The Challenge For Young Radicals

Young activists continue to do amazing work on social inequalities. But SSP campaigners Róisín McLaren and Hugh Cullen argue there's still much to be done to raise class consciousness among the post-Thatcherite generation...

Conditions for working people in Scotland are disgraceful for a developed and wealthy country and we all know it. We know we’re plagued by poverty pay and zero-hour contracts. We know we’re paying sky high bills and being ripped off by landlords. We know Britain’s economy is a mess, with rising state debt and the public sector facing a funding crisis. All the while, corporations receive massive tax breaks as their shareholders siphon money off to the Caribbean.   

We’re in a class war whether we like it or not, having been stuck at the sharp end of neoliberalism since the 1980s. We can’t continue to put private sector growth before provision of public services while making workers poorer and weaker in the workplace. It’s the crisis at the heart of capitalism.

But to many young people, the system seems so stable. Capitalism isn’t about to collapse. We carry on doing our jobs. Our generation is easily distracted by TV, iPhones, Xbox and Netflix. We can shout about our problems on Facebook with the same people listening. Our solution is often to bounce on to another company or get promoted and leave the old job for someone else to suffer in. We leave retail jobs only to work in hospitality for the tips.

We have the ‘freedom’ of moving from one exploitative job to another, but we never have the freedom to tackle exploitation itself. We can fool ourselves that we are all self-employed, liberated individuals, with no commitments to any one employer, but, in reality,  we’re cheap casual labour. A great deceit of neoliberalism has been to convince workers they have a stake in capitalism, and that any challenge to its existence would threaten their stake.

This new young individualist worker is a far cry from the industrial age, when a worker proudly stood beside hundreds of peers. They could organise as a collective, utilise their strength in numbers and fight for better conditions. That’s how we won the rights we have today. We weren’t given those rights by the EU, the Scottish Parliament, nor by any political party - organised workers fought for and won the very rights that are now under threat.

The worker’s relationship with the boss hasn’t changed. We’re still paid as little as possible for our labour and we’re exploited by the business owners to whom we sell our labour. Class issues are still the at the heart of the crisis, yet no-one seems to be talking about them. The structures of control are more sophisticated and you rarely hear class politics on the news. Institutions, media and government are out of touch with the needs of working people. All the parties in Holyrood offer different brands of the same broken system. This is liberal Britain.

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We’re told by the SNP to think as a nation and to ‘stand up for Scotland’. But what Scotland do they refer to? Is it the one we have described in desperate conditions who cry out for change, or the one of the comfortable middle class who seek stability?

Instead of thinking as a class, we’re at pains to be seen to discuss every type of injustice except the one which defines the identity of us all: that we are compelled to sell our labour. Class is what defines us, yet young activists aren’t putting it at the heart of their agenda.

Young activists increasingly fall foul of the belief that if we just individually change our thought patterns the world will magically become a utopia. No matter how thoroughly you rid your speech and though of every form of micro-aggression, no matter how much time you spend in the supermarket deliberating over the most ‘ethical’ consumer choice, and no matter how sexually liberated you are, you must still work or face destitution.

We shy away from discussing the first and foremost injustice from which every other injustice flows. This shyness could partially be attributed to Thatcherism. Perhaps the labour movement believed itself so resoundingly defeated, it concluded we must retreat to fight on other fronts. But fighting on multiple fronts ultimately serves to distract us from class war.

If class consciousness is low, it’s socialists who must take responsibility. It’s our job to popularise class demands. With this shift in society from communities grouped around one mass industry or employer, to causal short-term contracts, the ways in which collective organising was learned and honed have been disrupted.

Community libraries and education providers have been lost to council bureaucracy. Formerly radical parliamentarians have been corrupted by a neoliberal agenda. Labour organisations like trade unions have emptied. Campaigns like Better than Zero are the exception, composed of young energetic activists seeking to penetrate apathetic workplaces. But when will we be organised enough to influence public discourse?

