The Internationalism of Capital and Class

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 36

Whether we like it or not, the development of the capitalist mode of production has shaped the working class, its organisation and its movement.  It has done so in ways that, in a more or less immediate fashion, assists or retards the organisation of the working class.

In general, however, it is the argument of Marxism that the increasing socialisation of capitalism gives rise to a materially strengthened working class that needs to become conscious of its objective role, and of the potential alternative arising from it that reflect its objective interests.  In all these aspects the process is international, a global one that brings workers of the world together more and more and which must make conscious this mutual dependence through international organisation. 

So today we should be asking ourselves – would the increasing organisation of capitalism on an international basis, today called globalisation, not also be the grounds upon which the working class created should unite? Would workers unity across Europe be assisted or hindered by the increasing international organisation of European capital and its associated political development?  Would workers unity be easier or harder if faced with more and more similar economic, social and political conditions, including laws, institutions and common enemy?  In other words, for example, inside or outside the EU?  Does accepting the international development of capitalism not provide the basis to also organise workers internationally so that the EU similarly can be ultimately replaced by a workers’ alternative?

Far from ‘cosmopolitan’ workers, immigrant workers, young employees of tech firms, working class students who have travelled, part time ‘precariat’ workers etc. etc. being neglected, or worse, in the name of a ‘traditional working class’; these working class fragments are products of the constant reformation of the working class that has always been generated by capitalism and from which previous components of the working class movement have been built.

Only those who want to divide the working class will seek to pose this working class against a separate working class that is supposedly more authentic.  In some countries this ‘authentic’ class will be manual workers. In others those leftists professing such views will only have such workers as a historical reference, their movements in fact based on white collar state employees, for whom widespread state ownership is most congenial to their economistic view of socialism.

So, in digging up the commonplace notion – for a socialist – of internationalism it is not simply a question of ‘returning’ to Marx and Engels but of turning to face the development of contemporary capitalism through the understanding they gave of its laws of development.  This allows us to orient to the political choices, challenges and perspectives that face us.  It is necessary to quote Marx and Engels etc. in order to convey their general approach and remind those who consider themselves Marxists of what this was, while attempting to convince those who do not of its relevance. 

Marx and Engels explained in the fragments of their studies that have become known as ‘The German Ideology” that:

“ . .  this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which on the one side produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), making each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.”

“Without this, 1) communism could only exist as a local phenomenon; 2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence unendurable powers: they would have remained home-bred “conditions” surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”

While we can question the precise meaning of the demand for “simultaneous” and “all at once” acts to establish communism, it is clear that it can only be the product of international struggle and international success, while it can only be posed given a high level of the productive forces that can only exist at a global level.

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol. 3 Chapter 15).

‘The productive forces of social labour’ is the working class and the mass of fixed and circulating capital it works with.  These must be international so that they can reach the required level that makes a new society without the ‘old filth’ possible.  This therefore means that the relations of production also exist within an international framework, that capital and the working class are both international.  You cannot have international forces of production and purely national relations of production.  Globalisation is not therefore something from without but is a creation within capitalist development, including of its capitalist and working class.

This existence as an international class is not simply a question of workers having a political consciousness of their solidarity with the workers of other countries; consciousness of this as with anything else must reflect their material existence and not simply the apprehension of liberating ideas.  Marxists don’t believe that ideas in such a form can be generated simply out of people’s heads or from accepting the entreaties of others.  They must come out of their lived experience, or as is put in the paragraphs above – it must come from workers who are already ‘empirically universal beings’ and not merely ‘local’ ones.

Since such workers must exist within capitalism in order to overthrow it, its overthrow is not in the first place something to be taught to workers by socialists through ideas, propaganda or programme.  As we all know, the current system is oppressive and exploitative, but just as we need capitalist development before socialism can be a real possibility, so we need this capitalism to be international in scope and organisation before we can expect the working class equivalent.

This means, since the state reflects the dominant form of property relations, that the political organisation of international capitalism will also be oppressive.  However, to believe that we can have international production relations without capitalism seeking international political bodies is obviously wrong, which is why belief that we must destroy such institutions to go back to purely national ones is not only mistaken but reactionary.

The traditional reformist programme of most of the Left, adopted by many calling themselves Marxist, has no traction in these conditions.  Taxation of corporations for example, or of the wealthy, cannot be carried out on a purely national basis.  The current programme of Joe Biden and the OECD recognises what the Left does not – that this can only be carried out internationally.  Without this the resources required by the state to carry out the redistribution of income championed by this reformist perspective becomes impossible.

The idea that socialism is grounded on state ownership is equally adrift from the reality of international capitalism.  The role of multinationals and their operation in many countries with their global production and supply chains, makes seeking any sort of meaningful control at a national level impossible.  Seizing authority over one link does not give control of the whole chain.  At most it is simply destructive of this international division of labour: an ironically appropriate result of a programme that some may consider anti-capitalist but which is not thereby socialist.

The international development of the forces of production does not therefore give rise to merely historical theoretical questions but determines the potential for, and general perspective of, socialism.  Marx of 150 years ago has more to guide us than many of today’s left that claim his legacy.

Back to part 35

The International Organisation of the Working Class

Stating that Marx’s alternative to capitalism is an internationalist one should hardly be controversial were it not for the history of the movement laying claim to his legacy.  Unfortunately, this history includes ‘socialism in one country’ a la Soviet Union; national ‘roads to socialism’; ‘anti-imperialism’ that champions those opposed to (mainly) US imperialism but excuses its opponents regardless of their anti-working class character, not forgetting support for such reactionary projects as Brexit.

Quite happy (most of the time) to recognise that only capitalism creates a working class; that this has involved the organisation of workers in large factories (and now offices etc.) and that therefore that the shape of the class is determined by the particular shape of capitalism at any time or place, these ‘followers’ of Marx will oppose the EU and support Brexit despite the internationalisation of capitalism laying the groundwork for an international working class and therefore the potential for creation of an international movement.

The internationalism of Marxism should mean that opposition to national division of the working class is a cardinal principle, reflected in the history of the organisation of the Marxist movement, and as a precursor of the movement of the working class itself and the social system it seeks to create.

