High energy bills are weighing on everyone's mind. How could it be otherwise when almost a quarter of your income has to be spent on energy? This is one of the major components of the “cost of living” crisis which has provoked a wave of strikes in the UK, and which is echoing in other European countries. But there are other forms of protest taking place, directly targeting energy bills but based on the idea of “popular protest”. This article looks at some of the dangers contained in these kinds of campaigns, focusing on “Don’t Pay UK”.
Energy price rises: manifestation of capitalist crisis
At this moment “over 14.5 million people are living in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation UK Poverty Profile 2022. That’s more than one in every five people. Of these, 8.1 million are working-age adults, 4.3 million are children and 2.1 million are pensioners. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation predicts that more people will be plunged into absolute poverty by 2023”. At the same time what is expected to be the longest recession since the 1930s is already casting its shadow, with an estimated potential 500,000 increase in unemployment.
In October 2022, inflation in the UK rose to its highest level in 41 years. Life was 11.1 per cent more expensive in October 2022 than in October 2021. The main part of this inflation is due to rising energy prices. Since last winter energy prices have risen extortionately: the price of gas has increased by 141% and electricity by 65%. Since the price cap was introduced in the UK, on 1 October 2021, a typical customer’s energy bill has risen by 221%.
This is a brutal attack on incomes in Britain. Despite the government’s financial support, a typical household (with official average monthly income at £1,990.72) would already pay more than £200 a month for gas and electricity, a payment that will rise to £250 by April 2023. But in reality many households pay much more because of poorly insulated houses, so that a proportionately high amount of energy is needed for heating. More than 5 million households are already in fuel poverty, which means that they spend more than 10% of their income on gas and electricity, struggling to afford to keep their homes warm. Large families could even be spending a quarter of their disposable income on energy.
Nearly 80% of people in Britain use gas central heating. But with such a huge price increase many households are obliged to permanently forego heating their homes. Recent figures show that gas and electricity use has already been cut by more than 10% since October. It is clear that many families have been forced to turn down the thermostat or to put the heating on for shorter periods. Such a situation has a major impact on health and quality of life, and many people will die unnecessarily.
The refusal to pay energy bills.
Several campaigns have been organised in Britain against inflation, against high energy costs, against the absolute impoverishment of a large part of the population. One of these campaigns is Don't Pay UK, which calls on all supporters to stop paying their energy bills and which, to date, has got a quarter of a million pledges not to pay.
At first glance, such a campaign looks quite understandable: won’t it help the poorest people avoid total impoverishment and maintain, even minimally, a dignified existence? But it is not what it seems. The Don’t Pay UK campaign raises some important concerns for those who advocate the struggle against the economic crisis from a working class perspective.
- The organisers are calling on everyone, regardless of their position in society, to participate. So the protest is gaining support from people from all professions, all political colours, and all classes. What happens to the workers who participate in it? They are bound to be diluted into an amorphous mass of “citizens”, which will include parts of the population that are not part of the working class.
- The organisers are, in reality, handing the million people who they are trying to win for this action to the coercive measures of the state; measures that can range from a fine, a writ to seize personal belongings, seizure of wages, to eviction from their home, against which individual refusers are ultimately powerless.
- 4.3 million workers’ households are not in a position to refuse payment of their energy bill because they have pre-payment meters. They have already been separated from those who can stop their payments. This sows division within the working class, which the bourgeoisie will not hesitate to use for its own benefit.
Don’t Pay UK is taking place against the background of a working class struggle on a scale that we have not seen in the UK in decades. It is a movement that has been going on since the summer and is hitting all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy. In these struggles the working class is slowly beginning to regain confidence in its own ability and to realise that if all workers are under attack, they must also respond as a class. And in all the struggles of the last few months, resistance to spiralling inflation and high energy bills was one of the central themes. The only way forward for the working class is to take the next step by uniting the struggle of the different sectors and, if possible, organise them through their own elected, autonomous organs.
