Is socialism only possible when the forces of production stop growing? – KMAC part 33*

The growth of the capitalist system involves the development of new needs – we did not need the mobile phone until it was invented and many didn’t consider getting one until it got small enough in size and price.  This will be true of the new needs we are currently unaware of, that will also arise from the capitalist development of the forces of production.

The productive forces that create these new needs are primarily “the accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves . . . and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity.  These objective conditions [machinery, equipment, infrastructure etc.] are only nominally accumulated and must be constantly produced anew and consumed anew.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value Vol 3)

This process is a fundamental feature of capitalism and thus to the development within it of the conditions for its supersession. It evolves through antagonisms, and in the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx states that ‘at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.’ At this point there ‘begins an era of social revolution.’

For Marx the creation of these conditions, the promise of a new non-exploitative and non-oppressive society, can no more avoid the antagonisms of capitalism, and all its ills, than humanity could avoid belief that the world it inhabits is the creation of a divine being.

“An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.”  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

This was written early in Marx’s career and, if the last sentence is to be understood strictly, implies that the organisation of the working class supposes that the productive forces have grown to such extent that they cannot grow further within capitalism.  While some Marxists believe this stagnation or absolute retardation of capitalist development is the case, or rather repeatedly declare that this must be the case, or is impending, this is very hard, in fact impossible, to defend.  The working class continues to grow massively across the world and could not do so, by definition, if the productive forces of the capitalist system were not also growing.

Marx may be thought to repeat this understanding twelve years later in the 1859 Preface to ‘The Critique of Political Economy’ quoted above, and which we looked at over a number of posts in this series as a succinct published summary of his views on these decisive questions.

Here he says that:

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

G A Cohen in his celebrated book ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence’, rewords the first part of the sentence to read “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

We will leave aside his replacement of ‘social order’ by the narrower ‘economic structure (set of production relations)’ and we will come back to his translation of ‘sufficient’ as ‘for which there is room’.

Cohen is right to note that this does not say that once all the productive resources have been developed an economic structure (or social order) perishes; it may ‘fossilise’, or decline or end in ‘ruination’ as Marx once alluded to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.  The second part also does not mean that if the material conditions sufficient for a new society have developed within the old one this new society will emerge.  It may not, and this will depend on concrete historical circumstances.  Marxists have good grounds for believing that the material conditions for a new socialist society that develop within capitalism will engender its emergence.

These grounds include the earlier statement, noted above, that

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

These grounds are verified not only by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, which have been verified empirically (repeated economic and political crises caused by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production within it) but also by the history of class struggle, confirmed by the continued existence of that struggle.

What is ‘up for grabs’ is that these changes “lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”  Given the perennial optimism of many Marxists, which unfortunately (?) I don’t share, I consider this might now better be rephrased by taking out the words ‘sooner or’; although given the relative brevity of mature capitalism’s existence this might only be a reflection of a perspective from a human lifespan that is nearer departures than arrivals.

For Marxists, as opposed to analytical philosophers like Cohen, the real issue here is that the productive forces continue to be developed by capitalism and that this might imply two things.  First, that the idea that previous attempts at socialist revolution could have been successful is mistaken, and second, that current ideas that socialist revolution is on the agenda (in some historical as opposed to immediate sense) are mistaken for the same reason.

As we have seen, it will not do to avoid this potential difficulty by claiming that capitalism is not developing the productive forces.  There are political organisations which have repeated the idea that capitalism has been in crisis more or less the whole period of their own existence but, as I have already noted, the working class has grown enormously in the last period, which means the growth of wage labour, exploitation and the creation of masses of new surplus value upon which capitalist accumulation takes place.

I said I would return to Cohen’s translation of “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” into “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

This passage has been translated in a number of ways but it is undoubtedly better that it be understood to mean that the social order of capitalism is insufficient for the development of the productive forces rather than the stage must be reached where there is simply lack of room for these forces to develop.

That latter suggests an absolute barrier which, when reached, will mean that the productive forces will cease to develop.  Since we have not, and do not, appear to be approaching such a stage, this would seem to argue that the destruction of capitalism is not on the historical agenda and certainly has not been in the century in which Marx lived or in the twentieth century either.  The idea that capitalism could have been overthrown at any point during this time would have been illusory – capitalism had the potential to develop the forces of production massively.  It certainly ‘had room’ for them.

The possibility of the overthrow of capitalism rests not on the existence of some absolute obstacle which ceases to provide room for its development but from the contradictions it contains that make capitalism insufficient for the development of the forces of production within it.  This is expressed in crises of overproduction, in which the relations of production impose on these forces the necessity for an expansion based on the realisation of massively increased amounts of surplus value.  In other words, the expansion of these forces is continually thrown into crisis because the need for this to involve a suitable expansion of profit.

When this doesn’t happen crises of overproduction lead to interruptions in the development of these forces through the typical symptoms of crisis – unemployed labour and instruments of production, and unsold commodities that cannot satisfy the consumption needs of workers or of capitalists for continued and expanded production.  The development of capitalism means that this contradiction increases and the capitalist mode of production becomes more and more insufficient for this development.

Each crisis trends towards a greater mass of capital unable to contribute to its own expansion, whether it is expressed in larger and larger numbers of workers unemployed, greater means of production unused or devalued through bankruptcies and reduced capacity utilisation, and a greater number of commodities unsold or sold at reduced prices.

It is not that each crisis must register a successively greater percentage of unemployment or fall in levels of production.  We should not seek confirmation of Marx’s analysis through expecting every crisis of overproduction to be worse in these relative respects, as if industrial production must fall more, and unemployment must always be higher, than the Great Depression of the 1930s etc.

It is that capitalism means the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of capital, and the crises that its contradictions create thus tend to throw back, and tend to the destruction of, absolutely greater amounts of capital.  The grounds for socialism do not arise from only one pole of this contradiction but also from the development of the forces of production that precede crises and subsequently follow them.

This is what demonstrates the fettering of the forces of production by the relations of production.  These relations imply unceasing competition between different capitals and the states they both support and rely upon.  This means economic crises become political conflicts, not just involving suppression of subordinate classes but also war between rival capitals and states.

The bloody history of capitalism, especially in the first half of the twentieth century shows the absolute devastation that the contradictions of capitalism can inflict, as the international development of the forces of production runs up against capitalist relations of production centred on national states and Empires.  Rival capitalists stand behind these states as they seek through alliances and opposition to advance at the expense of others.

*KMAC: Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism

Back to part 32

People before Profit’s ‘Zero Covid-19’ Strategy

This week the Dáil debated a motion tabled by opposition parties calling for a ‘zero-covid’ strategy.  It was supported by People before Profit and repeated a number of measures published in their strategy document.  Their approach has been supported by much of the Left in Ireland and in Britain. What can we make of it?

A number of questions are immediately raised that the strategy would have to answer. How long would lockdown have to last to achieve its objective; how much would this cost not only financially but also in the well-known drastic effects of lockdown, and what lives and health would be preserved by the strategy compared to the costs?  Is it demonstrated that the costs will not exceed the benefits?

You will search in vain for answers to any of these questions in the PbP document.

Government strategy is based on a balance of restrictive measures and permission to do certain things that have previously been taken for granted. It is accepted that this involves costs but also benefits that justify the costs, while some costs it refuses to accept.  The financial cost to the state in 2020 is estimated to have been €20 billion and Leo Varadkar has speculated that the final cost may be €50 billion.

