Sunday, January 17, 2021

No, ambassador (2011)

Book Review from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Getting Our Way. By Christopher Meyer. Phoenix £8.99.

A diplomat, it is commonly claimed, is a man sent abroad to lie for his country. Not only is Meyer aware of this saying, he actually regards it as a compliment. As former British ambassador to Germany and the US, he is well placed to write a history of diplomacy.

In some ways he is a maverick (his previous book, DC Confidential, was criticised by some for its supposed revelations), but he is clearly an establishment figure. His aim in writing this book is to argue for a revival of diplomacy and a proper ‘foreign’ policy, as opposed to one supposedly based on ‘the daft utopianism of ‘global values’. But what strikes a socialist is how open Meyer is about how diplomacy serves British national interests (i.e. the interests of the British ruling class).

By considering examples from the sixteenth century onwards, he looks at a number of cases where British diplomats have endeavoured to defend these ruling class interests, often with more than a little help from guns and gunboats. In China, for instance, a mission in 1793 was unsuccessful in gaining access to Chinese markets as a means of reducing the trade imbalance caused by the Western thirst for tea. Then in the mid nineteenth century, the Opium Wars achieved what mere negotiation had failed to win. In 1856 the bombardment of Canton led to further growth in ‘free trade’. Hong Kong became British territory as part of these shenanigans but, as Meyer says, ‘It was trade not territory that Britain was after.’

In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia became another centre of conflict, with the Western powers fearful that fighting there would spread and destabilise the rest of the Balkans and perhaps an even wider area. It was these considerations that led to armed intervention in Kosovo. But in Africa there are few examples of such intervention, simply because Western national interests are not at stake in the same way.

Meyer quotes approvingly Palmerston’s statement that Britain has no eternal allies or enemies, just eternal interests, the main one being the protection and extension of trade. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British navy defended trade routes, the importing of raw materials and the slave trade. Nowadays the emphasis for the most powerful countries is on the struggle to control natural resources, as witness China’s activities in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, and also the tensions over the control of minerals under the Arctic ice cap.

So here is one representative of the ruling class who is well aware of what lies behind capitalist wars and is quite happy to proclaim that to the world. But of course he does not mention the millions of workers and peasants killed or maimed in these conflagrations.
Paul Bennett

Blogger's Dilemma:
The above book review is listed under the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard on the SPGB website but it's not in the PDF of the January 2011 Socialist Standard which is also on the SPGB website. Instead, the PDF carries the review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'm not sure what happened so I've included them both on the blog.

Politicians: public face of the capitalist class (2021)

From the World Socialist Party of the United States website

What are politicians for? What do they do?

At school we are taught that politicians are chosen by us, the voters, to represent us in the making of laws and in the government of our city, state, and country. This arrangement supposedly ensures that the views of the majority prevail – the essence of democracy (rule by the people).

This picture is not totally false, but it is also very far from the full truth. It does not account for the persistent divergence that researchers have found between policy outcomes and public opinion.[1] For example, no mainstream politician favors ‘Medicare for All’ even though the scheme has the support of a clear majority of Americans – 69% according to one recent poll. 

The main problem with this picture is what it leaves out. It leaves out the most powerful people in our society, who are not the politicians but the capitalist class – that is, the wealthy and those who represent their interests in the top management of big banks and corporations. (There is admittedly some overlap between the two groups – Donald Trump, for instance.)

Almost all candidates for public office depend on capitalists for money – it is extremely expensive to stand for office – and for coverage in the capitalist-owned media. Capitalists play a crucial though largely hidden role in narrowing the range of choices offered to the voters.[2] Capitalists exploit this dependence to exert a strong influence on the processes of lawmaking and government, either directly or through lobbyists and trade associations. 

To understand the role played by politicians we must therefore examine the triangular relations between capitalists, politicians, and voters. The basic relationship is that between the capitalist class and the mass of the population – the 1% and the 99%, to use the terms favored by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Apart from a few mavericks, however, capitalists prefer to remain in the shadows and deal with the public through hired intermediaries such as pollsters, specialists in Public Relations, and politicians. These people, and politicians in particular, are the public face of the capitalist class in the realm of public policy.


