Who do you ‘sock’? From Alice Springs to the ‘Foolish Old Man who moved the Mountains’ – and back

Tom Griffiths

 

This post is about two seemingly unrelated situations separated by both time and distance. The first situation is local, Alice Springs to be specific, and emerges from a men’s family violence program I helped establish in Alice Springs some five years ago and some of the things I have learned over this time. The other concerns an American steel worker called Mike who was interviewed in one of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, “Working…” published in 1974.  Originally reviewed by Marshall Berman in the same year, I first came across it in Berman’s Adventures in Marxism that came out in 1999. For reasons best known to the book gods I reread Berman’s book earlier this year  and the connection between Mike and Alice jumped out at me. I will pick this up below but first let me introduce Mike the steel worker.

 

“Here is “Mike Lefevre” … a 37 year old steelworker. First he abuses intellectuals, complains that they denigrate workers. A moment later, however, he stereotypically denigrates himself: “A mule, an old mule, that’s the way I feel.” He is hurt and angry that his teenage son “lacks respect.” And yet “I want my kid to be an effete snob. …I want him to tell me that he’s not gonna be like me.” He talks about the anger and violence inside him: he goes to a bar, insults someone randomly, starts a brawl. “He’s punching me and I’m punching him, because we really both want to punch somebody else.” But who? Forty years ago in Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, a worker punched out his boss, and the audience stood up and cheered. But Terkel’s worker has the brains to see how things have changed: the structure of work is far more abstract and depersonalised today, and cathartic moments don’t come easy. “Who you gonna sock? [asks Mike] You can’t sock General Motors, you can’t sock anyone in Washington. You can’t sock a system.””

 

What sets Mike apart from many is that he knows, as he’s punching somebody out, that he really wants to direct his fire elsewhere, but feels trapped. He has a sense of what the target might be, but as a solo steelworker, can’t fix the target in his sights, can’t get close enough to ‘sock it’. He has insight, but is hamstrung by despair and self loathing, compounded, it would seem, by isolation. Hope is there too – he reads, looking for answers and direction, but so far these have eluded him.

 

We don’t know what happened to Mike, whether he was able to shake off his despair and self hatred, find kindred spirits and together work out ways of socking systems rather than each other, but Mike, and so many like him, has soul mates in places like Alice and across the Top End.

 

Up here where hopelessness, self loathing and despair could be stamped on nearly everyone’s birth certificate, people quickly come to ‘get’, on some instinctive level at least, that you can’t ‘sock the system’, be that the white fella system or the broken aspects of the traditional tribal system, where humbugging, jealousing and payback are spinning out of control, but where you can sure as hell sock one another. And they do, especially the men who target women, usually their wives partners or girlfriends, as well as one another. And when that doesn’t solve anything they take it out on themselves. The family violence rate, often alcohol fueled, the jail numbers, the hospital admissions associated with violent assault and self harm, the suicide rate and the churning out of corrugated road kids who so quickly grow into corrugated road adults … all this and more screams of the pain and rage that springs from despair, the self loathing that often accompanies this and of feeling trapped. Just like Mike.

 

“Two way learning”

 

This phrase was used by a close colleague and camp resident whose activism was involved in two of the examples I give below. It describes a means of broadening one’s scope in seeking solutions, of learning from and supporting one another and is in direct contrast to the narrowing and, dare I say it, ‘exclusivizing’ pull of identity politics.

 

So what do we learn from Mike and how can this learning be used to help people stop abusing one another, especially their family members, and instead to find targets, political, institutional or community ones that are, or have become, part of the problem and not part of the solution? The first thing is to acknowledge that there are sufficient parallels that exist between Mike, his equivalents elsewhere in the world and indigenous populations in Alice and up the top end for similarities to be sought and lessons to be drawn, be these lessons positive ones or negative ones. Without this we turn our backs on one another or look upon one another as curiosities. And Mike gives us both positive and negative. He knows himself that he is hitting the wrong target and hates himself for doing it, for repeatedly getting sucked in. That’s why he drinks himself to sleep, to escape.

 

Knowing this however, knowing you’re hitting the wrong target, is not a bad place to start. But as Mike would be the first to admit, it’s also not a good place to stay. So how do people get unstuck and find a way forward? They can take another lesson from Mike, a positive one, and look for solutions. Mike’s not just unhappy with himself, he’s unhappy with the situation; it’s why he wants his son to be better than him and good on him for that; it’s why he reads, it’s why he wants to connect somehow with the outside world and to look for ways that will help him find some direction and purpose, to get out from under.

 

What Mike had not yet learnt (and I hope that he ended up learning this) is that you can, in fact, take on a system but you can’t do it on your own. You need to find friends, people in similar situations who are also pissed off and frustrated, and you need to take this to a higher level (to synthesize it) and figure out which targets are real, accessible and ‘sockable’. This doesn’t happen by magic and it doesn’t come from a bottle; it needs determination, organisation, mutual support and a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes. And if you need to stick your hand up, looking for that support, you do that too.

 

Invariably this process starts small. Remember the song “From little things big things grow”? It’s telling us something important. Remember Mike’s frustration “you can’t sock Washington”? Wherever Mike was in the States he was nowhere near Washington, nowhere near the government or the bureaucrats he felt screwed by and he was flying solo. Starting too big can be overwhelming and self defeating. More than enough to hate yourself and seek escape in grog.

 

So what does starting small mean? Let me place this within an Territorian context and give some examples. The first is well known – the struggle for land rights at Wave Hill – the other two, like so many significant struggles engaged in by those who are notionally powerless, virtually unknown and flying under the radar.

 

The well known. 

