Looking Back on a Year of Protests Part 1

23.02.12 - Doug Jones
Protesters who travelled on coaches from Aberystwyth to London for the 'March for the Alternative' in 2011 against the Westminster coalition cuts have taken part in a written exchange with Planet's associate editor. They give their recollections of the demonstration as a starting point for a deeper examination of the contested nature of solidarity against austerity measures in Wales, Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
In the first of these exchanges, Doug Jones looks at the implications of contemporary philosophical debates about labour, class and nationhood for rural mid Wales.

Emily Trahair: At the 'March for the Alternative' demonstration, Robin Hood hats were handed out to the crowd, a demonstrator held aloft a papier-mâché raven that had ‘escaped’ from the Tower of London, there were a series of placards featuring paintings of iconic figures and events in English radical history. This could be said to be part of a nascent attempt to re-forge a progressive culture of Englishness, in the spirit of William Morris and Walter Crane, a 21st century, post-devolution version of Belle Époque English socialism. I also noticed a number of Welsh flags draped around the shoulders of protesters marching under banners representing Welsh organisations. In your research on the Communist Party and the Welsh national question, you trace how at some points in the 20th century the party fostered a synthesis between national cultural expression – English and Welsh – and class internationalism. What does Welsh internationalism mean for you?

Doug Jones:  With regards to my research there are some distinct echoes here of the Communist Party’s attempts from the 1930s onwards to develop an English patriotism (similar developments were also evident in the Welsh and Scottish context) based on radical-democratic notions of history, and while it had its own motives for pursuing this path (gaining legitimacy as a British party, winning popular support, developing an alternative historical narrative) its basic analysis was correct: England has much to be proud of if its fetishism for the imperial past is jettisoned. While these developments in one sense challenged the more prevalent focus on British identity, they were also, at times, constrained by the labour movement’s overriding Britishness, as the labour movement was deeply linked to the CPGB. This was probably most evident in Wales and Scotland, where issues surrounding British identity were more sensitive. In Wales, as you mentioned, the CPGB sought to develop a synthesis between its internationalism and its British and Welsh identities, which while not wholly successful, saw the party in Wales engaging with issues related to devolution and the Welsh language and Welsh culture, while adopting a more distinct Welsh identity.While we should be careful not to over-romanticise, Wales undoubtedly has a strong internationalist tradition, which I think is related to us being a small nation, and it is important that we remain an outward looking nation. Perhaps the most distinct feature of Welsh internationalism is the way it combines a sense of Welsh identity with an internationalist perspective.

Robin Hood hat

ET: In a climate where migrants are increasingly made the scapegoat for problems of unemployment and over-stretched resources, can nationally distinctive expressions of universal solidarity combine with the particularities of other cultures?

DJ: I welcome the migrants among us – they are among the hardest working members of our society and they make an extremely important contribution in bringing different cultural influences to our society. Without their contribution our society would remain stagnant and we should resist all attempts to make them scapegoats for the damage wrought on our communities by the government’s economic policies. I also welcome the emergence of Robin Hood as national hero! For me it’s a healthy sign that the English are beginning to come to terms with their nationality, which has for too long been associated with the Far Right and the British Empire. To build solidarity it is important to focus on universalist perspectives while recognising and celebrating our differences. It is both dimensions that make us human. 

ET: The British state has changed dramatically with the onset of devolution. Some parts of the public sector are devolved and some aren’t, and in some cases employees in the different nations face quite different futures. Although both England and Wales are undergoing a rapid intensification of neo-liberalism under the Westminster coalition; Wales is trying to cling to some form of social liberalism in the face of reduced funding. In this context, how has the Welsh labour movement adapted to devolution? Do you encounter different ways of relating to the English worker, for some an attitude developed around a unified British identity, and for others perhaps a more inter-national dynamic of solidarity between Wales and England, or a singular focus on Wales?

DJ: Economic differences between Wales and England are obviously significant. In my view Wales has suffered disproportionately from the impact of neo-liberalism and de-industrialisation – within my lifetime we’ve seen the decimation of coalmining communities in south and north Wales and very few opportunities  put in their place, while rural communities have been left to decay. However, similar experiences have been felt in parts of England – in areas such as Yorkshire and Liverpool for instance. In one sense therefore it is difficult to speak of a unified ‘English’ identity – many Scousers I’ve spoken to, for instance, consider themselves Scouse rather than English thanks to the neglect they have experienced under successive Westminster governments. But feelings of national and cultural distinctiveness in Wales make our dissatisfaction with the British state even deeper.
In my opinion the trade union movement in Wales needs to abandon some of its more tribalist loyalties to the Labour Party – for instance Plaid members have been treated poorly by some unions. But perhaps this is now being redressed – certainly Plaid has been more supportive of the Ceredigion Against The Cuts campaign than has Labour! Personally, I believe that the development of an inter-national dynamic is the way forward; seeking to maintain solidarity based on a unified British identity harks back to the days before devolution. Devolution has seen the development of stronger, more confident national identity in the devolved nations; indeed in the UK it is perhaps the English who are most insecure with regards to their national identity, which arguably partly explains why some in the Establishment are still seeking to cling on to an outdated Britishness. I see no reason why devolution should be a hindrance to solidarity between Welsh and English workers, in fact it can potentially remove the English domination inherent in the concept of Britishness, which means we can work with each other as equals.

