David Jamieson

David Jamieson

What the Bifab Disaster Tells us about Class Rule

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Capitalists and their institutions are not in a serious conflict over the failing ‘just transition‘ in Scotland, argues David Jamieson.

The tragic saga of the Bifab yards at Burntisland, Methil and Arnish goes on – but for how much longer? The Scottish Trade Union Federation reacted with vehemence to the Scottish Government last week (24 November) “as it sneaked out a joint statement with the UK Government on pulling the plug on Bifab and breaking promises to keep unions informed of developments”. The vaunted ‘Just Transition’ has been flushed.

The first things that we learn on this recognition are obvious: capitalism will generate a chaotic response to climate change and environmental destruction, one that will only feebly mitigate its effects. Further, this transition will be organised to benefit capital, create new transnational production networks (that will damage the environment) and will be borne on the backs of workers, who will variously lose work, be exploited in the new industries, or see their communities pulverised by the collapse of old industries and the extractive qualities of the new.

Perhaps the less commonly understood are the organic links between different nodes and actors in the system. It has been common for politicians, trade unionists and activists to seek out responsibility for the industrial carnage by dividing-out responsibility between the triad of actors; the EU, the UK Government and the Scottish Government (a fourth if we count the profit seeking of the private firms).

In recent weeks Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer suggested EU state aid rules did not preclude government action to save the yards, the GMB union demanded to see the legal judgement (as well they should) the Scottish Government alleged informed them of the limits of their action. Meanwhile, sundry Scottish nationalists repeated the now well-worn approach of blaming Westminster exclusively, while some Scottish Labour activists pretended things might be significantly different were their party in charge at Holyrood.

It’s one thing to apportion blame where it is merited. It is another to raise this portioning to a pathology, with mutually guilty actors redefined as healthy and malicious to serve a wider (but shallow) political perspective.

In one sense, it is absolutely true that EU state aid rules can be got around when the political will exists, especially when both the London and Edinburgh governments, whether they like it or not, are soon to leave the bloc. But this misunderstands the relations between the EU and its member states. The EU is not a ‘transnational’ organisation that submerges national sovereignty beneath a common project. It is an organisation of class rule, just as the national governments that operate within its structures.

As such, there is an organic unity between Brussels and London, Paris, Berlin and Athens. Brussels can expect national governments to adopt an appropriate attitude to state aid rules (varying in implementation from powerful Berlin to relative supplicant Athens with everywhere else in between) understanding that the lineage of power between these elite actors is coherent and conjoined.

In the case of Scotland and the Bifab yards, the EU provides the excuse (governments can only supply so much finance to industrial ventures under these circumstances) and the Scottish Government, aware that rules and instituted authorities are negotiable (as elsewhere on the continent – not least Germany) opts for full and grovelling supplicancy. This happens for reasons both domestic and foreign. The foreign policy terms are obvious enough – the SNP leadership wants to align an independent (and devolved) Scotland with Brussels, and wants to signal submission to rules in advance. Additionally, as is common across the EU, the Scottish Government doesn’t want to encourage demands for the protection of jobs and industries in Scotland – particularly when industries like North Sea oil are shedding jobs rapidly.

These attempts at distributing criticism to sub-factions of the ruling class have become commonplace on the left in recent years. It is this projection that has led to the abundance of adjectives before the words ‘capitalist’ and ‘capitalism’: disaster capitalists, neoliberal capitalism, late capitalism, fossil capitalism. Finance capitalism is counter-posed unhelpfully to productive capitalism. Whole new strata of ‘oligarchs’ with ‘dark money’ are constructed.

It is no bad thing that, for the purposes of analysis, we can identify sub-categories of broader class structures. But this is most often done to ignore the organic totality of the capitalist system – its highly evolved capacity to manage internal divisions and reproduce a coherent social order – and to appeal to more rational or even moral elements in the establishment.

In a recent analysis for the Guardian George Monbiot made this case explicit by distinguishing “housetrained capitalism” which “seeks an accommodation with the administrative state, and benefits from stability, predictability and the regulations that exclude dirtier and rougher competitors” from a more pernicious “warlord capitalism”. These housetrained capitalists are the same who for decades have viciously de-regulated British society, leading to an utterly dysfunctional state incapable of a robust response to the pandemic. They are the majority capitalist bloc who support the continued attacks on workers in Rishi Sunak’s latest pay freeze. But in the minds of Guardian writers they ought to be protected from a dangerous insurgency of their peers.

It’s time to take capitalism seriously. That means not separating it out into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ (or simply ‘less bad’) factions and institutional centres. The temptation to do so is a conservative one; those who no longer believe in a mass, democratic challenge from the base of society typically look up to competing factions at the pinnacle. But the fundamental division is society is not between capitalist factions marshalling vying visions of their rule, but between all the elements of their class and those who produce the wealth of society, but do not control it.

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