One institution specifically designed to facilitate interaction between politicians and capitalists in public policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Founded in 1973 by conservative activist Paul Weyrich and a group of Republican state legislators, ALEC aims to ‘make national policy by acting incrementally at the state level.’[3] Through an array of ‘task forces’ – currently ten of them — ALEC prepares ‘model bills’ for the use of its members. State legislators belonging to ALEC need not know how to draft legislation: they can just select texts from ALEC’s online library of model bills, introduce them in state legislatures, and push them through the legislative process into state law.

The internal structure of ALEC accurately reflects the division of labor between capitalists as the power behind the scenes and politicians as their public face. There are two boards of directors – a public board consisting solely of state legislators and a ‘private enterprise board’ consisting solely of representatives of big corporations. Only the identities of members of the public board are made public. Meetings of task forces are held in secret, so outsiders do not know how the legislators and corporate representatives on them interact.

ALEC has recently extended its activity down to the city/county level by setting up a new division named the American City County Exchange ‘for local elected officials and the private sector.’

Of course, ALEC does not represent all local and state politicians – only those most subservient to the capitalist class. Nevertheless, it has an extensive presence and is very active. The Center for Media and Democracy has identified about a thousand current state legislators in all fifty states, mostly Republicans, ‘known to be involved in’ ALEC as well as hundreds of ALEC’s model bills and resolutions.[4]

How politicians talk to us

As we have seen, capitalists wish to conceal the extent of their influence from the general public. In general, they seek to minimize their presence as political actors in the public consciousness. That is why politicians, when they address the public, never so much as mention their close relations with capitalists. A taboo is placed on an essential aspect of their professional activity in order to sustain the pretense that the picture painted in civics textbooks corresponds to reality. 

This also helps explain why communication between politicians and the public is so one-sided. They talk to the public. No opportunity is provided for open-ended dialogue. The only questions tolerated are those posed by establishment journalists who can be trusted to observe ‘the rules of the game’ — and politicians can evade even their questions with impunity if they wish. Members of the audience who interrupt politicians’ speeches with comments or questions – ‘hecklers’ – are ignored or told off like naughty children. They are liable to be thrown out or even beaten up.

Perhaps fearing that they may inadvertently break a taboo, politicians are loath to talk in public at length about substantive policy matters. Consider the victory speeches of Harris and Biden on November 7. Harris spoke first. Most of her speech consisted of vague rhetoric and personal recognition of colleagues, friends, and relatives, but she did devote a few carefully chosen words to policy issues (omitting healthcare, no doubt in deference to Biden’s opposition to ‘Medicare for All’). Biden said nothing at all about policy.  

It is worth pondering why American politicians feel obliged to sacrifice their domestic privacy and put their whole family on public display, including young children or grandchildren – arguably a form of child abuse. Isn’t this a desperate attempt to compensate for the alienation caused by their structural inability to relate to their fellow citizens in an open and honest way? They cannot reveal to voters the factors that shape and constrain their policy positions, but at least they can grant them the illusion of an intimate connection. What should be private is made public because what should by rights be public has to be kept private.    

The ultimate function of the politician is to be like a buffer protecting the capitalist class from mass discontent. In order to be effective as a buffer he may sometimes find it necessary to give voice to the grievances of ordinary people, but this need not lead to any corrective action. 

Barack Obama was a master at this double game. Campaigning in the mid-West, he thundered against regional companies such as Maytag and Exelon. And yet these same companies, confident that he would do nothing to harm their interests, gave him large donations. Speaking to audiences of workers, Obama denounced Maytag’s decision in 2004 to close the refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, entailing the loss of 1,600 jobs to Mexico. But he never raised the issue with Maytag directors Henry and Lester Crown, despite his ‘special relationship’ with them.[5] Later, as president, having bailed out the banks during the financial crisis of 2008, Obama expressed dissatisfaction that they were continuing to operate as before. When he met with the CEOs of fifteen top banks in spring 2009, they complained about his ‘populist rhetoric’; his riposte was that his administration ‘are the only ones standing between you and the pitchforks’ – a vivid expression of the buffer metaphor.[6] Obama never did do anything to reform the banks.