Welsh flag on shoulders

ET: While devolution has given strength to Welsh culture and the Welsh language, this renewed cultural expression is in danger of being seriously jeopardised by the recession and spending cuts, which have impacted on Wales only 10 years after the creation of the National Assembly. As a Welsh speaker, how do you see the cuts and the increasing marketisation of society affecting the future of the language?

DJ: The impact of the cuts will be extremely damaging for the Welsh language and Welsh culture. I’ll provide just two examples. First and perhaps most obvious is the threat to S4C. S4C is a mainstay of Welsh cultural life and should not be a victim of the Westminster government’s economic policies. Language campaigners fought for the channel from the late 1960s onwards and to abandon its independence now is a betrayal of their struggle and the gains made by the language movement. Ceredigion Against The Cuts fully supports the campaign to save S4C.
Second, rural areas in Wales have already suffered successive waves of de-population and these cuts are going to worsen this problem. In Ceredigion over 40% of the workforce are employed in the public sector. Job cuts are going to mean that young Welsh speakers are going to be leaving already endangered Welsh speaking communities. This is unacceptable and it is a dimension of the cuts that is not fully appreciated by the Welsh Government or Westminster.

ET: Many writers have been making bold claims recently that in our post-Fordist economy there is no such thing as a unified 'proletariat' class; but that with the fragmentation of industry, the weakening of the unions and the casualisation of labour we have witnessed the emergence of the 'precariat': a heterogenous category of those not in permanent work. This encompasses 'time-poor' middle classes holding down three jobs to pay their mortgage, the disabled, agency workers and ‘paperless’ migrants. Other writers go further and say that permanent waged labour is not the historical norm, but a 20th century anomaly. For example Michael Denning claims that the use of the word 'unemployed' as a social category didn't exist in European languages until the end of the nineteenth century. From a union member’s point of view, would you say that the 'death of the proletariat' has been overstated, and even if this is the case, how do the unions need to adapt in order to offer meaningful solidarity towards this 'precariat'?

DJ: Guy Standing’s concept of the ‘precariat’ is a useful one – short termism, low wages, the exploitation of migrant workers is common in this new century. Marx’s classical industrial proletariat has to a large extent disappeared from the de-industrialised Western countries. While, as some writers have pointed out, the ‘precariat’ remains a disparate, not strictly class phenomenon, I would argue that it feeds into Marx’s concept of the ‘reserve army’ of labour,  especially in a period of mass unemployment such as we are facing today. In line with Marx’s concept, the position of the precariat will become even more vulnerable as the reserve army of the unemployed increases. Just as the Westminster government is using the economic crisis as a pretext for cutting and privatising the public sector, the logic of capitalism results in economic crisis and the threat of unemployment being used by employers to drive down wages and conditions. Whether or not we are witnessing the ‘death of the proletariat’ depends on the definition used – Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have for instance argued for a broader definition of the term.
However, I think two important points need to be made: first, the proletariat hasn’t disappeared, rather it has gone global – the industrial proletariat that Marx and Engels identified  in Manchester factories  is  now located in those parts of the world where capitalists can get away with paying the lowest wages. Second, as Owen Jones has recently pointed out,  the working class in Britain has become increasingly demonised, no longer the ‘salt of the earth’ , it has returned to being a nightmarish horde for both the middle classes and the tabloids – viewed once again as the ‘dangerous classes’ of the Victorian mindset. Politics in Britain is now geared solely to the interests of Middle England, and to be honest I’ve heard enough about the ‘squeezed middle’ – what about the working poor?
Clearly these developments present important challenges for the trade union movement, challenges that it has to confront in order to remain relevant. Personally I think a number of changes are needed. First, we need to abandon the semi-racist focus on ‘British jobs for British workers’ and embrace our immigrant brothers and sisters: only by ensuring that these valuable members of society receive the same rights as the rest of us can we begin to build a truly representative trade union movement. Second, considering the emergence of short-term contracts and part-time work as the norm in the job market – developments which are a considerable hindrance to  sustained workplace solidarity – the trade union movement needs to seriously analyse how it is going to appeal to this new section of workers, many of whom are women. In light of this, although significant advances have already been made, more needs to be done to challenge the male dominance of the trade union movement. Third, we need to be building better links with other groups in the community affected by the cuts – students, benefits claimants, the unemployed, the retired, the elderly, the disabled and sick. We only have to look at the Spanish indignatos for inspiration in this regard; new forms of organisation based on these wider networks between citizens are crucial and we should be exploring their potential ourselves. Fourth, the response needs to be global. During the June 30th strike, while picketing the National Library, I had a very interesting discussion with an American trade unionist – both of us were in agreement that some form of co-ordinated trade union action, such as a globally coordinated strike day, would be of value. This is a global economic crisis so it demands a global response. Whether or not the trade union movement has the capacity or inclination to pursue such a path is of course questionable.

