Resisting Public Spending Cuts: The Movement We Need, The Movement We Don’t


The neoliberal austerity agenda of the Con-Dem coalition government, in the form of massive cuts to public spending, has become today’s defining political issue. Physical and ideological resistance to cuts has already begun, including mass rallies and an insurgency among youth and students. However, in building a movement that is able to defeat cuts, a set of key debates are taking place among those who identify themselves as opposed to the government’s cuts agenda. This debate among the anti-cuts movement can be grouped into three points:

  1. Understanding cuts: what do they represent?
  2. Defeating cuts: what kind of movement and strategy?
  3. The Alternative: what alternative political and economic programme should we propose?

For those engaged in the struggle against cuts, it is imperative to think through and debate all of these issues. The movement that emerges to combat cuts and advance an alternative, and the political realignment on the left that may result, could have a significant role in shaping political and social change in Scotland, the UK, and further afield. Indeed, it is vital that we look to the experiences of struggle, for example, in Greece, Ireland and Iceland, which have been hit much harder, and also from France, which has recently shown significant struggles too. Furthermore, the various ruling classes have shown their readiness to utilise the EU apparatus to impose their austerity drive, nowhere more obviously than Ireland.

Understanding cuts: what do they represent?

In participating in building a movement against public spending cuts, it is important to understand and debate with others what they represent. Within the RCN, our understanding of cuts and the nature of our opposition to them are intimately connected to our wider politics. It is fairly straightforward to state that the broad majority of the anti-cuts movement would reject the Conservative interpretation of the necessity of the cuts: that they represent public spending being ‘out of control’ or specifically the ‘mess’ of the previous New Labour government that must now be ‘cleaned up’ by the coalition.

The current Con-Dem austerity measures can be understood as having two distinct elements:

a) Forcing workers to pay for the crisis in capitalism

The financial sector had run up “toxic” debts by over-lending in order to profit from low-income household mortgages, particularly in the US, but also in the UK as the Northern Rock collapse highlighted. When the extent of these un-repayable debts came to light, the resulting “sub-prime loan” and “credit crunch” driven recession beginning in 2008 spread to the wider economy and created the risk of financial institutions collapsing. To prop up the banks, the UK bought shares in the banks and paid them public cash in return, while the banks wrote off billions of their “toxic” debt. To pay for the capital that they were using to bail out the banks, the UK government issued bonds, which along with reduced taxation revenue due to the economic crisis has created a massive UK debt and concomitant budget deficit.

Thus, the private debt created by capitalism’s insatiable quest for profit has now become public debt. The cuts to public spending and increased taxation in order to balance the budget, in the form of cutting various services and benefits, regressive taxation such as the VAT increase, and privatising remaining state enterprises (i.e. the Royal Mail), therefore represent an attempt to force the working classes to pay for the capitalist crisis, while the wealthy and the bankers continue to accumulate their wealth despite the current recession. Indeed, the process can be understood as a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich: with increasing poverty and falling standards of living for the majority, and increasing wealth for a tiny minority.

b) An ideological attack on the remains of welfare provision and collective values

Along with the cuts being a specific response of capitalism to its own crisis through making workers pay in order to maintain the system, the cuts also represent neoliberal forces using the opportunity of an economic crisis to push their free-market ideological agenda. Concretely this is taking the form of dismantling the remains of the welfare capitalist system, by attacking universal benefits (i.e. child benefit) and state provision in services (such as higher education or postal services). Ideologically, it is an attack on the collective values that underpin the workers’ movement and socialist ideas more generally.

However, it is important to understand that the pro-state sector neo-Keynesianism, peddled by much of the Left, does not represent a socialist response to the neo-liberalism associated with the business leaders of the private sector. The state and the private sectors represent two intimately connected wings of capitalism. Reagan’s ‘assault’ on the state sector in the 1980’s would have left the US private sector severely damaged if it hadn’t been buttressed by the massive state spending associated with ‘Military Keynesianism’, directed against the former USSR. Similarly today, both the US and UK governments (whether Democrat or New Labour; Republican or Con-Dem) have been quick to resort to ‘Keynesianism for the Bankers’ to prop up private capital, and indeed to save a capitalism in crisis. The capitalists will always use their effective control of state spending to serve their interests. Yes, sometimes they have to make concessions, which may meet some of our needs; but, whenever they find the opportunity, these concessions will be snatched back – exactly as we have been seeing for the last couple of decades.

