Saturday, 29 December 2012

Weimar Britain

Deployed to Glasgow - British Army tanks at the Gallowgate cattle market, 1919

"Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?"
The Watchman said, "The morning cometh, and also the night."

These words, from Isiah Chapter 21 were quoted by the German sociologist, Max Weber, in a bookstore lecture on the chaos surrounding him in the interwar German Republic. This is known to history as the Weimar Republic after the town where its "most democratic constitution in history" was drawn up by the constitutionalist parties in 1919, after the fall of the Kaiser's autocratic regime in the final days of the First World War.

We do well to recall that not even a century separates us from these turbulent times, nor were the uncertainties about the democratic settlement confined to Germany or even the nascent states arising from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. Britain after the Great War saw a string of strikes, violent repression by the army (tanks and ten thousand armed troops were deployed in Glasgow in the conveniently forgotten battle of George Square to suppress protests about working conditions), and concerns about a Soviet-style takeover among the Establishment that led, among other things, to a fearful King George V refusing refuge to his cousin, the deposed Czar Nicholas of Russia. The forged Zinoviev letter  linking the rising Labour Party to Soviet Russia saw off the first minority socialist government in 1924 (its dissemination carried out courtesy of the Daily Mail then as now happily peddling a few myths to buttress the status quo). Democracy was skin-deep and the forces of reaction ranged against progressives remained as ruthless as ever.

Germany embarked on a course that was to see its constitutional democracy lurch from crisis to crisis, with only a brief respite in the mid-1920s, before it collapsed into the eager arms of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. 1919 had seen an initial rush of support for the new political system, when a range of Social Democrats, Liberals and conservative Christian Democrats combined to draft a political constitution with the intention of using it to argue out their different ideological views of society and the economics that underpinned it. However, the economic instability of the times, as well as the continuing nationalist narrative of betrayal by democrats and humiliation by foreign powers at the Treaty of Versailles, meant that Weimar Germany was on the defensive from nearly the very start. The liberal democratic parties were challenged by growing electoral forces on both the left - with the USPD (independent social democrats) and later the KPD (Communists) rising rapidly  - and on the right, where a variety of nationalists, conservatives and extremists eventually coalesced under the Nazi swastika.

The constitutionalists were typically unimaginative and unresponsive to the public need, and complacent to boot. Rather than provide genuinely different paths to voters to choose within a democratic context, they drew together, blurring their differences and putting defence of the constitution ahead of anything else - there was to be no land reform, no tackling of the excesses of the rich, no change to the autocratic running of factories and no genuine change to the lot of the ordinary person. With hyperinflation creating real hunger, scapegoats such as the Jews were created by nationalists and the myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a forgery created several decades earlier by the Czarist police in Russia to justify anti-Jewish pogroms) became a deep-rooted belief among Germans of all classes as an explanation for their troubles. Arrogantly believing there to be no viable alternative, the "Weimar parties" increasingly acted as a single block trying to exclude the more ideologically focussed parties of the left and right. It was to be a vain strategy.

At the ballot box, the process of democratic disintegration was evident - the main constitutionalist parties polled over 70% of the vote in the elections of 1919; but by 1929 this had fallen to barely 51% and in the final election of 1933, just 33%. The Nazis had eclipsed the conservatives, polling 52% of the vote (along with an allied party), while the Communists still polled nearly double the vote they had taken in 1919 in spite of a violent campaign of repression by the authorities - Communist deputies were barred from taking their seats in the final Reichstag, where with the brave exception of the remaining Social Democrats, Hitler bullied and bribed enough deputies to vote through the Enabling Act that gave him total power. As the historian William Shirer was to comment, the Nazis came to power by means of one of the most democratic constitutions ever written.

Funeral oration for a democracy: Hitler speaks on the Enabling Act 1933
As we face a New Year, what are the lessons of history for us today?  Can we write off these days as events distant in time and place, or are the parallels with today, in Britain and elsewhere, sufficiently striking to provide more than a passing interest?

The British political class is as isolated and irrelevant to most of the public as were these Weimar liberals, and many other liberals of their day. For example, take the inaction of the liberals in the 1917 Provisional Government in Russia, whose near-religious belief in the apparently magical powers of a constantly delayed constitutional settlement meant no action at all on bringing the hated war to an end or reforming the ownership of land which condemned millions to starvation. In this way, quite justifiably, the Bolshevik promise of land, bread and freedom easily undermined the support the liberals had previously enjoyed after the overthrow of the Czar.

