Defending Our Institutions

In light of recent budget cuts at a local and national level, RISE national organiser Sean Baillie argues the time for grandstanding is over and that it's time to take direct action to defend our infrastructure and public institutions...

As we enter another year of council budget proposals and discussions around 'efficiency' and 'practicality', we should consider not only the financial impact that cuts are having on working class people but also the social impact. Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari, illustrated this point last year when he wrote about why a public library is one of the few places where we can just “exist” without having to pay for the privilege. He credited Glasgow's libraries as places he could focus on writing and gather his thoughts without the pressure of buying an overpriced latte.

It's something I related to strongly. Many of us will have had to visit our local library to fix a CV, apply for jobs or print off that vital form we need for work or study. The demand for such spaces is so great that many libraries now take advanced bookings to use the computers. I almost laughed when a close friend of mine told me he'd only discovered his local library at the age of 28, but there's also something scary about that. When I was a child, my Dad would take me down to his local library almost every week – it was a new world to get lost in, like going to a pub or a video shop on a Saturday night.

This was my first truly escapist experience. My upbringing was by no means terrible, but growing up between two big housing schemes meant I usually needed to be home before the streetlights came on. During the winter months, it meant I had hours to kill, and I'd avidly read the Lord of the Rings books at a time when the the films weren't even out. I remember receiving a high grade for reading in my English prelim, only to fail the written section entirely. It never left me: I regretted not going to university and would entertain myself on long trips by reading, which tended to amuse the ex-squaddie tradesman I worked with (he'd inevitably always ask to loan said book when I finished).

During the independence campaign, I'd print off articles to read whilst on night shift and would actively seek out political texts (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist was particularly influential). I'd pin the articles I read on the work noticeboard – colleagues were asking what the day's 'sermon' would be as we debated politics and learned to sharpen our arguments. Soon enough, there were well-thumbed copies of books we'd talked about scattered around the place.

I go into such detail about these experiences because they serve to remind that the opportunity of education always has been and always will be an essential foundation for working class emancipation. My best's friend's Dad used to regale us with stories from his childhood in Glasgow's east end, and one that always stuck with me was his adamant insistence that “the worst thing the rich could have done for themselves was allow us to read and write”.

He isn't alone: great political figures throughout history have maintaned that education of the working classes is essential for the progress of humanity. We accept that education, like housing and healthcare, is a fundamental principle that we should build our society on to ensure everyone has a reasonable standard of living. Why then do we see massive attacks on state education, public housing and our NHS?

Every year, the budgets roll around at every governmental level, with cuts to everything from classroom assistants to libraries – even Lollipop people are getting cut left, right and cenre by Scottish councils. The left's general response to these cuts is to grandstand, claim moral authority and then grudgingly accept the bare bones. It's no longer enough.

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Defying these budgets must now be a critical red line and achieved through any means necessary. We need to defend these public institutions as fiercely as we would our own homes. Why? Because it's a matter of life and death for working class infrastructure and we need to defend our communities. Malcolm X, the famous civil rights figure, often said that Black communities in America needed to own their infrastructure and economy to protect themselves from American racism and capitalism. There's something impactful about this mode of thinking.

Rapper Akala (above) looked at this from a British perspective by analysing how migrant communities defend themselves economically. He concluded that Asian communities, for example, were faced with low paid jobs, had little access to wider working class support networks, and so were forced to build their own institution and create their own industries in order to employ, feed and house their families and communities.

It makes sense why: Carribbean and Irish migrant communities were also forced to sell their labour in low paid jobs, risking exploitation in racist and bigoted industries, but they crucially never managed to build defensive infrastructure on the same scale. It led to massive structural inequalities in the long term.

What institutions have the working class as a whole managed to build in order to defend and improve their standard of living? The biggest and most economically powerful representative body of the working class has of course always been the trade unions, who historically not only organised and fought within industrial workplaces to improve terms and conditions but also helped set up the Labour Party.

Labour, whatever they later became, were to be the workers' voice in parliament. In power, they helped to build and create institutions and services that protected and defended our communities. They offered free education, healthcare and mass public housing programmes. But these aren't just amenities bestowed upon us; they are rightfully our own institutions. They were built by us, they were paid for by us and they belong to us.

This infrastructure is being attacked, closed and sold off under the guise of austerity, while those who cause our economic crises are immune to the impact of such vicious attacks. Instead, since the economic downturn, their wealth and power has increased dramatically. Such cuts have been used as an excuse to roll back against years of economic defensive measures built by the working classes to defend ourselves.

Their quest for infinite profit and wealth has seen them deindustrialise much of the UK, running down public services until they no longer work and putting them out to market. They do this because they've no ideas left and have run out of people to exploit in far flung corners of the globe. By burdening us with personal debt, they keep the economy growing and leave us with nowhere else to turn. They either hand over their stocks and shares and work for a living or they further destroy our way of life.

That's the fight we face today: we either force the redistribution of wealth and power to build a sustainable economy, or we sit back and watch it trickle out of our neighbourhoods into hedge funds and allow them to destroy our society. Defiance, resistance and movement is necessary to economically and politically defend ourselves and work towards goals of a better future.

I co-organise for RISE – we've proven we're willing to take direct action to defend our communities and public spaces. We'll continue to do so by encouraging and supporting local groups, communities and neighbourhoods to take ownership of this fight. When politicians and big parties continue to manage the slow decline of our infrastructure, we're left with no other choice.

@SMBaillie