Vincent Lingiari, land rights and Lord Vestey 

 

This is a very well known story and one that won’t be forgotten. Washington may have been a long way off from Mike, but nowhere near as far as Britain, where Lord Vestey was, or Canberra where the politicians and bureaucrats were and where there was no understanding or support for land rights. As we know, Lingiari and those with him at Wave Hill weren’t budging for anyone and over several years gained widespread support across the nation. Be the politicians sympathetic or be they dragging their heels, they were forced to listen and to give ground, forcing open a door that enabled new struggles and new targets to be identified and targeted.

 

The less well known

  1. Grog, humbugging and mayhem at a town camp.

 

Most readers will have no difficulty understanding the connection between lots of grog and the potential for mayhem. Humbugging may need explaining. As used up north humbugging describes a perversion of the traditional system of mutual obligation where individuals connected by ties of kin are obliged to assist one another in times of need. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jared Diamond have written of similar systems in Somalia (Infidel) and New Guinea (The World Until Yesterday) respectively. When the natural world held the whip hand mutual obligation within family or clan systems was essential to survival. While any system is capable of being abused the fine line that existed between survival and disaster acted as a powerful constraint and the system worked, performing its function as intended. Modernity, in whatever form it has taken, has loosened the grip of the natural world significantly and the constraint it exercised no longer applies. The effect of this development has been to undermine the place of mutual obligation and allow its perversion, often distorting it beyond recognition. Under these circumstances it has become parasitic and exploitative rather than supportive.  A parody of family humbugging was made in this skit from the ABC’s Black Comedy team. It is one of the funniest and most astute pieces of comedy I have seen in a long time.

 

With this in mind let me get back to the grog, humbugging and mayhem with a story told to me by one of its principal architects and actors.

 

Following yet another grog fuelled and mayhem inducing ‘visit’ by some out of town family tearaways to a family in one of Alice’s town camps another of the families decided that enough was enough and began to look for allies and solutions. Consultations with others indicated that they were not alone, everyone knowing the pattern of behaviour and its impacts – humbugging the family to get lots of grog, wild partying, no respect for others, alcohol fuelled violence and a lousy, often dangerous time for others. This pattern had become not only familiar and predictable, but disturbingly so.

 

With sufficient support garnered within the camp, support was sought externally. This brought on board the Night Patrol, auspiced by Tangentyere Council, the indigenous organization responsible for most of the town camps and the police. Relations between the indigenous population and the police has a very mixed history, but unity here was essential for a viable plan of action to be formulated and enacted. This enabled the identification of two interrelated targets – the visiting tearaways and the distorted obligation system they were riding on, a system that had been turned into its opposite. The plan formulated was simple but required commitment, cooperation and organization. Its success rested upon it being driven from the bottom  up. When the tearaways turned up and humbugged the locals to get the grog the police would be informed, would turn up and the grog would end up down the sink. This didn’t need to happen too often before the pennies dropped and the wayward behaviour was curtailed. Mike was shown to be wrong here. You can sock a system, but it needs to be within reach and something that others can agree on.

 

  1. The Women’s Safety Committee and the Men’s Safety Committee

 

When Tangentyere Council began to provide  men’s family violence groups  in 2014 a few eyebrows in the camps were raised followed by a ‘let’s wait and see how fair dinkum this is’ kind of attitude. Five years down the track the program has shown itself to be fair dinkum, that it understood that you can’t respect people without listening to them and that change that didn’t put most of its energy in a bottom up approach was patronizing and a waste of time. People took notice. Firstly a number of women camp leaders, followed later by male camp leaders, let it be known that they were very unhappy about the violence, often grog fuelled, that was tearing families and communities apart. They requested training and support. Over several months in 2015 the women, who has initiated the contact and the request and then the men, along with the workers from the program that provided the training, learnt a lot from one another. Posters opposing male violence in particular started to appear in the camps, negotiations with various authorities aimed at making the camps safer, word being spread encouraging people to speak out and no longer accept violence, these and more all bear witness to identifying clear targets and working to ensure that blows are aimed at these targets rather than at one another. They also bear witness to the wisdom contained in a traditional Chinese folk tale, The Foolish Old Man Who Removed The Mountains, promoted anew last century in a speech given in 1945 by Mao Zedong, telling of a man who ignored community derision and literally chipped away at his task until God (the people in Mao’s telling), impressed by his determination granted him success. And for those unfamiliar it did involve moving mountains. In Alice we can call this The Foolish Old Women Who Are Moving Mountains. And moving it they are, uniting with others in the process. They will eventually succeed, and while derisive comments can still be heard from naysayers, be they whitefella or blackfella, these are now mutterings, uttered more under the breathe than in the open. A tide has turned. It has a  way to come in but its direction and growing momentum is unambiguous.

 

I think if Mike and the various Mike’s around the world knew about all this he and they would get a real lift, there would be, as my camp colleague put it, “two way learning” and the growth of solidarity on that basis. That’s the good thing about seeking connection with people all over, be they locals or from far away; we get to learn from one another and support one another, we get to identify the right targets and to work out strategies to take them on, we get to sock systems.

 

* * * *

 

Brexit – And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards November to be aborted

For background, see previous articles in this series:

https://c21stleft.com/category/brexit/

David Gauke, one of the leaders of the Tory MPs opposing a No Deal Brexit has written an article at “Conservative Home” explaining why “Parliament must stop a No Deal Brexit this week”. My response is below:

David Gauke: Why I believe that Parliament must stop a No Deal Brexit this week

Fine, Parliament steps in. On Tuesday 3 September it takes control of the agenda. By Monday 9 September legislation to make leaving only with a deal the default will have passed both Houses, with much sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Then what? There are still several days before prorogation by Thursday 12 September. Those days could be far more interesting. If Bojo is really determined on a “People v Parliament” election, assent will be refused. That would be more difficult if he had already been made a caretaker PM by an ordinary Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) not under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FtPA). The legislation is a matter of confidence, whether declared to be or not. The proper response of the government would be to propose an election. Since Bojo has openly threatened to pre-empt any decision by the people by setting the date in November and refusing to apply for an exension he won’t get the 2/3 majority of all MPs.

