Austerity and Sinn Fein

sfdownloadThe strike by public sector workers in the North of Ireland on March 13 was significant because the two major parties, including Sinn Fein, were a target of the strike, whether Sinn Fein or even some of the strikers liked it or not.  Sinn Fein obviously didn’t like it because it damaged its posturing as an anti-austerity party and trade union leaders didn’t like it because their strategy is to persuade the parties responsible for austerity to change their minds and try to get more out of the Treasury in London.

The latest multiyear budgetary programme of the Stormont administration is the second austerity programme which Sinn Fein has jointly authored while in office.  The first did not see the job losses witnessed in England, Wales and Scotland but it did see a reduction of around 14,000.  Pay and pension entitlement for public sector workers were also cut.  Along with almost every other public sector worker I have suffered two years of a pay freeze while inflation consistently exceeded the supposed target of the Bank of England and my pension contributions increased, while my benefits were reduced and I will have to work longer to get them.

The much vaunted protection of welfare in the new budget, whatever coverage it eventually has, will come from money taken from other public services, including cuts to education.  As one local newspaper columnist put it – these will include an end to free books for pre-school children, making Northern Ireland the only part of the UK that will not have the scheme.  This will save £250,000 a year, or one third of the £750,000 that 36 Sinn Fein politicians at Stormont paid to a party research company that was unable to show any research.

As also remarked, Sinn Fein’s often boasted politician’s salary at the industrial wage includes industrial scale expenses.  Widespread cynicism exists in ‘republican’ areas at the rise to riches of leading figures identified with the movement.

The much vaunted financial deal that saved the Stormont administration, before the latest crisis, was hailed for delivering an extra £2 billion to the Northern Ireland budget, except that it didn’t.  Only a third of it could be called new, which spread over 10 years is less than a third of 1% of what is spent each year.

The rest is loans or ‘flexibility’, which means that money that is for capital investment can be incurred on day-to-day expenditure.  You don’t have to be an accountant to realise that relying on loans and investment funds to pay for on-going expenses is not sustainable.  Further expenditure is allowed if funded by asset sales, which again is not sustainable, and raises a green light for privatisation.

Such privatisation would leave the lefty credentials of Sinn Fein wearing even thinner.

Not all the capital money will be spent on recurring expenses.  £700m can be spent (in fact must be spent or it won’t be spent at all) on paying off around 20,000 public sector employees through a voluntary exit scheme.  This is a major plank in the opposition of the trade unions but it is not clear that many workers themselves will not take the money and run.  Unfortunately the old union maxim that the job is not yours to sell is long forgotten.  It is obviously completely unknown to Sinn Fein who talk of losing only ‘posts’ as if this is not what is actually wrong about what they are doing.

It is claimed that there will be no compulsory redundancies but the NIPSA trade union has drawn attention to advanced plans to cut 50 jobs, or over half the workforce, from the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO).  As NIPSA points out, when NIACRO works with prisoners on release reoffending rates drop from over 50% to less than 25%. This has all the hallmarks of the stupid and counter-productive cuts often condemned by Sinn Fein.

The claim to be protecting the vulnerable now doesn’t look so strong.

An amount of £350m will go to capital investment in integrated education, which at least sounds progressive until it’s understood that this doesn’t involve Catholic and Protestant children being educated in the one classroom but actually often means two sectarian-denominated schools being put on the one campus.  The move towards a shared campus simply reflects the fact that sectarianism is becoming expensive.

Rather than signalling the end of sectarian schooling it shows the lengths that will be gone to in order to preserve this apartheid system.  But the sectarian education system also has the support of Sinn Fein.  It would appear that apartheid can be supported in this case if the justification  given for the original South African variety – separate but EQUAL – can be adhered to.

This isn’t even progressive never mind left wing or socialist.

That the new deal means no rejection of the previous imposition of reactionary Tory-Lib Dem policy is shown by the fact that the fines of £114m that had to be paid for not implementing the welfare cuts in 2014-2005 must be paid now, and the £100m loan required to balance the books in the same year must also be paid.

Last but not least the new financial arrangement allows the local administration to lower corporation tax, once again supported by Sinn Fein.  Their thread bare justification for this is the harmonisation of an all-island economy.  In fact, along with many republicans’ support for Scottish independence, it involves mutual competition of small states in a race to put more money into the fat pockets of mainly US multinationals.  Were the policy to succeed the London Treasury has stated clearly that the Stormont regime will have to pay it for its losses.

