|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 196 March 2016
Strong anecdotes, weak antidotes
Get It Together: why we deserve better politics
By Zoe Williams
Published by Hutchinson (2015), £14.99
Reviewed by Claire Laker-Mansfield
We all deserve better politics. So, who could disagree with the subheading of Guardian columnist Zoe Williams’s latest book? Written in the lead-up to 2015’s general election, the book’s strength is the way it exposes the absurdity of so much that is taken as given within establishment politics. Williams skilfully draws attention to how very right-wing arguments are presented by politicians and much of the capitalist media as ‘common sense’, as ‘being realistic’. Meanwhile, those who seek to challenge this cosy consensus are painted as radical outsiders, living on cloud cuckoo land.
This is brought into sharp relief in interviews with people living under the impact of austerity, low pay, the housing crisis and other problems. The quotes and anecdotes Williams assembles help give a feel for how austerity politics actually plays out. She points out that, while worsening the lives of the majority of people, austerity policies also tend to fail on their own terms. An example is the impact of benefit sanctions. As well as being unfair, punitive and causing enormous human misery, they are unlikely to save the government money in the long run – and equally unlikely to get people into work.
If you factor in the costs of malnutrition, mental health problems, the effects on children and dependents, these sanctions are almost certain to cost society (and in all likelihood the treasury) more than they save. Their real function is as part of an agenda which seeks to paint poverty as a sign of ‘moral failure’, as Williams puts it. That is not to mention creating division between those struggling to get by on low wages and those who are currently out of work. Even when they do cut overall government spending, it does not mean the costs to society are reduced. Social care cuts do not eliminate the need for the elderly or sick to be properly looked after. Instead, they transfer the cost and burden of providing this care onto individuals.
This logic applies more widely. While the government attempts to reduce national debt, levels of personal indebtedness are increasing. Wage cuts, job losses and the destruction of vital services all leave people struggling to make ends meet, compelling them to turn to loans and credit to pay bills and buy essentials. So austerity means that government debt (which soared as a result of the bank bail-outs) is effectively transferred onto the shoulders of working-class people.
Get it Together poses lots of fundamental questions. Why, in the 21st century, is it so ‘unrealistic’ for young people to expect secure, affordable housing to rent, let alone buy? Why is a race to the bottom in wages treated as a necessary price to pay for attracting investment from so-called ‘wealth creators’? Why are so many vital areas of work, such as care, labelled as ‘unskilled’ and rewarded with pitiful pay? Why should we all be celebrating (marginal) economic growth, when the majority of people are not any better off?
Written in the run-up to the election, it is striking that Williams fails to give a clear indication of how she thinks people should use their vote. She mentions the Green Party and National Health Action Party in passing, listed alongside think-tanks, campaigns and pressure groups. But she does not seek to address seriously the question of the lack of any mass political alternative to the establishment pro-cuts parties. There is no mention of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – which includes the RMT union, Socialist Party and others. In 2015’s general election, TUSC stood in 135 parliamentary and 613 council seats as a direct challenge to pro-cuts politicians, surely worthy of some discussion.
In the post-Corbyn era, the book’s political weaknesses are even more exposed. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory came as a result of the frustration boiling under the surface breaking through. His campaign offered an outlet for the many hundreds of thousands of people seeking a political expression for their anger at austerity and war. True, this feeling expressed itself in an unpredictable way – no-one could have anticipated this particular accident of history. Nonetheless, you might have thought Williams would grapple more seriously with the question of how this yearning for an alternative could manifest itself in Britain – particularly as Syriza and Podemos were in the ascendency at the time.
Get it Together is wide in scope, touching on a range of issues: the NHS, environment, banks, tax system, education. Most of the chapters contain specific suggestions for how things might be done differently. But Williams does not offer a coherent picture of what a viable alternative to austerity would really look like, or of what an anti-austerity movement should be fighting for.
On immigration, Williams correctly points to some of the real anxieties – around the race to the bottom in wages, lack of housing and services – which create a climate in which anti-immigrant sentiment and support for parties like UKIP can grow. She then appeals to the notion of a ‘civic nationalism’ to overcome division. Repeatedly, Williams refers to the idea that ‘we’ – the ‘British people’ in general – need to build a better Britain. She points to humanity’s natural instinct towards co-operation, and to the pride felt by people in ‘great British institutions’ such as the NHS.
The working-class majority do indeed have a strong instinct for solidarity and co-operation. But there is a very powerful (if numerically small) constituency of British people for whom a continuation of brutal austerity is clearly advantageous. This, of course, is the capitalist class: the big shareholders, executives and business owners. For them austerity is all about protecting profit. No amount of appeals to ‘common humanity’ can overcome the fact that their economic interests and those of working-class people are antagonistic.
In one chapter, the decline of trade union membership and industrial strength is discussed as both a cause and effect of casualisation and super-exploitation in the workplace. But the book’s conclusion – which lists more than 15 campaigns, left-leaning think-tanks and single-issue pressure groups (through which people could get together to change things) – does not mention workers’ organisations or trade unions.
Yet the working class remains, potentially, the most powerful transforming force within society. Workers, through their labour, produce goods, provide services and keep society running. When workers take mass, collective action they can force employers, multinational companies and governments to their knees. A successful movement against austerity needs to have organised workers at its heart. It needs mass political representation. To be ultimately successful, it is necessary for it to challenge the capitalist system itself.
Throughout, Williams suggests several measures which the Socialist Party would support. She points to regulatory measures and tax changes which she suggests could help to tackle ‘gangster capitalism’. But Williams seems to underestimate the endlessly creative ways in which regulations can be overcome and taxes avoided. The fact remains that you can’t control what you don’t own. Unless the banking system is brought into public ownership and run under genuine democratic control, measures like those suggested to bring them to heel will prove inadequate.
This same flaw rears its head elsewhere. The most glaring example is the environmental crisis. Williams concludes that "organised public opinion can shift the parameters of what’s possible", and advocates a lobbying campaign "as consistent as that of climate change deniers". However, the main reason for their influence is that they are funded and promoted by huge oil companies and the massive multinationals which benefit from inaction on climate change.
It is only through mass struggle that working-class people are capable of changing things. E-petitions, letter writing and lobbying can have an effect if they are a part of a strategy to build such mass movements. On their own they are never going to compete with the persuasive powers of mega-money. Zoe Williams’s book is useful for the array of facts, anecdotes and interviews she has assembled. As a guide to how we ‘get it together’, and get ‘better politics’, however, it ultimately fails.