On May Day Derry Trades Union Council (DTUC) launched a Workers’ Charter and published it in local newspapers. It argued the need for trade unions and for workers to organise to push for real change.
The Charter raised ‘the Red Flag of workers’ unity and socialism’, calling for ‘a Living Wage for all’ and ‘a shift in the balance of wealth and power away from corporations and the rich and towards the rest of us.’
We should therefore ask ourselves – what does this wealth and power consist of, where does it come from and how do workers shift the balance?
If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that the wealth of society is the product of the labour of the working class, with some of the lowest paid workers recognised as key to the functioning of society.
So if they are so crucial, why is this not recognised in the remuneration they receive?
The reason that they enjoy so little of the fruits of their labour is that their labour power is exercised for the production of profit, because production only takes place in pursuit of it, and is derived only from the labour performed by workers for which they are unpaid. That is why they must now work and why they are paid so little. They don’t own or control the corporations that they work for, which provides the enormous incomes and wealth of those who do, so the economy is not a function of need but of the expansion of this unpaid labour.
The supermarket workers do not own Tesco, which is paying out a £900m dividend to its owners despite getting a tax break, but they are absolutely necessary for this dividend to exist. Many firms loaded with debt will get Government bail outs while the private equity firms that own this debt sit on $2.5 trillion of cash. The state will not take this into account as they do the meagre incomes and savings of workers who apply for welfare.
The rich owners of corporations are rich because they own the means of producing the wealth of society. Their wealth and power comes from control over the production that generates current income and accumulated wealth. Health Service workers such as cleaners, nurses and doctors are exposed to danger because they also don’t own and control the NHS. They have no more control over their pay and conditions than those who work in private hospitals or private care homes. If they did the shortage of personal protection equipment would not have existed.
The answer to shifting the wealth and power in society is therefore to shift ownership and control of production to the people who work to create this wealth.
Derry TUC correctly point out that vast sums of money have been found to cover the Covid-19 emergency after years of tiny wage increases for health service and other workers – ‘the money was there all along’. It wants a tax-free payment of £1,500 for all front-line workers plus an additional four bank holidays a year.
But the money wasn’t there all along. It has been borrowed. It’s now a question of whether, how and who will pay it back. Money was found for the financial crisis of 2007-08 but austerity was imposed to pay for it.
The DTUC statement says that the government is putting the ‘economy’ and profits ahead of protecting people and public health.
But the ‘economy’ is also about the production of all the goods and services that are required to protect people and their public health. Not only the goods and services the NHS needs, that NHS workers need, but all the other economic activity that pays the taxes that funds the health service and other services, including any tax-free payments of £1,500.
The ‘economy’ is not something separate from the activity of working people, that has needs wholly separate from their needs. That is the lie peddled by the Government and bosses. The working class is the working class because it is the prime productive force of the ‘economy’.
The ‘economy’ is not just the production of profit but also the production of what people need in order to live in a civilised society. We cannot survive without continuing to produce and no amount of additional money will be of any use to us if we cannot continue to produce. Working people will be the first to suffer, and the last not to, if whole parts of the ‘economy’ are closed down.
That is the prime contradiction of the capitalist system – that it is production for profit but must also satisfy human need – and capitalism incurs crises because of this opposition.
The battle now is to ensure that the terms and conditions of those workers who return to work are safe and acceptable, and that depends on workers being ready to go to work organised and ready to stand up to the demands of their bosses. That is the lesson from health workers already having to face a lack of PPE. This requires introducing as far as possible mechanisms of workers control.
It also means the organisation of all those workers who are now unemployed and who are threatened with being idle in the longer term.
Workers cannot afford not to work, they aren’t capitalists, and capitalism does not pay for workers unless it is profitable. It would be the height of stupidity to say that we should not return to work because this is demanded only because the bosses want to make money. Of course they do! Until we have a new society based on production for need, and not profit, we have no choice but to recognise this reality, to face up to the economy we actually live in and struggle within it to defend ourselves while also fighting to change it.
Capitalism will not be overthrown by refusing to work, or pretending we can change its laws by simply demanding that profit no longer rules.
Once again, it is workers ownership and control of production that is key to workers’ defence and a socialist alternative.
The DTUC says that ‘globally, one per cent of the population holds half the world’s wealth. We need a new system’. But why is this true?
