Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Some thoughts on UK Uncut

 This post was originally published on my old blog on February 2nd, 2011

As documented in a previous post, I recently witnessed the UK Uncut action targeting Boots on Oxford Street in London’s West End. While I imagine I share the broad aims of most of those involved in this nascent movement, reflecting on its strategy and goals led me to thinking about what I believe this campaign can and can’t achieve. What follows is a brief exposition of the arguments and ideas I’ve been mulling over.

The issue of corporate tax avoidance is, on face value, quite shocking, especially when viewed in the context of the ideologically-motivated violence currently being inflicted upon our society in the name of cutting the budget deficit. However, I have some reservations regarding the tactic of targeting individual companies on the grounds that they are behaving unethically. First, I’d question the idea that companies can be subject to moral judgements in the same way that people can. They’re not individuals possessed of conscience and therefore attempting to “shame” them into a certain course of action is doomed to fail. Companies act solely to maximize profit, so if there is a “loophole” – or a way of increasing profit – then it is perfectly normal that companies will act to take advantage of this and I don’t think they can be “blamed” for doing so.

In this respect Nietzsche’s parable regarding lambs and birds of prey comes to mind. We cannot condemn the bird of prey for killing lambs – this is what birds of prey do. For us to make a moral judgement there must be a doer behind the deed, but companies such as Boots are merely playing out the role ascribed to them by the system in which they operate. Of course, Nietzsche was actually thinking about individuals when making the comparison to birds and their prey, but the analogy still holds as he was still, in part, highlighting the absurdity inherent in castigating something for behaving in the very way that makes it what it is.

I agree it would be a better situation if Boots were to make a larger contribution to the Exchequer, yet they’ll only pull back their headquarters from Switzerland if it makes financial sense to do so. Their suggested savings from this move have been reported to be around £150 million per annum, so I’d say the current UK Uncut strategy will only be successful if they can generate negative PR for Boots that hits their bottom line to the tune of something like this amount. I don’t doubt that the publicity surrounding actions such as last Saturday’s – not to mention the cost of closing a flag ship store for several prime retailing hours – will hurt Boots financially, but whether it can ever hurt them enough is, I fear, unlikely.

So given the behaviour of entities such as Boots and Tesco is essentially systemic and largely determined by structure, what do I think UK Uncut can achieve? The movement clearly has a role to play in raising awareness of the injustices of the current programme of austerity measures and the economic system more broadly. Many of the passers-by who engaged with the activists in and outside Boots last Saturday (my own efforts were limited to taking photos and giving out a few leaflets) were genuinely shocked that this type of behaviour was going on and, I believe, may well now be more conscious of the fundamental injustices at the heart of the economic status quo. And it is this type of challenge to the prevailing hegemony which I believe should be the goal of such activism.

In this respect, building a broad-based coalition of movements that are able to gradually challenge and offer an alternative to the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy is crucial to fighting – and ultimately winning – what Gramsci would have called the “war of position”. This idea entails a gradual cultural and ideological struggle against hegemonic forces across all areas of the state and civil society including, therefore, not just institutions but also political and cultural practices and, ultimately, forms of political consciousness. Indeed, such “intellectual and moral reform” is a crucial prerequisite to successfully attacking the institutions – both government and corporate – that perpetuate the existing economic system and its associated injustices.

So without acknowledging and challenging the systemic issues at the heart of corporate tax avoidance, critiquing the actions of individual companies is akin to sharing Dickens’ ideas about capitalism; he believed, to quote Orwell, that if only “men would behave decently the world would be decent,” but failed to see that “men’s behaviour” – or in this case the behaviour of companies – is largely determined by the rules of the game in which they operate.

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