The First International, which Marx played such a vital role in, sought to organise the working class internationally and, despite its coalition of many political tendencies, established a political legacy much of which is applicable today.  It has been argued that this international movement had its basis in the particular nature of the working class, or at least a part of it, created by the stage of capitalism achieved at that time:

‘If we ask: what were the social bases of this International—and of the wave of popular urban insurgency in 1848—the answer is pretty clear. They did not lie in any factory proletariat, but overwhelmingly in a pre-industrial artisanate. This was a class in possession of its own means of production—tools and skills; which enjoyed high levels of literacy; was typically located close to the centre of capital cities; and, last but not least, was geographically mobile—a mobility symbolized by the famous tours of young apprentices within or beyond their own countries. In 1848 there were some 30,000 German craftsmen in Paris—Heine said you could hear German spoken on every street corner; in London, Marx and Engels were writing their Manifesto for German artisans working in England; Berlin had its scattering of Polish or Swiss craftsmen, Vienna of Czechs or Italians.’

This is, of course only partially true, as the International also had representation from British trade unions but it is much truer of the German workers’ movement in the 1848 revolution.

The Second International succeeded in building a mass working class movement on the back of a common expansion of capitalist industry, at least in parts of Europe, but its destruction by war was not just a reflection of the betrayal of a leadership that had abandoned Marx’s revolutionary politics, it also faithfully reflected the nationalist ideas that dominated the vast majority of the working class.  Since we understand that ideas are derived from the material reality of workers’ lives, we can see the basis of the dual character of working class consciousness in workers’ solidarity within the nation state offset by weakness of its equivalent at the international level.

The consciousness of being workers led not only to militant trade union consciousness and limited political consciousness but also nationalism that reflected the mainly national character of the capitalism that existed at that time; national capitals that were in rivalry and competition with other national capitals and states, which dragged their workers behind them.

The Third International regrouped the most militant and politically radicalised workers repelled by their common suffering in the world war, the experience of shared austerity and political reaction following it, and by the example of the Russian Revolution.

The isolation of the Russian revolution led to its degeneration, a degeneration experienced by the Third international as a whole, which became isolated from the rest of the working class movement.  The isolation of the Third International objectively needed to be repaired – the working class movement could not achieve its aims divided. One attempt was the policy of the united front, the unity of Social Democrat and Communist workers, which was an acknowledgement that a socialist programme was impotent without a working class to fight for it.

The division reached its tragic nadir when both stood separate in front of the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The defeat led to no regeneration of either Social Democracy or the Third International and both eventually ceased to exist for any practical purposes.

Many of those who continued to defend Marxism rallied to what became many versions of Trotsky’s Fourth International but these too became evidence of the paucity of programme separated from the working class.  The world-wide capitalist boom after World War II was not the grounds upon which a movement singularly fixed on the immanence of political revolution could build a mass organisation, except in displacing its hopes onto non-socialist revolutionary upheavals.

It can be no surprise that the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals into nationalist and statist conceptions of socialism reflected the growth in the number of, and the role of, capitalist states in capitalism, or that this too infected many currents of the Trotskyist movement.  It too was a product of the capitalism in which it lived; reflected in its transfer of hope to the ‘third world’ and its ‘national liberation’ struggles, and accommodation with the growing role of the capitalist state through preaching nationalisation, state redistribution and general Keynesian policies as all key elements of the socialist programme.   It reached further extension in support for left-talking Latin American regimes that rely mainly on state mobilisation and support for Brexit or various ‘progressive’ nationalisms such as Scottish separation or Catalan independence.

In all these cases the Left has rallied behind what Marx called a ‘transitional form’ of the capitalist mode of production in which the ‘antagonism’ contained in the private ownership of the means of production is ‘resolved negatively.’ So, while its demands may be an advance on private capitalism, its demand for nationalisation is not a demand to positively overcome capitalism but to bring its forms of ownership more into line with its increasing socialisation. However, because such transformation of ownership does not supersede capitalism but merely extends its development those claiming it is socialist leave themselves caught up in unresolvable contradictions, such as demanding widespread state ownership as well as destruction of the same state.

However, even this programme increasingly became an ossified relic of 1930s protectionism and internationally agreed national-level capital controls.  As capitalist accumulation grew in Europe and further afield these controls were subverted by the changing role of the US dollar and relative US industrial decline.  The capitalist state itself, led by Britain and the US, led the way in openly deregulating and de-nationalising control of money capital while structures like the EU pointed the way to international industrial restructuring and a new international currency.  Freedom of movement, across the EU for example, opened up an important route by which an international component of the working class could grow and influence its wider national sections, undermining nationalist division.

State ownership became a step backward from the growth of global companies and the increasing international division of labour that lay behind these developments.  Much of the left however clings to the capitalist state as potential saviour and finds itself tailing behind various political expressions of the petty bourgeoisie, whether supporters of Brexit or of other fractions seeking new avenues for their advancement in the bureaucracies of newly created states.

State ownership is not a call to the working class to impose its own resolution to the antagonism of the property question through workers’ ownership as one preliminary step towards the whole economy becoming the activity of the working class constituted as the ‘associated producers’.  It reflects an increasingly outmoded mode of capitalist development for which an outmoded nationally limited socialist programme is redundant. It was not Marx’s alternative 150 years ago and there is even less reason to consider it one today.

Back to part 34

Forward to part 36

The European Super League – progressive or not?

AC Milan Could Be A Part Of The New Proposed European Super League - The AC  Milan Offside

The new proposed European Super League (ESL) has been described as pure greed and might be considered a natural development within capitalism, after all football is a business well on the road to being big business.

The ESL is therefore a perfect example of the concentration and centralisation of capital discussed by Marx in Volume 1 of Capital.  The big football clubs are getting bigger, in some respects swallowing up smaller ones by ‘partnerships’ that use them for developing players, and are joining together to strengthen their market power through formation of a cartel that reduces competition, reduces risk and furthers monopoly profits.

Since monopolies simply raise competition to a higher level the new ESL will be sold as the best competing against the best and with even greater resources to acquire the best players and provide the most spectacular entertainment spectacle.

Of course, for many fans, football is not simply or even mainly an entertainment or spectacle but a cultural practice handed down generations, as part of their identity, an imagined community often based on locality and/or other social stratifications.

It is easy to ridicule the expression of such views, and I am reminded of the TV clip of a Sunderland fan beside the crest painted on the bonnet of his car explaining that Sunderland FC were more important to him than his children.  Nevertheless, it is true that no ‘customers’ are quite like football supporters, who will admittedly follow the most perennially useless team through season after season of failure.