All of this passes Sinn Fein by.  It clings to its claims to be anti-austerity purely on its partial opposition to cuts in welfare benefits.  Its populist politics is revealed by its approach that workers are victims and its most vulnerable members should be given some form of protection by a benevolent state.

The effect of privileging one section of the working class above another is always to undermine and weaken its potential political unity.  In this case the potential unity of the working population and those on benefits, who are always the subjects of divisive attack by right wing forces.   By limiting its proclaimed anti-austerity agenda to support to some on benefits it plays into the divisive claims of these right wing forces.  Sinn Fein appears happy to see austerity delivered to those in work while proclaiming great concern for those who are unable to or cannot work.

The interests of the working class as a class and as a political force independent and opposed to the state are alien ideas to a purely nationalist movement.

Unfortunately it is also alien to the leaders of Ireland’s trade unions and their new proclaimed support for Sinn Fein is proof of this.  At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis – that is even before Sinn Fein’s renewed expressions of concern for welfare claimants – the Irish Congress of Trades Unions President, Jack Douglas, extolled Sinn Fein’s adherence to the union cause.  That is after the austerity budget the Northern unions were calling a strike against!  A week or so earlier the leader of Ireland’s biggest union SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, hailed Sinn Fein as a potential partner of the Labour Party in Government. The same Labour Party that has been implementing the Troika austerity agenda it was elected promising to oppose.

The performance of Sinn Fein in office in the North is a stark warning of its future role in the South but the record of Sinn Fein in the South is ample demonstration itself.  It was Sinn Fein who voted for the bank bailout that made the debts of the speculators the millstone round the neck of the workers.  Its ‘leading role’ in the resistance to austerity today is to identify itself with the campaign against water charges while seeking electoral advantage from it.  Beyond seeking votes from the campaign it has no strategy to make the campaign a success.

A couple of weeks ago an economist from Goldman Sachs claimed that the biggest threat to the Irish economy was that Sinn Fein would keep its promises on its opposition to austerity.  He needn’t have worried.

I remember around twenty years ago attending a meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road during which time Sinn Fein was trying to get into talks with the Unionists, who were refusing to engage. I asked Gerry Adams what he expected to achieve from such negotiations when the Unionists wouldn’t even talk to him.  A United Ireland he said.

Well we all know how that worked out.

Workers strike against austerity in the North of Ireland

20150313_130323-1Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the North of Ireland on March 13 in protest against cuts in jobs and services implemented by the devolved administration in Stormont.  The local administration is imposing the austerity agenda dictated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London.  The strike was particularly successful because transport workers, including on the buses and trains, took part as well as those in the civil service, health and education.

Observance of the strike was good and pickets and rallies had respectable turnouts.  Workers have suffered a long period of declining living standards and are clearly willing to declare their opposition.  It would be a mistake however to exaggerate the stage we are at in the development of this struggle.  A glance at the numbers voting for strike action in a couple of the biggest unions involved shows the distance yet to go to build a strong and active movement.

In the trade union NIPSA, covering staff in Government departments and other bodies as well as admin and clerical staff in the health service, 52.9% or 4,201 voted for strike action in the civil service side out of a membership of around 20,600, with the health service side having an even lower turnout.  Not all of the membership was called upon to strike but the vast majority of members were affected.  In UNISON, with a membership mainly in the health service and some in education ,3,181 voted for strike action in a membership of around 40,000, again not all of whom would have been called upon to vote but a majority of whom would have been affected.  The strike had sympathy among the wider population but this finds no expression in organisation.

Many on the left have demanded another strike and have claimed that the recent ostensible U-turn by Sinn Fein on welfare cuts is a result of the strike.  However this would be to take the Sinn Fein position at face value, or rather take them at their word, and exaggerates the effect of the strike.  While it focused opposition to austerity, and can lay the grounds for a deeper campaign against it, the actions of Sinn Fein are not so much a reaction to the strike but the wider feeling of opposition to cuts.

The strategy of the trade union leaders is to lobby and put pressure on local political parties so that if the next Westminster election results in a hung parliament local politicians can demand and negotiate an end to, or at least an amelioration of, austerity imposed in the Northern Ireland.  It therefore takes as given the continued position of these parties and resists any project of setting up a political rival.  This is on the basis that to do so would inevitably require a position to be taken on the constitutional position of the Northern State.

Such a party would inevitably have Keynesian policies of greater state activity in taxing and spending.  In other words salvation would be presented as arriving from the state, so the programme of any such labour or workers’ party would very quickly run up against this challenge.  No autonomous development of the party would be possible.  It is now some years since a labourist project was attempted and the last one that set up the current political arrangements was an embarrassing failure.