But a VoNC could still be moved under the FtPA, perhaps by Bojo himself. The Libdems have the same interest in a general election with Brexit still unresolved and could support it. It could succeed. No problem. It is still not too late to replace the PM.

But prorogation can occur at any time in those four days, for example immediately after a VoNC and before any Humble Address to HM to dismiss Bojo and appoint some named MP as PM. So the election proceeds.

If the House majority is serious it needs to replace Bojo as PM first. That is how the Constitution is supposed to work. The House replaces governments it has no confidence in. It does not legislate to block their core policies.”

Here’s a confusing and incomplete list of possible outcomes, also at “ConservativeHome”:

What will happen in the Commons this week? Here are 15 possibilites. They are not exhaustive…

This week the UK Parliament should actually be interesting instead of the usual rituals in which a government majority routinely proceeds with business while an opposition minority remonstrates ineffectually. A minority government faces a split opposition majority determined to block core government policy. A likely result is legislation that changes the default from leaving the EU without a deal on October 31 unless there is a deal to not leaving unless there is a deal. That reverses everything about Brexit and inevitably leads to either No Brexit or a BRINO. The legislation may or may not be accompanied by replacement of the PM, a date for a general election before or after October 31 and various court orders, none of which matters as much as the fact that No Deal will be blocked. The rest can be dealt with later.

The Tory whip has declared such legislation a matter of confidence and threatens expulsion of any Tory MPs that fail to support the government. But there are enough retiring anyway to defeat the government and others could become extremely unwell and unable to attend the House. The threat implies that Bojo is actively demanding to be replaced as PM. Other measures to that end have included:

1. threatening to respond to a VoNC by pre-empting a subsequent general election on Brexit by setting the date after a No Deal Brexit has already happened on October 31

2. inciting hysterics about proroging the House

It is plain that Bojo knows he never had the confidence of the House and will be blocked by it. But why is he so desperate to be replaced as PM? Well, given that he cannot actually deliver Brexit and he was chosen to sideline the Brexit party he desperately needs credibility as heroic leader of nearly all Brexiteers fighting to the end, so that Farage has less success in splitting the Tory vote at the eventual general election. Tnat should save some Tory seats from the debacle.

Corbyn has offered to support the 2/3 majority needed for a general election under the FtPA, but since Bojo sets the date and said he would pre-empt the decision on Brexit by holding the election afterwards, that would presumably depend on the legislation blocking a No Deal Brexit having been assented to. I cannot think of any reason why the government would actually want to face a general election having failed to resolve Brexit and still stuck with no plan. Only the Libdems and the Brexit party benefit from that. What both government and opposition really want is for Brexit to be resolved by a “Final Say” referendum before any general election, but they cannot admit it.

My guess is that the week will end with Bojo still left roasting in that special place in Hell for Brexiteers without a plan, despite his best efforts. Corbyn and Hammond are both a lot less tactically inept than Blair assumes.

The middle of October could be more dramatic, but that’s a whole six weeks away so I’ll write about it after this week is over.

The process will be far more interesting than usual because with the Tory party split there are more than two parties and a non-deterministic outcome. There are many possible variations and the sound and fury could include expelling disruptive government MPs and contemptuous Ministers from the session with background noise from the Courts. Unfortunately it seems unlikely that anyone will be locked up in the Tower pending trial and the crowds outside will probably not engage in unlawful drilling in the use of arms to defend democracy.

The last time such parliamentary politics was not entirely pre-determined in Australia was when there were three factions at the convention called to propose a model for a Republican constitution. The Monarchists, who wanted an Australian “Head of State” to confer dignity on the local poliltical class were out maneuvered by the Traditionalists who preferred to keep such symbols entirely out of politics, safely on the opposite side of the globe, and the Republicans who wanted some relevant change rather than pretense.

Actual political conflicts debated through public institutions could be normal in both the UK and Australia as well as the U.S.A. and others stuck with a two party system inherited from medieval England if they managed to overcome resistance from the two parties that benefit and establish a fair electoral system with Proportional Representation (PR). That could even lead to serious public debate over actual policies between a full spectrum of viewpoints if mainstream politics was not completely bankrupt. But even in the current state of mainstream politics it would slightly open up opportunities for other views to get a hearing, as in most of Europe where PR is the norm.

In the current political crisis over Brexit there could be real public debate about sovereignty, national identity, globalization and ever deeper union, free trade, looming trade wars, stagnation and economic crisis etc.

Instead the entire time available will be spent on not discussing Brexit at all, but devoted to procedural sound and fury signifying nothing. But this too is worth analysing as it reflects a profound shift towards populist mobilization to resolve splits in the establishment under constitutional mechanisms that were supposed to ensure a conservative and a reformist party would rotate in government, each delivering their supporters to accept compromise policies in order to win over the voters in the middle and thus win a majority of single member seats to be able to govern, That arrangement has facilitated periods of relatively rapid change led by reformists, followed by consolidation and digestion of the changes so that they become the status quo defended by conservatives. Its breakdown opens up potential involvement of much wider layers than the “political class”.

Usually reformists focus on Parliament rather than street protests. Now that Parliament is briefly interesting, of course they are doing the opposite. If there was an organized left, it would be using the street protests to mobilize the participants to actually reach out to others and canvas every home and workplace in every region to win over those still not convinced. Instead they are talking to themselves, or rather shouting to themselves, rather hysterically, and just sneering at the large numbers still taken by Brexiteer fantasies. The pseudo-left populism united with “the establishment” and “our Parliament” is no more progressive than the right wing nationalist populism united against “the establishment” and “their Parliament. Both are led by different factions of the establishment and being set against each other to divide potential mobilization that could actually challenge the establishment.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” but neither can the rough Beast be born.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)

Still, things are happening, which enables more people to start thinking for themselves.