Even supporters of more successful clubs from smaller leagues will acknowledge that dreams of glory once achieved are not coming back – barring a miracle.  So it is with any dream I might have of Celtic winning the Champions League, as it did the European Cup in 1967 with a team consisting wholly of players from Glasgow and surrounding area.  Now that really isn’t going to happen again.

Football supporters cling to history, sneering at the recent arrival of Manchester City tops and Chelsea shirts before that, by people proclaiming a long-held support that was more invisible than these shirts before the clubs’ acquisition by mega-rich owners.  So, while fans outside of the biggest clubs are naturally unhappy, so are many of the fans of the bigger clubs that are supposed to make up the new super-duper League.

Pissing off your customer base might seem to be a bad business move but these supporters aren’t the target audience.  Football has been moving to a more competitive business environment for a number of decades and the English Premier League many are now rushing to defend was one such leap.  The days of football clubs being run by long-established local owners, with players on a worker’s wage and without the drive for profit maximisation, have long gone.

However, commodifying sport has particular problems in that sporting competition has a component of unpredictability that business plans can address but not eliminate.  A Super League that avoids relegation and reduces differential payments for performance is therefore to be welcomed.   Shared revenue potential and increased power against player wage demands can mean greater returns for shareholders.  Of course a problem remains that it not be too predictable, but there have been complaints that the existing Champions League has veered close to this anyway.

So it is not football that has become corrupted by capitalism to become a mere commodity – football isn’t the commodity.  Lots of the complaints about the new League come from people who actually go to games but they aren’t the real customers.  For the biggest clubs they are more and more walk on extras in the production.  The commodity for sale is football on TV and all the advertising and commercial deals associated with the clubs and the competition.

Millions of fans in Asia for example will not expect ever to visit Old Trafford, Anfield, the Bernabeu or Nou Camp but they will still be Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans.  For many of these fans watching Arsenal play Juventus will be more attractive than watching Arsenal play Brighton.  This is certainly more efficient and more productive in purely capitalist terms.  Surely football fans should support the raising of the level of competition that sees the biggest clubs play each other more often?

Well, let’s look at this.  While the supporters of the chosen few might relish this battle of the titans the supporters of all the other clubs may not be pleased that they do not see their own team playing against these clubs, or have any reasonable expectation that they will ever do so.  On top of this loyalty to a club is often based on history and tradition but this new set-up has neither.

But who exactly cares?  The sponsors of the new Super League will wager that more fans, even of those clubs not participating, will sign up to watch the ESL games because that is what many are already doing when they watch EPL or Champions League games.  Many, perhaps older fans, such as myself, might get more and more disenchanted from the sport, but they won’t count.  As noted many times, the only thing that counts in a marketplace is money.

Does this therefore mean we should simply accept the out-workings of the laws of capital accumulation as analysed by Marx?

Well, as we have just seen, football is made up of a number of markets and the concentration of super-clubs at the European level will be complemented by the continuation of fragmented leagues (of reducing importance), involving national and continuing European competitions (also of reduced importance).  You will continue to be able to buy into your own favourite product, albeit marked by increased inferiority and lesser respect.  Just look at the English FA Cup for an pointer.

The concentration and centralisation of capital are usually features of the growth and development of the productive forces and the expansion of capital.  In this case however the timing of the ESL is a product of expected reductions in TV revenue; the EPL has just lost a Chinese deal worth nearly half a billion dollars, the French league’s TV deal collapsed in December and the German and Italian TV rights did not meet expectations.

On the other hand, the share price of some of the clubs involved, and of others that might, have already risen. The increased focus on the biggest clubs is all the more necessary as many of them have incurred astronomical debts, with the European Club Association’s annual report predicting that Covid would inflict €5bn of losses on clubs by the end of the 2021 season.  Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president who has been named chair of the Super League, has pointed to the current financial crisis at top clubs and in a Spanish TV interview said that they “are ruined”.

The biggest ones are looking after themselves and it remains to be seen whether what they are doing is expanding the industry or cannibalising it.  Sport doesn’t work by eliminating ‘less efficient’ competitors even if capitalist production does.

In the meantime, those of us who support the majority of clubs outside this elite, and those supporters of ESL clubs who oppose their plans, should unite to fight for a more egalitarian sporting foundation based on fan and worker controlled clubs and leagues.

At the end of the day however, big business in football is determined by sovereign wealth funds, vulture funds and billionaires.  Communication and media companies and advertisers all want a share of football as a business and are not interested in local traditions, fan loyalties or in football full stop.

Football is only one example of the way capitalism distorts human desires and needs.  There is absolutely no point romanticising it when what we need is a movement to do away with and replace the system that has once again demonstrated the cardinal objective is accumulating capital.

A Brexit compromise with Unionism?

In the previous post I argued that there should be no attempt to conciliate unionism, and certainly not by socialists.  Although its politics is entirely reactionary this is what is being proposed by a number of commentators who really should know better.

In one blog, a comment asserted that the ‘institutions of the [Northern] State are errand boys for Sinn Féin, who are errand girls for the Army Council, which is a body of totally unreconstructed IRA hard men from back in the day.  Moreover, it is an almost entirely Northern body, on the cusp of taking control of a 26 County State.’

This, of course, is phantasy.  Locally, the regular columnist in the nationalist newspaper questioned whether ‘sectarian control [has] simply changed hands?’ and asserted that it was ‘difficult to avoid the observation’.

This ignores recent history that is littered with loyalist riots against what they see as encroachment on their rights by Catholics.  Indeed, such riots played a major role in the start of ‘the Troubles’ with such inconvenient facts as the first policeman killed being shot by loyalists.

Conciliation has already been adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland pretending that loyalist paramilitaries are not involved in organising and leading the riots.  Its first statement pointed the finger but refrained from outright assignment of responsibility.  It waited until the umbrella group for the main paramilitary groups had issued an appropriate statement denying involvement, and calling for only peaceful action, before stating that these organisations had not ‘sanctioned’ violent protest and that only individuals may have been involved.  This is the normal way of trying to prevent escalation; part of what was called a long time ago an ‘acceptable level of violence.’

The Unionist columnist Newton Emerson has written in a number of Irish newspapers that compromise with loyalist demands should be made to protect the peace process.  After all, warnings by nationalists and the Irish Government that republican violence would follow any Brexit land border within the island had led to it being placed down the Irish Sea.  If Irish nationalism could threaten violence to get its way what’s wrong with unionism doing the same?

