Stephen Baker reflects on the four years of The Combination, and looks ahead to a renewed struggle to bring about a just transition to a more democratic, equitable and sustainable political economy.
It’s hard to know where to start or what to remember. Was there a long 19th century and a short 20th century? Were the 80s brought to a close by the fall of Margaret Thatcher or the election of Tony Blair? What defines an epoch or an era? What marks a generational shift? Are we at the end of something or the beginning, or in the midst? When the Conservatives were returned to power in December last year, I was inconsolable. I’d worked out, in these pages, that I’d lived most of my life under a Tory government, and I couldn’t see any end in sight. Fortunately, I was snapped out of my despair by a friend – a communist – who told me in no uncertain terms to “Cheer the fuck up! It’s the struggle. It never ends.”
Anyone involved in the working class movement and the struggle for socialism expects defeats and setbacks. For me, in my lifetime, there is little that compares to the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1985. Workers striking to defend their jobs, family lives and communities, were demonised by the Prime Minister as ‘the enemy within’. They were beaten by the police in front of the media that for its part acted as the establishment’s slobbering mouthpiece. They were let down by a Labour leadership that vacillated as the government broke the back of Labour’s working class constituencies. The end of the strike left the way clear for the continued and dreadful transformation of the UK under Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. For sure, the forces of neoliberalism that Thatcher spearhead in Britain have been deployed with much more murderous intent in other parts of the world. Still, the miners’ return to work was a serious blow to the labour and trade union movement, and we’ve all lived with its bitter consequences ever since. Another world is always possible, but you can draw a line, or set a course, from the miner’s strike to Brexit, along which lies the steady erosion of social solidarity, and the rise of free market zealotry, post-imperial melancholia and nationalist hubris.
When, at the fag-end of 2016, Tanya Jones, Jenny Muir, Maurice Macartney and I met in a Newtownards café, we must have cut disconsolate figures, ruminating on Brexit and Trump. The Combination grew out of that meeting. We had grand plans then, but regular commentary is hard to sustain, and I think it’s fair to say that Maurice’s contribution has been the most substantial. His conception of ‘the crank’ – a politics and economics that elevates the rich by exerting enormous pressure down onto the many beneath its heel – is one that he pursued on this site: writing about it, and talking about it, and making a number of wonderful short films. The crank is a perfect metaphor for our current system. Not only does it crush people, it elevates the rich up, up and away, to a height were the devastation beneath them is always receding into insignificance. It’s a legacy of Thatcher and her neoliberal crusaders, and they’ve been turning the crank handle in one direction for decades now. Even when the system crashed in 2008, the crank’s terrible pressure never let up. It got worse – and so a reaction was always due.
Austerity hastened the Scots to the polls for an independence referendum in 2014, and although 55 percent voted to remain in the UK, it still feels like the tide is going out on the union. In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a mild mannered but nonconforming Labour back-bencher won the party’s leadership election. He only just made it onto the ballot paper, reaching the required 35 nominations with two minutes to spare before the deadline. He was helped by parliamentary colleagues who never dreamed of voting for him and didn’t believe he had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Corbyn’s inclusion in the contest was to patronise the Left and give the public appearance of a vibrant internal debate. His victory and the popularity of his anti-austerity message surprised New Labour’s panjandrums, so much so that they demanded a rematch, which Corbyn won again the following year, with even more of the popular vote. When Labour came close to winning the 2017 election, the British establishment, spooked, employed their darkest arts to break Corbyn. Some within Labour even tried to sabotage the party’s chances of winning the election, scandalously preferring Boris Johnson to their own leader.
Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party wasn’t the only vote greeted with amazement. What brought Maurice, Jenny, Tanya and I around a café table in December 2016 wasn’t just the result of the EU referendum in June, it was also the election of Donald J Trump that December. I can’t speak for my three comrades, but neither Brexit nor Trump came as a huge surprise. Shocking, yes, but not incredible. Neither were departures of any sort, nor where they mere aberrations, but rather a working out of things that had gone before. Trump’s election, for instance, was in many ways a product of ‘the swamp’ he proposed to drain. His belligerent ignorance and braggadocio made him perfect for an age of rolling 24 hour news and social media. Certainly, the news channels and press couldn’t take their eyes of him, and awaited his every proclamation on Twitter like starving dogs anticipate red meat. Trump was pure Regeneron to financially ailing news organisations, and in turn they gave him a spotlight. A star was born… or born again because, after all, Trump was already a celebrity. His bombastic, brusque television personality transferred easily from light entertainment into the political sphere. Who was it said, “Politics is show-biz for ugly people”? The election of Trump dragged into the daylight something that had been true for a long time but few cared to mention; that liberal democracy – always limited – has gradually been emptied of political substance and reduced to light entertainment.