What about Bernie? 

Some politicians do not depend on capitalist donors but collect small donations from ordinary people. This occurs mostly at the local level, where campaigning does not require so much money. At the national level Bernie Sanders pursued this strategy with a measure of success in his bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He broke the taboo and spoke openly in public about the dependence of his political rivals on ‘the billionaire class.’ I suspect that this, rather than any of his specific policy positions, is the main reason for the hatred that the political establishment has for Sanders.   

However, when Biden won the nomination Sanders undertook to support him and stopped talking about this subject. Since then he too has observed the taboo. His silence has not sufficed to win him the trust of the establishment or a place in the new administration.


[1] Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008). The author teaches at Vanderbilt University. See also: Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (Routledge, 2016) 

[2] See: ‘Selecting a US President: The Invisible Primaries,’ World Socialist Review, No. 22, pp. 68-70.  

[3] For more detailed discussion of ALEC, see: Joe R. Hopkins, Link

[5] ‘The Politics of the “Lesser Evil”,’ World Socialist Review, No. 22, p. 75. 

[6] Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Crown, 2020), pp. 295-6; Link.

Voice From The Back: A Happy New Year (2011)

The Voice From The Back Column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Happy New Year

We all love that time just before midnight when we cuddle our sweethearts and friends and wish each other a happy new year. We ignore reality. For one time in our life inside capitalism we celebrate just being alive. One of the reasons that we cannot be too joyful is that we remember what a shitty society we all live in. “Millions of families are struggling to pay their bills – and the number is likely to increase in the new year, according to a new analysis from the Bank of England. The report published today shows that two fifths of households have difficulty from time to time or constantly in meeting their monthly bills, compared with a third last year, and more than a half regard their overdrafts or credit cards as a burden” (Times, 13 December). Behind the dry statistics what we are talking about is human misery and anxiety. Fellow workers, let’s face it capitalism sucks.

The American Dream

One of the illusions beloved of supporter of capitalism is that while the progress of equality may be painfully slow in Africa or Asia, in the USA you can see an example of developed capitalism and its many benefits. The reality is much different. “Almost 15% of US households experienced a food shortage at some point in 2009, a government report has found. US authorities say that figure is the highest they have seen since they began collecting data in the 1990s, and a slight increase over 2008 levels. Single mothers are among the hardest hit: About 3.5 million said they were at times unable to put sufficient food on the table. Hispanics and African Americans also suffer disproportionately. The food security report is the result of an annual survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)” (BBC News, 15 November). It would seem that for many people in the USA The American Dream has turned out to be The American Nightmare.

A Merry Christmas?

Hundreds of thousands of leaflets produced by Crisis UK were pushed through letterboxes last December appealing for donations. They painted a horrible picture of what Christmas meant for the homeless. “Hidden homeless people live in hostels, squats, bed and breakfasts or sleep on friends’ floors. They often lead miserable, isolated lives and suffer from debilitating mental and physical health problems. Crisis wants to open nine centres between 23 and 30 December offering homeless people companionship, care, hot food and warm clothing at a time of year which can be particularly lonely for those without a home or a family.” These well-meaning people are obviously sincere in their attempts to alleviate the plight of the homeless, but what happens after the 30 December? Charity cannot solve the problems of poverty, homelessness or alienation. Only a complete transformation of society from the profit motive to world socialism can accomplish that. Wake up fellow workers charity doesn’t work. It never has.