The ‘zero-covid’ strategy means the balance is wrong but doesn’t say what the financial cost is of drastically shifting it (or the other non-financial costs e.g. deterioration in mental health, rise in domestic abuse and restriction of basic civil rights etc.).  The People before Profit (PbP) document calls for the ‘closure of all non-essential workplaces’ but doesn’t say what they are: how many more would be closed compared to the current lockdown?  Would the difference be significant?  What work is currently not essential and what would be the impact on the economy and the workers in the closed sectors?

PbP say that profits are being put before health but since we live in a capitalist society production is both for profit and to meet needs.  Socialists object that the former is an obstacle to satisfaction of the latter but they don’t claim that under capitalism needs can be met by closing down production for profit.  Even their organisation’s name seems an unconscious acceptance of this (and you could write a whole post on how incoherent that name is).

PbP says that Governments only care about people working and spending, but working class people care about these things as well, for quite obvious reasons, although this seems to escape those seeking to drastically reduce both.  Socialists of the Marxist variety also don’t believe that pieces of paper, or electronic data in bank computers, are a substitute for the actual production of the goods and services people use and consume.  The pieces of paper that capitalism presents as the universal equivalent of real wealth is useless without the production of that which really embodies the potential satisfaction of needs.

Their demand for economic security as a fundamental requirement of public health is equated with state welfare that has always been a permanent source of insecurity, as well as a more or less inadequate safety net.  Welfare systems are not meant to provide economic security for working class people and it fundamentally miseducates them to say they can.

So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy doesn’t answer basic problems or objections.  To make big claims requires big arguments and big evidence but even obvious questions are ignored.

A second problem concerns the idea of the strategy itself.  It is called ‘zero-covid’ but appears to accept that you can’t get to a situation of absolutely zero.  Having reduced the number of cases to a low level it still envisages periodic eruptions of cases.  It does not mean ‘eradication’ but repeats that it does mean ‘elimination’, which means that control measures will still be required.  The problem is that for a zero-covid strategy these measures mean punishing lockdowns.

So, the ‘zero-covid’ strategy actually involves severe lockdown of indeterminate duration to reduce cases to very low numbers whereupon lockdown is relaxed, cases will again increase, which will require further lockdowns.  Its advocates think these lockdowns can be achieved by testing, tracking and isolation but widespread asymptomatic infection, incentives not to report, ineradicable errors in testing, more transmissible viral mutations, and drastic quarantine measures to impose isolation all point to something much more sweeping.

It should not be forgotten that cases reduced dramatically during the summer to something close to what I assume ‘zero-covid’ supporters would aim at, but was then replaced by an increasing number of cases giving rise to new lockdowns that the same supporters called to be more drastic.  Rather than the strategy looking like an alternative to repeated lockdowns it looks like a mutant variant of it, following what currently appears to be seasonal eruptions of infection.

The analogy used to describe the strategy provides something of an understanding of what is intended but analogies have a habit of leading to misunderstanding.  The example is put forward of a forest fire that requires maximum effort to put out, while recognising that embers may still remain that require to be put out when they again spark new localised fires.

The analogy fails because while forest fires destroy everything in their path the Covid-19 pandemic does not, and while new local fires can be quickly identified and ring-fenced new outbreaks of covid-19 are often without symptoms and can quickly become far from localised.

This brings us to a third failure of the strategy, which is really incredible but says a lot for its affinity to the current approach and its even worse failure to identify what the danger of the pandemic is.  While noting the importance of targeting Covid hotspots and ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups, it mentions in this category workers in meat plants, those in direct provision and migrant detention centres, and travellers and homeless people.  It fails to say anything at all about the vulnerable most at risk of dying.  Neither does the Dáil motion, which mentions that women are disproportionately bearing the burden of the pandemic.

Nothing is said about the median age of those dying being in their eighties or about over 90 per cent of fatalities having an underlying condition. Nothing is said about the scandalous multiple deaths in residential care homes, where older people should have been made safe.  Nothing about the failure of the state to secure them in its dedicated facilities or of the general failure of health services to protect them.  Nothing about the infection of older people by the heath service either in hospital or through then discharging them into homes.  Instead, infection rates in healthcare staff are put down to lack of money, as if infection control should not be a standing requirement.  The actions of the Health Service Executive has on the contrary demonstrated that this has not been seen as an absolute priority.

To say any of this would undermine the zero-covid approach advocated by PbP, including its reliance on the state and its determined refusal to accept the very limited risks posed to all but the identified vulnerable groups.  To do so might be seen to rob the situation of the sense of extreme crisis so necessary to its attempt to talk up the murderous policy of putting profit before people, and the hope that workers will wake up and smell the coffee.

What we therefore have is a strategy, not unlike the current one, that has ignored the real pandemic that has taken place, and has bought into the idea that it is a threat to everyone equally when patently it is not.  The priority given by the virus in killing people is ignored by a strategy that wants zero cases for everyone, and in doing so has ignored the priority of those whose lives are threatened by it.

The health bureaucracy has moulded its response in its own image to put itself in charge.  The left has moulded its response in the image of its own misguided political conceptions, including the potential benevolence of the capitalist state, despite that state’s obvious failure.  Which brings us to a last major failing of the strategy.

Again and again the state, especially in the form of a national health service, is held up as the answer when a quick look across the border will show that the NHS in the North has failed, has ceased to become a health service and become instead a covid-19 service.  The cost of this in future illness and death has not been a first concern.  Long waiting lists have become even longer while the latter is blamed on the former and previous failure becomes the excuse for its extension.

The PbP strategy is replete with references to the recruitment of new healthcare staff ‘to dramatically increase capacity’.  It wants ‘more public health specialists’ and to ‘recruit extra nurses and doctors’ but there are definite limits to how much can be done quickly.  Really significant increases cannot be created in months but only over years.  As an answer to the pandemic today it is a wish list that can only promise salvation sometime in the future.

It says the problem with the health services is ‘structural’ but then contradicts itself by saying it arises from lack of funding and ‘neoliberal’ management, and further contradicts itself by calling for the ‘nationalisation of private hospitals’, imposing the same structural model that has failed.

Because PbP believes that state ownership is socialist, and they think they’re socialists, then the solution is state ownership when the ‘structural’ problem is precisely this form of ownership and control.  An ownership and control beset by bureaucracy and bedevilled by narrow professional hierarchies and egos.

The problem is not a style of management but that health services are bureaucracies that privilege themselves, with the most powerful within them being best able to do so, including medical consultants who prioritise private work, although this is only one feature of the state capitalist service.  The policy of Governments to portray health service workers as heroes beyond all reproach is resisted by some staff but is pursued in order, not to protect the interests of these staff, but to protect the bureaucrats and politicians who govern the system.  The blinkered approach to the health system leads to mistakes such as the widespread responsibility for infection by hospitals and care homes being either ignored, downplayed or excused.

The absence of answers to key questions posed by the strategy; the inadequate understanding of what it would actually mean in Ireland; the failure to even identify the main threat from the pandemic, and the call for measures that cannot be implemented quickly enough to make the difference its authors say is needed; all this points to an underlying impotent political programme summed up at the end of the strategy document:

“. . . most of all, we will need to clearly articulate a vision for an alternative to the destructive instability of capitalism – in Ireland we can play our part by popularising the call for a Transformative Left Government that would reorganise the economy under democratic control, as part of an ambitious Just Transition. .  .  . A left government supported by people power and workers organised in fighting trade unions can deliver real change . . .”

Capitalism will not be changed by a ‘Left Government’, by a group of politicians seeking to transform society through wielding the power of a state that exists to defend it.  Neither can the economy be ‘reorganised’ top-down by such a Government that will in some way, somehow, then be subject to democratic control.  If anyone in PbP still subscribes to any of the fundamental ideas of Marxism they will know all this is false, and being false it is dishonest to sell such a strategy, which is why it is so threadbare.

