Strikes in the Ideological State Apparatus

When staff at universities go on strike, any government should be concerned. Despite the efforts of bureaucrats, universities are places where different types of learning can occur. This does not usually matter, but it means that there is always scope for radicalisation to happen. Lecturers and students can begin to feel that they have political power. Furthermore, the experience of striking can change people for good.

Louis Althusser was clear that the education system was an Ideological State Apparatus. This means that education plays a key role in reproducing the values of the ruling class. However, a strike interrupts the standard operation of the system. Even if it is unsuccessful, strike action throws up questions about the status quo.

The current strike action affecting British universities is officially about pensions. But it would appear that discontent among staff has been growing for some time. The advent of the neoliberal university has been stressful for workers in the sector. Charging students huge sums for their education has been controversial. When education is treated as a commodity then this risks alienating educators. Even if the ostensible trigger of the strike is addressed, it may well be that industrial action breaks out over other issues like academic workload.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of a strike in advance. But if the government cares about the education of its citizens it would do well to work quickly to bring the different sides of the dispute together. The leader of the Labour Party has not distanced himself from the strikers and this has kept the ball in the Tory court. Strikes have unintended consequences and the authorities have seemingly been remiss in their treatment of employees.


The Preston delusion

Local government in the UK is in a terrible mess. Massive cuts in funding from central government have left councils in an awkward situation. Many of them are struggling to deliver statutory services with competence. At the same time, residents are finding it hard to cope with council tax hikes. The council tax hits the poorer members of communities really hard; it is not progressive like income tax. When asked to square the circle, local authorities are clear that they will not set an illegal budget. Furthermore, some of these councils will not even use their reserves to fill the gaps in provision.

In this toxic context, journalists and politicians have talked up the Preston model. However, the local authority there has not resisted cuts. It has tried to keep money in the local economy using cooperatives. And it has decided to get involved in a drone trial. This approach looks to the future while respecting the past, but it does not address the key issue.

If local government is to be democratic it must listen to the voices of the poor. Imposing cuts in line with the dictates of central government may be be legal. But it is unethical to implement more austerity on the victims of austerity. Labour councils must differentiate themselves from their Tory rivals. Austerity is a political choice.

Local government has limited borrowing powers. Reserves can also be spent in tough times. If the Labour Party is to be remade it must begin to represent its core vote. Local government has been the scapegoat for Tory economic mismanagement. It is time for it to regain its dignity.

Does the British media hate goodness?

“Goodness” may be hard to define. However, recent days have led me to think that the media in the UK is on a crusade to discredit ‘do-gooders’ of all types. Anybody who tries to do something positive is regarded with cynicism by jaundiced hacks.

Any international charity will have engaged in dubious activities if one looks close enough. The vitriol directed against Oxfam for issues in 2011 was disproportionate. In the same year as the alleged crimes took place, the UK was engaged in a dubious war in Libya. This led to a protracted civil war and an exodus of people from that country. Yet the British press largely ignores the legacy of that conflict.

Matthew D’Ancona is a columnist in The Guardian who claims to find it despicable that some people are unconvinced by the importance of the story about Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged indiscretions in the 1980s. The Cold War ended in 1989 and everybody on the left is tired by the attempts to portray Corbyn as a communist. Corbyn is a democratic socialist who stood on a reformist manifesto. Who said what to whom way back when seems to be largely irrelevant when the UK is in such a mess.

Being a writer is tough, especially if one has tight deadlines. But while pleasing corporations may be acceptable, destroying the idea of goodness is going a bit too far. Young people are having to make their way in a competitive society which punishes failure excessively. They need to be reassured that most people in charities and most socialists are not so bad. Obviously, some socialists are hypocrites and everyone makes mistakes, but journalists should think about how they would fare if every single detail of their lives was scrutinised. It is no wonder that newspaper circulations have slipped significantly in recent times.

The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

This moving novel depicts the collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union. This process was incredibly painful and a dreadful famine was the ultimate result of the policy. Joseph Stalin had been determined to set class against class in the rural areas of the country and the rest of his bureaucratic regime crushed opposition to the strategy of the dictator. During the international economic crisis of the 1930s, some famous Western thinkers did not register what was happening in a society that was meant to be building socialism.