The Profit Motive and Cancer

The notion that the medical world is devoted to the prevention of killer diseases is a widespread one, but often research is devoted more to treatments rather than cures, as can be seen from the following news item. “The pharmaceutical industry will always fund projects when it is in its best interests to do so. Cancer prevention is not currently one of these, and so Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health have to fund early detection, screening and prevention studies. It is amazing that less than 2 per cent of the total cancer research budget is spent on prevention. We live in a commercial world where nobody is willing to pay very much for vague prevention information – it has to be made more precise and more individual. People value treatment more than prevention, so that’s where the profit now lies” (Daily Telegraph, 8 December). Less than 2 percent of research spent on prevention because treatment is more profitable – truly capitalism is a cancerous society.

Production Values: the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner (2011)

The Production Values Column f
rom the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products.  This month: the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner
Far from being a revolutionary invention, the inventor of the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner (James Dyson) made no attempt to hide that the idea behind the invention he patented was nicked from seeing dust extraction equipment in a sawmill, a technology that has been around for the best part of a century.

The product however almost never got made due to the enormous costs of licencing and patenting.  This forced Dyson to look for investment from major manufacturers. The market-leader – Hoover – was one company that was offered the option of investing.  They declined as the product (which doesn’t need filter bags) kind of challenged their basic business model (which relies on the ongoing sale of replacement filter bags worth 100s of millions of dollars each year).  Hoover’s vice-president regretted in hindsight that “Hoover as a company did not take the product technology off Dyson”.  And what would they have done with it ? – “it would have lain on the shelf and not been used.”

Needless to say, now that it has established itself, the Dyson company is hardly acting like a “new broom” (for want of a better phrase) – instead they have been particularly quick to use patent law to protect against anyone coming close to copying their supposedly “original” design .

Portrayed endlessly as a society which incentivises invention and rewards risk, capitalism arguably often does the very opposite. Despite the rags to riches storylines, the best way of getting very rich is usually to make sure you are pretty rich to start with.

Rather than a testament to the creativity of the individual, let alone the magic of the market system, next time you hoover (or perhaps, “Dyson”) the carpet, think of all the useful products that never made it because of the artificial hurdle that is the patenting system that capitalism requires.  All the talk of the lifeblood of capitalism being the plucky little entrepreneur with a great new idea is nonsense: the last thing capitalists want is another capitalist joining them to share out the spoils of the class war – even if it means a great invention for gathering dust just has to (apologies) gather dust.

NEXT MONTH: we take a look at that modern must-have accessory, bottled water.

Material World: Business is Everything and Everything is Business (2011)

The Material World column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Capitalism’s priority is to protect business opportunities not the environment
Late last year three huge conferences took place, one in Nagoya, Japan and one in Rome, both ostensibly focussed on protecting the ‘rights’, the wellbeing and viability of the livelihoods of people who live on and from the land and on protecting the land and its biodiversity, whilst offering business opportunities to eager participants. The third, possibly the most widely covered, was that at Cancun aimed at further negotiations to slow down climate change.

First, Rome
It was reported that the CFS – the United Nations Committee on Food Security has failed to back the UN voluntary code of conduct on foreign land investment. (See Socialist Standard August 2010, ‘Land Grab, win-win or win-lose’). The Rome meeting ‘dragged on into the early hours’ but ended failing to endorse the seven principles promoted for ‘responsible agricultural investment.’ Again Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, found it ‘terribly disappointing’. Countries such as China, Egypt and South Africa opposed endorsing the principles because they were not involved in the original consultations.

A World Bank report released in September revealed that 45 million hectares worth of large scale farmland deals had been announced in 2009 (land populated with people not worth consideration) – a ten-fold increase over previous years. A spokesperson for FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organisation – claimed that ‘one of the reasons why there was this rush to overseas investments is that governments and the private sector lost faith in international markets as a reliable source of food supply’. Governments and the private sector losing faith in the capitalist way of doing business?! Or could it be that the capitalist way sees the competition and forges ahead pressing to gain maximum advantage? Anyway, now another year will pass before the next meeting will take place, backstepping to alternative ‘ill-defined voluntary guidelines’ first discussed in 2008. Meanwhile, putting aside any consideration of ‘rights’, wellbeing, livelihoods, etc, who will place a bet on the percentage increase in this round of landgrab while we wait for the next meeting?