It is not in any sense a socialist strategy either at the level of transforming society or in dealing with Covid-19, as ritual references to emulating New Zealand, Australia and Asian countries demonstrates. In what way are any of these socialist?  In what way are they safe from future infection, if it at any point they cease to separate themselves from the rest of the world in a way simply impossible for Ireland?  Australia itself provides evidence that there is no such thing as one big final lockdown that breaks the back of infection.  Numerous mutations in many countries belie the idea that these are necessarily foreign and can be avoided by border controls over any extended period.

The great advantage of the zero-covid strategy is that it presents an ideal outcome that compares brilliantly with any other potential approach; the more so since no cost is admitted and no account taken of any problems arising from, or consequences of, its practical implementation, even were such implementation possible in any relevant timescale.

That is why it is also ideal, unreal and hollow.  Not so much transformative as transcendental.

A year of Covid-19 (4) – a tragedy to be forgiven?

It’s almost as if someone has been reading these posts on the course of Covid-19 in Ireland.  Fintan O’Toole’s latest column (paywall) in ‘The Irish Times’ also notes some of the mistakes made in its early management and, while he treats the Irish approach as one of ad-libbing and improvisation, he lends a sympathetic ear to the early performance.  To what extent is this justified?

Well, let’s start with the scope afforded by this forgiveness: “when it’s all trial and error, no one should be tried for making an error – even when, as in the case of nursing homes and residential institutions – the flaws were fatal.”  But consider if we change the tense of the sentence – ‘even when . . . the flaws are fatal’.

‘Error’ he goes on to say ‘is moreover built into the structure of science . . . but science isn’t a set of certainties . . . to follow science is to follow evidence and with a new disease the evidence has been constantly evolving.’

Well, yes and no.  The important link between the worst effects of the virus and a person’s underlying conditions has been more and more understood.  On the other hand, as I noted at the end of the previous post – ‘one aspect . . . has appeared stubbornly consistent, the median age of those dying was reported in mid-January to be 82.’  Most recently, of over 1,500 deaths in care homes 369 were in January alone, a five-fold increase from December to January.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) noted on 21 January that the 27th of the month would be the anniversary of the first meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), the crisis management team for the pandemic.  It was noted in April that no mention of nursing homes had been made in its first 11 meetings, with the HSE claiming that the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) that attended the meetings were supposed to represent the interests of older people.

While boasting of the support given to care homes the HSE officials were at this time unable to provide up-to-date figures of deaths within them or a breakdown between state and private providers.  Neither did they answer as to whether any of the deaths could have been avoided.

Around the same time that NPHET was being set up a number of important academic papers were just being published on the effects of the new disease (here and here), including evidence of the effect of the pandemic in China.  The notable paper from Imperial College in London included further disclosure of the much greater threat to older people posed by the virus.  While the infection fatality rate was 0.002% for children aged 0 – 9, the rate for those 80+ was 9.3%, 4,650 times higher.  While these absolute figures were too high the relative differences remained.

Clearly avoiding infection was many multiples more important for older people than for the very young. Even between the age groups 40 – 49 and 60 – 69 the relative fatality rate was nearly 15 times higher for the latter group.  So protecting the older age groups was vital, which involved isolating them from potential infection.  How could these most vulnerable people be effectively separated?

Fortunately, many of these people were already relatively isolated in social care facilities, while identification of those in the community would be relatively straightforward.  Unfortunately, this relative isolation was not a protection.

While the health regulator was supposed to represent the interests of older people the HSE was there to protect the health of the whole population.  It became apparent however that the facilities they managed, controlled and regulated had become prime sites of infection, all while the NPHET engaged in interminable debate about opening or closing shops, hospitality, schools and workplaces etc.

When it wasn’t about the various levels of lockdown that were never applied at the levels specified, it was about testing and tracing, which didn’t identify where the virus was coming from and was later no longer advised for close contacts of confirmed cases.  So, what had been the point of it?

At the beginning of this year ‘senior sources’ were reporting the exhaustion of their approach, admitting that there was “not much else that can be done”, which didn’t stop the debate of vanishing returns continuing.  Today it revolves around rules for entry from outside the state, which is almost a moot point given the levels of domestic infection.  More honestly, it is being reported that ‘Ministers and senior officials’ view it as ‘more about politics than public health.’

Yet the places where around half of the deaths have occurred – residential homes and hospitals – are spared the outrage they properly deserve.  On 26 January it was reported that the level of infections among staff and patients in health care settings had never been higher.  And three days later the Chief Medical Officer was explaining that there was an “exceptionally elevated” infection rate among those aged over 85; that 55 recent deaths were associated with hospitals and 140 with nursing homes; and that we could “expect a large number of additional deaths in the coming weeks.”  Not much had changed over the year despite the ‘trial and error’ of ‘following the science.’

The state has incurred increased debt of around €20 billion in 2020 through various lockdowns but it is still unable to target resources effectively at the greatest problem: the daily death toll for Tuesday was the highest of the pandemic and the median age is still 80+.

It cannot be that a targeted prevention strategy would cost too much or that resources could not be prioritised – €2 billion would go a long way towards protecting older people never mind €20bn.  If even half the current death toll had been avoided and it was now around 1,750 who had died, would this justify the lockdown of society along with its enormous cost?  Would it not have been possible to identify those with the underlying conditions that make them vulnerable apart from advanced years, accounting for well over 90% of deaths? And would it then not have been possible to recognise the difference between those dying with Covid-19 and those from Covid-19?

But why would new problems be adequately addressed by the Irish health system when forever problems have not? When it turns out that the new problems are really the old ones?  As was pointed out by one TD early on, the Health Regulator – supposed to represent the interests of older people – had already reported that in care homes the compliance rates for risk assessment and infection control had fallen from 27 per cent to 23 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

Repeated problems identified have never been adequately addressed, with the HIQA complaining in November that nursing home residents were picking up the infection in hospitals and then being returned to their homes, while care home staff were being lost to contact tracing teams and agency staff were not being included in testing.

As Prof Sam McConkey, an infectious disease specialist with the Royal College of Surgeons, put it “nursing homes have been chronically under-staffed for several years.  They are going to have to start cherishing their staff as the most important thing they have.”  If staff were paid adequately they wouldn’t have to take second jobs, which might for example go some way to addressing the problem that staff weren’t turning up for testing and some were showing up for work while showing symptoms.

Some care homes were simply too small with too few resources. In some residential facilities for people with disabilities derogations were given to staff to continue working though they were identified as having possible close contact with infection.  They had not been tested and it was not clear when they would.

Yet, repeatedly bizarre statements have been issued by those in charge, including that NPHET was proposing setting up an infection-control team – in mid-December!  As if infection control was not a standard and routine hospital requirement. Or that there were difficulties in approving employment of nurses for care homes from India, Philippines and other countries outside Europe, reported in January, when many problems were the result of shortages of staff.

All this was occurring at the same time as repeated statements were made by the NPHET, which we noted in the previous post, that “there was simply no way of protecting nursing homes or any other institutional setting if we don’t control the spread of this infection in the community.” Then saying that vulnerable groups in care settings were a priority although also saying that it was “not realistic to think we could keep it out of homes.”

Unfortunately, seeking to prevent community infection through a generalised lockdown makes all talk of prioritisation a nonsense.  A general lockdown is precisely not to prioritise, and the actions and non-actions of the state are convincing evidence of this lack of ordering of risk.  To talk then, as O’Toole does, of inevitable mistakes is itself to fall into the error of identifying policy as simply mistakes.   Even in the case of vaccination, the representative body of private nursing homes has complained that just 10 per cent of the initial 77,000 vaccinations administered by mid-January were within nursing homes.