The strike was however noteworthy because it was carried out explicitly against the policies of the local Stormont Executive, the centre piece of the peace process and the ‘new’ political settlement.  It also took place against the background of another ‘crisis’ in the process, with the whole financial arrangements of the local administration thrown into doubt by a late Sinn Fein withdrawal of support for the budget because the deal to preserve it did not fully cover the cuts in welfare that were to mirror ‘reforms’ in Britain.

Sinn Fein therefore paraded its anti-austerity credentials, which the media took to be another late intervention by Gerry Adams to shore up the anti-austerity stance of the party in the South of Ireland.  Sinn Fein faces a general election in the South within the year.  The party is riding high in the polls on the basis of this perceived position and it would not look good if it were seen to be implementing austerity in the North while claiming to oppose it in the South.   Sinn Fein therefore ‘supported’ the strike even if the strike was clearly against the budget it had just approved as a major part of the local administration.

This support was invisible in the well-attended rally in Belfast city centre on 13th and is based on the party once again talking out of both sides of its mouth.  A long established practice.

This most recently saw an outing through Sinn Fein’s vocal support for the Catholic teacher training college St Mary’s, which was threatened with cuts by the local administration.  The cuts were proposed by the Alliance Party Minister responsible who was simply implementing the reduced budget given to him by Sinn Fein and its Democratic Unionist Party partners.  The sectarian aspect of this support was lost on no one as similar cuts were to be made to the ‘Protestant’ teacher training college at Stranmillis.  In the end the two biggest sectarian parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – got together to overrule the Alliance Party Minister.

The last minute opposition to the welfare arrangements therefore doesn’t inspire the view that Sinn Fein are a principled opponent of austerity but rather smack of an opportunist change of tack.  At their Ard Fheis in Derry the weekend before they dropped their bombshell the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont, Martin McGuinness , was proclaiming great satisfaction with the deal and congratulating the party on how well it had done in the re-negotiated financial settlement with the British Government.

At the very best their new found concern means that they hadn’t done their sums right or had been rather easily hoodwinked by the DUP; or perhaps that they had re-evaluated the calculus of staying with the welfare cuts programme as it was going to develop – thus facing the flak when it was put into practice – as against provoking another ‘crisis’ and the fall-out that would then ensue.

That this was all a bit last-minute became clear from the Sinn Fein media performances to explain its change of approach.  One prominent spokesperson on local radio refused to say it was a question of money when it could hardly be anything else; then it was claimed that it would cost over £280m to put right before this became translated into a round figure of £200m when the round figure it would appear closest to would be £300m.  Unionist claims that it was clear in the deal that not all the benefit cuts would be covered by mitigation measures in the budget, and would not be permanent for new claimants, seemed more convincing.

Nevertheless, the row over the extent of the funds to cover cuts in welfare matters to those welfare recipients affected who are indeed, as Sinn Fein says, some of the most vulnerable. It doesn’t in the least affect the fraudulent nature of Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity posturing.

To be continued

The civilising mission of capitalism – Marx’s alternative part 3

lewis-hine1So Marx understood that capitalism’s compulsion to increase the appropriation of unpaid labour through development of the forces of production and exploitation of workers also meant the expansion of the consumption of the working class and development of its needs and capacities as a result; what has been called capitalism’s civilising mission. But Marx also referred to the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Today, and over the last half century, many people have been radicalised by the threats of nuclear annihilation or environmental catastrophe, both of which are products of capitalisms’ productive powers and its irrational social and political relations.  But opposition has more often than not failed to identify the source of the threat or the solution.

It has also been noted at the end of the twentieth century that there had not been a single year since 1816 without at least one war going on in the world.  The twentieth century itself witnessed human slaughter on a truly massive scale with more than 9 million deaths in the First World War and 57 million (37.8 million of them civilians) in the Second World War, with 80 million between 1900 and 1950 in total.  The relative peace since is purely relative with proud claims that war had been abolished in Europe, for example, blown away by the war in the former Yugoslavia and now in the Ukraine.

This contradiction is not one that exists in Marx’s argument but one that exists in reality, as Marx explains in Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital:

“We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous.

We have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes.

It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.”

Marx compares capitalism favourably to its predecessors:

“Thus the ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.

In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick — an end in itself?

What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?

In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion.”

Overall growth of productive powers and increased planning within capitalism – between firms and countries – and increased coordination of a massively developed division of labour is a growth of human power and civilisation, not just potentially, but in creation of the preconditions for socialism; the potential for the creation of a society without material and cultural want, for a future society in which the level of production can remove the necessity for class inequality.