Second Nagoya, Japan 
This was COP-10, the tenth bi-annual meeting of the Conference Of the Parties, involving 193 countries with between 15-16,000 participants including activists, NGOs and indigenous peoples from around the world ‘to ensure that these strategies created to supposedly protect biodiversity focus on enhancing the rights of peoples with biodiversity-rich lands and do not impact negatively on biodiversity or these peoples by forcing them into the free market’  (Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project).

Negotiations were focussed on a ‘new Strategic Plan on diversity for 2011-2020 with a biodiversity vision for 2050’, 2010 being the International Year of Biodiversity. There was a ‘Business and Biodiversity Initiative’ with corporate leaders from more than 500 companies from 13 countries meeting 150 environment ministers from the 159 countries and the EU which have ratified the protocol. On the table was a discussion on TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), cousin to REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). The REDD initiative has been highly contentious because it has transferred large swathes of forest into the hands of corporations seeking profit from carbon trading, (i.e. trading in carbon dioxide emissions) disenfranchising the previous caretakers of those forests. TEEB will undoubtedly raise similar alarm bells for millions living in or near forest, mountains, coastline, estuaries, steppe, savannah, marginal land, meadow, farmland etc, because the overall aim is to make biodiversity a commodity just as carbon became one a few short years ago. To commodify biodiversity means to own the back garden of someone who lives half a world away, to control another’s fishing ground or grazing land.
The new Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) says it all. Meant to operate like the UN Climate Convention Clean Development Mechanism it is simply a way to allow the destruction of biodiversity in one place by drilling, mining, planting monocrops etc in exchange for purchasing offsets elsewhere. Shell, Chevron and Rio Tinto mining are just three of the companies ready to commit themselves to conserving biodiversity in this way. (See Socialist Standard, January 2010 ‘Climate Change, Business as Usual’). Business is everything and everything is available for business.

Third Cancun
The climate summit at Copenhagen failed miserably to address the issues. Cochabamba brought many (mostly representatives of poorer nations) together to try to change the direction in favour of the planet. Then came Cancun, widely expected to be a failure even before it convened. Two weeks of talking and jockeying for position brought no hard and fast agreements on any appreciable level. The final days and hours became a scramble for individual nations to cobble together fine words of appeasement to take home as positive offerings even as the war of words continued. The blame game – China and the US, the world’s two largest emitters, unable to compromise over their relative positions; China believing that the US should embrace the Kyoto Protocol while they would enter into voluntary limits on emissions; US suspicious of China’s sincerity and unwilling to do anything before anyone else commits to more. Kyoto anyway, as it stands, is woefully inadequate as without US, China and India the current signatories account for only about a third of world carbon emissions. On the final day, Friday, 10 December, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme told reporters:
“We all will leave Cancun knowing very clearly that we have not significantly changed the time window in which the world will be able to address climate change. That challenge remains.’
And Associated Press reported:
“It was clear in the final hours of the 193 nation congress that delegates were looking for creative language to finesse irreconcilable views and buy another year until the next major conclave in Durban, South Africa.”
All in all a serious deficit of progress as it is apparent again that the economy and GDP are far more important than sea levels, rising temperatures, falling water tables, melting glaciers and millions with neither land nor livelihood.

Outcomes and expectations
What should we have expected and can we expect anything different? Expect more big business deals, expect more loss of habitat and species, expect increased CO2 emissions and worsening climate conditions, expect more communities to be made homeless and landless, expect governments to fall in with whatever business demands, expect a lot of disappointed activists, expect a wringing of hands and feeble excuses.
Janet Surman

Tiny Tips (2011)

The Tiny Tips column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Billionaire Stanley Ho, the casino king of Macau, spent $330,000 on two white truffles, the pricey fungi popular with foodies around the world at a London auction last month. According to a truffle expert, the large, aged Italian specimens Ho bought—’grand champions’ — were mostly or entirely unusable for culinary concerns”: [Dead Link.]