The identification, right from the start, that Covid-19 represented a specific threat should have been met with targeted and focused measures to protect those most vulnerable.  The ramshackle and incoherent attempt to lock everybody up, that cannot be sustained, has diverted attention away from this task.

That diversion continues with a false debate over a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, which is simply a variant of the current approach.  Like the existing approach, it targets what measures are required to support closing society instead of what measures are needed to keep it open.  It again ignores experience of just who is threatened and how specific measures might be implemented to protect them.

Both the current approach and its extension into a ‘Zero-Covid’ one can’t tell us how long we would have to be locked up for and how we could be sure that whatever metric of success is decided upon could be achieved on a sustainable basis.  What ‘Zero-Covid’ would gain in reducing deaths associated with Covid-19 would be more than offset by the costs of an intensified and indefinite lockdown, which if the advocates of it had been followed, would have been in place since March. Both ultimately can only be sold to an increasingly weary population by promising something that they can’t deliver: the development of the pandemic has had more to do with the weather than lockdown measures, and the end-point of immunity through vaccination may be illusory if new variants are impervious to the vaccines just developed.

In this case, and it may be the situation anyway, living with Covid-19 will be required and immunity through infection become the outcome, if not the objective.  In any case and in the meantime, the policy should be directed to protection of the most vulnerable.  In relation to the assessment of O’Toole, the prerequisites for forgiveness do not exist.

Back to part 3

A year of Covid-19 (3) – the Irish experience of following ‘the science’

Following ‘the science’ and its scientists that we looked at in the two previous posts does not look well in hindsight, as a short review of the course of the pandemic in the Irish State demonstrates.  In the early days these were forecasting 20,000 deaths, six times the current figure which is just over 3,300, and an even greater over-estimate than the influential Imperial College paper that forecast a possible 500,000 deaths in the UK.

At the start, what characterised the response, just like Britain, was complacency.  On 4 March the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan of the HSE stated that “as things stand” there was no reason why the St Patricks day festival could not go ahead, and he did not believe that it was proportionate to prevent Italian rugby fans from visiting Dublin for a cancelled match.  The attendance of thousands of Irish racegoers at the Cheltenham festival also went ahead.  From the point of view of the generalised lockdown that was later to be implemented this was a catalogue of mistakes.

The State supposedly had a policy of test and trace, in which all cases could be identified and followed up to ensure isolation.  The system and its resources were quickly shown to be inadequate, with it only subsequently being admitted that test and trace did not identify where infections came from.  Prof. Philip Nolan from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) stated that “we would like to go back and find out where people are getting the virus, but we don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise”.  In any case, in October researchers from Beaumont reported that up to two out of every three infections could be missed through poor technique when people are being swabbed.

At this early stage the policy on testing was confused: so to be tested before March 12 a person had to be symptomatic or either in close contact with a confirmed case or have travelled from an affected area. Then having one symptom was required, then the list of symptoms changed, and if this threshold was passed the person needed to be in a priority category.

These early mis-steps have led many to see the issue as being one of weak or incomplete implementation of policy rather than the policy being misconceived in the first place.  The record suggests the latter.

The island of Ireland could not isolate itself from the rest of the world so could not avoid importing the infection.  Having imported it, it was always going to be impossible to identify all cases since most were asymptomatic.  Social distancing and isolation of suspected cases was considered to be the equivalent of the mass quarantine implemented elsewhere but was not.  The measures adopted simply slowed the spread of the infection, justified to protect the health service, but with the by-product that doing so gave it time to mutate, as it did.

Much bigger ‘mis-steps’ were made at this time, again flowing not from failure to adequately implement policy but as a result of its conception. On March 6 the representative organisation of private nursing homes, Nursing Homes Ireland, (NHI) banned all visitors to its homes.  Four days later Tony Holohan of the NPHET questioned the closures “before they are really necessary” while the Department of Health only eventually gave approval to the action ten days after NHI had introduced the restrictions.

In early March Holohan was claiming that ‘we had reacted very early and with significant action compared to other countries’, although the performance of these other countries seemed to be held up as some sort of exculpation rather than a pointer to a failing common approach. For the Chief Medical Officer their response “in the first instance had to focus on dealing with community transmission of this virus.  There was simply no way of protecting nursing homes or any other institutional setting if we don’t control the spread of this infection in the community.”

NPHET later claimed that it was not until late March that research pointed to the threat of asymptomatic transmission in care homes although by the end of May Paul Reid, chief executive of the Health Service Executive (HSE), was acknowledging that “there are obvious gaps in clarity and responsibility in the overall governance and oversight of private nursing homes.”

By mid-April Holohan was stating that vulnerable groups in care settings were a priority, but by that time there were 330 outbreaks in residential cares facilities, with concern expressed about under-reporting.  While boasting of the “unprecedented level of support” given to homes the HSE was unable to provide up-to-date figures for deaths.

Not much later Holohan was stating that it was “not realistic to think we could keep it out of homes”, while by the end of April it was reported that 735 people had died in residential community settings.  By early May the mortality rate in nursing homes was three times that among the rest of population, accounting for 61 per cent of deaths (including those in other residential facilities).

By the end of May the Department of Health had been warned by the health regulator of more than 200 “high risk” nursing homes, while receiving “just an acknowledgement” and “no response”.  NHI had quickly raised concerns around PPE and hospital discharges, but by late March 88 per cent of homes had bought either their own PPE or used home-made. Almost half of nursing homes said that they had to wait 10 days for test results to come back, and publication of cases in particular homes was not provided (unlike for hospitals).

By June it was apparent that nursing and other residential facilities were not the only health and social care facilities where infections were occurring.  At the start of the month, it was reported that more than 200 people had contracted coronavirus while in hospital in 102 outbreaks. By the end of August, it was also reported that about 90 per cent of all cases among over-65s were of nursing home residents (between March and end of June), amounting to almost 6,000 cases resulting in 968 deaths (56% of the total at that point).

By the beginning of the following month concern was again being expressed at the rise in cases among older people.  In early October a NPHET letter noted a ‘sustained increase’ in cases, with home residents accounting for more than half of the 1,810 virus-related deaths, but with Holohan again asserting that it was not possible to document all patterns of infection and that measures directed to the whole population were needed.

The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) expressed concern that there was no “consistency of approach” on whether nursing home residents should be tested where staff had tested positive. The HSE chief clinical advisor claimed that older people could not be “siphoned off safely” but the chief inspector of HIQA stated later that “not all centres where staff have tested positive have undertaken a programme of resident testing.”

In November, NPHET priorities, according to Holohan, were protection of the most vulnerable, continued resumption of non-Covid health and social care services and education of children; but by mid-November it was reported that in the week up to Oct 31 there were 56 outbreaks of infection in nursing homes and 33 associated with hospitals.

Lockdown however appeared to be getting some results, even if this was little more than postponement rather than eradication. This was now success, as was the perceived protection of a health system unable to adequately do its own job of protection.

By the beginning of December the Irish state was hailed, especially by itself, as the best performing in Europe measured by the average number of new cases.  Unfortunately, even in success the most significant threat remained, with Holohan expressing concern at the level of infections in nursing homes despite the highest Level 5 lockdown.  Hospitals also remained a problem, and on 13 November it was reported that pre-admission tests for Covid that had been recommended for hospitals were not being practised by all.  Anne O’Connor, the chief operations officer of HSE, stated that guidance had been changed in the previous two weeks.