Brexit – Pantomime Outrage

Just a quick update on the latest news about prorogation.

For background see recent articles in this series:

https://c21stleft.com/category/brexit/

Tory Remainers insist on attempting to legislate against a No Deal Brexit and only replace PM Bojo as a very last resort.

Meanwhile Bojo is stuck roasting in that “special place in Hell” for Brexiteers without a plan. He has even been pretending that the EU are about to cave in to his “threats” of damage to the UK, but the obstruction from Parliament might be holding that up.

It is getting quite ridiculous so he is trying to get the House of Commons to hurry up and sack him by proroging Parliament – and telling them in advance so they know they need to sack him now.

HM has duly obliged by proroging Parliament so that it only sits on four less days than the dates it was scheduled to sit anyway. This has outraged the House majority but it is unclear whether they will sack Bojo immediately next week or wait until the Queen’s speech in mid-October after their recess for party conferences, as they still have not agreed on a replacement PM. Not replacing Bojo would result in him setting the election date for November pre-empted by a No Deal Brexit on 31 October.

The “outrage” is entirely synthetic. It is completely proper to require the House to replace the government with a government it has confidence in rather than continue the farce of legislating against the policies of a government it has no confidence in.

This pantomime has been going on since the 2017 elections when the government lost its majority. The government knows it has lost control of the House and is correctly demanding that the House replace it.

The House majority already legislated to ensure that it would be able to meet despite any prorogation except around exactly the window that was provided for the prorogation just announced with great fanfare by Bojo and greeted with mock surprise and outrage by his opponents.

Whether or not prorogued the house meets within 5 days of September 4 and fortnightly from October 9 till next year.

The list of sponsors of the amendment ensuring that are the same as the leaders of the majority:

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2017-2019/0425/amend/ni_execform_pro_ccla_0718.1-2.html

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2019/22

That legislation was given the Royal Assent on the same day that Bojo was commissioned as PM (and at the same hour).

The House majority can replace the PM at any time it chooses. If it chooses not to, it will rightly be held jointly responsible for the consequences.

The pantomime outrage is purely for the benefit of the Tory Remainers who need to be able to say they had no alternative when they do finally pull the plug on this zombie government with its undead Brexit.

Brexit – four parties dancing and falling to bits

Rebel Tory MPs did acquiesce in Bojo becoming PM so there is now a loose canon in 10 Downing Street.

But the Brexit saga will still be effectively over before October 17. See my previous articles in this series on Brexit:

https://c21stleft.com/category/brexit/

Bojo has done rather well in achieving a bounce in the polls, by adopting the No Deal policies of the Brexit party, while Labour and Libdems remained fairly static with a resulting net shift to:

Con 31%, Lab 21%, Libdem 19%, Brexit 14%, Green 7%, SNP 4% (Scottish Nationalist Party)

https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/8i9x45cenq/TheTimes_190806_VI_Trackers_w.pdf

That is still 45% voting for parties committed to Brexit even with No Deal, and 55% for parties opposed.

But Bojo cannot deliver Brexit because he does not have a majority in the House. So a high proportion of Tory votes will return to the Brexit party after Bojo’s promises to deliver on October 31 implode. For example if 8% gave up on a Tory Brexit the result would be Con 23%, Brexit 22% – more like the situation at the start of July, before the Bojo bounce.

Labour also wants to get voters back from Libdems by opposing No Deal while not losing them to Brexit party by actually becoming a Remain party. It is likely to get a substantial swing back from the Libdems because Bojo is fully committed to “No Deal” and Labour can now wholeheartedly oppose that without alienating its Leave supporters. For example an 8% swing back would produce Lab 29%, Libdem 11% – more like the end of April, before the EU elections.

In addition, the extremism of Bojo’s adoption of the Brexit party’s “No Deal” could move some Tory voters out of the pro-Brexit camp entirely, either to not voting or to the Libdems. With the Libdems no longer competitive, a Tory swing to Libdems would lose Tory seats to Labour rather than to Libdems.

The combined net result could still be near extinction of the Tory party as looked plausible at the time of the EU elections. Only a detailed regional and seat by seat analysis of polls after actual campaign launches could hope to provide a reasonable prediction but things look much worse for Tories than for Labour if Labour successfully blocks a “damaging Tory No Deal Brexit”. Things certainly look a lot better for Tories than before Bojo, but they could look a lot worse again after his bluster implodes.

The media on both sides are convinced that Bojo is determined to jump off the “No Deal” cliff edge on October 31 expecting to win an election around the same date. That is absurd, but it has nearly all the journos quite mesmerized. The election will be held after Brexit has been “resolved” by a “Final Say” referendum. How long after would depend on the opposing inclinations of an unstable agreement among rebel Tories, Libdems, Labour and SNP.

Bojo’s tactics can be understood as aiming to keep as many Brexit party voters as possible to save as many seats as possible by defying the majority in the House and getting sacked. It’s an unusual strategy for a conservative PM but these are strange times. The point is that only by getting sacked can Bojo heroically lead most of the Brexiteers to glorious defeat in the inevitable “Final Say” referendum. Otherwise Farage could still be leading too many of them for the Tory party to survive. If nobody else will do it he will move to sack himself.

Labour now wants to avoid an early general election but cannot admit it.

Tories need to be stopped from carrying out their promises by being sacked, but cannot admit it.

Libdems now have more need for an early election than for stopping Brexit but cannot admit it.

