Expenses scandal: cynicism is not enough
The revelations about MPs expenses have confirmed what a lot of people suspected. Whether our representatives are cheating or just bending the rules it certainly looks like the Westminster porkers have their snouts in the trough. Although this should come as no surprise, many people are still angry and indignant about the whole affair. In a time of deep economic crisis, where jobs, wage levels and pensions are directly under threat, seeing our ‘political leaders' lining their pockets at every opportunity can only reinforce distrust in the whole parliamentary process.
On the other hand, there has been a tendency in the media to exaggerate the scale of the political difficulties this has caused for the ruling class. The Telegraph - which has certainly boosted sales by leading the charge in the exposure of the MPs' dodgy claims - saw the resignation of the Speaker as "Only the start of a very British revolution". A commentator on The Times (28/5/9) made comparisons with the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and declared that "the ruling class regards us with contempt. .... Meanwhile, we must fight their wars, fill their castles with food and pay the taxes they impose."
On the far left, we have had a similar level of hyperbole. World Socialist Web Site (18/5/9) identifies a real process but gives an overblown account of what it has led to: "Changes in mass consciousness happen suddenly and unexpectedly. The processes that bring them about have taken place over a long period of time and in a subterranean fashion. But eventually they break out onto the surface of social life, producing an overnight change in the way that the majority of people across many classes and social layers view the world. In the course of the past week, Britain has experienced just such a change in consciousness as a wave of anger has erupted over the question of allowances granted to Members of Parliament."
Recognising that politicians are on the make does not in itself represent a qualitative advance in class consciousness. Disillusionment with dominant bourgeois ideals is a necessary moment towards genuine class consciousness, but in the absence of an active class movement it can end up in a passive form of cynicism. And at the same time, the bourgeoisie and its media are working very hard to limit the damage such scandals cause - in this case, for example, advising us not to throw the baby out with the bath water because many MPs work hard for their constituents. And if you think that the current bunch is bad then, we are told, fascists or doctrinaire socialists would be a whole lot worse.
What is dangerous about this line of thought is that it poses the possibility of a ‘cleaner', less corrupt, more democratic government. Right, left or centre can all pose as new brooms to sweep away the old order. But whatever colour the state dresses itself in there will still be the same economic crisis and the same attack on working class living standards.
Class consciousness is not just a negative reaction to what the exploiting class is up to. It is also based on an active sense that it is necessary and possible to struggle collectively in defence of our own class interests. It goes together with a growing self-confidence and in the final analysis it requires a perspective and a programme for a fundamental change in the structure of society. For a real revolution to take place, anger with politicians and parliament must transform itself into a clear will to fight for a radically different way of organising social life.