What are we witnessing now but a re-run of history? Since before the banking crisis of 2008 and the ongoing recessions, politics have been in open crisis, but a crisis of complacency rather than one of action. The boom of the the late 1990s and early 2000s, was sustained on the personal debt of tens of millions of ordinary people while market-oriented government of all supposedly different political hues adopted strikingly similar political strategies. The State has been reduced in scope; market economics and PFI deals proliferate in public services; bloated capitalists control ever bigger swathes of the economy - much of their "venture capitalism" and "social entrepreneurship"  funded and underwritten by a desperately misled public.

And, now that it has all gone sour, what true difference is there between the main parties, the managerialist politicians of Weimar Britain? Barely a jot. They squabble over the tiniest shifts in spending priorities as if these would make a huge, transformational difference to society and life, their fury and froth masking the truth - that these people are all part of the same establishment, the same tiny elite of political servants of big business and international corporations. In such a context "liberal democracy" as it is expressed and portrayed in Britain is not democracy at all - but quite the opposite. It is the semblance of democracy; a form devoid of content, existing to create the illusion of choice while in effect denying genuine choice. Governments come and go, but the Establishment remains, and ordinary people remain as powerless as ever.

And yet, under this liberal form of regime, there is ultimately, as with all regimes, a need for some sort of social contract, however transactionally Hobbesian it may be. As with even the most brutal dictatorship, some sort of equilibrium is required to sustain a regime in power, and there are plenty of signs that this equilibrium is breaking down faster and in a more sustained way than in any previous crisis in the west, such as the riots of 1968 or the industrial disputes of the 1970s. The Occupy Movement has transformed political action around the capitalist world, the first major insurrection of the internet age: what started as one day marches and "flash mob" demonstrations has morphed into a truly international, sustained movement against not just the political establishment and the odd tax dodging financier; but rather against the entire capitalist system and the lies on which it is based. And so too against the politicians who cravenly defend it and grease the palms of its elite owners.

But how the future will go remains the same conundrum raised by Weber in his bookstore lecture back in Weimar Germany - the morning cometh, and also the night. Occupy, Ukuncut, the trade unions, the green movement and others on the left argue, as yet not entirely coherently, for a new, fairer society with transformed financial relations, and with social ownership, co-operative and smaller scale economics as a response to the crisis of capitalism. There is a gradual coalescing behind broad concepts of collectivism, egalitarianism and more direct democratic forms of politics. But, perhaps reflecting the truly democratic and participatory nature of the movement, there is as yet no all-encompassing idea, and perhaps there never will be. Yet some unified and coherent platform is urgently required because, elsewhere, other more malicious forces are gathering, and Capital, with all its vested interests and incumbent power, will not go down without a fight, the likes of which we have not seen.

For the narrative that is put out repeatedly in the media, in Government legislation and the official zeitgeist, is that the problems of society are caused by scapegoats - by too much welfare, by slack workers, by red tape on health and safety and hiring and firing or by migrants either taking too many jobs or not taking enough jobs. The true causes of grief are not the tiny, tiny number of people who own the vast majority of wealth on the planet, but the disabled person who needs support accessing a shop, or the illegal migrant who, according to complete myth, is given luxury accommodation, free cars and phones (as opposed to the grim reality of working long hours for little pay in often dangerous conditions at the hands of violent gangmasters). Muslim plots to take over the world are raised up, viciously echoing the Zionist Protocols of Czar Nicholas, to sow further divisions, some of them so fantastical that they invite equally fantastical responses from conspiracy theorists (- themselves an echo of some of the thousands of messianic wandering prophets of interwar Europe).

In this direction lies the path being bulldozed by the likes of Golden Dawn in Greece, the MSI in Italy, FN in France and various currently disparate right wing parties in Britain, targeting groups of vulnerable people and minorities to divert attention from the true inequities of the wealth gap and the economic and political grip of the elite. It is a road that starts with shocking tales of individuals who fiddle social security or fake disability, or groups who look a bit different and have strange traditions, and ends up at the doors of gas chambers and on the edges of execution pits. It is an unconscionably brutal path which we pretend is distant at our peril. There is in every society a desire to find easy solutions; to conform to the norms that are drilled into us about ownership and supposed opportunity from the school desk to the retirement party; and all too often, even in the most democratic society, a willingness to find some sort of salvation in the form of a "strong" person or party. In the context of a society without genuine political choice but one with increasing economic hardship and personal insecurity, this desire grows even deeper.