By calling on workers to fight as individuals, as citizens, Don’t Pay UK deflects them away from their class terrain. By approaching the workers in these protests as individuals it isolates them in the same way as electoral campaigns isolate workers in the polling booths. Don’t Pay UK runs counter to the needs of workers as a part of a class with its own natural dynamic towards unity.
In the promotion of this protest, and to convince people that non-payment can be a successful strategy, Don't Pay UK refers to the movement against the poll tax in 1989-90, which allegedly succeeded in forcing Thatcher to resign and the new government to repeal the law. But this is a distortion of the truth. Contrary to the legend of the left, Thatcher was not brought down by the anti-poll-tax protests, but by political divisions within the Tory Party, notably over policy towards the EU after the reunification of Germany. In the second place, while protests against the poll tax were widespread and enjoyed support across all social classes, Thatcher decided to go ahead with the “community charge” anyway. But the introduction of this highly unpopular tax was definitely a mistake by the British bourgeoisie, and an early sign that it was not perfectly in control of its own policy. That was the main reason why the tax was repealed in March 1991 by John Major as the new prime minister.
Anarchists support Don’t Pay UK
The anarcho-syndicalists of the Solidarity Federation opened the doors for Don't Pay UK at the Anarchist Bookfair of 17 September in London. Both the Anarchist Federation (AF) and the long-standing Freedom published an article supporting the campaign: “The idea of Don’t Pay strikes directly at the heart of their ideology, that the owners are the only qualified, and indeed morally correct, people to set prices, even when this power hurts millions. Don’t Pay has a strategy, they have background information on how best to go about it. This is an opportunity to stand up and give the money grubbers a bloody nose” .
In their support for Don’t Pay UK the anarchists start from the premise that the main contradictions in capitalist society is between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, etc. For them the protests against high energy bills are therefore aimed at the rich, the shareholders, the owners and the right wing. According to Freedom and the AF “the rich know they’re on a precipice”, “the rich are jittery” and Don’t Pay UK is able “to seriously challenge not just the consequences of their corruption but its legitimacy”.
The Don’t Pay campaign may question the legitimacy of the rich, but it does not touch the foundations of capitalism and is not a threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie. But the AF and Freedom have no intention whatsoever of undermining the system. They only pay lip service to the struggle of the working class and do not defend a revolutionary position. Their actions do not have the perspective of transcending the boundaries of capitalism. They mainly propagate individual protest, being the height point of personal freedom, with no concern for the fundamental contradictions between wage labour and capital. The fact that they support this campaign shows that they have no interest in the overthrow of the capitalist system.
Things are different with the Anarchist Communist Group (ACG). This group, which also calls on people to join the protest of Don't Pay UK in its leaflet “Cost of Living Crisis”, stands, though with much confusion, on a class position defending the idea that that “The abolition of wage labour is central to anarchist communism” But with its call to join the protest and not to pay the energy bill, a protest that does not start from a working class perspective, and does not aim to contribute to the abolition of wage labour, this group is in a contradictory position. But more importantly, it puts itself on the side of those who are offering a false alternative to the current revival of class struggle in the UK.
Why is the ACG supporting a campaign like Don't Pay UK, which advocates individual protests rather than class struggle? As has been clear from the beginning of summer 2022, almost all working class struggles in Britain have been against the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. Why should there be still another action, which intends to mobilise not only the workers, but all people, regardless of their place in society, and thus can only divert working class struggle? Is the ACG in favour of uniting workers and petty bourgeoisie in one and the same struggle, in a united front?
Can’t Pay UK is a consumer boycott that turns the working class, rather than a powerful force for a fundamental change, into a sum of atomised individuals. It ultimately helps the bourgeoisie to derail growing class combativity and to lead it into the dead-end of a harmless popular protest. Any communist organisation must understand that the working class cannot give up the autonomy it first clearly displayed in 1848 and which is essential to the defence of its class interests, and to the pursuit of its revolutionary perspective.