Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Brown's Project for a New British Century

Apologies to readers outside Britain for once more blogging about Brown and New Labour, but his speech to Labour Party conference yesterday demands comment. And I am not talking about the delusional and downright dishonest comments that it got from Labourites. "It was absolutely brilliant. He delivered it humbly but with a passion we don't often see in Labour politicians … That was an Obama moment a la Britain," said Ian Gibson, the Norwich North MP. Even the trade union bureaucracy lapped it up. 'This is exactly the sort of agenda that people wanted to hear from their Labour government,' said Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, which is the second biggest in Britain with 1.3 million members. `He set out clearly his vision for that fair society and an action plan.' Paul Kenny, general secretary of GMB, the third-biggest union, said Brown's language was `very different to that which we have heard before' and `welcome' to his members.

In reality it was neither inspirational nor brilliant nor really (aside from a brief moment when he discussed the NHS) that passionate. In reality it felt more like a farewell speech - because it almost certainly was the last time he will address Labour Party conference as leader, and Brown knew it. The knives are well and truly out for him, despite the warm words of praise he got yesterday. More importantly, if people actually read the speech they will see that despite the odd sop to criticism from the Left within the Labour Party and trade union movement, it has to stand as one of the most right wing speeches ever made to a Labour Party conference -essentially putting forward a pro-capitalist solution to the capitalist crisis - and it is this aspect of it that makes it comparable to something by Barack Obama. For both Obama and Brown are essentially loyal servants of imperial capital - and the speech reflected that.

With a tie and a backdrop of imperial purple, Brown felt compelled to once again confirm his utter loyalty to what he called the 'new global society' under American hegemony. 'We will work with America not just to deal with the immediate security challenges in Georgia and in Iran. And I tell you that what we do together for the poor and vulnerable is an act of compassion, but it is more than that. It is what will determine whether this new global society succeeds or fails. And David Miliband, Douglas Alexander and I will do everything in our power to bring justice and democracy, to Burma, to Zimbabwe and to Darfur.' Chilling stuff for the people of Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

British troops would continue to be a kind of foreign legion to American imperial power, the loyal Gurkhas prepared to pay the 'blood price' and die as cannon fodder to maintain Britain's 'special relationship' with whoever is the next American emperor. 'We pay special tribute to the heroism of our armed forces,... to their service and sacrifice in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in peacekeeping missions around the globe. Quite simply the best armed forces in the world.'

There was never going to be any sign of repentance for the war crimes of New Labour over the last decade or so in power. 'The Conservatives say our country is broken - but this country has never been broken by anyone or anything. This country wasn't broken by fascism, by the cold war, by terrorists.' Indeed not - but no thanks to New Labour. New Labour has however participated in the breaking of other countries -most notably Iraq. The innocent people of Iraq and Afghanistan who have died or been made refugees by war are of course not even worth counting let alone mentioning in a conference speech - they are truly 'unpeople'.

In terms of the economy, Brown was committed to saving capitalism from its crisis by making tax payers and workers in general pay the price for the greed and financial speculation inherent in the system. 'We are and will always be a pro-enterprise, pro-business and pro-competition government. And we believe the dynamism of our five million businesses large and small is vital to the success of our country. But the continuing market turbulence shows why we now need a new settlement for these times - a settlement that we as a pro-market party must pursue. A settlement where the rewards are for what really matters - hard work, effort and enterprise.' The key word is 'enterprise' which was mentioned over and over again during the speech. Big bonuses for City bankers was fine - providing it flowed from 'hard work, effort and enterprise'. The pay freeze - effectively a pay cut - for public sector workers would continue. 'What counts is not the pursuit of any sectional interest but the advancement of the public interest' - and the 'public interest' under Brown remains whatever the dictates of imperial capital require.

As Ellen Meiksins Wood notes in her 2003 work Empire of Capital, there is: 'an inevitable contradiction between capital's constant need to drive down the costs of labour and its constant need to expand consumption, which requires that people have money to spend. This...is one of the insoluable contradictions of capitalism.'

'But, on balance, global capital benefits from uneven development, at least in the short term (and short-termism is an endemic disease of capitalism). The fragmentation of the world into separate economies, each with its own social regime and labour conditions, presided over by more or less sovereign territorial states, is no less essential to "globalisation" than is the free movement of capital. Not the least important function of the nation state in globalisation is to enforce the principle of nationality that makes it possible to manage the movements of labour by means of strict border controls and stringent immigration policies, in the interests of capital.'

Here we come to the great underlying theme of Brown's speech - Britishness - enforcing 'the principle of nationality' in the interests of capital. One only needs to glance through Brown's speech to hear of the apparent wonders of 'Great Britain', 'this great country', 'this incredible country'. He even called for a new 'British century' as though he was living in the late 19th century: 'With Britain's great assets - our stability, our openness, our scientific genius, our creative industries, and yes our English language - I know that this can be a British century and I'm determined it will be.'

And so to that apparently most quintessentially 'British' of things: Fair Play and Fairness. Other 'lesser nations' and people are incapable of grasping 'fairness' of course - only British people can understand it apparently. Brown's vision of 'fairness' is distinctly authoritarian and reminiscent of a police state. 'We will be the party of law and order... justice seen is justice done - so you will be seeing more neighbourhood policing on the street, hearing more about the verdicts of the court, able to see the people who offended doing community payback which will be what it says; hard work for the public benefit at the places and times the public can see it. That's only fair to the law abiding majority.'

Brown's 'Britishness' also inevitably involved paying the race card against migrant workers. 'Nobody in Britain should get to take more out of the system than they are willing to put in...we recognise the contribution that migrants make to our economy and our society, but the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won't and can't. That's why we have introduced the Australian-style points-based system, the citizenship test, the English language test and we will introduce a migrant charge for public services. That's only fair to the public who play by the rules and to the new citizens who uphold the rules. So across the board, we will create rules that reward those who play by them and punish those who don't. That's what fairness means to me.'

All in all, Brown's vision of 'fairness' and 'fair play' to build a 'British Century' is a mixture of 19th century imperial nostalgia and racism towards 'the Other', 20th century totalitarian state building, and 21st century craven complicity in the Bush Doctrine and the right of the American military-industrial complex to 'full spectrum dominance', all held together with a thin grimy ideological cement of warmed up Fabian bluster and bullshit. The fact that New Labour as a Party lapped it up while preparing to stab Brown in the back in 9 months time tells you everything you need to know about the moral, intellectual and political bankruptcy of Labourism today. People in Britain and internationally do deserve 'a new settlement for new times' and 'a fair Britain for the new age'. The Labour Party, whoever is in charge, can never and will never deliver that because it is so fundamentally tied to the capitalist system, with the bloody wars and devastating recessions inherent in that system. We need to build a socialist alternative now more than ever.

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