by the Labour Government and the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees was the start on attacks on easy access to higher education. These tuition fees have increased to £9,000 at the present time, with the passing of the Higher Education Act in 2004 by the Labour government of Blair to introduce variable fees. This brought in fees of up to 3,000 a year in the academic year 2007-2008. In 2010 the cap on student fees was set at £9,000, meaning that universities could, and did, raise their fees to this figure.
In late March of this year it emerged that the Coalition government is now preparing to abolish this cap, thus opening the chance for university administrations to increase their annual tuition fees to up to £16,000 a year. Already this is stopping many people from going to university. It further confirms the move to a two-tier education system. In conjunction with the ending of student grants in 1998, came the abolition of maintenance grants for living expenses starting in the academic year 1999-2000. This forced students to take out large student loans from that date on, trapping many in debt. Those now entering the jobs market are now already in debt to the sum of tens of thousands of pounds. Increasingly, only those able to afford to pay for tuition fees and living costs at the same time will be in the position to snap up lucrative jobs.
Attack on the Homeless
There is also a twin pronged attack on the homeless, through government legislation and through the actions and policies of the local State, that is, local councils. The Coalition government brought in legislation against the squatting of empty residential housing recently, in summer 2012. It is looking towards extending this ban to public and commercial buildings in the coming years. In London, the number of homeless people has risen by 60% over the last two years. In tandem with this and not just involving the homeless, but those still with shelter but in impoverished conditions, half a million people are now using food banks. As well as attacks on squatting, the Coalition Government introduced cuts to local housing allowances to people in private accommodation administered by local councils. In a staggering display of class arrogance, Philippa Roe, heading up finance at Westminster Council, said that “If larger families have to move out strong transport links will allow children to travel to schools and friends and families to stay in touch”. The Conservative controlled Westminster Council has paid a key role in lobbying Ministers to remove the responsibilities of local councils to house the homeless. It attempted to ban soup kitchens in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral in late 2011 but was forced to make a U-turn after a general outcry. However plans to ban soup kitchens in the area are once again being put on the agenda, together with a campaign against rough sleeping. A leading figure in Westminster Council said: “Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.”
In tandem with this local councils are increasing their attacks on the homeless. In many areas, local councils are fiddling the figures for the number of rough sleepers in their area, deliberately minimising the numbers. In March of this year Newham Council, controlled by Labour, separated an elderly disabled couple who had found themselves homeless. They were put in separate accommodation in a move reminiscent of the practice of separating married couples in workhouses during the Victorian period! In another vile move, Newham Council, with the enchanting figure of Sir Robin Wales at its head, served ASBOs on 28 rough sleepers. They worked in alliance with the notorious UK Border Agency. Unmesh Desai was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1980s for his advocacy of physical attacks on the far right, known as “squadism”. This young radical has become the Labour Party enforcer for Newham, with a post as executive member for crime and anti-social behaviour. He went on record as saying: “Residents do not regard sleeping, drinking, urinating, or taking drugs on the streets and using threatening or violent behaviour as an acceptable way of life. We will not tolerate it, and will take action wherever we are able to reduce anti-social behaviour and crime linked to rough sleeping.”
Attack on Social Housing
The Government pushed through the Localism Act in 2012. This was intended to spearhead a harsh attack on social housing, whether either the rapidly dwindling council housing or the housing associations. Tenants will now be robbed of security of tenure. Newly let council properties can be let on five year (occasionally two year) ‘fixed term secure tenancies’. Councils can now discharge those duties to house the homeless by insisting they take fixed term tenancies in council or housing association accommodation or private accommodation, with no security of tenure at all. Before this, homeless families had to be offered the choice of a social housing tenancy, although often following a period in temporary accommodation. Housing Associations can now charge up to 80% market rents on newly let properties.
Labour councils as well as those controlled by the Conservatives, rushed to implement these new rules. The Labour councils of Haringey, Lambeth and Newham brought in the new 5 year tenancies, despite having no legal obligation to do so. Once children of families in this accommodation move out (that is if they can afford to do so) they are then deemed as under-occupying, meaning their tenancy will not be renewed. They can then be evicted and provided with insecure private housing. In private accommodation there is no security of tenancy, and families can be evicted with only a two-month notice. In addition, in particular problem areas like London, avaricious landlords and land speculator sharks have driven up rents to astronomical levels. The housing benefit cap means many will not be able to afford these rents and are being forced out of inner-city areas.
The £500 housing benefit cap will affect those in housing association property as rents are raised. Even those in employment but on low wages will be penalised. Mark Hoban, Minister of Employment, under the new Universal Credit scheme, is preparing plans for those in work, but who need benefits to top up their income, to be forced to retrain to up their incomes or face benefit cuts.
In conjunction with this attack, there are massive attacks on those claiming unemployment benefits. Very large numbers of jobseekers are being deprived of benefits for arbitrary reasons. It is known that jobcentre advisors have been given targets to deprive the unemployed of their benefits.
Attack on Pensions
The government has now sped up its legislation over the age of retirement with the age of receiving a state pension going up to the age of 66 in 2020. In addition, the pension age of women to be equal with that of men is accelerated, to be completed by 2018. Plans are also underway to increase the State Pension Age to 67 by 2036 and 68 by 2046. The Government is also looking at applying this rising State Pension age to public service pension schemes! For many, this may well mean that they work until they do, with the idea of a happy retirement a dim and distant possibility.