By December the problem with hospital acquired infection was continuing, with over 200 confirmed cases in the four weeks up to 13 December and more than 400 picking it up in hospital in two weeks in January.  By the new year the Irish State had gone from the being the best in Europe to being the worst in the world in terms of growth in cases.  The State went from 80,000 cases in nine months to doubling this total in three weeks.

Since there had been a partial opening before Christmas this was held up for blame but there remained no evidence that cafes, hairdressers or clothes’ shops were a problem; it was a question of a seasonal infection flourishing in its best environment with any human interaction facilitating spread.

Doing away with the latter altogether was the only logical extension of the existing policy and all the variations on the different social distancing rules were the proverbial number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.  Very few wanted to go there, and those who might would face the difficulty that closing down sites of infection might have to start with hospitals and nursing homes, with 100 outbreaks in the former from July to mid-December and 93 in the latter.  A study in mid-January reported that the rate of infection among hospital staff in Galway and Dublin was six times that of the local community.

Despite the months of restrictions and despite the worst-in-the-world figures there did not appear to be excess deaths.  The prevailing narrative appeared to tell a story that did not add up.  One aspect however appeared stubbornly consistent, the median age of those dying was reported in mid-January to be 82.  This outcome was consistent with the North despite its apparent different path, with people aged 75 and over accounted for 77.7 per cent of ‘coronavirus-related’ deaths and with 91.5 per cent having some pre-existing condition, Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.

Back to part 2

Vaccine nationalism

The decision to attempt to prevent vaccines made in the EU getting to the UK via Northern Ireland led to a flurry of arguments that almost all mirrored the same nationalist impulse of the EU that was being criticised.  This was true of some on the left as much as any other.

Production of vaccines is an international effort and equitable access could only be carried out by agreed international Governmental and regulatory action.  If it is true, as has been claimed, that AstraZeneca had claimed that it would provide vaccines to the EU from its UK operation and promised the UK it would not, then its failure to deliver the number promised to the EU is a neat example of international production suffering from the imperatives of capitalist ownership.

On top of this, it is obvious that the conflict between the EU and UK would not have arisen without Brexit, even if its supporters are trumpeting the cack-handed approach of the European Commission and celebrating the faster advance in vaccination of the UK compared to the EU.  This opportunity for Brexiteers arises because it involves one of the few industries in which Britain is a leading participant.

Prize for top hypocrite in the affair must go to the DUP leader Arlene Foster who expressed outrage at the EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 of the Irish Protocol. This allows either the EU or the UK – in the event that the application of the instrument leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade” – unilaterally to take “appropriate safeguard measures”.

This, she condemned as an “incredible act of hostility” that places a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  “By triggering Article 16 in this manner the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives”.

The impulsive triggering of Article 16, before hastily being withdrawn, shows that the EU is indeed motivated by self-interest, something that no one with even a modicum of sense would entertain the least doubt about for a second.  Socialist opponents of Brexit didn’t oppose the project because there was any illusion in the purity of the motivations of the EU.

However, a unionist complaining about the hardening of the Irish border, that they spend every minute of existence fretting over the permanence of, is too absurd for words. Since a number of leading figures in her party have already been calling for Article 16 to be invoked by the British, the charge of an “incredible act of hostility” is more than a bit rich.

In the North of Ireland, to point such things out is called ‘whataboutery’, and is frowned upon, which means circumlocution is constantly required to call someone a hypocrite and allows those who exercise it most to get away with it most often.  The North of Ireland is getting its vaccine from Britain so no one would be missing out if they weren’t allowed to get it through a supply across the Irish border.

What it shows is that disputes between Britain and the EU have the potential to reverberate inside the North and act as a catalyst for political instability, exactly what the Protocol was to supposed to avoid but reflecting the fact that the political agreement it was to support is unstable. Unionists are reminded, and demoralised by the fact, that for some essential purposes the EU determines economic and social policy and the sovereignty of the British has been diminished; while nationalists have been reminded that the EU is not a cuddly benefactor but has its own interests and that the idea of upending the Protocol they support has just become more conceivable. The latter will at least have been assuaged by the quick change of approach by the EU, promptly enacted following representations by the Irish member state, which will have had some effect.

Some on the left saw the episode as displaying the necessity for big pharma to be nationalised, or put under public ownership, as the misleading euphemism puts it.  In fact, state ownership would have exacerbated rivalry between producers of the vaccine.  Brexit is itself testament to the destructive rivalry that can be introduced to economic and social relationships by state competition.  The pharmaceutical industry is characterised by international research, development and production and it would not help if state ownership overlaid company competition.

The answer to the equitable distribution of vaccines is international cooperation that cannot be assumed to be achieved by capitalist states that might (and just has) rather hindered the international cooperation that is needed.  The socialist answer is to recognise that the separate interest of different companies and states stands in stark contrast to the common interest of workers in the pharma companies and those outside, in every country, most vulnerable to the virus and the catastrophic effects of lockdown.

It is in their joint interest that they, their families, friends and communities are protected, recognising that no single country will have immunity unless they all have it.  This points not to state ownership but the ownership of the workers, in workers’ cooperatives, working together across borders in taking over the current development of vaccines in their own interests.

If socialism is the answer, the answer is the action of workers not capitalist states, although again and again so many parts of the left forget this, if they were ever aware of it in the first place.

 

A year of Covid-19 (2) – following doctor’s orders

The view that there is a single scientific approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has had a number of consequences.

Firstly, it became simply a scientific question; at most politicians had some discretion to accept or reject the extent of the measures proposed by the scientists and doctors, but no wider political questions were involved despite the dramatic effect on people’s everyday lives, their employment and their freedoms.  Any regard to these was argued to be putting ‘the economy’ before lives and particularly denounced by some on the Left.  The Government could pay for any of the economic consequences and let the science-led effort to control the virus take effect.  Anything else was letting politics interfere and was by definition unjustified.

Secondly, because there was a single science, whatever scientific approach was adopted was the right one, again with only a difference of degree acceptable, so that whoever was appointed the scientific leadership was by definition the single scientific authority.  Others could comment, but as we saw in the links in the last post, the scientists themselves were under pressure to accept that there was a single scientific approach, resulting in censorship and self-censorship of critical views.

One example of this was the criticism of the voluntary approach adopted by Sweden, pointing at certain times to its relatively high death toll, while failing to highlight that this had resulted from the failure to protect the elderly in care homes.  Yet exactly this same failure was held up to excuse the record of the Irish state, which pointed to the failure of other countries to protect its elderly population as some sort of exoneration.  In April the Health Service Executive national clinical advisor was pointing to the failure in Ireland not being unique and that many countries were struggling with outbreaks of infection in homes.

At this stage between 45 and 60 per cent of all Covid-related deaths in the UK, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy had been of residents of nursing homes.  Yet rather than this being a series of warnings, of wake-up calls that something was wrong with the prevailing approach, it was accepted.  The chief medical officer Tony Holohan later stating that it was “not realistic to think we could keep it out of homes”.

In 2017 the Irish State had adopted a management plan to deal with emergencies, which it then ignored when the pandemic threatened.  Instead, it made the top leadership of the Health Service Executive the scientific leadership, which almost immediately appeared to have so much authority devolved to it that it also appeared to have almost total control.

This in itself was pretty extraordinary since the HSE (and the Health Service in the North) was widely regarded as being something of a disaster, while the bureaucrats with medical qualifications that had presided over the failing health systems, along with the various governments, were for that reason considered responsible.

In the North, the extent of the failure was brought home when it was reported that Poles living there travelled home for treatment rather than wait years on a waiting list; and that one GP had disclosed that some of his patients who had fled the war in Syria were in ‘disbelief’ at the state of the North’s health system.  The same one sometimes held up as a model for the two-tier service in the South.