As speculators and increasing demand drive up Beijing’s real estate prices, those who cannot afford the rent are going underground— literally. Hundreds of cellars and air-raid shelters are being rented out as living spaces in the Chinese capital: [Link.]

A fifth of all homeless people have committed a crime to get off the streets. A survey also finds that 28 percent of rough-sleeping women have taken an ‘unwanted sexual partner’ in order to find shelter: [Link.]

An Iraq War veteran serving five life terms for raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her parents and sister says he didn’t think of Iraqi civilians as humans after being exposed to extreme warzone violence. “I was crazy,” Green said in the exclusive telephone interview, “I didn’t think I was going to live”: [Link.]

MEPs will next year take home £91,000 in tax free expenses without having to provide any proof of expenditure as part of an increased pay and perks package: [Link.]

Marching orders (2011)

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Are the student demonstrators really demanding higher education for everyone?
A great deal of ink has been spilt in the last couple of months over student protest – marches, occupations, invading Tory HQ, police cavalry charges, and police detaining thousands of people under armed guard for hours in the freezing cold and using exposure to the elements as a deterrent to protest (sorry, kettling). Notably, a sharp distinction was drawn between peaceful, well scrubbed demonstrators, and the ugly head of the anarchist unwashed. Notably also, the children of privilege were represented on both sides, as interns in Tory HQ: the fresh and inexperienced Oxbridge faces of both the Tory/Liberal front bench and those latter-day Gracchi, the Milibands of New-new Labour; and the liberal elite having a day on the wild side, most notably Charlie Gilmour swinging from a lamppost.

All this should be ironic – coverage of a protest dedicated in principle to the universal provision of an important resource being reduced to an elite discourse in the media by which most people in the country will learn about it and try to make sense of it. However, university education is an elite issue: less than 20 percent of the UK population had a degree in the 2001 census.

In our society education is the means whereby status and earning potential are transferred from parents to children: extending this privilege increases the pool of technically trained workers such as scientists and engineers, and increases social stability by giving at least the illusion of participation to these same technical workers. The simple fact is that education structures expectations in society as well as providing the tools for participation – if you want an unequal but stable society you follow Mao’s dictum and “keep the peasants poor and blank”. University education buys in a section of the working class and  coopts them to the status quo: the same state that subsidises their training then gives many of them employment directly in the civil service or other state projects, stable and defined pensions, in short an internment from the class struggle; others find, if they are fortunate, professional roles which may use their training directly but just as often are intereswted in their three year training in writing reports.

It is this section of the working class, trained and co-opted, that is often referred to as the “middle class”. Economically the working class is defined by its universal dispossession from the means of production and thus its need to work for an employer to survive: but sociologically there are fracture points, and the classically defined “workers” – blue overall, spanner in hand – continue to dwindle in numbers in the industrial West. We are paid for the value of our labour, or rather the cost of reproducing it: those workers who have received this training investment receive better reimbursement in the private sector, and protected benefits in the public sector. This and other institutionalised divisions in our class are the bane of socialist organisation: as in the ancient world, and the antebellum South to a lesser extent, there are two kinds of slaves, house and field, and the twain tend to loathe each other more than they do their masters. And yet all seem to admire models and footballers who rise from our ranks on the strength of natural advantage, charging extra rent for their services much as a landlord charging quadruple for fertile land than for swamp. For most of us, the only route out of wage slavery, if not the lottery, is the lottery of birth.

Heaping irony on irony, then, the Tories have the better of this argument. New Labour draws support from and now consciously seeks to represent this educated, “middle”, class: they have come to calculate that political power lies in these “chattering” – i.e. politically engaged – classes, not the great unwashed. They are defending not a universal franchise but its extension to their power base, which means that a moderate income bar is quite acceptable – the state should fund their constituents, who can and are prepared to leap this bar, to compete to attend Oxbridge or other prestigious institutions without further financial impediment. The Tories have no such scruples: in lieu of political necessity, money and influence should buy future earning potential and status, in strict measure, and that means withdrawing state subsidy. If wealth buys education then wealth buys citizenship.