Brexit party needs Bojo to stay as PM and sell out Brexit, but cannot admit it.

There is a huge churn of both the Labour and Tory parties gaining and losing either Remain or Leave voters to both the Brexit party and Libdems, depending on which way they lurch and which way the others lurch.

In this complicated dance of totally unprincipled opportunists in four parties, the UK political system is falling to bits. It was designed for two parties each delivering their supporters to accept compromise to win elections from their opponents.

Bojo desperately needs a “Final Say” referendum to be “forced” on him. May had to resign after admitting a second Brexit referendum was inevitable so Bojo is putting up a quite convincing show that he would rather jump off the cliff-edge of “No Deal” unless restrained. Furthermore he has threatened to pre-empt using a general election to stop him. If defeated in a Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) he would supposedly refuse to resign and instead schedule any general election for AFTER a “No Deal” Brexit had already happened by default on October 31.

Thus the most practical way to restrain Bojo is to replace him as PM with a temporary minority government holding a “Final Say” referendum before a general election. That is what he wants. But he is having to practically demand it as his opponents are such limp jellyfish.

The UK press is getting hysterical about a “Constitutional Crisis”, joined by some constitutional lawyers:

Can Boris Johnson ignore parliament and force a no deal Brexit?

It is unclear whether the majority against Brexit in the House will continue to “exhaust every other alternative” before finally doing the Constitutional thing.

https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/speaker-cant-guarantee-mps-can-stop-no-deal-brexit

But in the end the House has to simply replace the government with one it has confidence in. The problem is that hardly anybody in the UK has confidence in any of the parties, including their MPs.

Is it too late to stop a no deal Brexit?

This government has already lost the confidence of the House of Commons: the response should be to replace the government, not to neuter parliament

https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Endangering-Constitutional-Government.pdf

Apart from any such “exhausting”, the most likely sequence of events seems to me as follows (with many possible variations, all of which lead to a “Final Say” and no Brexit):

1. Corbyn could move an ordinary no confidence motion in early September. This does not trigger a 14 day deadline leading to a general election. It simply removes the authority to govern from Bojo who becomes a caretaker PM with a duty NOT to resign until the palace is able to determine who is most likely to command the confidence of the House.

http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06941/SN06941.pdf

The government has an official working majority of 0, with quite a few Tory MPs likely to support this first step even if they do not want to go further. (Perhaps between 40 and 100). Naturally this possibility is not even mentioned in the media, which is talking only in terms of a VoNC under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FtPA) that triggers an early general election. Alternatively Corbyn could do as the media expects and still get a (smaller) majority with a tighter deadline. Either way negotiations for a replacement government would need to happen in advance. Those negotiations are proceeding right now.

2. The current state of the parties means the palace would have to wait until the House tells it who has its confidence to commission as PM. The Libdems will try to bring on an early election by refusing to support a temporary minority Labour government on the grounds that they cannot accept Corbyn as PM. But ultimately their members cannot allow a No Deal Brexit so they will have to agree on a replacement government. Tory MPs opposed to Bojo’s No Deal might also try to get a cross-party government formed under some other PM. I think the likely outcome is the natural one for the Leader of the Opposition to become Prime Minister. This does matter for the coherence of any party system but does not really matter for the outcome on Brexit.

https://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/current-state-of-the-parties/

https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2019/august/the-uk-s-flexible-constitution

Can Boris Johnson ignore parliament and force a no deal Brexit?

3. One mechanism for telling the palace who to commission would be for MPs to sign competing “Early Day Motions” nominating different candidates for PM. Theoretically the palace could pick the motion with the largest support and that might not be Corbyn. But it is far more likely for the palace to wait for an actual majority vote expressing the choice by the House, perhaps in a “Humble Address” to HM the Queen. Either way this could drag on for quite a while, with Bojo still roasting in that “special place in Hell” for Brexiteers without a plan, and with business getting increasingly panic stricken about “uncertainty”.

https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/business/edms/

4. Bojo could and probably would pose as the people’s champion against a recalcitrant Parliament by moving for an early election under the FtPA. This would need a 2/3 majority of all 650 seats. But Labour has more than 1/3 and Bojo has already given Labour the perfect excuse to refuse on the grounds that Bojo cannot be trusted not to pre-empt the outcome by setting an election date after the Brexit deadline of 31 October and not applying to the EU for an extension.

5. Bojo could then move a VoNC under the FtPA against his own government. That only requires a majority to trigger a 14 day deadline and might well succeed in speeding things up, with much drama. In any case the House would need to agree on a replacement PM and tell the palace before about October 17 or Brexit would go ahead with the MPs who refuse to agree on a replacement sharing joint responsibility with Bojo for “No Deal”.

6. Optionally Bojo could choose to be dismissed by the palace rather than resign, for added effect.

The Guardian, like the Daily Express, is quite excited about this possibility because it would just be silly and they are both rather silly.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/07/could-the-queen-sack-boris-johnson-the-experts-are-divided

7. If there is a VoNC under the FtPA the House would be dissolved for a general election after 14 days unless a replacement government won a VoC. Most likely the Libdems and Tory rebels would end their posturing, perhaps by simply abstaining. Labour plus the SNP has 282 MPs which would outnumber the 321 Tory + DUP MPs if 40 Tories abstained (ignoring all Libdems, Independents and the Green). It would be possible for a different replacement temporary PM to be chosen depending on unknowable negotiations among the factions. But that would only add to the atmosphere of “establishment stitch-up”.

