Regime change begins at home
The invasion and occupation of Iraq by US and British armed forces, carried out despite the largest co-ordinated protest against war in history, is a definite turning point in the affairs of humanity, as the articles in this special issue of Socialist Future Review try to explain. It signals a new period of imperialist wars and social revolution, the outcome of which will decide the subsequent fate of the planet. Despite appearances, the force of history is with those countless millions on every continent who opposed the drive to war in Iraq. Our weakness – and it is the key issue – is an absence of decisive, revolutionary leadership with a strategy for power that can inspire the masses of people into shaping the course of history for themselves.
Behind the attack on Iraq – whatever weapons of mass deception Bush and Blair may deploy – was a desperate desire by global capitalism to extend its economic reach. This inherent compulsion to accumulate capital has, in the period of intense globalisation, transformed objective political, economic and social conditions. In Britain and the United States in particular, traditional “politics” is openly an expression of the “values” of the market economy and the needs of the major corporations. In Bush’s White House it is almost impossible to put a cigarette paper between the corporations and the administration, as the article by Peter McLaren and Greg Martin shows (see page 18). The disillusionment with existing politics is reinforced by this process. What, after all, is the point in voting if leaders tell electors that the “market will decide” the distribution of everything from housing, pensions, jobs through to education?
The transformation of the global economy over the last 20 years through the emergence of the transnational corporation is what lies behind the dissolution of the old politics. Over the past decade and a half, the number of transnational corporations has skyrocketed from 7,000 to more than 40,000. Today, 50 of the top 100 economies in the world are TNCs; 70% of global trade is controlled by just 500 corporations. Nominally they have headquarters in the US, Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, etc. Yet they operate on a transnational basis, moving production from country to country and allowing their component parts real autonomy to match local conditions. As Philip Bobbitt notes in his recent book The Shield of Achilles.
Alongside this is the internationalisation of finance. Around $1.5 trillion is exchanged daily on foreign exchange markets, only 5% of which are directly related to payments for traded goods and services. There is a new international division of labour, where British Airways has its ticketing done in India, while Dr Martens makes shoes in South China where workers are paid 20 cents an hour. As Walter Written, the former chairman of Citibank, explains:
Meanwhile, under corporate-led globalisation, one third of the world’s children are undernourished and half the world’s population lacks regular access to the most essential drugs. Some 100 million children live or work on the street while the combined wealth of the world’s 200 richest people reached $1.3 trillion in 1999; the combined income of 582 million living in the 43 least developed countries is $146 billion.
Of course there were political aspects to the invasion of Iraq but in essence the reasons were economic. In the year before the invasion, the US economy saw the collapse of Enron, World Com and a number of other major corporations that had based themselves on fictitious rather than real capital. Their demise was a reflection of the downturn in the economy, which eventually became a recession. The Bush government slashed welfare spending and increased the arms budget to astronomical figures – a sure sign that war was coming. The rest of the capitalist world, meanwhile, continued to make this possible by financing a US government deficit that makes America the biggest debtor nation on the planet.
In another period, Iraq was used by the United States and Britain as a proxy against the Iranian revolution in the war between the two countries that claimed more than a million lives between 1980-88. Western arms dealers fell over themselves to sell Saddam Hussein the latest weaponry and later ignored the use of chemical weapons against Kurds in the north. But in 2003, the US is the global cop for transnational capitalism. Bush is the sheriff and Blair is his deputy. The objective is to tear down regimes that, for a variety of reasons, resist complete integration into the world economy. Paul Bremer, chief of the US-led occupation authority, told journalists that Iraq needed to “move in a clear direction towards a liberal, market-run economy”. (Financial Times, May 27). In the long term, “eliminating artificiality” through price “liberalisation” and privatisation were among the main goals of his administration. He added:
“We need to get out of situation where 60% of the people rely on the government to get their food. Our task is now to help the Iraqis rebuild their economy.”
The increasing desperation to open up new markets and integrate other economies into the global system is now taking a military form. War is a display of internal weakness and division in the global capitalist system as a whole and its leading actor, the United States, in particular. As the pension plans of millions turn to dust and the rate of exploitation becomes more intense for those at work, the politics of the crisis become more and more authoritarian. In Britain, we have seen how the Blair government fabricated “evidence” about weapons of mass destruction and used a number of scare tactics – including putting troops around Heathrow – to intimidate parliament and popular opinion. It has proved easier for New Labour to do the former rather than the latter.
Millions who marched against the war stood up to the Big Lie techniques. This is a verifiable indication that growing numbers reject the status quo, do not accept what they are told by politicians and are prepared to take their demands to the streets. Moreover, many are clear that parliament is a weakened body that does not and cannot represent their aspirations and act as a democratic expression. The crisis that has enveloped the Blair government since the end of the invasion is testimony to the fact that this regime is simply not trusted on any serious question. Even former cabinet ministers like Short and Cook have confirmed that Downing Street is not so much the home of the prime minister but of the unelected Il Presidente. Blair feels no sentiment for ordinary, bourgeois democratic procedures because his regime is different to what has gone before. He is much more at home with MI6 and MI5, the secret spy agencies who helped him concoct the case for war against Iraq.