If socialism must arise out of capitalism and capitalism were purely barbaric, containing within it no contradictions that presage the new society, socialism would be a utopian dream because the agents of change who are to bring it about would simply be products of barbarism.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 2

333869336In the first part of this post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism we noted that this was ‘simply’ the real alternative that is already growing within capitalism and is composed of the working class that the development of capitalism creates.

Workers have no, and are not to be encouraged to produce, “ready-made utopias”.   Such blueprints are always presented to workers rather than arising from them, they must “work out their own emancipation”.   In doing so they will necessarily “have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men”. (Marx, The Civil War in France)

The working class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism but it can only achieve emancipation if it becomes conscious of its revolutionary role. So, in some way, capitalism must not only provide for the development of the forces of production, increased division of labour and cooperation across the globe and increased planning within and between companies and production facilities, upon which a higher society can be built, but it must also provide the grounds for the development of this consciousness.

Capitalism does this by removing the relations of personal dependence that, for example, ties the peasant serf to the lord of the manor or the artisan to his master and to the Guild.  In doing so it atomises individuals and promotes an ideology of individuality that in juridical terms makes people free, independent and responsible but which in reality is expressed in an estrangement of people from each other.

This estrangement is routinely expressed through terms such as the ‘rate race’; the view that ‘charity begins at home’; that you ‘have to look after your own’, or ’look after number one’ or in the thousand and one various ways in which the unity of humanity is disintegrated and vanished under capitalism.  This is not primarily an ideological phenomenon but a realty that workers are indeed in a rat race.  As a poster campaign put it some years ago – many are only a couple of pay cheques away from homelessness.  Almost all workers are an illness away from relative or absolute poverty.  Lack of ownership of the means of producing a livelihood means an inescapable compulsion to sell one’s labour power in the market under circumstances more or less totally out of one’s control.

This estrangement is universal and the idea of free individuality finds roots from this universal separation.  Its universality creates the possibility of it being overcome. This is done through the development of the forces of production that puts workers in a similar relationship to those who own the means of producing life’s necessities creating the conditions within which unity around common class interests can be built.

The development of the forces of production themselves, based on advances in scientific understanding and its practical application, has implications both for the material and moral/spiritual development of the working class.  The extraordinary development of the productivity of labour that is a feature of capitalism cannot fail over an extended period to have an effect on the material conditions of the working class.  The current level of development of the productive forces could not have been achieved simply by seeking to meet and increase the consumption demands of the richest in society.

Capitalism constantly seeks to advance the consumption of society in order to accumulate capital and thus consciously and unconsciously produces new needs and new desires and, through this, new capabilities that create not just the material but also the spiritual and cultural preconditions for socialism.  If it did not, if capitalism left workers as limited and narrow in outlook as the peasant class that preceded it, there would be no grounds for a new higher society, for who would bring it into being?

This development takes place under capitalism, under the determining dynamic of the production of profit from the exploitation of labour, and thus this development is distorted, often thwarted, partial, uneven and limited.  It is subject to advance and retreat and it is ‘dumbed down’ and commodified.  It takes place not as a rational objective of society but as one whose development is in contradiction with the system’s rationale of seeking the expansion of capital through the appropriation of more exploited labour.

This process is what Marx calls the “civilising mission” of capitalism, without which there could be no talk of socialism:

“Thus, just as production founded on capital creates universal industriousness on one side — i.e. surplus labour, value-creating labour — so does it create on the other side a system of general exploitation of the natural and human qualities, a system of general utility, utilizing science itself just as much as all the physical and mental qualities, while there appears nothing higher in itself, nothing legitimate for itself, outside this circle of social production and exchange.

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.

For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.  In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life

It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse)

But how can capitalism be called civilising?  Is it not the Marxist case that capitalism is inhuman and that the historic choice is between socialism and barbarism? Does Marx not speak, in relation to British rule in India, of “the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation.”

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 1

DSC_0136The reason why a person will identify themselves as a Marxist will be biographical, a product of their background, history and circumstances, their attitudes, character, personality and intellectual curiosity.  All these will be individual and accidental to a greater or lesser extent, the product of one’s actions and decisively, the views and actions of others that one comes into contact with, directly and indirectly.

On the other hand their background and circumstances and the views and actions of others that influence them will be social, the product of society as a whole.  Even their individual character and intellectual curiosity will be shaped strongly by their social circumstances.  So also the reason to identify as a Marxist is not individual or accidental but crucially derives from the content of Marxism itself.