8. Whoever is PM would be heading a very temporary minority government that could collapse immediately after obtaining an extension from the EU. Far more likely it would last long enough to legislate for a “Final Say” referendum. Assuming it is led by Corbyn it could theoretically attempt to reopen negotiations with the EU by ditching the previous UK “red lines”. But it would make far more sense to leave that to election promises for an incoming Labour government than to get stuck attempting it with no majority in the House. Either way the Brexit saga would be effectively ended by the decision before October 17 to hold a “Final Say” referendum.

9. The referendum timetable could take several months but the result would certainly be a rejection of “No Deal”.

10. Any general election held after that would not primarily be about Brexit although the Tory party would still be confronted by an angry Brexit party for having failed to deliver and would lose heavily. The Labour party would recover some, but not all the votes it lost to the Libdems by equivocating about Brexit. Quite likely there would be a minority Labour government dependent on support from SNP and/or Libdems. There could still be four parties competing in a two party electoral system. Proportional Representation will be very much on the agenda although it would be much easier to achieve if the Tory party woke up to its situation while it was still the largest party in Parliament but already in opposition to a minority Labour government supported by Libdems who would still support PR.

11. No predictions beyond this point are worthwhile. But any subsequent “Brexit” would most likely only be a pointless BRINO that would still be subject to a confirmatory referendum which should be rejected by Leave voters as a BRINO and by Remain voters as pointless.

Brexit – stumbling towards a “Final Say”

Apologies for the long delay in updating this series of posts on Brexit:

https://c21stleft.com/category/brexit/

Essentially the situation has not changed since my last post on 1 June:

https://c21stleft.com/2019/06/01/brexit-has-greg-sheridan-actually-noticed/

It is still clear that Brexit cannot run much past October 31 and either a general election or a second referendum must be scheduled by then to end it.

A “Final Say” referendum will end Brexit either before or soon after a general election. Delaying until after a general election would be welcomed by two of the four major parties now contesting UK politics, the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats – both of which would gain a lot of seats from both the Tories and Labour. As the latter are the largest two parties in Parliament they are both trying to avoid a general election until after a second referendum so that Brexit has been resolved by the people first. The Labour leadership has been endlessly denounced as inept but so far they have skillfully avoided interrupting the Tory party as it tears itself apart and have not offered it any easy way out from the Dead-Ends it faces.

The failure of Parliament to resolve Brexit is the main basis for the rise of the two parties that lead the polarised debate between Leave and Remain – the Brexit party and Libdems.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_next_United_Kingdom_general_election

A roadmap spelling out this reality was launched jointly last Tuesday by Tory and Labour MPs supporting Remain in a “Final Say” referendum:

https://www.peoples-vote.uk/new_report_-_a_people_s_vote_is_the_only_viable_and_democratic_route_to_end_the_brexit_crisis

Here is the full text, worth studying closely as the media prefers to focus on dramatic posturing about a “No Deal” or “Cliff-Edge” Brexit that has in fact already been blocked.

“Six Dead-Ends, One-Cliff Edge, Only One Way Out”: http://bit.ly/2Y87LtG

Labour will have to eventually allow the “Only One Way Out” – a “Final Say” referendum. But they have successfully prolonged the agony and can still to do so while the Tories continue to be disrupted by arguments between Major Tactical Blunder and General Confusion.

Neither of the two largest parties in the House of Commons admits the current reality yet. Labour’s current leader still hopes to be able to force a general election in September under more favourable conditions. The Tories are totally paralysed and incoherent and still pretending to believe in various wildly implausible fantasies concerning the magical powers and Brexiteer intentions of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, aka Bojo who is about to be elected leader of their party.

Unfortunately I still see no sign of the Tory party waking up to the fact that it is still the largest party in the House of Commons and could introduce a referendum for Proportional Representation at the same time as the “Final Say” on Brexit. That would save them a lot of seats at the eventual general election and avoid the likelihood of becoming “extinct” as the Canadian Tories did after comparably disastrous blunders reduced them from a governing party to just 2 seats. More importantly it would open up UK politics a bit. But they are either astonishingly thick or very clear about the dangers of the public actually becoming engaged in discussing policy issues.

Bojo’s self-confessed lack of self control and death wish makes him ideally suited to the role of Tory party leader presiding over its extinction, but completely unsuitable as a Prime Minister.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Johnson

The Ham of Fate

http://gen.lib.rus.ec/fiction/?q=Seventy+Two+Virgins%2C

This means a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing can be expected over the next few weeks. I still would not rule out the possibility of Proportional Representation being taken up. The UK Parliament has now been paralysed by Brexit, with no working majority in the House of Commons for two years since the 2017 general election. That ought to be terminal for the famous “stability” and “decisiveness” provided by a two party electoral system.

Bojo received 114 votes of Tory MPs in the first ballot on 13 June. The top two candidates selected by MPs, Bojo and Jeremy Hunt are currently being voted on by about 160,000 party members. Surveys show that most of them would prefer Nigel Farage, founder of the UK Independence Party, but he is now CEO and majority shareholder of its successor, the Brexit Party Limited, trading as the Brexit Party.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brexit_Party

Their second choice will be Bojo. The result has been almost certain since 13 June. For Bojo not to be one of the top two candidates the other two would have needed 115 votes each for a total of 344 Tory MPs but there are not that many.

According to the newspaper Bojo writes for:

“The winner, and new Prime Minister, is expected to be announced on (Tuesday) July 23. The following day, (Wednesday) July 24, Theresa May will speak at her final Prime Minister’s Questions before heading to Buckingham Palace to resign as Prime Minister to the Queen.”

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/21/tory-leadership-result-date-conservative-contest-race-tuesday/

The Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers will resign to Theresa May on Wednesday before she resigns.

It is widely expected that Labour would then move a Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) against HM Government led by PM Bojo on Thursday July 24. That is not only the first but effectively the last opportunity until September due to a Parliamentary recess.