ET: What is your position on Slavoj Žižek's recent work where he argues that as capitalism is in a state of permanent emergency, it is no longer possible to continue the left-wing dream of a upholding a strong public sector within a liberal capitalist framework, with the possibility of this developing into socialism, and that the only option is somehow to rapidly improvise an alternative beyond capitalism?
The European Trade Union Confederation is among those organisations that have supported a 'flexisecurity' model of economy, combining labour market flexibility with security for workers; and  Ed Miliband talks of a 'Good Society', and values of compassion, optimism and social justice on the basis of this combination; Welsh Labour is determined that Wales can 'do it differently' from Westminster (and by extension most of Europe): that it can surround itself with 'clear red water', while enabling entrepreneurship and a stronger private sector. Is the mainstream labour movement in a desperate state of denial? Should those who protest look for something more radical, or is Žižek being too stark and alarmist about the possibilities for social liberalism?

DJ: Personally I would whole-heartedly agree that we need to be looking towards a society beyond capitalism. However, while developing these alternatives, in the short term we still need to fight to maintain our existing public services. The economic crisis has exposed the reality of global capitalism and it is at the local level that people are experiencing the impact of austerity and the inequalities intrinsic to capitalism – people are drawing important lessons as they contrast the bankers’ bailout with the attack on public services. For example, Ceredigion Against The Cuts have been very active in campaigning to save a local elderly people’s residential home – among the comments made during the campaign by members of the community was ‘it’s about time the elderly stopped being treated like commodities’. At the local level these are the sorts of issues that are bringing the reality of capitalism to the fore, around which support for the broader struggle can be built.  While I agree that a degree of utopianism is needed, we also have to make sure that we develop the struggle in the real world. Any future society should have among its main purposes that its weakest and most vulnerable members were adequately cared for and supported.
As for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party I’m not impressed, they’ve spent the economic crisis navel- gazing with no recognisable result – ‘Blue Labour’ is all they can come up with! The established political parties are becoming increasingly irrelevant, the differences between them becoming smaller and smaller.

ET: The demonstration in London on the 26th of March was billed as a March for the Alternative. What kind of an alternative to Westminster policy do you envisage (however embryonic); and are there particular writers, activists or others who have informed your position?

DJ: Now this is the big question! It needs a lot of further thought, but I’m inspired by the Greek, Egyptian and Spanish protesters who have got together and applied democracy in its true form – discussing and debating ideas thoroughly. There is much we can learn from these emergent movements, and we should be looking at how these lessons can be applied in a Welsh and British context. In contrast, I think the established political parties are looking increasingly redundant, look at the Labour Party in the UK, whose response to the economic crisis has been so underwhelming, and the ‘national’ government in Greece which no longer represents the majority of the people – 80% oppose the austerity measures being imposed and rightly so. We need to be questioning who these politicians really serve. We only have to look at the way the bankers’ private debt was so quickly transferred on to the public’s shoulders and at the stark contrast between the failure to tackle global poverty and the vast amounts of money immediately available to bailout the bankers to find the answer.
Despite the coalition’s rhetoric there are a number of alternatives to the cuts, not least the collection of the £120 billion worth of taxes which simply not collected or that are evaded and avoided every year, mainly by large corporations and rich individuals. A Robin Hood tax of just 0.05% on the financial sector would recoup between £20-30 billion annually, while scrapping Trident would save £78 billion over 30 years. Such an alternative programme would allow for the reduction of the deficit without the need to cut vital public services – all that is needed is the political will to carry these measures through. Instead, the Westminster government has chosen to side with the banking and financial sectors and the large corporations, while asking the general public to pay twice for the economic crisis – first through the bankers’ bailout and a second time through the decimation of our public services.  

ET: Finally: what are your fears about the policies of the Westminster coalition government, and the Welsh Government, in the wake of the cuts, for yourself and those you know?

 DJ: I’ll answer this from the perspective of someone living in a rural Welsh community. As I mentioned previously, over 40% of the workforce of Ceredigion are working in the public sector, therefore any serious austerity measures will have a devastating impact on the local economy. Jobs will be lost, those benefiting from care and public service will lose out, the community as a whole will lose a valuable resource, and private companies will profit from the decimation of our public services. However, although due to cuts in funding Ceredigion County Council attempted to close a local residential home, Ceredigion Against the Cuts successfully stopped this development. The fact we succeeded shows what we can achieve when we bring the community together to fight these cuts.

Doug Jones is a member of the PCS union and Ceredigion Against the Cuts. His PhD was on the Communist Party of Great Britain and the national question in Wales 1920-1991