There is some obvious truth in this, except that a hardened land border, while not strictly contrary to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as often claimed, would not only serve (dissident) republicans but would also severely undermine the current political arrangements.

In the GFA nationalists were to accept the legitimacy of partition and of the Northern State in return for some cross-border bodies, a hypothetical mechanism to bring about a united Ireland through a border poll, one however that was in the gift of the British Government, and a power-sharing Stormont regime that included an effective sectarian veto on change for both sides, which of course is more obstacle than opportunity for those seeking change.

If the border were to be strengthened as a result of a hard Brexit that most of unionism supported while the majority in the North of Ireland opposed, and with the stupidity of the DUP coming back to haunt them in loyalist riots, nationalism might consider that promises are cheap but reality expensive.  It was not republican dissidents that put a border down the Irish Sea but the Irish Government and the EU with the blessing of senior US politicians.

Emerson goes on to ask ‘should we risk restarting the Troubles ‘over inspecting packets of ham at Larne?’  He queries the evidence and reason for believing that the EU Single Market ‘would otherwise be swamped via circuitous smuggling of food through Britain and Northern Ireland.’

He also, in rather contradictory fashion, suggests a law-and-order solution to smuggling across the Irish border and maximum mitigation of the effects of the Protocol in order to assuage loyalist paramilitaries who, although almost defeated, require concessions.  In this regard there are further press reports of money for these paramilitaries in a continuation of the policy of weening them off criminality and political violence by giving them what they want.  Alongside this a law-and-order solution would be applied to the really delinquent factions.

All this is washed down by the admission that ‘at some point we will have to confront the moral squalor of giving in to violence but that moment is hardly now, when so little might be required to prevent violence.  Rather it would be immoral to prioritise hypothetical ham over life and property.’

Of course, the ham is far from hypothetical and Emerson gives every indication of suffering from the illusion of the supporters of Brexit who never understood the magnitude of the decision they supported.  He regards the potential breach of the EU Single Market as small, although both the EU and British sought to use the North of Ireland as leverage in the overall Trade and Cooperation Agreement, promoting its importance to any overall deal.

There is no reason to believe that loopholes would not be exploited and no reason for the EU to believe that the British Government would not seek to exploit concessions or mitigation or whatever term is used to fudge the regulations.  The British have openly breached agreements already reached and failed to implement practical measures, such as  installation of inspection posts and access to data, that it promised to deliver.

The EU has claimed that the most difficult issues could be solved by the British agreeing to synchronise their food standards with those of the EU but the British have ruled this out, and while the British have asked for flexibility the EU has stated that they must first implement what they have already agreed.

It would go too far to say that loyalism and the British Government are in cahoots, the latter is not attempting to get rid of the Protocol altogether, but the pressure applied by both is in the same direction.

The Single Market may not seem so dramatic as yet another political crisis in Northern Ireland but the EU has more interest in the former than the latter: concessions that are given only to Britain might easily give rise to discrimination cases against the EU.  More generally, retreating on the basis of pressure from political violence does not set a good example for any other potential challenges to Brussels and member states.

There is no reason or evidence to believe that smuggling would not take place on the Irish border were it also to become the border for Brexit, or to believe that such smuggling would need to ‘swamp’ the EU Single Market for it to matter to the EU.  On the other hand there is good reason to believe that mitigation of the trade border in the Irish Sea would not be enough for loyalism. For the EU, checks on any border would have to mean something and if they did loyalism would object.

There is no doubting that these checks are onerous and will increase after the transition but the negotiations between the EU and British to find technical solutions do not warrant the view that the Protocol will be effectively removed.  These negotiations were reported by RTE and the Guardian, with some sceptical coverage of them by one informed blogger.

There has so far not been enough direct impact on imports to motivate those not consumed by potential constitutional implications to protest.  As Emerson points out, Marks & Spencer has just announced the opening of a new food store in Coleraine, and Covid-19 has been a much more immediate barrier than Brexit to people getting what they want.

This does not mean that loyalism is not angry, or has cause, but their anger should really be directed to the DUP who led them up the garden path with Boris Johnson at the forefront. Nevertheless, while loyalism does not need to be particularly coherent, there are also limits to what an incoherent view of the world will achieve in bending that world to its own misapprehensions.

Emerson’s law-and-order solution does not seem to recognise the incongruity of calling for increased repression of dissident republicans and others in order to reduce ‘paperwork’.  He wants a retreat on policing of protest demonstrations that are held within unionist-majority areas so as to avoid ‘confrontation’, but it’s not clear how much consideration he has given to the minority living within these ‘unionist-majority areas’.

Of course, in most Protestant areas Orange marches are generally popular and there can be little doubt that a majority of Protestants oppose the protocol and would have sympathy with the aims of demonstrations against it.  The majority would have less sympathy with the paramilitaries who often accompany such displays and that is their problem: one doesn’t come without the other.  Emerson forgets that the immediate victims of loyalist paramilitaries are Protestants in working class areas who are often presented as the paramilitaries’ political constituency, in so far as they can claim one.

He is right therefore to acknowledge the ‘moral squalor’ involved in concessions to loyalism but over twenty years from the deal that was supposed to bring peace and an end to them, we apparently have to make some more, and to the same people.   He says that ‘we’ have to make them but the majority of the population have had no choice in the matter.  His ‘giving in to violence’ has in the past not only involved ‘giving in’ but the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State through all sorts of collusion.  This has involved not only accepting loyalist violence but protecting its perpetrators and assisting its organisation and effectiveness through state agents.  In his seemingly bold and brave admission of unfortunate necessity we are to forget what it has meant in the past.

If Newton Emerson’s proposals have any educative value, they show the limitations of unionist opinion, even from its most intelligent and least prejudiced sources.  It reminds me of the statement last week by First Minister Arlene Foster who, after riots and petrol bombs, and with one bus driver attacked in a case of “attempted murder”, declared that these actions were an “embarrassment” and “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”

In the mind of unionism, even when its their fault it’s really someone else’s, anybody else’s.  Brexit was a unionist own-goal which they are trying to reverse.  Socialists have no interest in defending their seventeenth century reaction from twenty-first century capitalism.  It would be good if the many on the left in Ireland who also supported Brexit would acknowledge that they too have made a mistake.

Back to part 1

Recognising Unionist rights?

A Belfast bus burning on the Shankill Road

The recent riots in the North of Ireland have been described as the worst for some years.  It is not that they are particularly large or violent.  In fact, they have been localised and rather small, many rioters being not much more than children. Some have arisen from loyalist groups more involved in criminality than politics and kicking back at policing too effective for their liking.

