How would a policy of default be implemented? There might appear to be two ways for this to be achieved. The left could demand it as part of a manifesto to win a majority in the Dail whereupon this majority would implement the policy. This is however neither immediately realistic, practical nor will the Irish State allow workers to use the machinery of the State to challenge the capitalist system, which is what a left default would represent.
The second is that we think pressure can be put on the existing State to repudiate at least part of the debt and lessen the demands for austerity. The Irish State already wishes to get concessions from the EU and ECB but on a very limited scale and with all the strength of a beggar asking for change. However no amount of pressure will get the Irish State to break with the EU, IMF or the US. If any significant concessions are ever offered it will only be in response to either recognition that the interests of European capitalism as a whole, or the Euro project, is threatened (which is why we now have the latest deal)or if a socialist movement threatens to do more than repudiate the debt. We are nowhere near the latter situation and it is not the current perspective of the left, which is the subject of these posts.
From a Marxist perspective repudiation should not be sought in order that the existing capitalist economy should grow, although that is a better capitalist alternative for workers than the existing policy – if it could work. It should be part of a strategy of assisting the creation of a working class alternative that will ultimately overthrow this economic system and the state that defends it. We should not seek salvation from a Keynesian alternative that seeks to grow the capitalist economy because Keynesianism seeks only to postpone austerity and to effect wage reductions through inflation.
The role and place of the demand for repudiation must therefore be dependent on the stage of development of the creation of this workers alternative. We are neither at a point where the majority of the population actively seeks repudiation of the debt or even believes it a necessity and nor are we at a stage where a large movement is building up support for such a demand. Most importantly we are not at the point where the working class in in a position to reject the necessary laws of capitalism and present itself to society with a new alternative. By alternative I mean not absence of debt through repudiation but an alternative to the capitalist system, of which debt is a symptom. And by ‘present itself’ I mean not promises that things will be better under socialism, but be in a position to show actual examples of workers power in the economy and society. The demand to repudiate the debt is therefore currently limited to an educational role, a propaganda role.
This does not mean that it is unimportant. The argument on debt is important in supporting opposition to austerity, which is the only way at present that workers can actually counter the effects of the debt and in effect seek their own means of repudiating it. It plays a role in persuading workers that ending austerity is not only desirable but possible. The wider and deeper the opposition to austerity the more convincing this argument will have to be. The wider and more successful opposition becomes the more other elements of the programme become important, but we will take these up one by one as we proceed.
In relation to debt repudiation socialists are regularly challenged on the effects their proposals would have on the workings of the capitalist economy. It has already been claimed that repudiation of the debt would lead to a flight of capital and virtual collapse of the banking and credit system and that, absent outside help from those just told to take their losses, it would lead to severe economic dislocation. The crisis would intensify across Europe and beyond and lengthen and deepen the recession. The reputation of the Irish State as a haven for multinational business and as a site for financial speculation would be in tatters. The loss of capitalist confidence on its own would increase unemployment. This of course does not affect in the least the purpose of our demand for debt repudiation, which is to win workers away from acceptance of payment for the crisis and for the debts of the State. As we have seen above, we do not actually currently control any mechanism to repudiate the debt.
Nevertheless the arguments against repudiation of the debt and the effects such repudiation would cause are not false, they are not a lie, or a simple blackmail because in large measure they are true. Repudiation of debt by a Russian or Argentinian government determined to get back into the markets by assaulting working class living standards do not provide the model for a working class default beyond countering arguments that it is in itself simply impossible. While for socialists they do not outweigh the necessity to persuade workers to take no responsibility for the crisis they do expose the need not just for a socialist opposition but for a socialist alternative.
For Marxists, as we have said, the achievement of socialism is based not on sound and logical argument but on necessity. If the socialist alternative is not practical then it will not succeed and will certainly not win the working class to take it up as its own programme. This is the underlying reason we pointed to for the defeat in the referendum – that we are as yet far from having a real alternative – practical ,immediate, in place right now, contesting for hegemony because it is widely if not yet universally recognised as a real, potential, living alternative.
Sine this alternative is the working class taking ownership and control of the economy, the state and society as a whole we have to answer a very simple question today, right now: is the working class poised to take ownership and control of the economy to counter the sabotage of the capitalist class as we repudiate the debts to its big cousins in the European Banks?