Brexit, on the other hand, had no celebrity stardust. As becomes an uprising of petit English nationalism, its mouthpiece, Nigel Farage, had the demeanour of a pub bore, and he could be found regularly propping up the bar on the BBC’s Question Time, playing to its patrons, drunk on self-pity and injured national pride. His shtick was relatively simple: Britain was being prevented from fulfilling its historic, glorious destiny. Greatness in all perpetuity was being denied, and someone or something had to be to blame. Blame couldn’t possibly lie within, at the UK’s undemocratic core, so it had to have something to do with invading immigrants, slippery foreigners and historic European enemies. Britannia was bound in chains that had been fashioned in Brussels. If such imperious concerns could be hitched to common discontent that would be a potent political force.
And, indeed, the rabid-right have also been attuned to the dull thrum of public disgruntlement. It’s that you can hear if you put your ear to the ground beyond the salons of Westminster. It’s the sound that comes from people sick of national humiliation in prolonged theatres of war. Sick of the lies that had ignited these conflagrations. Sick of the political class that had perpetuated these lies. Sick of the media that spread them uncritically. And sick of a system that rewarded and rescued incompetent and corrupt financiers, while allowing the economies that sustained ordinary people to whither.
Now our sickness is literal. When the COVID pandemic struck, an emaciated health service was at grave risk of being overwhelmed. Welfare provision that had been to cut the bone and made punitive left workers facing penury. Anti-trade union legislation (never repealed) exposed employees to dangerous working environments, leaving them vulnerable to infection. On top of all of this, the UK and the US lacked the intellectual wherewithal to cope with a challenge that required co-ordinated, collective action. Ideologically committed to aggressive individualism, the instinct of those in power was to go for herd immunity, which meant, quite literally, the survival of the fittest. That particular free-market fantasy was quickly punctured by the dawning realisation that the economy wouldn’t be immune to a public health crisis of this size. For in truth, there simply is no such thing as a free-market. The so-called free market imprisons and immiserates, while at the same time it needs to be enforced and periodically rescued. On this occasion, government was always behind the pandemic curve it proposed to flatten, with interventions that were too little, too late. There have been, to date, over 70,000 COVID deaths in the UK, and over 330,000 in the US. We could say that all the wrong people were in charge at precisely the wrong time. But can you imagine an era that our current political leaders would be equal to? The blithering and bellicose men that appeared like purulent sores across the globe are symptoms not physicians.
Trump’s eviction from the White House and the UK’s departure from the EU brings nothing of any great significance to a conclusion. So, while The Combination may be calling it a day, there is still no end in sight. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” It’s never very fashionable to mention it, but the class struggle goes on, except now it’s also a struggle for a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to green new deal, and a struggle to defeat the white supremacists that can be counted among the system’s most doughty defenders. But it’s also a struggle to build democracies, societies and political organisations that can deliver that transformation. The ones we have at the moment are not fit for purpose. If there is one thing that I have concluded in the four years of The Combination, it is that political parties that assume the centre-left have neither the will nor capacity to transform anything. More than this, they actually prohibit transformation. The UK Labour party’s dalliance with radical politics is over. It prefers respectable opposition to principled struggle. The Irish Greens averted change in Ireland to facilitate a coalition of the old firm. Its reward will be not a just transition but cycle lanes. To borrow from Ralph Miliband, these parties “play a major role in the management of discontent.” They curtail and channel dissent away from anything genuinely transformative, especially at the very moment when it’s most needed and desired. They effectively save the system that their political fortunes and lives depend upon.
It’s not as if we lack the ideas or resources to implement a just transition. What stands in our way is the ruling class that has always considered the lives of its subordinates as superfluous – mere collateral damage in the remorseless accumulation of private wealth. It is the class that regards working people as infinitely malleable and mobile. The class that colonised, cleared and enclosed the land, and today gentrifies cities, dispossessing working class residents in the process. The class that during the Irish famine preferred the preservation of laissez-faire principles to feeding the starving, and latterly contemplated herd immunity in the face of a pandemic. The class that built workhouses and gave us Universal Credit, and stands by as people freeze to death on the streets at Christmas for want of a home. The class that looks for a business opportunity in every catastrophe. The class that is so spectacularly elevated by the crank economy it has lost all sight of the Earth that it is burning beneath it.
This is how things stand. This is where we start. This is what we need to remember. Once more: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” Let’s act accordingly.
26 December 2020