So why the concern?  The first is that they might get out of control and gather momentum.  The summer is the traditional unionist marching season so there will be plenty of opportunities for disturbances.  This is especially the case now that the state is going to have to relax the Covid lockdown.  A second is concern that the Boris Johnson Government is not considered to have the skills to pacify the situation, or may even have reasons to keep the pot boiling.

It is his betrayal of the unionists in his ‘fantastic’ – ‘oven-ready’ – Brexit deal that has been the main reason for the eruption of unionist anger.  If the definition of stupidity is believing anything he says then the Democratic Unionist Party has shown itself to be the dumbest of the dumb.  Yet even now their leaders call on him to do the right thing and scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union; something with much bigger ramifications for the British state than riots in Ireland.

The placing down the Irish Sea of the inevitable trade border arising from Northern Ireland staying in the EU Single Market is, as unionists claim, a clear separation of it from Great Britain, even if nationalists and others claim it has no constitutional significance.  Its maintenance would be a reverse for unionism and cause for demoralisation.  While the same barriers are in place between Britain and the Irish State, the effect is to encourage further North-South economic integration.  This, however, is of most significance from a longer term perspective and the Brexit deal excludes services, where it might be expected that the British and EU economies might diverge, with possible similar effects between the two states in Ireland.

The leader of the DUP Arlene Foster started off the year more or less accepting the NI Protocol and pointing out that Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets gave it certain advantages in terms of trade and foreign investment.  The more bitter DUP MPs, such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, nevertheless continued to denounce the betrayal, perhaps all the more so because they had been personally associated with being taken for fools.  Leaked minutes of a DUP meeting appeared to indicate that at least some DUP members had about as much respect for these figures as many of us outside.

Which brings us to one of the more immediate causes of unionist agitation.  As pointed out in a previous post the main cause for the swift change of direction by the whole DUP and its titular leader was an opinion poll showing significant loss of support to the even more rabidly militant Traditional Unionist Voice.  When the NI Director of Prosecutions recommended no prosecution of Sinn Fein members following their attendance en masse at an IRA leader’s funeral, and their apparent breach of Covid-19 restrictions, it proved to be the spark that lit the fire.

But this too, while causing understandable unionist anger, is largely a confection.  Unionists condemned the DPP decision but blamed the police when it was the police who had recommended prosecution.  Unionists have lighted upon liaison between the police and Sinn Fein before the funeral as a reason given by the DPP for likely inability to prosecute, but such liaison is not unusual.

The other reason given by the DPP was the Covid regulations themselves and their unfitness for the purpose of successful prosecution.  But it was the DUP (and Sinn Fein) who were responsible for drafting these regulations and if they could not be prosecuted it is yet another example of their incompetence.  Much of the consequences of Brexit and of the fall-out from the Bobby Storey funeral can therefore be laid at the door of the DUP. Far better for someone else to be the target of loyalist anger than themselves.

Arlene Foster called for the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to resign and refused to meet him, although then did so since she had previously met the loyalist paramilitaries; while the leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party joined in calling for his resignation but could not explain in a radio interview what he had done wrong.  Meanwhile, the first loyalist riot in Belfast against this failure to prosecute lack of social distancing at the republican funeral took place in the same area in which a loyalist funeral in September had failed to do exactly the same thing.

In a sense none of this incoherence matters, reactionary causes don’t have to be coherent, they just have to be reactionary. The charge levied by unionism is that everyone else doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate their anger, and doesn’t acknowledge that their ‘British identity’ is being undermined.  Since this amorphous charge is without any clear definition it becomes whatever unionism says it is. What is being claimed is that anything unionism doesn’t like is undemocratic, and the more it is upset the more undemocratic it is, and the less everyone else understands.

So what unionism wants is what it wants and deserves to get.  The Northern State was set up for them and it should fulfil its role of satisfying the majority whose existence it is for.  Since its position has historically been one of sectarian privilege and supremacy this should continue to be bolstered, and any attempt to undermine it is undemocratic and sectarian itself.  The nationalist demands for respect, tolerance and equality apply to unionism in equal measure, which means respect for its reactionary culture, tolerance of its sectarian practices and obeisance to its supremacist demands.  The current political arrangements in the North of Ireland are supposedly based on these values, to be shared by nationalists and unionists alike, making it obvious why they aren’t working.

We who live here however are expected to bow down before unionist demands and recognise the failure to offer unionism what is its due, so that we must sympathise with its turmoil and incoherence.  We are supposed to accept the democratic rights of bigots on the basis that there are a lot of them.  Fortunately, the world is a much bigger place and it is possible to imagine that the limits of political change are not defined by sectarian reactionaries, no matter how locally numerous they may be.

While forecasts of an imminent border poll and of a potential united Ireland are premature, the already existing growth of the non-unionist defining section of the population no longer allows unionism to constrain all political development and change.  Even the attempt to share out resources, privileges and rights along sectarian lines has proven unstable, although without yet the maturation of forces to make it fall over.

Socialists should acknowledge that the death of sectarianism, and the forces that defend it and promote it, will not be painless and will not be entirely peaceful.  In the next post I will look at renewed proposals to conciliate this sectarianism.  In the meantime we should not support compromise with sectarian reaction, if only on the grounds that it does not work.  What progress there has been even within Northern Ireland, has come from denying unionist demands and opposing its demonstrations and threats.  Socialism or any sort of democratic settlement will not come without the defeat of unionism, the more demoralised it is the easier and less violent its demise will be.

Forward to part 2

The basis of socialist internationalism

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – part 34

The previous post argued that capitalism continues to develop the forces of production while at the same time, in a contradictory process, continuing to fetter their development. This process opens the road to a new society of completely socialised productive forces, or socialism.  In order to reach it a certain level of development of the productive forces is necessary, which requires that this transformation take place internationally.

This is so because capitalism has long ago developed not only a world market but also, through the continuing socialisation of production, developed an international division of labour.  It therefore follows that the development of socialism in any single country cannot be achieved from an inferior level of development and cannot do so on its own.  While the overthrow of capitalism may first occur in a single country, the creation of socialism will face insuperable barriers and without further international development will fail.