However there are some good reasons to not expect that, as explained here:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/19/johnson-likely-avoid-immediate-confidence-vote-if-pm

Another reason it might not happen, not mentioned by the Guardian, is that it might not be possible if Bojo has not in fact become PM despite pretty well everyone assuming that is a foregone conclusion since he will be leader of the government party.

Two events that ought to occur might not occur, in which case Bojo does automatically become PM as the media currently assumes.

1. Not even two of the many Tory MPs intending to save their seats by joining the Libdems may announce their resignations from the Tory party before Bojo becomes commissioned as PM. If they did resign, the Tory party leader would cease to have even the pretense of a majority in the House and replacement of its leader should not automatically result in the new leader becoming PM.

2. The palace might not perform its constitutional function as outlined in Chapter 3 of Anne Twomey, “The Veiled Sceptre”.

https://doi.org/10.1017/9781107297845.004

See also a more recent study by constitutional experts specifically addressing the current situation:

Six constitutional questions raised by the election of the new Conservative leader

See also the consequences of the “Fixed Term Parliaments Act”.

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubadm/1813/1813.pdf

See also related news report:

https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/evening-standard-comment-may-s-last-decision-could-be-her-most-important-a4174446.html

It is widely known that Bojo does not command the confidence of the House, although not yet known whether anybody else does or whether he might still be the person most likely to do so as leader of a minority government composed of competing delusional fantasists and backed by a “Confidence and Supply” agreement from the Ulster Protestant “Democratic Unionist Party” (DUP)..

Despite being a Crowned Republic rather than a Constitutinal Monarchy, the palace does have to exercise its own discretionary powers to commission as PM the person most likely to command the confidence of the House.

In current practice, the UK Cabinet Manual suggests that the outgoing PM should advise who that person is and their resignation should not be accepted until the palace is able to choose a successor. But that is merely recommended because the idea of the staff of an antiquated hereditary Monarchy exercising a political discretion is uncomfortable.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-manual

This proposal to eventually become a constitutional convention was drawn up by the Cameron government, which also undermined the foundations of the Westminster system of government by introducing Fixed Term Parliaments alongside Prime Minister’s not supported by the MPs of their party in Parliament and plebiscites such as the spectacular disaster for Brexit.

The Constitutional position in the UK is still that it is the independent and discretionary duty of the palace to decide who is most likely to command the confidence of the House. The discretionary exercise of this function by the local representative of the Crown has frequently been necessary in modern times in many countries as a result of no single party with a clear leader having a clear majority in the local legislature.

The point is that the government must be funded by supply from Parliament and a PM who is not most likely to secure that should not be commissioned. In the UK and most legislatures inheriting the Westminster traditions only the confidence of the lower House is needed for supply. In Australia and some States the upper house can also block supply and the Crown prerogative has also been exercised to commission governments that do not have the confidence of the lower house in order to maintain supply during a dissolution for elections. That is not relevant in the UK where the upper house has no say in supply and the Crown has no discretionary power to dissolve Parliament for general elections.

If Therese May continues to perform her duty as a Privy Councillor she would have to advise that she does not know whether Bojo can command the confidence of the House. Independently the palace should have reached that conclusion already.

One option would be to offer Bojo a conditional commission to test whether he has the confidence of the House.

That possibility is suggested by a constitutional expert in this news report:

https://news.sky.com/story/why-next-tory-leader-may-not-become-pm-on-wednesday-and-could-face-early-general-election-11768040

A better approach, suggested by other constitutional experts, would be for the outgoing Tory party leader and caretaker PM to move a “Humble Address” for the House to advise that Bojo has its confidence and should be commissioned as PM.

If either or those options is adopted it is still possible that Bojo would become PM. Sufficient Labour MPs desperate to avoid a general election.could abstain to counter the lack of support for Bojo from many Tory MPs.

Former Labour PM Tony Blair has just published an appeal for them to do so in the Times. Its behind a paywall so I have only looked at this description:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7271621/Tony-Blair-warns-Boris-no-deal-Brexit-catastrophic-demands-second-referendum.html

Ostensibly Tony Blair is urging Bojo to agree to a “Final Say” referendum between “No Deal” and “Remain. But his argument that the alternative of a general election would be taking advantage of Labour’s weakness is obviously aimed at a different audience.

Anyway, if a vote does not confirm that Bojo has the confidence of the House, no replacement for the current caretaker PM could be commissioned until the House does indicate to the palace who is most likely to have its confidence. There would be no 14 day time limit for negotiations as there was no VoNC.

There is now full coordination on blocking Bojo between Tory, Labour, Libdem, SNP and Independent MPs as shown by the list of sponsors of the amendment to block prorogation adopted with a 41 vote majority.

https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/2017-2019/0425/amend/ni_execform_pro_ccla_0718.1-2.html

This remarkable nullification of the Executive’s power to prorogue Parliament was carried out by a complex ping pong process between the caretaker Government, the Speaker of the House, the Commons and the Lords. It indicates a very high degree of coordination, perhaps sufficient to be preparing for a cross party government. Certainly adequate for taking control of the legislative agenda whenever desired.

The amendments touch on the Royal prerogative and technically require a more specific “Queen’s consent” which was not actually announced to the House and might not be announced to the Lords before the Bill finally passes through on Monday 21 July.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Consent

But when the routine Royal assent is promptly rushed through before Bojo becomes leader of the Tory party that will both complete the amended Bill becoming law and confirm that the caretaker government and the palace are fully coordinating measures preparing to deal with a loose canon at 10 Downing Street.

So there could be quite a bit of drama very shortly unless either rebel Tory MPs or the palace acquiesce.