Such was the moral panic induced, the responsibility for the ability of the health services to do its job, to protect the health of the population, instead became the responsibility of the population to ‘protect the health service’.  In this, the situation in Ireland North and South was the same as in Britain, the architects and executive of the failing system made their failure the responsibility of the people they had failed.

Since the health services could not protect the people and had already failed, it was clear from the start that the people would fail to protect the health service. Simple and routine daily activity became the occasion for berating the public that they were letting the health service down, or as the Health Minister in the North put it, was equivalent of going into a hospital and ‘slapping a nurse.’

The blinkered approach that considered there was a single scientific approach, and the domination of this approach by a medical bureaucracy, meant that wider considerations were ignored.  It became a situation I have described before as one in which those with only a hammer perceive every problem as a nail. This was obvious when the strategy adopted became subject to the inadequate resources of the acute health systems North and South.

It is important to recognise the domination of health services by the acute sector, the hospitals, which always downgraded social and community services and public health; the price of which in the pandemic has been paid in lost lives.  It is not as if the problems with this have never been acknowledged.  In the North the necessity of greater emphasis on community services has been repeated in reports as often as it has been disregarded following their publication.  Public Health has always been the Cinderella service, although at least she got to go to the ball; in the health service she would have got to go to the laundry in the outhouse.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) married the erroneous view that there was a single scientific approach with the acute services bias common to many health systems.  This common bias helps explain the similar failed approach adopted by so many countries that ironically justified each other’s failure by their own.  Yet the nature of the threat has been obvious from the start.

In the last week of December, it was reported that a majority of the 2,150 deaths in the Irish State were accounted for in nursing homes and that in this, and in infections among hospital staff, it was among the worst in the world.  In the North it was reported that 39.2 per cent of all Covid-19 related deaths in 2020 were of care home residents in hospital.  In effect, the gathering of the vulnerable in enclosed locations became not protection but helpless confinement, and the mechanism to provide treatment the instrument of infection.

The common approach of generalised lockdown was justified by the need to protect an inadequately resourced health service that precluded targeted protection of the vulnerable in homes and outside.  Yet it is admitted in NPHET minutes reported over a week ago that “the majority of the excess hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and deaths would be amongst those aged 60 – 79 Years”.  The policy of precisely targeted measures and resources to protect these people was rejected on the grounds that this would lead to unsupportable demands on the heath service.  Was it not taken into consideration that targeted protection would act to reduce potential demands on the health service?

Despite all this, the authority of the medical leadership has withstood the outcome of the failed approach adopted, in Ireland and in other countries.  Instead, the measure of success is not avoiding failure, but failing better.  That is, not being so bad that the country comes out looking worse than others.  The performance of the Boris Johnson government has therefore been a bit of a get out of jail free card, and the Irish is not the only political leadership on these islands that has relied on nationalism for political protection, not excepting the Johnson government itself.

Forward to part 3

Back to part 1

A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Is learning from Brexit possible?

Last week the ‘Financial Times‘ revealed that the Tory Government is working with big business on plans to tear up those workers’ rights enshrined in EU law.  This would include ending the 48-hour limit on the working week; changing rules on work breaks and ending the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday entitlements.  This is the list reported but there are undoubtedly others.

That this was one purpose of Brexit and its likely effect was both predictable and predicted, it comes as a surprise to no one.  Yet large swathes of the Left in Ireland and Britain supported it, although much less vocally in Ireland because it is so unpopular.  In any case their support for it has assisted putting in place these projected attacks and is indefensible and inexcusable.

An analysis of why they took such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their nationalist perspective arising from the view that the nation state will introduce socialism and come to embody it; general simple-minded opposition to the EU on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are against than what you are for.  There’s also a large dose of ignorance and stupidity involved.

The significant role of stupidity first hit me when I read that left supporters of Brexit were complaining that the negotiations on the British side were being conducted by the Tories.  Further examples became clear when they, like the rest of the Brexit movement, demanded a harder Brexit as the only one worthy of the name, and for the same reason – there was no point otherwise.

Now that even a blind man can see what the future invites, what are the chances that this left will reconsider its support for Brexit and the political approach that led to it?  What might this involve?

Well, much of this left also supports Scottish nationalism, which perhaps should be no surprise since this too involves an obviously nationalist project that harbours illusions in a separate capitalist state.

In the weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has a long article on Scottish nationalism that is quite good.  It notes that in 1979 the referendum on devolution and creation of a new Scottish parliament couldn’t even get 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate to support it.  Now opinion polls show majority support for independence.  O’Toole looks for reasons for the change.

The first is the decline of the Empire that Scots played such a prominent and profitable role in creating, before it shrunk to the extent that many middle class Scots saw potential for better career opportunities in a separate state.  Some on the Left present this opportunist turn as some sort of anti-imperialism.  That some Irish accept this is where another heavy dose of stupidity comes in, although again, a common nationalist outlook is a more adequate political explanation.

The second reason is the growth of the idea that Scotland is more progressive than England (Wales hardly ever gets a mention), an idea O’Toole correctly describes as a ‘myth’.  This is traced to the idea that Thatcher and her policies came to be seen as an imposition on the country from outside rather than as a class-based assault on the whole British working class.

This isn’t really an explanation, more an outcome – why did Thatcherism come to be seen as a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism and not British working class struggle?  The venom of nationalism is now so prevalent in the bloodstream that even when English and Welsh workers try to move to the left, through the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the Scottish left prefers its own nationalism and opposes it.

O’Toole notes the mass opposition of 70,000 Celtic and Dundee United fans during Thatcher’s attendance at the Scottish cup final in 1988.  Many Celtic fans, traditionally a base of support for the Labour Party, are now ardent nationalists.  Again, their existing (partial) identity with Irish nationalism assisted the switch, although with just as little justification.

O’Toole notes that the Scottish National Party tacked to the left in order to garner support from those opposed to Thatcherism, but Scottish nationalism is not a complement to Celtic supporters’ residual Irish identity but a dilution of it, if not a rival.  Recent criticism by the SNP government of the actions of Celtic Football club and praise for Rangers may mainly be a piece of opportunist tacking to a part of the electorate it hasn’t had success with, but it is also politically consistent with any idea of Scottish nationalism.

What O’Toole doesn’t cover is the employment of constitutional solutions by the Labour Party to cover up for its hostility to a militant class opposition to Thatcherism.  Ultimately this played into the hands of the more aggressive nationalists, but then the Scottish Labour Party was even more venal and rotten than the rest of the party.

The third reason advanced by O’Toole is that Scottish nationalism is very much bolstered by the rise of English nationalism.  How else, for example, can you account for the popularity of the SNP Government’s handling of Covid-19 as opposed to widespread criticism of the Tories?  Objectively, the differences are much less than the similarities and both have a very poor record in terms of deaths, making the same mistake of seeding care homes with infected discharges from hospitals.

The Tories have repeatedly used the rise of Scottish nationalism to attack the Labour Party, which plays very well for the SNP. It can hardly be a surprise that nationalist division encourages divisive nationalism.  Yet this too seems to have escaped much of the British left, which supports Scottish nationalism but deplores English nationalism, except for the most degenerate Stalinist section that is now buying into it.

Why do they not get that the former has helped the latter?  Why do those who did oppose Brexit not see the parallels with Scottish nationalism, both movements championing the magical powers of ‘national sovereignty’?  Did they really miss the absence of a Scottish component of the Corbyn movement, the potential base of which had already been partially vaccinated against left politics by nationalism?  Do they really think that the left of the nationalist movement in Scotland was the equivalent of the Corbyn movement in the rest of Britain; ignoring the project of the supporters of Corbyn being to move the Labour Party to the left while the most distinguishing mark of the left supporters of Scottish nationalism is the militancy of their nationalism?  Do they also have to actually witness its full reactionary effects before they discover that nationalism really is not the friend of the working class?