It constitutes the most rational alternative to capitalism and all the irrationality and oppression that that system entails.  The most consistent and coherent alternative to capitalism is Marxist because Marxism comprehends capitalism in a way that is adequate to its replacement.

Marxism best encapsulates the view that ‘another world is possible’ because it best understands capitalism itself and can identify whether, and to what extent, an alternative can develop out of it.  Any alternative must come out of it in some way, yet be sufficiently different to actually be an alternative, and not a refurbished version of existing society which must enforce the limitations and strictures of the existing system. Marxism must therefore identify in what precisely this alternative consists.

The strength of Marxism is not that it has developed a brilliant idea from the brain of an exceptional intellect but that it seeks to bring to consciousness the development of capitalism itself and the alternative that is pregnant within it.

“In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx 1843.

If capitalism does not contain within it the struggles that will replace it, and the grounds for those struggles to succeed, then there will be no alternative to capitalism, at least not with the features or characteristics associated with a socialist alternative.

The claim that Marxism is the social and political alternative to capitalism thus rests on its claims to understand the development of capitalism so that the alternative it poses is not then a utopian one, sprouted more or less fully formed from the brain of this or that social reformer, but from the perceptible development of capitalism itself.

Just as the alternative to capitalism grows out of capitalism itself so too does the understanding of the alternative grow in the same way from the development of the system.

This is held to account for Marx’s known aversion to setting out a blueprint of what the alternative will look like.  It was, for example only when Marx was in his mid-50s that he claimed he had found, or rather the working class itself had found, through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

In his review of this experience Marx made many observations on the alternative to capitalism that apply today, including that:

“The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”

A book published a few years ago is an extremely useful guide to Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism, more particularly of the principles that underpin it.  It demonstrates that the alternative is not some perfected socialist state or society, not some condition of social equilibrium but a movement of people and their own self-activity and self-development.

“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence,” (Marx in The German Ideology).

There is no end-state to socialism, perfect or otherwise, but the social conditions that allow the full flourishing of the individual and humanity as a whole, which will in turn change social conditions.

Socialism cannot be reduced to principles such as a planned economy because planning itself is only one human activity, the totality of which is the expansive alternative that Marx foresaw.

The alternative to capitalism is the self-development of humanity, its overcoming of an alienated existence within which its own powers over its environment and its own development appear separated from and oppressive to it.  So humanity understands the danger of environmental destruction but has no transparent means of control to stop it despite its own actions being the cause of the threat.  So it witnesses economic disruption, unemployment, poverty and suffering, caused by a drop in ‘value’ of pieces of paper – shares, bonds, swaps, options, derivatives etc -that it has created but which by themselves are simply pieces of paper, which in any rational society it would be impossible for them to cause the suffering involved in economic crisis.

Emancipation therefore is the result of the actions of humanity itself, led by a class within society whose liberation must entail the liberation not only of itself but of society as a whole – what is called a universal class because it represents the universal interests of all humanity.

This universal class is the product of the prodigious development of the forces of production under capitalism, to a degree that could never have been conceived in previous history, including the rapid development of technology, scientific knowledge and overall cultural development.

It is people however who create history, ‘history’ itself does nothing, and it is the development of the working class that is the carrier of the wonders of the new capitalist society and the bearer of the new within it.

What is required then is that the working class becomes conscious of its role in existing society and the necessity for it to change this society.  Decisive for the working class is therefore its awareness of itself as a separate class with its own interests, requiring a change in the consciousness of the mass of workers.

This change in consciousness to an awareness of class interest does not mean the nullification of individual personality or character but the recognition of shared interests that will allow creation of a society in which the free development of individuals is the condition for the free development of everyone; no one is subject to the requirement to work to live in order that someone else can live without working.  The creation of wealth will be for the satisfaction of individual needs and desires and not the pathological pursuit of profit for a few.  People will labour to satisfy their needs not the accumulation of money, wealth and capital for others.

The structures of society will therefore be the consciously directed products of human activity, transparent in their operation.  They will not entail the domination of people by impersonal, disembodied powers such as the ‘rule of the free market’ or ‘rule of law’ or ‘state authority’, over which individuals feel and have no control.  No longer will workers face wage cuts or unemployment because the things they produce are no longer profitable to produce and the needs of ‘the economy’ then require the sacrifice of their livelihood.  Things no longer control them, they control the things that would not exist without them.  No longer will the price of pieces of paper wreak economic devastation.