This indeed is the management team of Britain PLC, as they so are fond of telling us. We are all employees of a large corporation. Parliaments and that sort of thing are relics from history. So the constitutional coup of June 12 was symptomatic. Blair abolished the office of Lord Chancellor himself, without reference to the cabinet, parliament or even the monarchy. Such was the rush that the position had to be reinstated the very next day because the House of Lords could not begin sitting without the Lord Chancellor’s presence. No 10 officials were desperately redrafting the announcement after it was pointed out that the government could not unilaterally abolish the post. It would need legislation. “The big announcement had to be changed because no one had realised,” said one Whitehall official. “It was all so rushed and chaotic.”
Despite the differences within the government over the Euro and other issues, New Labour presses on with foundation (for which read privatisation of) hospitals, the abolition of civil liberties, cuts in and commercialisation of education and the fire service, increased fares on the railways and the plot to allow untested genetically-modified food into our bodies. Whatever the tactical differences between Blair and Brown, they are united on the central nature of the role of New Labour in managing the market economy. Those like George Galloway who resist get witch-hunted and pilloried in the press. Galloway was suspended from New Labour for speaking out against the war while it was actually going on. He learnt of his suspension through the media and more than a month later had still not heard anything official on paper from his own party!
There are no compromises between what New Labour stands for and the aspirations of ordinary, working people. This is what the firefighters discovered in their nine-month campaign for a decent standard of pay. They were cruelly deceived by a leadership that in the end had no stomach for a fight with New Labour. Fire Brigades Union general secretary Andy Gilchrist soon found out that the government is not interested in compromise. At one point, he denounced New Labour at a speech in Manchester. Over the next 24 hours, the TUC, the media and the government came down on him like a ton of bricks. The following Monday planned strikes were suspended and the dispute was from then on the road to nowhere under a leadership that had lost whatever nerve it had had. Now the FBU executive has persuaded a disheartened but in no ways defeated membership to accept a deal which opens up the service to management-imposed cuts in both jobs and fire cover. Gilchrist was right for the wrong reasons when he told the recall conference that voted for the useless deal: “If anyone thinks we can overcome the state with a few periodic strikes then they are living on a different planet.”
First of all, you have to have the objective of “overcoming the state”. Gilchrist and the rest of the trade union bureaucracy have never had any such intention. The more reactionary New Labour gets, the more angry their members get, the closer these “leaders” try and get to the government. They even invent distinctions between New Labour as a party and as a government that are more apparent than real to justify their policy of remaining affiliated to the organisation. Tony Woodley, the incoming general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, has bizarrely described any attempt to sever the link with Labour as a “right-wing agenda”. He says he wants to “take Labour back into the party”, whatever that may mean. Yet, rank-and-file members increasingly have little to do with the party’s activities. Membership of New Labour, meanwhile, has more than halved from 450,000 to under 200,000. Woodley’s plea for Blair to “start acting in the interests of working people” (Independent, June 2), would be laughable if it weren’t so abject. The fact is that the party is as Blairite as the government and has abolished any structures that might have given the rank and file a say. Meanwhile, the “revolts” by Labour MPs are getting smaller and smaller as re-selection time approaches, with only 11 voting for an independent inquiry into the weapons of mass destruction issue.
The need is to go beyond New Labour, not deeper into it, as the bureaucracy is determined to do. They recoil from this task because moving beyond New Labour does mean overcoming the state, as Gilchrist puts it. It does mean creating new economic and political structures to replace the fraudulent system that passes for democracy. People’s Assemblies in the community and democratic ownership and control in the workplace are a distinct possibility as a way forward. A new leadership in Britain has to identify our enemy as a social system, not individuals, a system that has a birth and death like any living organism. We have to grasp the contradictions within this system that offer a way forward and point to a solution to the crisis of humanity. There is tremendous potential contained in the advances in technology in relation to meeting human needs world-wide. We have to explain how to unlock this potential through the liberation of technology from the control of profit-driven corporations. In this way, we can show how the future is contained in the present and demonstrate an alternative to both capitalist-led globalisation and its plan for a century of wars. The millions who marched against the invasion of Iraq were not simply making a protest. They were also demanding a voice, a say in how the country is governed. This social movement has already gone beyond New Labour. Meanwhile the US/UK occupation authorities are also confronted by the Iraqi people, who want self-determination and not the imposed rule of global imperialism. What this reveals is that the best-laid plans of Bush and Blair have more than a dose of wishful thinking about them and suffer when reality makes its inevitable appearance. Our responsibility is to put the issue of power, of who rules society at the top of the agenda. Power is posed every day in every struggle against oppression and exploitation from Britain to Iraq and the US. In his book, Bobbitt (see review page 8) concludes:
The status quo is, therefore, not an option. Regime change has to begin at home.
first appeared in Socialist
Future Review Summer 2003