The Occupy movement and the rightward lurch of musician Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg, the British musician and political activist, has provided a left cover for the Labour and trade union bureaucracy in Britain for several decades. He has now posted an article on his web site opposing any political development of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

A lifelong opponent of socialist revolution, Bragg instinctively recognises the movement as a potential threat to capitalism and the bureaucracy to which he is loyal.

His article, “Occupy Wall Street and Melancholia of Party Politic”, takes the recent Lars von Trier film Melancholia, about a huge planet hurtling towards earth, as a metaphor for “the bloated financial markets running out of control, smashing into the real world and destroying the hopes and dreams of millions.”

Bragg claims that there is a reaction against this financial juggernaut within the official parties. The best he can come up with in regard to the Labour Party, however, is to draw attention to party leader Ed Miliband’s one-line attack on “predator” companies. He also cites US President Barack Obama’s “lukewarm nod of recognition” to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and even Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement that “the government was going to take responsibility for getting loans to small businesses.”

It is some time now since the working class looked to the Labour Party for leadership or hope, and its mood is not “melancholic”, as Bragg asserts, but wary and hostile. Bragg is speaking for himself when he writes of “those of us frustrated by the melancholy mood that seems to have gripped the population in the face of the on-coming financial clash.”

The musician notes, “Public opinion is shifting towards a belief that it is fundamentally unfair to allow those who created the financial crisis to continue to get wealthy while working people struggle to pay their bills”, before asking sceptically, “Is that idea alone capable of motivating a mass movement for a fairer economy?”

Bragg here identifies the most significant shift in political consciousness among broad masses, only to dismiss it as somehow lacking. What he opposes is the development of politically conscious opposition to capitalism. He wants popular sentiment to be dominated by the single-issue protest politics of the middle class.

Bragg insists the problem is not capitalism, but a “crisis in demand”—a classic statement of Keynesian-style, national economic regulation that he dresses up as the “need to put our economy on a different trajectory.”

He wants the Occupy movement to be channeled behind a nationalist programme to defend British capitalism against its rivals. That is why Bragg describes the movement as being opposed to the “globalisation project”, as though the latter were a policy choice and not the fundamental fact of modern economic life. In fact, the international character of the anti-Wall Street protests reflects, if only in an initial fashion, the striving of workers and young people to unite their struggle against world capitalism.

Bragg is hostile to such a development, which drives him to make an explicit attack on Marxism, the only force capable of providing these objective spontaneous strivings with a consciously worked-out revolutionary programme. He does so by making a defamatory comparison between Marxists and the Tea Party reactionaries in the US.

“There is always a danger,” he writes, “that, just as the nascent Tea Party movement was hijacked by fundamentalist Christians with their book that has all the answers, OWS could be taken over by fundamentalist Marxists, who have their own book that solves all your problems.”

Bragg writes as though the Tea Party movement had promising beginnings. On the contrary, this movement was largely a media creation from the beginning, given enormous prominence by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other disreputable outlets.

The “Marxists” about whom Bragg is so scornful are represented today only by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), the revolutionary movement of socialists forged by Leon Trotsky in a life-and-death struggle against Stalinism and social democracy, at terrible personal cost.

In contrast, the various pseudo-left tendencies are more than happy to play along with the “No Politics” line of the Occupy movement endorsed by Bragg because they also defend the political domination of the working class by the Labour and trade union bureaucracy.

Bragg denounces anyone who advocates “an instantly formulated set of goals”, claiming this “reflects a desperate need for right wing news outlets to have evidence that allows them to condemn those gathered in opposition to the status quo.” In doing so, he infers that any attempt to set out a clear socialist programme borders on the work of agent provocateurs.

Perhaps it’s time to remind Mr. Bragg that 18 months ago he was encouraging workers and youth to vote Liberal Democrat. Within a week of the election, the Liberal Democrats ditched every promise they had made the electorate in order to join a grubby coalition with the Tories and impose the most severe austerity measures since the 1930s. The Socialist Equality Party, in contrast, fought to politically warn the working class about what the ruling class was planning.

Bragg deceives his readers when he asserts, “We should not allow our enemies to define the rules by which we are allowed to act. Neo-liberalism is not an ideology, with a programme and list of demands, just a bunch of powerful people doing things in their own self interest.”

To justify denying the working class a political perspective, Bragg makes the ludicrous assertion that the ruling class has no politics either! In fact, neo-liberalism does have worked-out reactionary theoretical nostrums, such as those developed by the US economist Milton Friedman that were adopted by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and carried on by Tony Blair and New Labour.

Bragg continues that “OWS has come to challenge that power, by gathering together a bunch of disenfranchised people and empowering them to act together in their own self interest.”

The best among those participating in the protests do not act in their “own self interest,” as Bragg claims. In challenging Wall Street and the banks, they objectively act in the interest of all workers in America and throughout the world. By claiming that the time is not right for the anti-Wall Street movement to “nail a set of demands to the doors of the New York Stock Exchange”, Bragg opposes those involved taking the necessary political step forward and leaves them at the mercy of the capitalist parties and in danger of ultimate failure.

The only way to prevent the “markets career[ing] out of control” is to abolish them through the international working class carrying out the world socialist revolution and creating an economy based upon planned production for social need, not private profit.

Over three decades, Bragg has built a “left” reputation based on a mixture of reformist politics, support for populist campaigns and songs about various peoples’ fights for freedom—including the revolutionary periods in British history, 1640-1657 and 1839-1848. But ever since the formation of the pro-Labour “Red Wedge” collection of artists, prior to the 1987 General Election, he has placed his talents at the service of the labour bureaucracy in opposing revolutionary politics in favour of the more supposedly realisable goal of electing a left reformist government.

Instead, each year has seen the Labour and trade union bureaucracy and the privileged layer that supports them shift ever farther to the right. Bragg belongs to that number. His biography, Billy Bragg: The Progressive Patriot, is subtitled “A search for belonging”. Politically, the book presents itself as a contribution to the effort to reclaim patriotism from the far right, an obsession shared by the “Blue Labour” movement that includes top Labour figures such as Maurice Glasman, the academic and Labour life peer in the House of Lords, and Dagenham and Rainham MP Jon Cruddas. It is a project that has secured the endorsement of Ed Miliband himself, as a means of shifting the party on an even more nationalist course while it attempts to conceal its pro-business agenda.

Nobody in the Labour Party speaks like Bragg anymore, so he is wheeled out as the “voice of the left” on prestigious BBC television programmes, including Late Review and Question Time. A millionaire, he lives in a beautiful house in Dorset with his wife and son. His political positions express the social viewpoint of a layer hostile to any movement that threatens their own privileged lifestyle. Workers and youth around the world must become politically conscious of the role played by such celebrity figures—and their highly conditional “endorsements”—if they are to wage a successful struggle against capitalism.

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[22 May 2010]