The world’s decisive capitalist class and its corporations (with its various States) holds the vast majority of wealth creation – that is what defines them. They are smaller than even one per cent, and own or control much more than half. Their lavish riches composed of multiple residences, private islands, yachts, private planes, fancy cars, jewellery, stocks and shares, and bank accounts with millions, are only the product of their real wealth and power, which is their ownership of production and the political power that derives from it.
Derry TUC points specifically to the amount of money spent in the UK defence budget, ‘set to reach £55 billion’. But why only this? UK ‘defence’ spending is only 2.1% of GDP. What about the other 97.9% that is all produced by workers? Should it not also be directed to their needs? And how else would this be done except by controlling it, which means owning it?
The statement calls for ‘a government of the people’, investing this money in areas such as green energy, but why should the State own and control this? The Irish State already owns significant parts of the energy industry in the North of Ireland as well as in the South, and this isn’t socialism. Governments already invest significant amounts in Green energy through subsidies to wind farms and taxes on consumption but this has not brought the transformation of society any closer.
The point is not to increase this state ownership but for workers to develop their own energy production, something more and more possible with smaller and more distributed renewable power generation. The point is to increase the wealth and power of the working class, not the State that defends the existing capitalist system and subsidises the capitalist class.
Derry TUC says that ‘politics has taken power away from the people moved towards the major corporations.’ But this is misleading.
The most fundamental power has always lied with the capitalist class, its system and the laws by which it operates. The capitalist class and its state has increased its power over many years but it has always had power over the working class. Working people can defend themselves and resist, but to create their own power and to create a society in which their power prevails requires an economy owned and controlled by workers and by no one else. To fight for this requires more than bigger and better trade unions; it requires the creation of a mass democratic working class Party.
This is the lesson we must re-learn and teach every May Day.
In his inaugural address to the workers of the First International Marx extolled –
‘the still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands’
To achieve this, Marx said, ‘the great duty’ of the working classes was to ‘conquer political power’ and this required the organisation of a working class party.
The policy of that Party cannot afford to defer the tasks of the working class to the capitalist state, or to pretend that tinkering with the distribution of the fruits of labour through increasing wages etc. is a substitute for revolutionising the distribution of the ownership and control of production.
As Marx said in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, a programme representing an earlier Workers’ Charter:
‘Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically.’
‘If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?’
“They don’t own or control the corporations that they work for, which provides the enormous incomes and wealth of those who do, so the economy is not a function of need but of the expansion of this unpaid labour.”
I have to disagree with this on technical grounds. It is not true to say that the workers do not own these corporations. On the contrary, they do own them collectively, and not in the sense that the bourgeois liberals often mean, when they talk about the ownership of companies by pension funds and so on.
In Capital III, Chapter 27, Marx sets out that the concentration and centralisation of capital results in the monopoly of private capital becoming a fetter on further capital accumulation, a fetter that is burst asunder by the development of socialised capital, which carries through the “expropriation of the expropriators”. The socialised capital takes the form of cooperatives, but also of the joint stock company, a legal entity in its own right, which becomes the legal, collective owner of the productive-capital.
The firm itself can be nothing other than the “associated producers” within it, i.e. the workers and managers, and so the only rational control over this capital can be that exercised by these associated producers. The socialised capital, i.e. the associated producers may borrow capital, but borrowing capital, Marx sets out means to purchase its use value for a given period of time. So, even if a socialised capital borrows capital, by issuing shares, what it has done is to buy the use value of the money-capital, and that purchase implies temporary ownership of that capital.
So, its not true to say that the workers do not own the capital of these corporations. They do, that is the whole point of Marx’s analysis and description of the joint stock company as well as the cooperative as being a “transitional form of property” between capitalism and socialism. What is more, bourgeois legal theorists have also had to accept this reality, as for example, discussed by John Kay and Aubrey Silberston.
The workers do own this capital, but they do not exercise control over it, other than in the case of the worker owned cooperative. This in fact is the pressing “Property Question” of our age. It is he form that the class struggle itself assumes, the question of why it is that workers do not exercise control over the collective property they own, and why instead shareholders – and only shareholders, not even bond holders, debenture holders, or banks making loans etc. – do exercise control over property they do not own?
This is the political struggle the question of democracy that should be central to the current times, in the same way that universal suffrage was the issue of the 19th century.