If they do acquiesce there is likely to be even more drama for months, perhaps with billions wasted on preparations for “No Deal” and weird contortions as the parties dance around their mutual fear of a general election. But unless both parties actually do want to face the people with Brexit unresolved the only way they can avoid it is by a “Final Say” referendum. It would be up to Bojo whether he accepts being “forced” into that as PM or gets replaced by a cross party coalition government to do it. Potential PMs could be Hammond from the Tories or Keir Starmer from Labour.

If unexpectadly “Remain” loses again the UK would Leave the EU but I expect it would still end up having to remain in the EEA bound by the same rules and with no more say in making those rules than Norway or Iceland.

But any further drama full of sound and fury will still signify nothing.

Far more important is the long term effect. On the one hand the right wing nationalist forces in Europe have already given up on breaking up the EU because of the Brexit debacle and the UK now has a significant mass movement in support of ever deeper union, unlike any other country in Europe. On the other hand tribal divisions and bitterness have been intensified in the UK in a way that ultimately helps the ruling class avoid confrontation with a unified working class despite the hostility towards the establishment. There is quite a bit of research being done about that – eg:

https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v7i1.981

It is too early to see how this plays out in the coming global storm. But I have found watching the British right-wing damage themselves with Brexit much more cheering than watching the US right embed itself as the liberals continue talking to themselves.

Debunking Austrian Economics’ Socialist Calculation Problem

The ‘Calculation Problem‘ is what market economists commonly argue against socialism but there is no reason to be smug about economic calculation under capitalism. Communist workers could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. And there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, the absence of ownership barriers would increase the scope for coordination, and lessen the scope for secrecy and deception.

* * * *

Reprinting this from David McMullen’s site, Simply Marxism. Originally published in May 2017. 

The so-called Austrian school of economics makes much of what they call the socialist calculation problem. They argue that a society based on social ownership could not have an effective price system and therefore could not have the decentralized decision-making we see in a market economy.

The claim was first made by Ludwig Von Mises in the 1920s. Really all he is saying is that transfers between enterprises using a decentralized price system must be market exchanges. Without explaining why, he rules out the possibility of such transfers occurring between socially owned enterprises where there is no exchange of ownership but simply a transfer of socially owned property from one custodian to another. I am thinking here of a transfer between a supplier and user of some component in production. Without predicting what will actually happen in the communist future we could easily imagine production units using decentralized pricing to determine least costs methods of production and assigning output to the highest bidder. We could also easily imagine such a system being ultimately driven by consumer demand.

Then we had the intervention of Frederick Hayek in the 1930s and 40s. He demolished the rather lame decentralized socialist model devised by the economist Oskar Lange. That model confines decentralized price adjustments to consumer goods while price adjustments for intermediate goods are carried out by a central agency that is keeping an eye on inventory levels. Hayek correctly points out the inadequacy of such an arrangement and how it does not represent a fully functioning price system. Discrediting the Lange model is all very well, but Hayek did not then go on to show that an economy based on social ownership would in fact be limited to the Lange model. In other words he did not show that there is something about social ownership that would prevent the use of decentralized price adjustment in the allocation of intermediate goods. So I think I can justly say that all that Hayek has done is refute a straw man.

OK now we come to the final version of the argument and this was developed in the 1980s by Don Lavoie of George Mason University. He conceded that a socially owned economy could have a price system but that it would not be a very good one. In his book Rivalry and Economic Planning, he contends that any price system under social ownership would be inferior to a market based one because it would be unable to reflect the discovery process that emerges from competition between market participants. According to Lavoie, it is important, in the presence of uncertainty, to have numerous participants trying out different approaches to problems, based on their own opinions, guesses and hunches. Those who come up with the best and most highly valued products using the cheapest methods win out in this competitive contest. I fully agree with what he is saying. However, if, as I contend, decentralized custodianship is an important part of social ownership, diversity of approach should not be a problem.

Under social ownership, it would still be very common for an individual enterprise or facility to be just one of many producing the same good or close substitutes and each of them would be free to try out different production methods and product designs. Some would be new entrants who were either existing enterprises moving into a new field with synergies or starts ups established by enthusiasts with ideas that the incumbents were not open to or capable of developing. This diversity would be greatly assisted by having numerous independent agencies being responsible for disbursing funds in each industry and making their own assessment of what were good investments. At the same time, enterprises would be free to choose their suppliers based on cost and quality, and would have to outbid other users of a resource or intermediate good. Discovering and adopting the best methods and products would of course mean that it would be common to see activities abandoned and enterprises closed or reorganized. So, the only real obstacle to a decentralized price system would be the absence of daring and conscientious custodians and this gets us back to the question of whether we can do without the profit motive. Can we do our best just because we enjoy the work and want to contribute? As I argue elsewhere this does not strike me as being all that fanciful if we are sharing high and increasing affluence and all the unpleasant work is performed by robots and computers.

So the calculation argument is not a separate argument from the standard one about whether we need the profit motive.

I think it is appropriate to point out that there is no reason to be smug about economic calculation under capitalism. Communist workers could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. And there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, the absence of ownership barriers would increase the scope for coordination, and lessen the scope for secrecy and deception.

So to sum up. My basic point is that when it comes to economic calculation, communism will be able to do anything capitalism can and do a better job of it.

I have links below to a number of articles that go into more detail on this topic.

https://economsoc.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/re-opening-the-debates.pdf

https://economsoc.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/the-economic-case-for-social-ownership.pdf

Servility is abhorrent

The following poem is terrific. It’s from a site called One Poem .One Planet.

 

KARL MARX
Karl Marx was playing a parlor game
with his daughters. To their question
What is the quality one should most abhor?
he wrote: Servility.

This was found–a scrap of paper
amongst the family albums and letters;
it is the most essential of all
the Complete Works.

 

— Robert Gray (Australia)

 

Thanks to Tom G for drawing my attention to it.