Many analyses treat the development of the forces of production as a technological question or from a purely economic perspective, separate from consideration of class struggle or politics, divorced from the latter to the extent that they form a purely background enabling condition long since achieved.  This arises partly from the influence of Stalinism, for which purely national roads to socialism are already part of the ‘theory’, and partly from those Trotskyists for whom this constraint is no longer strictly binding because of a one-sided application of the theory of permanent revolution, positing that the tasks of capitalist development may and can, rather unproblematically, be taken forward by a working class regime due to the weakness of native capitalism.

The theory of permanent revolution is taken to have relaxed somewhat the constraint on possible socialist progress at a purely national level, while the decades of capitalist development since its first elaboration have actually tightened the constraint on the potential evolution of a country separated from the capitalist international division of labour.

In this theory the development of productive forces must be considered as a whole, at the level of the world, and at this level capitalism is ripe for socialism.  It is correctly recognised that for any revolution in a single country to survive it must spread.  However, because this revolution is considered mainly in political terms the grounds for socialist revolution as a social transformation engendered by the social power of the international working class is not fully appreciated.  The social power of the working class includes its role in the international division of labour, which provides the grounds for its political as well as economic unity, and is the basis for overcoming the much more uneven and volatile development of political struggles across the world that might otherwise leave working class political revolution isolated in a single country.

For many, socialist revolution is wrongly considered as implying that the task is simply one of destroying a system that is already historically decaying without consideration of the implications of its continuing development for a working class that is far from being able to impose its own solution.  This approach believes that capitalism is declining in a historic sense, evidenced by economic crises and general stagnation, along with other pathological conditions that are all held to be derived from decline.

Such conceptions become a dogma that is a given, and within which every malignant social and political phenomenon is interpreted and becomes an example thereof and not as more or less endemic expressions of the system.  While the laws of motion of the capitalist system discovered by Marx have produced results, ironically they are treated as if they no longer operate, which means his analysis in effect no longer applies.  So capitalism is no longer considered to revolutionise society by developing the forces of production and, despite all evidence to the contrary, is conceived as being in stagnation or perpetual crisis.  What we are left with is a dogmatic Marxism that ironically facilitates a political practice seemingly at odds with such an approach.

The effect is to reduce analysis to the level of immediate political struggle with an empirical approach to events.  As all the fundamental factors for socialism are considered to already be in place it encourages short-termism and an opportunist approach.  This does not necessarily mean that the wrong position is taken on any immediate political question but it does mean that even when the right one is taken it is not securely grounded.

If we consider the reality of the continued development of the international forces of production, we are forced to reject the nationalist perspectives of earlier left conceptions and their more recent expressions and inspirations.

For example, in this corner of the world there is no ‘British road to socialism’ and no way forward through attempts to constrain the dynamic of class struggle within national limits through a ‘left’ Brexit.  There is nothing progressive about some sort of Scotland of a ‘common weal’ that is common only to a select nationality and which believes social equality can be created within the boundaries of this small European country.  There can be no emancipation and liberation of the Irish working class – through pursuit of some mythical ‘real’ independence of the Irish nation in a Workers’ Republic – that is not part of a successful international revolution.

What all these have in common is that the international development of the forces of production makes all their struggles for national separation on supposedly progressive grounds utopian, and if they are utopian they will fail.  Whether they apparently achieve short term political success or not doesn’t matter in the end, fundamental economic and social forces will crush their promises, although these promises will long be abandoned by its sponsors before this happens.  The apparent victory of nationalism in the twentieth century and its defeat of its great ideological rival socialism hasn’t prevented the continuing International development of capitalism against which nationalist measures are impotent.  Only an international political arrangement can adequately address the governance of an international economy as capitalism already acknowledges (through the IMF, WTO, UN, NAFTA, G10, EU, ASEAN, BIS, OECD etc.)  and the only consistent International ideology and political programme is socialism.

If the Soviet Union could not develop a superior society to capitalism despite its size and resources, and if Britain cannot develop a superior capitalism to the EU, today bleeding from a thousand cuts that are barely reported, then the idea, for example, of Ireland or Scotland creating oases of social equality are fanciful.

The conditions for social equality cannot exist because the forces of production necessary for them, for socialism, must exceed the development of these forces under capitalism.  The productivity of labour and the most advanced techniques of production must go beyond that currently achieved by capitalism through its particular socialisation of production at the international level.  It is not a question of resisting and turning back what is now called globalisation but transforming the relations of production and the political determinations of these globalised productive forces.

The productiveness of any single country can no longer encompass all the goods and services considered as necessary consumption in the most advanced capitalist countries, in fact in all countries.  Inferior productivity than the most developed capitalism will see workers in any isolated regime buy goods and services from capitalist countries, so undermining their own economy and empowering capitalist industry to out-compete it.  It will see workers seek higher levels of living standards in capitalist countries, which their higher productivity delivers, by moving to these countries.

Only increased productivity can undermine the requirement for differential reward as an incentive to work, while this incentive will meanwhile exacerbate inequality.  Whatever the intentions, or the more democratic relations of production in any progressive departure from capitalism, superior capitalist forces of production will destroy such a departure if based on a narrow nationalist basis.  This is but a negative formulation of the earlier posts in this series emphasising the role of the forces of production determining – by bringing about, or in this case preventing – the development of new relations of production.

Of course, attempts at preventing all this can be made by administrative measures.  By curbing the entry into the country of cheaper goods produced by the more advanced capitalist countries and by reducing the supply of their new products and services.  By preventing investment in the country by capitalist firms and by restricting freedom to move to these countries of workers seeking a better life.  But how would this be possible if this society is ruled by the workers themselves?  How could they restrict their own freedoms if they are in charge?

These administrative measures would have to be imposed from without, and the mechanism for doing so is the state.  Since some workers would already have partially bought into this – if the project they supported was to create a new and separate ‘progressive’ state – they might at least initially support sacrifices and restrictions on freedoms, while others would not.  Those who would support them would seek reward for supporting the new state. Either by compulsion or reward the new ‘progressive state’ would generate its own inequality and its own restrictions of freedoms required to support this inequality – all in the name of progress and equality!  We have seen this film before and we know how it ends.

It is more than unfortunate that this understanding of the grounds for socialism elaborated by Marx and Engels have to be argued for again today, rather than having been forgotten, ignored of wilfully distorted or rejected by many of their so-called adherents.  The importance of internationalism and of embracing the interests of the working class as a whole was set out over 170 years ago:

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”  (The Communist Manifesto)

Forward  to part 35

Back to part 33

Covid, Brexit, Protest, and the Left too

A couple of months ago in a Facebook discussion with a supporter of Zero Covid I argued that if he really did believe that Covid-19 represented the threat to humanity that he appeared to claim he should demand (albeit critically) more coercive restrictions on democratic rights from the State.  Nothing, after all, is more important than life.