Therefore, we cannot interpret these cuts as simply the current government’s ‘bad’ economics in dealing with the economic crisis. The cuts are the mechanism by which capitalism makes workers pay for its periodic crisis and recessions; crises, which are themselves a fundamental reality of the instability of capitalism. During the current crisis, the cuts strategy is occurring across Europe and the wider world. While the Con-Dem government is perhaps the most unrestrained in its attempts to make the working classes pay, all of the pro-capitalist parties in the UK to one extent or another accept the capitalist logic that cuts are necessary and are prepared to implement them. We have to recognise that what we are experiencing is a historical process whereby the gains made by worker’s and other popular movements over the 20th century are under attack and are being rolled back. Much has changed in the previous century, but the fundamental dynamics of capital have not. As Ed Pickford wrote in the final line of his ever-relevant The Worker’s Song, whenever wars or economic crises loom over the horizon, it is never the wealthy but rather the working classes who are “always expected to carry the can.”

Defeating cuts: what kind of movement and strategy?

It is important to emphasise to others within the anti-cuts movement that we do not oppose cuts on the basis that they are “too fast” or “too deep”, or because they disproportionately affect one sector (i.e. students vs. claimants or pensioners), or because they are “Tory cuts”. Rather, we believe that we must oppose all the mainstream parties’ austerity drives for the following reasons, some of which have been touched on above:

  • Public spending cuts represent an attempt to make the working classes pay for a crisis in capitalism.
  • Public spending cuts are an ideological attack on the universal provision of services and benefits, and values of collectivism, solidarity and equality.
  • Public spending cuts will have a detrimental effect on the majority of people’s quality of life and human development. These effects include: increasing relative (and in many cases absolute) poverty, denial of opportunities, increasing inequality and economic insecurity in society.
  • Neither the current Con-Dems, nor for that matter, a continued New Labour austerity programme has any genuine democratic basis. The 2010 election proceeded as a carefully managed affair, with the issue of alternatives to spending cuts being largely absent from public debate, and the details of cuts also being withheld. The result is a Con-Dem coalition government with no popular-democratic input or support. This is particularly true in Scotland where recent polling put the combined Lib-Dem and Conservative support at 10%.

As participants in the wider anti-cuts movement, the above points distinguish the principled nature of our opposition to their whole austerity programme from those who purport to oppose cuts on grounds of speed or depth, or because of the political party making the cuts (i.e. Tory instead of Labour). However, they also indicate that our opposition to cuts are tied to a fundamentally different worldview and vision of society and the one that has produced both the current crisis and austerity programme. Our communist worldview is rooted in the struggle for universal human emancipation and liberation, characterised by the statements “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs” and where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

Highlighting this is important because an integral aspect of the struggle against cuts is the need to articulate and advance an alternative that can deal with the current economic crisis and budget deficit and move towards a society which no longer has the characteristics of the current capitalist society which caused the crisis and cuts in the first place. In developing our own alternative and advancing our values, we can counterpoise capitalism’s cuts with the cuts that we would make. These include the new Trident, military spending on imperial wars, exorbitant interest payments for PFI/PPP contracts, resort to overpaid private consultants and senior managers, and the bankers’ bonuses.

The Alternative: what alternative political and economic programme should we propose?

In the process of building a movement against austerity measures that is able to win, i.e. defeat the government’s program of austerity and dismantling the remains of the welfare provision, questions of organisation, strategy, and political content and aims are being debated. We argue that such a movement must be characterised by: Understanding, Democracy, Organisation from Below, Unity, and Militancy. In debating with the wider anti-cuts movement on these issues, we also have to criticise strategies which are unlikely to defeat their austerity programme, strategies which are usually not based on a fundamental opposition to their whole austerity programme and what they represent.

a) The need for understanding:

The logic that cuts are necessary is accepted by Labour, the SNP, and to some extent the Scottish Greens.