An analysis of why these socialist have taken such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist (but successful looking and therefore trendy) position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their lapse into a statist conception of socialism and mistaken assumption that national separation is the default democratic position of socialists; general simple-minded opposition to the UK on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are for when it doesn’t actually entail any element of socialism.  Not to mention that dose of simple stupidity.

If the Left that supported Brexit had any idea what mistake it had made in supporting leaving the EU it would be revising its support for nationalism of the Scottish variety.  It would even wonder whether any newly gained national sovereignty for Scotland might unleash demands for workers sacrifice for the newly won ‘independent’ Scotland in the same way the Tories seek to make Britain competitive against the EU.

Of course, it can be argued that Scotland voted against Brexit and a separated Scotland will seek to join the EU; although this is not an argument open to supporters of Brexit.  But even in this case, the point is not that the EU is something in itself that socialists should support, rather it is to be accepted as an exemplar of the progressive development of capitalism, which to the extent that it is progress is also progress towards socialism, as it increases the international socialisation of the forces and relations of production.

The point is that this internationalisation of capitalism, that by this fact brings forward the grounds for socialism, only does so because it strengthens the potential unity of the working class across nations.  It is exactly this unity that Scottish nationalism opposes and destroys.

We have seen this above; through its arising upon the bones of the defeated British working class movement under Thatcherism, and its opposition to workers seeking to mobilise to the left under Corbyn: its opposition to spreading this movement and assistance to those also opposed to it in the rest of Britain.

There is very little indication that the Brexit supporting left has learnt any lessons.  Although it may be viewed as early days, it is a sign you aren’t stupid when you can see the policeman’s truncheon falling and you decide not to put your head in the way, rather than wait until it cracks your skull, whereupon you declare the need to defend yourself against police brutality.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

Most, if not all, people will oppose capitalism on moral grounds, or will at least be motivated by concerns for what they consider fairness and justice.  Marx however was famously contemptuous of morality; it was said by someone who knew him that he ‘burst out laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality.’

‘The communists do not preach morality at all’, Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, which were early notebooks clarifying their ideas. In the published ‘Communist Manifesto they describe ‘Law, morality, religion, are . . . so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’

In the editorial quoted in the last post, the Financial Times states that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest.’  But as Trotsky said of it in ‘Their Morals and Ours’, ‘morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’  The FT editorial confirms both Marx and Trotsky right by stating that ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off,’ this being a euphemism for the capitalist class and its senior management.

Obviously for Marxists and for workers generally it is not the interests of ‘the better off’ that is their concern.  For the working class their interest lies in determining their own needs and their ability to determine how they may be met.

Moral precepts may exist at a very general level but as Trotsky also says – at this level their extent of application is limited and unstable. The real world does not lend itself to abstract moral imperatives as a guide to conduct in situations of change and conflict, the world that actually exists.  Even looking at a paradigmatic case, in which one thirsty person has a bottle of water and requires all of it to survive, but is joined by an equally thirsty second person.  Should the water be shared equally, kept by the first owner or given to the second in order to satisfy a moral imperative?  Or rather, does any moral consideration arise from examination of the actual circumstances of the case; and what exactly is the moral option to be taken in this one?

Such an example demonstrates that what should be done is very much determined by what is, which constrains what can be done.  Each of these is not subject to timeless moral imperatives but to the concrete interests of individuals in society.  Since society and the individuals within it are made up of classes, these classes will have different interests and different moral perspectives.

To attempt to envelope all of them in an all-encompassing morality that is more than abstract generalisation will involve denial of divisions and contradictions, which can therefore only involve denial of the struggle between classes that expresses these contradictions. This necessarily leads to denial of any requirement to discuss how the class struggle should be conducted, since no legitimate class struggle is admitted. Instead, we have appeals from the newspaper of the capitalist class (price £2.90/€3.20 on weekdays) for that class to take a moral stance to avoid class struggle.

For Marxists, the alternative is not to seek some imposed satisfaction of needs as determined by another class but to fight for the separate and independent needs of the working class, as determined by itself.  When discussing the precariousness arising from ‘economic change’ and ‘globalisation’ the ‘Financial Times’ reaches for moral imperatives imposed on the capitalist class.  When Marx discusses the same, in the Communist Manifesto he does so in a very different way and addresses a very different audience:

‘The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.’

‘Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.’

The moral imperative is not therefore to ‘help the neediest’ but for the ‘neediest’ to help themselves.  And in this, It is not a question of removing what is bad from society with a set of policies and actions that makes it more perfect, or of ‘polishing off the rougher edges’ as the FT would have it.  It is not seeking a solution based on some moral imperative standing above a flawed, defective or broken society that needs fixed.

When faced with the contradictions of capitalist society and the antagonisms arising from it Marx stated that:

“What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category. The very setting of the problem of eliminating the bad side cuts short the dialectic movement . . . from the moment the process of the dialectic movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing good to bad, and of administering one category as an antidote to another, the categories are deprived of all spontaneity; the idea “ceases to function”; there is no life left in it.”

This is not so much an indictment of the ideologues of capitalism but of those who oppose it with blueprints, plans or policies to make from it a good or just society, rejecting the contradictions within it that they think of as only a problem.  For those who see only the bad aspect of capitalism and seek to remove it, through whatever means, Marx says this:

‘So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.’  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

So, what should be done is very much determined by what is.  The contradictions contained in what is determines social development (of which morality is a product) and determines what can be done.  It is not the application of moral judgements lying outside existing social development but imperatives that arise from the contradictions within it that determines what can be done.

The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and their further development can be understood in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the associated relations of production.  These have been the subject of previous posts and will be elaborated further in the next.

In the meantime, it would be well to note how Marx perceives what is, what should and what can through repeating the quotation above:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’

It was no answer in Marx’s day to simply denounce the exploitation of ‘modern industry’ and call for a return to purely local development, just as it is no answer for the editor of the Financial Times to do so today.  If we slightly reword what Marx said we can see something else:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different nations in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous national struggles, all of the same character, into one international struggle between classes.’

Only three words are changed; but it shows how mistaken it is to oppose, and try to reverse, the current development of ‘modern industry’ because it breaks the bounds of the nation state and seeks to draw closer into an international union purely national economic and social development.

We refer, of course, to those who supported Brexit on the grounds that it would do exactly this and who did so because modern international economic development was bad and exploitative of the working class.  Action by the nation state, or within its confines, was the supposed solution to this particular expression of the development of modern industry.

In Trotsky’s pamphlet on morality much of the discussion revolves around the idea that the end justifies the means, lazily taken to imply that moral ends cannot justify immoral or amoral means.  It is however difficult to see what could justify adopted means other than the ends pursued.  For a Marxist the ends and means are mutually determining and what are means can be considered ends and what are ends are just further means.  As Marx said

‘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.’

Some on the Left supported Brexit, though the means by which it was achieved was a catalogue of ignorant propaganda over many years; an ever more right-wing Conservative and wider reactionary movement; and a base of support centred on nationalism, xenophobia and racism.  That the purported ends and the actual means were out of kilter is demonstrated by this Left’s inability to tell anyone, including themselves, what is progressive about what has been achieved and how it has propelled the working class forward.

The EU was capitalist, was therefore bad, and so had to be opposed, by what turned out to be nothing much more than good intentions, or at least for some.  Such imperatives have the abstractness of moral absolutes and are certainly not derived from Marxism.  This Left can get its books out and recall its Marx but doesn’t understand what he said and cannot apply it.