Instead workers will control the things that are their creation, including the machines they build, the firms they create, the agencies that provide services or set rules for them – all the organisations appointed for any purpose that affect them.  They control them because they work in them.  Managing them is not a detached function to be carried out by a separate class or bureaucratic group but is the task of everyone.  Management and control become part of everyone’s job description.

By this means the supreme authority, the State, that rules over society is not set apart from it but is gradually abolished through its functions being incorporated into society itself and into its day to day functioning.  Only in this way can the  rule of a minority become the rule of the majority, can the working class become the new ruling class, before there is no class system whatsoever because no relations of economic and social domination exist.

For this to happen the majority of society have to be not so much ready to carry out these million and one tasks but more and more actually carrying them out beforehand.  The problem then is not so much to revolutionise the means of production or state structures but to revolutionise the working class.

So how does capitalism create the conditions for this?  In what way does capitalism itself prepare the ground for its supersession by the working class?

Visiting Trier

DSC_0208Last year I went on my holidays to the French wine region of Alsace although I did very little drinking as most of the time I was driving.  As a quid pro quo I was able to take the opportunity to drive over and visit Trier in Germany.

Trier is a contestant for Germany’s oldest city, a UNESCO world heritage site and the location of notable Roman buildings. Of course for a Marxist it is also distinguished as the birthplace of Karl Marx, which has been turned into a museum, and it was for this reason that I ventured out of France.

If I thought the French didn’t pay much attention to speed limits it appeared to me that the Germans didn’t have one.  On two rather short journeys to and from Trier to the French border I came across three traffic accidents including one rather nasty one in which an occupant was being cut out of a car.

Having arrived safely at our very functional hotel, which consistent of separate concrete boxes called rooms and a bigger box that doubled as reception and breakfast area, we took a dander round the town where I explained that it was unusual to have anything to do with Marxism as a local tourist attraction.  It was pointed out to me that the most memorable aspect of this was the local tourist bus painted with Karl Marx’s mug.

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The next morning we had breakfast in reception, in which the juice and Rice Crispies were almost in the street.  All very lean I was told, proving to me that I am not the only one who doesn’t really switch off when on holiday.  The big TV behind the desk was showing the news on some local channel.  I was too far away to hear but this wasn’t a problem as I don’t speak German anyway.  And in any case my eagerness to see who had won the Scottish referendum was being addressed by an interview with a guy who had a very bad Mel Gibson Braveheart haircut, and a Saltire painted across his face.  He had the demeanour of Mel at the end of the film when he was on the rack.  I guessed who had won.

We then took in the museum and the audio tour that outlined Marx’s family background and history, the story of his political involvement and an AB of his ideas.  It was competently done, without being ruined by the reformist bias I had feared from it being run by the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands  (SPD) and its Friedrich Ebert Foundation, named after a real reactionary bastard, whose historical role might well make those who think social democracy has turned right under neoliberalism rethink just how left it was beforehand.

It was a bit bemusing to find out that the young Karl had hardly got out of his nappies before he had moved house along with his family, but you hardly treat such a visit as a religious pilgrimage, in which you touch the foot of the statue of the blessed man or feel his earthly presence.

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Like all museums it had a shop but inexplicably nothing for lovers of Flat Whites or three-shot Cappuccinos.  Being a sucker for a certain type of tat I attempted to buy a bust of the man himself ( you’ve already got one); a Karl Marx mug (it’s too tacky); some red wine (I’m sure it’s just not nice) and a fridge magnet (you don’t even know what it says because you can’t speak German).  However I did get away with the museum exhibition booklet and a bar of ‘Karl Marx Fine Chocolate’, which I haven’t yet opened just for badness.

What didn’t fully strike me as very poor until much later was the paucity of Marx’s writings that were for sale, but then the SPD believes that his writings really are only a museum piece, and the shop is for taking things away.  The best the exhibition booklet could come up with, in its final words on ‘Marx in the Twenty-First Century’, was that “engagement with the methods of Karl Marx and the questions he posed will continue to be meaningful”.  You don’t say.

The final chapter, on ‘Embracing of the Ideas of Karl Marx Worldwide’, cited the following, among others, as coming under his influence or claiming to express his ideas – Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, the ANC, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and liberation theology.  When we add the various ‘Marxist’ schools including the Frankfurt school, structuralism, post-Marxism and Analytical Marxism etc. and the experience of the various state regimes that have laid claim to Marx as their inspiration – from the Soviet Union to Albania – we can see the obstacles to engaging with Marx in a way that is not only meaningful but faithful to his writings.