Meanwhile this Government is continuing to support sweetheart deals where its capitalist friends and supporters, like Vodaphone and Goldman Sachs, can get away without paying taxes to the tune of billions of pounds, and where millionaires like Mick Jagger and Bob Geldof stash their wealth in offshore companies.
The Ecological Crisis
The idea that climate change is not a likelihood has received a thorough soaking lately. Extreme weather conditions, with their effects on agriculture and indeed on housing, are more likely to be a common occurrence. The ecological crisis is increasingly combining with the economic crisis. So around the world, particularly in what has been called the “periphery of the global capitalist system” or the “Global South”, new environmental movements are emerging, involving an increasing working class component, with an increasing input from indigenous peoples in Canada, Latin and Central America, China, Egypt, etc. This has involved campaigns against toxicity and pollution, against the construction of dams and high speed railway lines and tunnels, etc. The need for increased exploitation on a global level has given birth to a “disaster capitalism” like never before. The continuation of humanity is increasingly at doubt, as is the continuation of many of the “higher” species of animal. Increasingly we may well see –and as cited there are already indications of this- of a convergence of interests involving class and labour with environmental, race and gender issues, bringing to fruition the sort of movement the Anarchist Federation and others have advocated for the past few decades (see our pamphlet The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation). The need to develop a ‘libertarian front’ of all these movements and groups is built. Thus, revolutionary work consists in part of linking each area of struggle, bringing out all latent anti-capitalist and libertarian tendencies.
In Britain such movements could emerge around the embryonic anti-fracking and anti-nuclear power movement, although it is possible that they could equally develop around other environmental issues. Bear in mind that fracking and nuclear power are now important planks in this government’s policies. The police thugs that were once used against miners are applying their brutal tactics to anti-fracking activists, awakening many to the nature of the police.
Increasing Police Surveillance
More and more people are increasingly becoming witnesses to, and indeed victims of, police methods. From the already mentioned attacks on the anti-fracking activists, via the attacks and kettling of anti-capitalist protestors in anti-G8 and anti-IMF actions, and the anti-fascist mobilisations where many were kettled and arrested in Tower Hamlets, to the increasing criminalisation of student protest, the most recent example being the recent kettling of students in Birmingham. Black people and Asian people have long been at the receiving end of police brutality and harassment, as have political activists in recent years. In addition to this is the increasing use of CCTV in every sphere of life. The recent revelations by Edward Snowden showed that the US and the British state were colluding in the mass surveillance of phone calls, emails, and internet usage.
The police in Britain were used as a weapon to beat the miners’ strike of 1984-5, and they have proceeded to play a more overtly political role, returning to the one of naked intimidation as witnessed in previous decades of struggle. More and more people are witnessing their true nature, and among the conscious active minority of students, this has been a revelation that has had a radicalising effect. At the same time the Government is attacking the jobs, conditions, and pensions of the police, causing certain resentment there, a factor which could play a role if there were mass unrest and mass confrontation.
Coupled with this is the role of much of the media in whipping up attacks: on benefit claimants and the unemployed, on rough sleepers and squatters, and on immigrants. Any future revolutionary movement must, as a priority, look to the development of its own media, its own mass propaganda and means of communication.
The Coming Social Blaze
We can see that a number of factors are coming together, whether over attacks on pensions, on housing, or over increasing criminalisation of dissent. The role of both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party is being exposed in many graphic ways. And yet there appears at the moment to be no alternative being offered. The Left, or part of it, still clings to the Labour Party, whilst other parts of it attempt to replicate the “good old days” of Old Labour- as if its record was any better than New Labour, and as if these were not two heads of the same beast. They seek to raise the Lazarus of Welfare State Labourism by their impotent incantations- Left Unity, The People’s Assemblies, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, etc.
And yet the anarchist and revolutionary groupings cannot seem to gain much of an audience, and they remain isolated and small. Numbers on demonstrations, pickets, rallies and public meetings are at low levels, whilst those involved in campaigns and local neighbourhood work are similarly low. The number of strikes has fallen to a new low, whilst workplace activism has been similarly affected.
We have indicated that there are many increasing stresses and strains in British society. Many of these stresses and strains can be seen in countries around the world. The magnitude of the crisis affecting capitalism is reaching gigantic proportions at every level. Yet we know that a social quickening must come at some point. We cannot predict where it will first burst out, we cannot predict how it will spread, but the likelihood is that it will burst forth and surprise us all. Here are some indications of where it could burst forth. We have already indicated anti-fracking and anti-nuclear power movements as potential poles of struggle, another could be over the question of housing. We can see this in the development of various private renters groups that have emerged with their anti-landlord outlook and their occupations of up-market housing. Struggles over the attacks on social housing and over gentrification could be sparks to set off the social bonfire. Equally, the squatting laws themselves have been proved to be full of loopholes, with some recent examples of acquittals of those occupying residential property. The looming intensity of the housing crisis could ignite mass squats and occupations of housing and land. In London the amount of empty housing has increased by 40% over the last year. Kensington and Chelsea ranks highest in the number of empty homes among London boroughs. The centre of London and indeed of many other major cities of the world has been sold to Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs in the “buy to leave” phenomenon, where super-rich overseas buyers use prime property as an investment, with no intention of occupying. Whole areas of cities are becoming ghost towns. This phenomenon started with the last financial crash, when Swiss banks and other havens of the rich came under increasing scrutiny. These people moved their oft dodgy riches away from the banks to investing in prime property.
Organise! magazine, issue 82, Summer 2014.