And so we can see our current political class - still smugly asserting itself, wringing its hands about the deficit, blatantly lying about everyone being in it together, rewriting their manifestos and changing their offer as frequently and easily as a used car salesman reviews his prices. Personally and professionally isolated from the people they supposedly represent more than ever before - with huge numbers having never worked outside politics and many having no ideological belief whatsoever - the careerists at the heart of our system do know something is not quite right, something is wrong. But they don't get what; indeed, they can't. Isolated in their self-created bubble, they are not programmed that way. Rather, they turn to suppression of civil liberties, increasing surveillance and the all-embracing "war on terror" as a means of demonising all their opponents and entrenching their hold on power - yet, in doing so, rather than create a solid base for their own survival, they may in fact be simply paving the way for even more authoritarian elements to rise.

The turnout in elections is dripping away, lower and lower. From 84% in 1950, it decline to just 59% in 2001, rising slightly to 64% at the 2010 election, even although people were choosing a government in the midst of an economic crisis. There is a proliferation of support for the non-mainstream: UKIP, a right wing force described by some as "fascists in suits", has emerged recently as the third party in national polls and performed well in recent by-elections. It is not a Nazi party, but it is riding on a tide of xenophobia and scapegoating (while quietly proposing tax cuts and other benefits for the very richest members of society). And it is accompanied by a multitude of other parties - the BNP, the EDs, BFP, NF and other groups.

At the Rotherham by-election a few weeks ago, although UKIP stole the limelight with their showing of 21.7% of the vote, other far right candidates took a further 12% of the vote. This meant one in three voters chose hard right parties, while the left parties Respect and TUSC took nearly 10% of the vote combined. With the Tories in fifth place and the Lib Dems in eighth place, the Government parties were out polled by the non-mainstream parties of left and right by 43% to 7.5%. Even the Labour Party managed only a 46% vote share in what was once its heartlands.

Rotherham is not an isolated case - two other by-elections showed similar patterns on the same night, while Respect pulled off a stunning and largely unexpected victory in Bradford West earlier in the year. National opinion polls show the "Others" constantly polling around one in five votes and the support for the three so-called main parties is increasingly soft; identification and party loyalty is at a historic low; and no wonder, given the utter contempt of the electorate demonstrated by the main parties. It will take little to force a major change to the party political paradigm - one fear must be that a UKIP win at the 2014 European elections may mark the moment. Our complacent political class may want to reflect that the Nazis polled a meagre 2.6% of the vote in the 1928 national elections - just five years later, the length of a British Parliament, they assumed total power.

And so the question that remains is not are we in Weimar Britain, sitting precariously on the edge of momentous, potentially transformational change. The answer to that is given: we are undoubtedly in the last days of traditional politics; only the bashed, discredited system keeps what remains together. The real question is what will come next, and from what direction and in what form. In this country, as in the world, we stand at a crossroads as not since the turmoil of 1919 that rent Europe apart. One way marks the route to a fairer society where resources are shared more equally, but with the requirement that we break down big corporations, regulate our economies as never before, reintroduce some of the protective measures that were once common and change our views completely on ownership of socio-economic resources, common and collective rather than exclusive and individualist.

The other route marks a far more brutal and authoritarian course - isolated from the world, distrusting of many of our fellow citizens, targeting people in new forms of pogroms, blaming rather than sharing, controlling rather than caring for one another.

We can choose: and events will force the choice probably sooner rather than later - day or night, left or right; or, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, socialism or barbarism. Capitalism and liberal democracy are in terminal decay, their failure hastened by the gathering environmental and resource crises. The German Republic passed into history when Hitler himself screamed down the incredibly brave Social Democrat leader, Otto Wels, as he voiced the very last words of legal opposition to the Nazis, his speech in effect the funeral oration of the young democracy. If Weimar Britain is to similarly pass, it falls to those of us on the Left to ensure it passes to a better place than the gates of a new Auschwitz.

"At this historic hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Law can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible ...."

Otto Wels - Hitler's final opponent in the Reichstag, 1933


  1. Well written as ever and very clear representation of our times. I would posit that at that time the German people were more engaged with the political process and had a more acute awareness of the scenarios without fully realizing the potential results. One difference here is the general ignorance of the people, partly made apathetic by the use of the mind control media both in terms of the diversion of celeb entertainment and the utter lack of real journalism in the news media.
    No riots in the streets, just a "put the kettle on and have a cup of tea, that'll solve it all" mindset.
    We all need to keep fighting and find room for alliances on the left but not just in electoral matters but in real campaigns on the ground against the cuts we still have to face.

  2. I wish you guys who fulminate so persuasively against capitalism and comparisons with 1933 would focus on something practical you could do NOW. See my blog
    on how to stop workfare in its tracks. You could even see it as starting what you want to bring about. What other practical proposals do you have? Having been invited to address a fringe at the Socialist Party conference in October, I was disappointed at their (lack of) response. They seem oblivious to the victims of the poverty trap. They will smash capitalism and then usher in a planned economy. For goodness sake start here, now.