That is the working class as it presently exists in reality; not an idealised one that resides in books or in abstract slogans, but the working people in your street, your neighbourhood and your workplace? Have they been readying themselves to take over the running of the economy and the state; have they already taken over, or are in control of some workplaces? Are they perfecting their organisation? Have they been debating the necessity to do so, the requirements of doing so, the burning necessity to do so – to carry out a veritable revolution? If not then we currently have no answer, or no practical answer, to the capitalist charge that what we propose, if implemented right now, would simply cause chaos.
That we, the working class, are not yet ready to take over society is obvious because we can see this every day if we live within working class communities and work alongside other workers.
A fatal answer to this current weakness is to seek salvation through a non-working class solution which at first glance might look more ‘practical’ or ‘realistic’: calling on the State to do what can only be done by workers. Calling for nationalisation when what we stand for is ownership and control by the workers, not the capitalist state.
Instead of such ‘short cuts’ to a different destination Marxists recognise that we need to put forward a comprehensive programme that addresses the needs and interests of the working class and that repudiation of the debt, which is not even a specifically socialist measure, is only one element of this. It is necessary to place any specific demand within an overall programme that represents a real alternative. This does not mean that we need always to proclaim a veritable shopping list of demands or that specific and often very limited struggles and demands are not where we really are at. It is to understand and be able to explain how any particular struggle fits within a global alternative. As we have said, this alternative must assume a living corporeal reality to count as a real alternative and not simply a logically coherent programme. The beginning of a living alternative based on a coherent programme is defending the working class by supporting its resistance to austerity and renouncing its responsibility for the causes of the austerity. Only on such resistance can an alternative be built.
In addressing the austerity inflicted to pay off the State’s debt the left has recognised the necessity for a wider alternative by calling for the continuing budget deficit to be made whole by progressive taxation of the rich. In our next post we will look at this part of the left alternative.
One more issue merits being addressed in the context of the Marxist approach to the state’s debt. This is the call for an audit of the debt. The burden of the bank debt was placed on the workers’ shoulders in order to pay bondholders, but who are or were these bondholders? Who got paid in full or is awaiting payment that is a hedge fund used by the fabulously wealthy who bought the bonds at a huge discount or who already had insurance for default? Who is the recipient of this huge transfer of wealth from working people? This is an elementary demand and is not an alternative to repudiation.
For example, what if we found that it was a workers pension fund that held the debt? Then we could say to them – let’s talk about what effect it would have on your pensions of us not paying this debt. What arrangements could we come to which would recognise the legitimate claims of both sides? What if this pension fund was privately managed and subject to the normal charges by its managers which excluded the control of its members or even knowledge of what mangers were doing? Then we might say – ok, we recognise that we should not deprive you of your pensions but we have no obligation to fund the huge charges that allow the financial services industry to pay its managers and bosses salaries and bonuses that are counted in the millions. We will take ownership of our debt if you, the workers of this pension fund, take ownership of this fund and do not use it to speculate against the living standards of other workers.
Such a debt audit is thus not a call for justification of the debt but becomes a call to action – a workers’ enquiry to determine its ownership and its beneficiaries now and in the past. A call to action to repudiate what is not legitimate in our eyes and accept what we believe is legitimate by demanding the actions that make it so.
The argument will come back that this debt is subject to rules of confidentiality that are imposed by market exchanges in foreign countries. Ok then, the debt we still owe should not be paid until we know who we are paying, that it is the appropriate amount and does not involve an unfair redistribution of wealth from workers to international spivs. If the bondholders have already been repaid we still want to know who walked off with our money since we are still paying for it and we weren’t asked for permission in the first place.
The demand for an audit is a demand for the books to be opened on international finance and is the first step to taking it over. The very first step in this would be bank workers doing a ‘Wikileaks’ and releasing all the emails and documents relating to the debt guarantee and repayment. What an education that would be, especially the howls of condemnation from the powers that be – despite this being our money that is being paid over, our banks that we are supposed to own and our Government and State which are supposed to be defending our interests.
The demand for an audit is entirely legitimate; it is the first step to control and to demonstrating the legitimacy of repudiation.