He disagreed, insisting that socialists can never support restrictions on democratic rights by the capitalist state.

Unfortunately the proponents of Zero-Covid supported all the previous restrictions and if they are to be consistent then these new restrictions must also be an unfortunate necessity.  All the rest of the Zero-Covid demands have been made to the state and who else is going to implement them?  Again, it was they who have been hysterical in their claims that capitalism was engaged in what amounts to mass murder.

Of course, Covid-19 did not and does not represent the existential threat claimed and much of the left is wrong about this.  Their position becomes more and more untenable as people appreciate the personal threat to themselves, they tire of lockdown restrictions and more people, especially the vulnerable, get vaccinated.  Were it to become clear that Covid-19 is endemic and therefore requires regular vaccination, as with the flu, their policy would become obviously stupid.

So it should only be embarrassing that they now condemn the rough tactics adopted by the Metropolitan police when it broke up the protest of the murder of Sarah Everard.  To be consistent they should have defended the policy of the police while salving their conscience by condemning the roughness of its implementation.

Of course, the Tories have taken advantage of the widespread acceptance of restrictions of social interaction by proposing to introduce new laws that go a long way to criminalising protest altogether, as should have been feared from the start.  I recently posted another comment on Facebook pointing this out and suggesting that those who didn’t see this coming should avoid politics and find something else to do.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is to engage in ‘parliamentary warfare’ over NHS pay while forgetting that austerity would be worse had the Tories implemented the greater lockdown restrictions demanded by Labour.  The cost would have been even greater had the Zero-Covid policy of some on the left been adopted; a policy that is the product of an opportunist attempt to attack the Tories but like all opportunism is incapable of taking a longer-term view.

It is no defence of this policy to declare that you also have a policy against austerity; one which makes heroic assumptions about the capacity of the working class to resist it.  Opportunism here is accompanied by ultra-left perspectives that envisages the capitalist class paying hundreds of millions of pounds for furlough payments, loans and grants to business and the shortage of tax receipts from workers etc.

Again, the Tories will claim the legitimacy of the bill to be paid and the left will again be exposed as it argued a policy that would have needlessly cost more. The policy of Zero-Covid simultaneously relies on the repressive apparatus of the state to work, while positing that this state can be defeated in the implementation of austerity that the policy requires.

We will leave aside any stupid notion that the combination of pandemic and austerity will somehow galvanise the working class to revolution; although these conceptions are precisely how much of the left envisages socialist revolution coming about – capitalist crisis producing a mass political consciousness that their political conceptions and interventions are incapable of envisaging coming about in any other way.

Despite their serial corruption and incompetence in most of their response to the pandemic the Tories are ahead in the polls.  Their bedrock support has relied, and continues to rely, upon their support for Brexit.  The pandemic has been used to hide the damage done by it and the Labour Party has been too afraid and too stupid to lead a political attack on it.

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee can write that “Labour will plug away, exposing myriad flaws in the dreadful trade deal” but this is meaningless if you don’t oppose it.  It looks hypocritical, since Labour supported the deal, and it looks like the dishonesty typical of politicians given Starmer’s avoidance of even mentioning the word, refusal to seek renegotiation of the deal, and previous policy of pushing the Tories to ‘get Brexit done‘.

But once again, while Labour fails, much of the left is actually worse, having supported Brexit from the start and campaigned for it in the referendum.  The damage to working class living standards and the austerity it will entail is on them.  They too, just like the Tories, are relying on Covid and the Tory press to hide Brexit’s damaging effects and just like Boris Johnson they will – child-like – deny any responsibility.

Two alternative narratives have developed – the fault is with Brexit or the fault is with the big bad EU.  The left that thought it could move on will be cut in two by these scissors but there is little chance that it will fess up and admit a mistake.  As a rule the left does not admit mistakes and certainly not ones as big as this, especially as they cannot consign it to history.

A few years ago a comrade on the left from the Official Republican tradition said to me, while we were watching the May Day parade in Belfast, that so much of the left was rotten that it basically had to die away before a new generation of socialists could make progress. He may even have included his own tradition in that, and in my view this should certainly be the case, but it isn’t as simple as that.  The corruption of Marxism perpetrated by the nationalist and statist left both in Ireland and Britain will not be easily cleansed.

In the meantime, you can hardly blame the British working class if it ignores much of the left, it is quite right to do so.

Brexit isn’t working

Brexit isn’t working, and isn’t going to work.  Sooner or later its false promises were going to be exposed and it didn’t take long.  The recession caused by the Government’s Covid-19 lockdown policy has only partially hidden its effects but sector specific issues and complaints from trade associations plus the emergence of official statistics are revealing the damage.

French customs recorded that exports and imports to the UK in January fell by 13 and 20 per cent compared to the average of the previous six months, while the volume of French trade to other countries increased.  German exports to the UK were down 30 per cent year on year, continuing the decline since the Brexit referendum, while Italy reported a 38 per cent drop in exports and 70 per cent drop in exports.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to the pandemic and its effect on the reduction of consumer demand, and some due to the build-up of inventory in anticipation of Brexit, but these are dramatic reductions.  Although not dramatic enough it seems.

It is now reported that the British Government is so Brexit unprepared that the introduction of checks required by it, postponed until April and July, would so damage trade that they could lead to shortages in supermarkets.  They will therefore be deferred further, with a “lighter touch” in controls on imports while work on border inspection posts continues, or in some cases only starts.

British exports to the EU however will continue to have the full suite of border checks applied, while the EU will be alert to the components imported into the UK that are incorporated into these exports but have been subject to rudimentary checks, if any.  Other countries might also wonder at British discrimination in favour of EU exports to the UK while theirs suffers the full panoply of inspections.  This temporary solution cannot therefore be a permanent one but has the potential to create more problems – the “fantastic” Brexit deal all over it might be said.

On this score, while unable to implement controls on its own borders, the ‘Minister for the Benefits of Brexit’ still celebrates the achievement of “a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny while keeping open and free trade between us”; claiming that while many said it could not be done, David Frost can declare “but we did it”. Except that what “we did” – what he was personally responsible for negotiating – he has now torn up three times in one week in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol (in relation to supermarkets, parcels and plants/machinery).

