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Striking workers, war profiteers and the NHS hanging in the balance
The Bank of England announced yesterday that they’re raising interest rates from 1.25% to 1.75%. It’s the largest rate hike since the 1990s. Sharp interest rate increases tend to sink economies into recession, which is precisely what’s happening: the rate hike announcement came at the same time that the Bank revealed their prediction that inflation will hit 13% in October of this year, with the economy expected to plunge into recession until the end of next year. This means that as everything gets more expensive, your money will also be worth less.
When the press reports on these announcements, they simultaneously make them sound confusing and inevitable. They are neither. That’s not to say that inflation is easily explainable (it’s not) but when the people who own everything start talking about making sacrifices, you can bet your skyrocketing energy bills that they have no plans to hurl themselves into an active volcano to appease the god of economics. Capital and its media mouthpieces are trying to trick you into believing that it’s either divine intervention or workers’ lack of ‘wage restraint’ driving inflation.
But for the energy companies really driving up the cost of living, it’s a bonanza of war profiteering. The Guardian reported this week that the big five energy companies’ profits are currently booming thanks to the war in Ukraine. This isn’t just happening: the capitalist class has decided to make life hard for us.
I have no profound insight into our plummeting standard of living. I’m just another person trying to cope with, on the one hand, a world that becomes more shitty and stupid and arbitrary every day, and, on the other, the steady barrage of explanations why that fail ever more miserably to convince. It feels futile to add another explanation to that pile.
That said, nobody who works for a living, including me, is going to take all this laying down. The rail workers are on their second strike this year; the postal workers will take to the picket lines after them; and workers at NHS Scotland are voting on a pay offer from the Scottish Government that, in light of skyrocketing inflation, amounts to a pay cut—which, according to the BMA, represents for some NHS workers ‘an astonishing and unjustifiable 30% real decline in take-home pay since 2008/09’. So there’s a strike brewing at the NHS.
The only public figures addressing this reality are the union leaders at the picket lines. And maybe that’s as it should be. I’ve long argued, in this newsletter and on the podcast, that hope in our electoral institutions draws attention away from the struggle on the ground for working class power. Elections can be useful vehicles for expressing that power; but without workers themselves doing the struggling, building that power in the first place, electoral politics is mere catharsis—a distraction from the issue at hand.
If history is anything to go by, even some of the greatest wins of the last century’s working class movement were used as bulwarks against further revolutionary demands. I recently wrote an article for a new magazine called The Guts Of It, in which I argue that the NHS played a crucial role in the post-war settlement between labour and capital, in which workers’ demands were partially met to avoid a total overthrow of capitalism—a very real possibility after decades of growing labour militancy. In my article, ‘Socialism in Sick Times,’ I make the case that the story of the NHS is also the story of the rise and fall and potential rise of socialism in the UK.
I wrote the article back in February, and at the end of the piece I argued that ‘It will take NHS workers and the public alike standing up for the service, even if that means entertaining the previously unthinkable possibility of strikes and other forms of industrial action.’ I was worried that my conclusion might come off a little extreme. Little did I know that the magazine would finally hit shelves at a moment of widespread labour upheaval with broad public backing.
Since things are about to get a lot worse than they’ve ever been in our lifetimes, having a long-established and much cherished institution like the NHS provides not only a political-economic focal point for struggle, but an emotional one too. The NHS stands as an example of what we can win when we fight; it’s a living embodiment of the kind of world we deserve—a better one than this, for sure. Nobody but the capitalists want to see the NHS fail; and the more they hobble it, the easier it is to see the parasitic social relationship of capitalism at play. It’s hard for the bastards to tear a beloved thing out of our hands and pretend they’re doing us a favour.
The Guts of It launches on the 18th of August. There’s a launch event at Good Press in Glasgow, which you can attend for free, but you’ll need to book here. I’ll be reading ‘Socialism in Sick Times’ at the event. The magazine will be available in two print editions: one printed on fancy paper for sale at £7; the other on newsprint that you can have for free. The online edition will also be free to read.