Forward to part 33

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 31 – what would Marx have thought?

In a recent book ‘The Marx Revival’ one contributor writes of Marx that:

‘it is highly unlikely that he would ever have supported any of the critiques of capitalism that centre on exorbitant profits, soaring inequalities of income and wealth, perennial insecurity, uncontrolled power of money and finance,  growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds, or ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom.’

Since this series of posts is about Marx’s alternative to capitalism, why not kick it off again by giving our own answer to this question.

The answer is that the writer is correct.  Let’s see why.

Profits that are too high?  Well, what constitutes too high?  There is hardly an objective answer to this.

Perhaps it could be said that Marxists should – by arguing that profits are the result of surplus value (labour for which no payment has been received by the worker) and therefore of exploitation – regard any level of profit as ‘too much’.  Except that even under a collective cooperative economy a surplus, not immediately distributed as wages, would have to be achieved to provide for investment in further accumulation and for social insurance purposes.

Even under capitalism, bigger profits should lead to more rapid accumulation of capital, including buildings and equipment etc. (constant capital) and employed workers (variable capital).   The latter should increase employment and contribute to the growth and potential power of the working class, including reducing unemployment and facilitating the organisation and fighting capacities of the class.

Of course, additional profits may lead to unproductive speculation and accumulation, but that is a further and different point; except that it raises the issue of who owns and disposes of the surplus (profit) produced.

“Soaring inequalities of income and wealth” are a common objection to capitalism, and there is no doubt that a society ruled by the working class would have much, much reduced inequality.  However, as is well known, in the first stages of the development of such a society inequality would remain.

So what constitutes unacceptable inequality?  Like the level of profits there is no objective answer.  In fact, it has been argued that the perception of unacceptable levels of inequality is at least partially determined by the level that already exists:

“Even though income inequality has increased, popular concern with inequality (for example, agreement with the statement that inequality is too high) has not grown. In comparative perspective, public opinion in more unequal countries is not systematically more concerned about income differences and does not exhibit stronger demands for redistribution.”

‘The Guardian’ has just reported that “Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre, which campaigns for executive pay restraint, said: “Pay for top CEOs today is about 120 times that of the typical UK worker. Estimates suggest it was around 50 times at the turn of the millennium or 20 times in the early 1980s.”

In a society ruled by workers the level of need will play a greater role in determination of the level of income to be received, which will therefore still give rise to income inequalities.  Until more fully developed, this society will still have income inequalities at least partially determined by skill, knowledge and effort, determined not only individually but also by productive unit and industry etc, not to mention country.  Of course, the direction of travel will be very different, and the social, political and psychological effects of inequality will be taken into account in a very different way than the purely constrained economic calculations of the capitalist market.

It has to be recognised however that the greatest and most socially significant inequalities are determined by inequality in wealth; in particular the ownership of capital from which profit and its derivative revenues such as dividends, rent and interest etc are accumulated.  Equality of income can only realistically become an objective given equality of wealth, that is, the common ownership of the resources now commanded by capital through individual capitalists, corporations and states etc.

“Perennial insecurity” is not an affliction for those whose income is determined by the ownership of capital, or at least not in terms of fear of losing one’s livelihood, job, home or (for example if you are a US citizen) access to health care.  It is a real threat to a civilised existence if you work for a wage (and normally don’t receive enough income from capital) and it’s especially a threat if you are on zero hours, in part-time employment or otherwise have terrible employment contract conditions.

But fundamentally social and economic insecurity arises because you are a member of the working class who lives by selling their labour power and are potentially subject to very unfavourable circumstances when you do.

“Uncontrolled power of money and finance” refers to the simple fact, observable to everyone, that power is very often a function of money and money is power in itself, the power to purchase the resources of society. Most importantly, to employ money to control the production of society’s wealth and then partake of exaggerated levels of consumption.

This seems so common sense that the problem appears to be the ‘uncontrolled’ exercise by money and finance, but since possession of money can determine the level of control this is a merry-go-round.  To rob money and finance of its power would mean robbing it of its power to own and control production, to become capital that employs labour power to produce profit.

This is possible if the resources that are employed to produce society’s wealth, and from which incomes are received, is owned and controlled by the majority in society.  The power of money and finance then becomes a function of the decisions of the majority and subject to its direction, putting it under the control of society as a whole and removing the ‘uncontrolled’ power of its ownership and direction by the capitalist class and its most senior hirelings.

“Growth without limits” is hardly a problem if this growth breaks down barriers and obstacles to the satisfaction of human need.  It is a problem if instead it refers to the logic of capitalism, which is the limitless pursuit of profit and the disregard for un-privatised costs to humanity and rest of nature.

‘Rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds’ is also a problem if these traditional social worlds met human need.  But, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “needs are originally confined and only develop along with the productive forces”.   Unfortunately, traditional societies have historically only addressed this by massively circumscribing and retarding the growth of productive forces and hence of the human needs that capitalism has developed.

Even more unfortunately, as Marx also says, “the development of the human productive powers is effected “at first at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even of the entire classes.”  “The higher development of the individuality is brought only through a historical process in which the individuals are sacrificed.”  The answer is not to artificially and foolishly seek to thwart the development of humanity’s productive powers and the potential for emancipation they contain.  It is not to seek to prevent capitalism in the name of less developed social systems, or seek to prevent less developed forms of capitalism from developing.

Finally, would Marx have supported a critique of capitalism centred on ‘ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom’?  In so far as this competition is the expression of the development of capitalism “a race to the bottom” in this critique simply expresses outward characteristics of the system.  It paints a damning picture but one, no matter how bright the colours painted, that is a representation of reality and a one-dimensional one at that.  It does not get to the heart of the question and so cannot give rise to an answer.

This is true of all the criticism mentioned.  The critique of capitalism cannot rest on an attempt to restrict profits.  This would simply be an attempt to stop the system working but not to go beyond it.   Inequalities of income and wealth cannot be dissolved through taxation and redistribution since it assumes continuing unequal ownership, while perennial insecurity cannot be eradicated as long as workers have to sell their labour power in the market and own nothing else.

The power of money exists mainly because of its power to command ownership of society’s productive powers without which human civilisation as we know it could not survive.  “Growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds,” and “ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom” are simply the dynamics of capital and the pursuit of surplus value extraction from workers.

This is why for Marx, as explained in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, and after listing the various movements in which his comrades were involved, he said that they “bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This means that the concerns that motivate these criticisms are not dismissed; concerns over inequality, insecurity and ‘the rat race’ etc.  It just means that these are not soluble within the confines of capitalism and only a revolutionary alternative can provide a solution.

In the ‘Financial Times’ editorial on the last day of 2020, the paper paid tribute to those who had worked through the Covid-19 pandemic: ‘these unsung heroes are underpaid, over-worked, and suffer unpredictable work opportunities and insecurity . . . and brutalised working conditions – to the point of such grotesque episodes as the woman giving birth in a toilet cubicle for fear of missing a shift.’

The newspaper declares that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest’, as it decries inequality and the existence of a precariat: ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off’.  But it does so mainly because it fears that ‘it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself’; it therefore believes that ‘capitalism’s political acceptability requires its adherents to polish off its rougher edges.’

Many will contend that it is more than ‘rough edges’ that need to be polished off and that polishing off the whole system is required.  It is not therefore, as the FT editorial headline puts it, that ‘a better form of capitalism is possible.’  But what is much less understood is that it is not enough to pick up ‘the pitchforks’ against capitalism; we need an alternative that we can fight for. This alternative is least understood and is the subject of this series of posts.