The poignant story which Andrei Platonov constructed does not attempt to grapple with the psychology of Stalin. Nor does it reflect much on the complex reasons why many ordinary people obeyed his orders. However, the brief tale documents the sorrow and the anguish of many peasants. Furthermore, it does refer to the slogans that mocked the struggling men, women and children as they worked themselves towards death.

Obviously, the Stalinist period is a tragic episode in history. Yet the Soviet Union did play a massive role in defeating Nazism. Writers like Victor Serge have tried to examine the strange character of Stalin, but Platonov takes a different path. As a socialist with a semi-religious tone, Platonov paints a sad picture of betrayed ideals.

Perhaps Karl Marx never integrated the peasantry properly into his plans for socialism. Unlike the Utopian socialists, Marx was reluctant to be too prescriptive about the future. Nonetheless, his analysis of capitalism was often weighted towards understanding the situation of the urban working class. This does not excuse Stalin for ripping up the social arrangements in the countryside, but it may partly explain why other socialists failed to stand up to his destructive agenda.



The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

This poetic novel captures some of the chaos which followed the Russian Revolution. Mikhail Bulgakov focuses on dramatic events in Kiev. The narrative uses a specific family to generate empathy for a city in crisis.

The violence in the text is not as extreme as a reader might expect. But the suffering of ordinary citizens comes across for all that. The disruption is in part communicated by the irrational ideas that sweep across the city. Wild rumour combines with deprivation to convey how ordinary life has vanished.

Leon Trotsky is discussed towards the end of the story. An ill man believes that the revolutionary is a representative of the Antichrist. The character condemns Trotsky as spreading corruption among the young.

Bulgakov had a complex relationship with Joseph Stalin. The writer received a phone call from the dictator in 1930. Stalin may have had mixed views about the usefulness of the work of Bulgakov, but both men could well have shared their distaste for the radical Trotsky.

On wages and inflation: a note on the implications

Inflation is not experienced evenly across society. The basket of goods approach suits some social classes more than others. When inflation exceeds wage increases, social cohesion can begin to fragment as different groups crave diverse responses. Interest rate hikes can threaten those in jobs or those in debt, while a laissez-faire approach may be unsustainable.

The American Geoff Mann has thought a lot about the system of wage labour. He wrote:

“With opportunity and constraint so immanent in the wage, it is unsurprising that workers take seemingly contradictory stances towards wage earning- pride and shame, scepticism and hope, militant opposition and enthusiastic participation- and toward capitalism generally.”

This complexity has concrete consequences for the political struggles of the working class. It is problematic to achieve unity when people are tugged in conflicting directions by the ‘invisible’ hand of the market.

Gulag by Anne Applebaum

This history questions why the labour camps of the former Soviet Union are not much discussed in contemporary society. With the benefit of hindsight, it partly blames the influence of Western intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre. It also claims that many modern Russians prefer to look at the more positive aspects of the past.

Professor Applebaum asserts that every major human tragedy is unique. Nonetheless, she suggests that “totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people.” This position seems awkward in that acknowledging differences between the terrible episodes in human history might lead one to think that the overarching concept of totalitarianism is problematic. For example, there could well be an analytical  problem if a thinker confuses Marxism with Marxist-Leninism or Stalinism. Moreover, the ideology of fascism cannot be understood properly if we pretend that other belief systems are equivalent in their menace.

Nevertheless, this grim text retains the power to move the reader. This is because it is based on the accumulation of dreadful stories from what Alexander Solzhenitsyn once described as The Gulag Archipelago. The intensity of the suffering of individuals is not easy for the ordinary reader to process. A strength of the analysis is that it underlines how Joseph Stalin once hoped that his terrible camp system would be profitable. The fact is that free labour is more humane and efficient than the alternatives.

Dehumanizing ‘the other’ is a political device which can lead to disastrous outcomes. In any society, vulnerable groups may become a scapegoat. When authoritarian rulers want to deflect from socioeconomic problems, civil society must be vigilant. Unfortunately, vigilance without adequate political organisation is insufficient.