Having a socialist as leader of the opposition in Westminster is not enough. Jeremy Corbyn is hamstrung by a party that is wedded to the establishment. The same is true for Richard Leonard, who has been at the top of corrupted, unionist politics for decades and does not represent the radical force that many new Scottish Labour members hope for.

The Labour Party is not a socialist party and never has been. Corbyn struggles to put a shadow cabinet together because most of his MPs fundamentally disagree with his politics and many continue to organise against him. It’s still a party of privatisation, with a revolving door to the lobby of big business. Many figures who remain powerful in Scottish and British Labour supported the Iraq War, were involved in sending in the Sherriff Officers during the Poll Tax warrant sales, and failed to build council houses while in power.

It’s for these reasons and more that Corbyn is unable to openly centre class at the heart of his politics. He is forced to appease anti-socialist MPs with a manifesto that’s committed to 80% of planned Tory austerity. When he discusses Brexit, he’s forced to talk about single market access instead of workers’ rights. His demands for public ownership are watered down to appease business leaders.

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Corbyn’s honesty and integrity is the source of his support. He cuts through the spin of modern politics. Yet curtailed by his party he is unable to talk about socialism, and so his supporter base is not socialist. Aside from the small number of far-left entryists in the Labour party, most new Corbynistas support his liberal values or social democratic reforms. He’s not building the class-conscious support needed to implement socialist change in Government. Socialists who are swept up in Corbynism are perhaps guilty of looking for shortcuts – understandable after decades out in the cold.

We can see this liberal Corbynism magnified in his student support. Student Unions are particularity weak as commercialised universities seed control to the market. Along with academia, they have become largely detached from the real-life struggles of working people and the policy makers who implement the system.

Aside from most students, who don’t engage with politics at all at university, the culture of those students who are activists has become wedded to identity politics and the liberal idealist belief that freedom is individualism: that freedom to “just be yourself” is the ultimate freedom. Societies applaud the merits of each system and make populist statements without fighting for material change. Their philosophical liberalism causes them shrink from any belief or position that claims to be universal (as socialism does).

If we can’t debate from a position and put our ideas forward for peer critique, we can't expect to develop our own worldviews and gain perspective. We learn from each other and by making mistakes. And so this articles calls for young radicals to do the hard things: to relearn and reclaim the language of the class struggle, which for too long has been avoided; to actively work to raise class consciousness through education; and to knuckle down to the graft of organising in our workplaces, on the streets and at the ballot box. To talk about the class issues that everyone else wants to forget.

It’s not enough to just call for gender and sexual equality. It’s not enough to just defend a multicultural society. We must do all this and more. We must fight for a society where all women and men have circumstances to enjoy their leisure and live without the anxieties of poverty. A society where workers are well paid in secure jobs with reasonable hours and where production is for need, not profit. Empowerment for all comes from greater control in the workplace – we must come together to better our conditions.

Only socialism can save us. As automation of services sweeps across Scottish workplaces our case continues to grow. Technology potentially holds the keys to a better future but it must be commonly owned. In private hands, such machinery will lead to job losses and monotonous work rather than a reduction in working hours. This crisis in all developed capitalist states could bring about the boiling point and opportunities that we need to be ready for.

The only way to win this is for ourselves is to first study, debate and clarify the ideas. What is the nature of capitalism in 2017? How can we popularise our ideas and agitate to win back our rights? How would an independent socialist Scotland work?

Let’s get out from behind our keyboards and organise. We must grow organisations that are proudly socialist with class politics at their heart, and organisation this must lead to action.  It’s the job of socialists to lead us in this struggle. There are many organisations that will make up the spokes in the wheel of change: spaces to debate, trade unions and single issue campaigns like tenants unions are necessary.

But a vital component is a mass socialist party, where we are clear and united on what we are fighting for. A party that can unequivocally defend and popularise socialist ideas without being tempered towards social democracy and liberalism. With this unity and healthy debate, we can devise a strategy of how to get there.

@roisinmclaren