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So why bother?  A look at the activities of today’s organisations claiming to be Marxist shows that the political programmes put forward hardly correspond to his oft-stated views.  From capitalist state ownership as the road to, and destination of socialism, to strikes for higher wages as ‘going to the heart of the system’, if you hang around the Left long enough you will hear every competing conception of socialism that Marx fought against being presented  as the authentic expression of his views.

Quotes from Marx are regularly thrown about but rarely after actually reading the original.  In Ireland our latest Marxist TD is shown on YouTube commencing an educational meeting with a quote from Marx’s Capital, which he admits he hasn’t read but which the chair of the meeting assures him ‘nobody has’.

By reading the original the original meaning might actually be understood.  A very simple reason why to bother.

But the answer is not simply to ‘go back to Marx’ as a way of overcoming the obstacles created by the distortion of his teachings by many who have claimed to be his followers.

This is not least because they have sometimes genuinely sought to apply his teachings, albeit often in a one-sided and partial way, providing one-sided and partial truths.  The direct words of Marxism expressed by Marx have been supplemented by the history of the development of his ideas and of the working class movement and it would be in complete conflict with his method to seek to go beyond the failures of both by simply claiming they are ‘wrong’, isolating ourselves from them and ignoring the lessons to be learned.

The history of Marxism and of the working class movement is now the ground on which both must be renewed.  Such renewal requires not just engagement with the direct views of Marx but also with the fragmentation and degeneration of Marxism and the labour movement.  The experience of both cannot be ignored or wished away and the alienation arising from them must be overcome because this alienation is now part of the reality we must seek to change, just as Marx sought to change the reality that he faced, including the various schools of socialism that he considered must be overcome and banished during his time.

Syriza and Ireland

syrizaimagesThis Sunday the Greek people will go to the polls in an election that could see the beginning of the end of austerity in Europe.  That anyway is the view of some on the left across Europe.

The potential election of a Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) Government, promising a radical reduction in the debt burden, has the potential to galvanise and set an example to the rest of the PIIGS.  It could incite a combined movement in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain that would reduce the debt of these countries which has been a prime driver of austerity.  Through radically reducing the requirement to service and pay down enormous debts such a step could launch a definitive movement away from neoliberalism towards a radically different Keynesian social democratic alternative.

The elections in Greece will be followed this year by elections in Spain, in which a like-minded Podemos movement has grown, and in Portugal, and may also be joined by an election in Ireland despite the claims of the current Government that it will run in office until 2016.  Of the five PIIGS therefore at least three and possibly four may see elections this year.  Even elections in Britain could see the ousting of the Tory devotees of austerity and neoliberalism.  In fact the policy that might inspire the PIIGS is not confined to them but might apply right across Europe.  And Syriza is in the vanguard of this movement.

Is such a scenario a real possibility?

Let us notice what makes such a claim plausible.

Firstly the proposals of Syriza are not solely on behalf of the Greek people although as a Government it will be able to negotiate only on their behalf.  Syriza proposes a European Debt Conference modelled, with delicious irony, on effective debt forgiveness of (West) Germany in 1952.  This was carried out explicitly in order, or so it was claimed, to normalise relations between Germany and its creditors and to promote economic development.   That deal wrote off half of the debt, stretched repayment of the rest and for the first few years provided only for payment of interest, which was also limited.

Syriza proposals are more limited. Their policy could be based on an academic paper which proposes that half of the debt would be bought up by the European Central Bank (ECB) with either an interest holiday or interest charged on the remaining debt at a low rate.  The debt taken on by the ECB would not be written off but would be paid back only when the remaining debt left to the country had been reduced to 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In effect economic growth and inflation will have eroded the real value and real impact of debt repayment.

However in one very important sense the proposals are much more radical than the German precedent, because the Syriza proposal is that this plan applies to every country in the Eurozone with debt over 50 per cent of GDP (all but three countries).  The Irish state for example would see its debt reduced from 108 per cent of GDP to 50 per cent, saving €3.7 billion each year in interest payments, so reducing the need for cuts or tax rises and facilitating greater state spending and investment.[i]

It has been estimated that this would reduce sovereign debt in the Eurozone area by about €4.5 trillion.  It is asserted that this would not risk inflation because the ECB debt purchases would be funded by massive borrowing from private banks.  There would be no money printing since the money is borrowed.  And sure why worry about inflation when deflation is so clearly the enemy?  And who pays the interest on these loans?