From understanding this social reality, we can see that there are several strategies of resistance to public spending cuts that are not likely to succeed. These include:

  • Attempting to ‘convince’ the Con-Dem government (or just Clegg’s Liberal ‘betrayers in the coalition’) that the ‘moral majority’ of the population oppose cuts, and that the current cuts programme is regressive and unfair, that it could have negative economic effects such as increasing unemployment, and as a result their pace/scale should be slowed.
  • Following through solely on a strategy of ‘responsible’ mass demonstrations and lobbying/ letter-writing organised ‘from above’ (NUS, TUC) to show the scale of opposition to cuts (again, to ‘convince’ the Con-Dem’s that the ‘moral majority’ oppose their unfair and regressive cuts) in the hope of creating a U-turn by the government.
  • Seeking to replace ‘nasty’ with ‘nice’ elected representatives: the main four parties will either propose or implement spending cuts. In Scotland, even the Scottish Greens accept that cuts are to some extent necessary and are prepared to implement them.
  • Pursuing purely ‘sectoral’ campaigns, i.e. opposing cuts to higher education instead of all cuts. This allows one group to be played off against another in a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

Accepting this understanding of the cuts and thus what strategies are unlikely to bring the government’s plans into disarray allows us to also outline what type of movement and strategy is needed to defeat cuts.

b) The need for an international approach

For those of us fighting the cuts in Scotland, the need for an internationalist viewpoint is evident. The SNP government’s belief in social democratic reforms, financed from a buoyant financial sector, has been blown out the water. Scottish based bankers and other capitalists have been quick to rush into the arms of New Labour and Con-Dem governments at Westminster, either to bail them out, or to coordinate their austerity drive.

However, ruling class ‘internationalism from above’ does not stop at Westminster. The whole EU bureaucracy is being mobilised to coerce governments in Greece, Portugal and particularly in Ireland (possibly followed by Spain and Italy), to adopt vicious austerity drives, in a similar manner to the IMF structural adjustment programmes imposed on the developing world.

Our answer to the bosses’ ‘internationalism from above’ is working class ‘internationalism from below. We can take inspiration from the struggles of workers in Greece and France, in particular. It remains to be seen, whether the inspiring new movements in North Africa and the Middle East can be duplicated in Europe, or whether they remain the product of particularly repressive political conditions.

Furthermore, it was the actions of students in London, protesting against the imposition of university fees, which has inspired many workers throughout the UK. Indeed, just as Scotland was a beacon of the anti-poll tax protest in 1989, when this tax was imposed here first, so England has produced the possibilities of a wider movement due to the Con-Dem government’s proposals to introduce fees there first.

c) The need for democracy

The anti-cuts struggle, both in terms of its internal organisation and in struggling for the kind of society we want to have, has to be radically democratic. For our internal organisations, this means allowing the full creativity and ideas of everyone involved to be expressed and shape the structure, character, aims and strategy of the movement.

The negative effect of denying participatory democratic practices became clear at the launch of the Sheffield anti-cuts campaign, where there was a lack of mechanisms to allow all attendees to influence the agenda, discussion and decisions of the meeting, the result being that “the undemocratic form of the meeting was unable to channel the energy and intelligence of the people in the room.” Instead, the meeting organisers tried to shepherd participants’ efforts into building for an official TUC rally, with a participant from the commune observing that “the politics of this campaign will mobilise people behind the official movement and their campaign for a fairer capitalism, but not a campaign from below to transform capitalism in the fight against the cuts.”

Additionally, a movement that is participatory, where everyone is involved and the ‘base’ maintains control over organisational affairs, is superior than one with a centralised leadership and imposed line because (i) participants’ commitment is higher when they have a stake in formulating the goals and strategy of an organisation, and (ii) because a leadership (to the extent that one exists) that is strictly mandated by the ‘base’ cannot have the authority or ability to ‘sell out’.

In terms of the wider anti-cuts movement, the practice of radical and participatory democracy means that both in dealing with the Westminster and Scottish governments, and organisations such as the NUS or TUC/STUC, we need to be wary of the limited democracy provided by periodic electoral representation. Such a system inevitably creates elites and bureaucracies above the movement leaving it open to co-option. To avoid this, mechanisms such as strictly mandated delegates rather than representatives, the ability to recall, and lack of special privileges above other members of an organisation, are necessary. Ultimately, developing participatory democratic forms also form the basis of structures of decision-making and relations between people and communities that would be the foundation of a post-capitalist society.

d) The need to organise from below

Connected to the need for radical democracy, is the need for people to be allowed the space to organise autonomously from below. This point is mainly aimed at avoiding the de-moralisation and de-mobilisation that may accompany movements if organisations such as the NUS and TUC try to organise people ‘from above’, setting their own limits of the content and strategy of a campaign, and limiting the militancy, autonomy, and creativity emanating ‘from below’. Rather, we need to encourage people to independently and critically think and act as part of a wider collective movement of equals. We must also guard against any of the capitalist political parties (ie Labour or the SNP) attempting to co-opt the anti-cuts movement, and limiting activity to opposing ‘Tory cuts’ rather than their own cuts programme.