The greater integration of the Northern Ireland economy into the British, and the political divisions within it, have brought to the fore the irreducible problems of Brexit that in Britain have been addressed by reduction in trade, lorry parks, restriction of entry into Kent and postponement of the application of import controls.

These controls are undoubtedly onerous, with potentially separate approval documentation for hundreds of individual items in containers and lorries.  Many seem petty and pointless, at least to those doing the trading.  Before the controls were even implemented the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein had written to the EU Commission expressing concerns about the effects of these controls and asking for “flexibility”.

At the time I thought that Sinn Fein was complaining about something it had supported: the Brexit border had to go somewhere and it went down the Irish sea as it wanted.  For the DUP the complaint was consistent with their opposition to any separation from Britain, even if it wasn’t consistent with their support for Brexit.  But both were guilty of not accepting the seemingly empty statement of Theresa May that Brexit meant Brexit.

The difficulty of full implementation of the Brexit deal in relation to the North of Ireland was appreciated by the EU, which is why it was prepared to come to some agreement with the British Government if this could be separated from wider application.  This is what the EU side thought it was doing when perfidious Albion did what it does.

Both the EU and the British sought to leverage the situation in Ireland to their advantage and the latest spat is a continuation of that.  The breach of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is a provocation that obviously plays well for the Tories politically but it has no future and can only fool the gullible Brexit supporters so often – yes even some of them will eventually twig.

The EU will not be deterred from pursuing its existing course and if it does not hold all the cards, the ones held by the British entail paying a price for their being played.  The range of actions it can take will always involve a higher price being incurred by them than the EU.  The possible benefit to the British is that any eventual fudge needed to get the Irish Sea border arrangements to work can be claimed as a victory even if the EU is content to accept it.

For the EU, the difficulty is, as they say, one of trust.  How can it be confident that any attempt to adjust the working of the NI Protocol does not entail more than a fudge that it can live with?  It is even now pointing out that the British are not implementing the deal already agreed, including providing EU officials with the information they require to validate checks.

Given the nature of the existing TCA there is no great need for the EU to seek to ‘punish’ the British, it has enough mechanisms to address non-compliance.  Were the British Government to still seek to essentially violate and contravene the Protocol it would compel the EU and Irish Government to choose between a Brexit border at the Irish land border or make the entry and exit points in the Irish State that border.  The latter has been described by unionism as a win-win-win situation (for GB, NI and the Irish State) but it would entail all goods leaving the Irish State being subject to checks whether made in that EU member state or not, and it would mean acceptance into that state of any British product whether single market compliant or not; hardly a win for Dublin.

The Brexit border at the Irish border would be widely condemned as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and although it isn’t we have reached a stage where political reaction will very much go along the same lines as if it did.  Practically it would be difficult to enforce and politically it would be very damaging.  Were the GFA working smoothly it might be remotely possible to conceive that this just about might be accepted (at a stretch) but not under current and any conceivable future circumstances given the instability of the Stormont Assembly and Executive.

Sinn Fein would find it impossible to stay in a political arrangement which produced an obviously strengthened border.  The DUP and other unionists are now faced with the same choice, as ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson has explained – basically suck it up or bring down the Executive and Assembly, which is not even guaranteed to get rid of the Protocol anyway.  Comparisons have been made with unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, but this opposition failed.

The DUP engineered the temporary suspension of Brexit checks at the ports through claiming that there were threats to staff that were not confirmed by the police.  Council staff from a DUP dominated council and from the DUP controlled Agriculture Department were briefly withdrawn prompting EU staff to follow suit.  The DUP has been unable to back up its claims of intimidation and the trade unions involved have denied claims that they had raised serious concerns.  The DUP Minister has also stopped work on building permanent border inspection posts (upon which work hasn’t started) but this too will not be a permanent obstacle to operation of the Protocol.

Loyalist politicians have engaged in their usual sabre-rattling, threatening to fight and engage in “guerrilla warfare” although this is always to be engaged in by someone else, in the first place by the loyalist paramilitaries.  They in turn have reminded everyone that they and the wider ‘unionist community’ are “angry” and are withdrawing support from the Good Friday Agreement.  Since this Agreement envisaged loyalist paramilitaries disappearing through bribery, and they have no intention of disappearing and see no need to do so when the bribes keep coming, what this ‘support’ amounts to rarely gets asked, just as it’s to lots of people’s advantage for it not to get answered.

The DUP came under criticism for meeting the paramilitaries’ umbrella group but the British Government, through the Northern Ireland Office, had already done so.  Normally when the British do something unionists don’t like these paramilitaries eventually get around to killing Catholics.  This time the immediate targets are as likely to be Protestant employees carrying out border checks as Catholics, and the British Government can be portrayed as at least partially on their side in seeking modification of the Protocol, if not yet its removal.  Their problem is the EU and the Agreement made with it.

DUP opposition has been motivated as much by falling polling numbers as the embarrassing results of its Brexit policy.  Its support was reported in February to have dropped to a 20-year low of 19 per cent, more than nine percentage points down on its vote share at the last Stormont election, which could see it being eclipsed as the biggest party by Sinn Fein.  The First Minister of Northern Ireland would then be a supporter of a United Ireland.  Most of the lost DUP voters have gravitated to the even more rabidly reactionary Traditional Unionist Voice, which according to the survey has increased its support by 10 per cent.

DUP leader Arlene Foster began the year by declaring the Protocol “the gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland” while now calling it “absolutely devastating.”  The DUP privately lobbied the British Government for a “Swiss-style” deal before their Economy Minister condemned it for requiring the UK to “slavishly” follow the EU.  The same Minister also complained about a £70m hole in her budget created by the loss of EU funding.

Unionist opposition is therefore incoherent and is partially muffled by the duplicitous policy of the British Government, which is attempting to delay the worst impacts of Brexit and probably harbours some vain hope it can modify the workings of the TCA permanently.  The EU will continue to implement the deal and to grind down non-compliance with the tools included in the Agreement.

In all this rolling calamity, that once again has exposed the disaster that is Brexit, we should finally not forget the role of the leader of the British Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, who voted for the TCA and now also owns its results.  However, rather than begin to separate himself from it and expose the disastrous effects of the Tories’ Brexit, he thinks he can ignore it and say nothing, even as it impacts the people for whom his three wise monkey policy is supposed to be for.  This, along with everything associated with Brexit, will not work.

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.