Well, it is recognised that there will be losses in paying back the private banks, between €50bn – €60bn in each of the first 5 years, and €1trilion over 40 years, but it is argued that the borrowing costs of the ECB would be low and that renewed economic growth would compensate.  It would be cheaper than the current policy of austerity and expansion of the ECB balance sheet required to bail out the banks.

It is recognised that this may not be enough in the short term for some countries so that, for example, in order to prevent continued austerity in Greece the ECB would have to take over the debt that would be required to be issued in the next five years.  This would also be required because over 50% of outstanding debt has to be paid back within the next 5 years in Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Belgium and to cover this new debts would have to be taken on.

For Marxists the point is not that some monetary scheme has been devised that will solve capitalisms’ problems.  Nor is it the point that Syriza will go into negotiations and cannot expect, as in all negotiations, to get its original plan agreed, even discounting some conscious intention to betray the hopes of its supporters in order to accept the logic of capitalism.

The significance of the proposals is that it provides a concrete platform around which workers across Europe can organise and struggle together, and a series of elections that can be a focus for such struggle.  This is not to invest illusions in either elections or Syriza, who are condemned by some for having shifted from a policy of debt repudiation to one of simply extending repayment under more favourable terms.   If a practice of simply condemning the limitations of reformist politics were the answer we would no longer have the problem.

The Syriza programme is one that workers and socialists can support because it reduces the burdens they face and would deal a big political and ideological blow to austerity and the parties who have peddled it.  It would deal a real blow to reactionary political parties seeking nationalist or fascist solutions.  Through a successful campaign workers could gain strength and confidence to build up their organisations, their own social and political power and their own confidence and class consciousness.  The latter is the role that Marxists can play by advancing a programme that does all these things.

The victory of Syriza would allow an opportunity to directly organise workers on an international programme on an international basis.  It is remarkable that this significance has been somewhat missed.  So, for example, the call promoted by the Fourth International correctly argues that “their victory will be ours, but their defeat too” but appears to fail to appreciate that this can be so because other European workers will not just be in solidarity with Greek workers but can actually be part of the same struggle, demanding the same deal for their country, so that “our victory will be ours and our defeat will be ours too.”

This is made tactically easier by Syriza not proposing either to leave the Euro or leave the EU.  There can be no pretext that the demands of Syriza can be dismissed because they no longer want to belong to the club.

These policies have been condemned as examples of betrayal of earlier more radical promise but they are not just tactically recommended.  As argued before in the various posts on ‘The Left Against Europe’, the growing unity of capitalism provides the material basis for the international unity of the working class.  This is why a united international struggle against austerity is more immediately and concretely possible in the Eurozone than one against similar policies pursued more or less independently by separate capitalist states each with their own currency.

So to return to our question – is such a scenario possible?

It is possible to argue that it is, for the simple reason that the Greek debt is too big to be paid back anyway.  Some means of addressing it is required and the Syriza route is eminently preferable for workers than the slow death march of austerity and repeated minor debt ‘haircut’ so far embarked upon.

The second is that by the very fact that the Syriza plan is reformist there is no necessity for a life and death struggle by the forces of capitalism to defeat it.  The Syriza plans do not call the system into question, which both sets limits to what it can achieve but also provides scope for negotiations between a Syriza Government (and other PIIIGS Governments should they be elected or so inclined) and the IMF/ECB /EU/German State alliance.

The rallying of the Greek workers behind Syriza is one of many proofs that a revolutionary overthrow of Greek capitalism is not currently on the cards and is not therefore a realistic immediate alternative.  The revolutionary alternative today consists of preparing for such an eventuality tomorrow.

Not by either passively or even ‘aggressively’ preparing for socialist revolution but by the cumulative development of the power of the working class suggested above, with the certain knowledge that a revolutionary break with the capitalist state and system will be required.

To condemn Syriza for negotiating with capitalism when it cannot be overthrown is a bit like condemning trade unions for negotiating a pay award when they should be overthrowing the wages system.

The third has been pointed out here – Syriza will be damned if it does not get some sort of result and the executor of that judgement may be the fascists of New Dawn.  It is not only Syriza who has an interest in ensuring this doesn’t happen.

‘Ireland is not Greece’ we have been told repeatedly over the past five years or so.  If Syriza is anyway half successful Ireland will look pretty stupid if it isn’t.

[i] It is interesting that the authors go beyond the argument that this is some sort of socialism saying that “The left ought to be strategically against privatizations, having at the same time as an ultimate target the gradual historical replacement of “state control” by democratic forms of social control (unfortunately this type of discussion has not been adequately developed within the left).”