A further pitfall to avoid is the celebrity politics of deferring to the voice and judgment of a celebrity leader’, such as George Galloway. A key strategy to avoid this is to encourage participatory and horizontal forms of organising, rather than leaders from ‘on high’ to come up with the answers and strategies: that is the direction of de-mobilisation, demoralisation, and defeat. Rather, the anti-cuts movement needs to involve the self-organisation of workers, students, communities who collectively hold the power to shape the movement from below. As Barry Biddulph of the commune has argued, “The aim is not a million strong march but a million organised in their communities and workplaces.”

e) The need for principled unity

Different sectors of the population, be it students, trade unionists, pensioners, community campaigns or benefit claimants have to unite on the principle of opposing all cuts. As was emphasised by many students active in the anti-tuition fees increase campaign, and thousands of people around the country, if we allow ourselves to be divided against each other then we will be defeated. We cannot allow ourselves to fight only for our own sector or only against cuts affecting ourselves: to defeat all cuts, all of us must unite against all cuts. As Aiden Kerr wrote recently in the Scottish Socialist Youth blog, “It is in my opinion however that the Scottish youth struggle should not be tied exclusively to education policy. It should be part of the wider anti-cuts movement and come to the aid of workers on picket lines and strikes. Imagine what we could do if workers, students and the unemployed united. No government could cope with a sustained campaign between such large and powerful groups within society. That startling fact surely would put any possible attack by whoever is in charge in Edinburgh or London into a cold sweat.”

f) The need for militancy

Along with being radically democratic, autonomous, and united, a successful anti-cuts movement will need to be militant: the point was made in interviews with Goldsmith’s students conducted by an RCN member in December that a government determined to push through a neoliberal austerity agenda is not going to listen to only peaceful (passive) protests, no matter how big they may be. In fact, there is a feeling shared among many that ‘peaceful’ protest has been trivialised by the ruling parties of the British state due to New Labour ignoring mass protests before the invasion of Iraq.

Rather, the anti-cuts movement will need to engage in strategies which involve mass-direct action, strikes, occupations, and civil disobedience. An anti-cuts activist in Aberdeen has argued that, in order to defeat the government, the country would need to be made ungovernable. That is, our strategy to defeat cuts is not to demonstrate that many of us morally oppose what the government is doing by marching along a route pre-set by police before quietly going home again. Nor is it to make enough of a noise that the government is forced to ‘listen’ to us. Rather, we need to be realistic with ourselves that the government is determined to push this agenda through, and will only relent if the cuts agenda is made impossible to implement. This raises wider questions about how best to pressure local councils, the Scottish parliament, and a wider political strategy linked to forcing the government to relent on cuts.

g) The need for an alternative to capitalism based on human emancipation

In the fight against cuts, it is becoming clear to more and more people that passive or sectoral resistance is not enough. Nor is simply replacing one set of politicians with another, ‘better’ set. It is not enough to change who runs the system: we must change the system itself. In fighting against capitalism’s cuts, we need to fight against capitalism itself, and articulate our alternative vision of society: one in which social rights such as universal health and education are not final bastions of welfarism constantly under assault from the logic of capital, but the fundamental and inalienable basis of society. One in which human needs and the bases for personal development are guaranteed to all. One in which people are emancipated from the exploitation of capital, and liberated to reach their full potential, rather than being oppressed by racism, bigotry, and discrimination. Ultimately, to defeat the impetus behind cuts, we need to conquer and transcend the logic of capital with the logic of human development, people not profit, by developing and advocating an emancipatory alternative to capitalism for the 21st century.

Conclusion: The On-going Strategy Debate and Advancing Communism

Ultimately, the anti-cuts movement will only have a chance of winning if we have something we are fighting for, as well as against. One of the most important ways we can engage with the wider anti-cuts movement is to help develop that alternative. This means on an open, comradely basis, advancing our arguments on the nature of the spending cuts and their link with capitalist society, and the necessity and desirability of socialist measures to deal with the budget deficit/capitalist crisis, linked to the necessity and desirability of moving towards a communistic society, encapsulated by the slogan “socialism or barbarism”.