When we say that we live in a democracy we tend to assume that, in addition to there being a formal vote mechanism regulating the state, additional benefits automatically accrue such as a guaranteed minimal standard of living. In short, we think of it as social democracy, where the state supposedly works for us. In particular, the state reproduces democracy, by fashioning its subjects into citizens and making sufficient provision that they can function as citizens – even to the extent of taking a mass stroll to Trafalgar Square on a Sunday afternoon without being killed by the state’s armed force or the hired gangs of the wealthy, and having the time off and the health to participate in meaningful debate. But this does not have to be the case: the state is, as they say, the executive committee of the ruling class, and dispensation of favours or participation to other orders is a matter of occasional largesse or, more commonly, buying off unrest. It is no accident that universal suffrage was granted across Europe in 1918, as the survivors of mass butchery returned to the states that had sent them.

An exact parallel can be found in the “forty shilling freeholders” of medieval England. Whilst in previous centuries the decisive force in war was the knights themselves, political power mailed and armed, now the English longbowman was the backbone of military victory, and had to be given a place at the foot of the table: it cost forty shillings to support such a combatant, so forty shillings became the property qualification. They were needed: they had power: they were involved. The post-WW2 Labour government, that great reforming force, was no happy liberal accident but again a similar calculation of expanding access to the state to a large returning military until they were both militarily and socially demobilised.

Changes in these provisions are very painful and difficult: once the ruling class has invited us as house guests it is hard for them to get us to leave and graciously resume our lower places. But hard times bring hard calculations – the fiction that education and other social provision is universal will soon be over. The “heroes” that the welfare provisions were made for are all but dead, and the concessions that brought them and a ruined economy back into a stable state have died with them. Education, in that it provides the tools of citizenship, will be based on a property qualification: in that it provides trained professionals for industry, the industry will pay for them just as they would pay for any other piece of equipment, either with compensatory higher wages or with bursaries.

Education under capitalism is not a right: nor is it a privilege. It is a weapon, and a careful state only arms its friends and its carefully disciplined house slaves. It is a costly tool to be placed in the hands of a grateful journeyman. It is an essential precondition of political action, which the unions have long recognised in sponsoring the education of their own members and officials. For revolutionaries of our, properly democratic creed – that revolution is the work of the working class itself which we make as equals, house and field slaves together – it is more fundamental than the democratic process itself: that process is only open to the powerful, and in a complex society without understanding there can be no power.

Does this mean that all of our class must have a university education? Of course not, any more than all of us must be able to program computers, make cars, fly planes, nurse the ill and care for the young. Intellectual labour is just that, labour. But collectively, our class needs to be able to perform all of these roles and in principle our class members have to have universal access to all of these roles, not segregated in feudal producer castes on the basis of parentage as we have in effect been in the past and still are, though to a lesser extent than previous centuries. Regardless of their birth or history, all of our class members should have universal access to the same education. This allows us to make a democratic revolution on the basis of class solidarity, rather than being in the laughable situation once articulated by the SWP of forcing technical workers to labour, if necessary, “with guns to their heads”. It is our boast that we already run society from top to bottom: that boast becomes hollow if our class is lobotomised, with higher state posts and the associated training being reserved to a minority of the elite and their coopted trusties.

In short, we should have no illusions about what we are owed. This is the language of that section of our class who expect to be co-opted and are merely discussing the terms of their future co-option. The state rules for the rulers: for the rest of us access to it is based on either necessity or force. Demonstrations are displays of necessity, in that the state is reminded that it needs the support of those who are demonstrating, and are thus by and large well-regarded by the co-opted section of our class. The way to demand a universal provision would be to identify a provision that the state has to make and then universalise it: this means class solidarity. Talk of “middle classes” is corrosive, and so-called revolutionaries that use this language – the same found on these marches – are working against us all. As a subject class we do not have rights or privileges, but we do have demands, and we must stand together if we are to make them. Education is not a moral issue: it is a class issue.