The weakness of the left’s strategy is revealed in the proposals upon which they would proclaim their difference from Sinn Fein and their preference not to seek a common platform. If we look at the Anti-austerity Alliance (AAA) proposals for the 2016 budget we can see this illustrated in a number of ways. The gap in the strategy of the Left, evidenced in the AAA proposals, therefore also raises the question of how left the policies of a Left government have to be.
But first there is the reluctance of the AAA to accept that there is an economic recovery and one that many have benefited from, if only to the extent that the cuts appear to have relented. Of course, that the rich do best is a permanent result in capitalism. The issue here is not that the rich do best but the view that “for us, for working class people, for the majority of young people, unemployed people, pensioners and small farmers – there is no recovery.” (AAA)
But this isn’t true. Unemployment has fallen, and not just as a result of emigration, and wages are beginning to rise again while taxes are no longer increasing as before. These things matter to people and go some way to explaining why there will be no left Government elected in 2016.
Stating otherwise allows the opponents of socialism to claim that socialism is politics for the poorest only. It sits comfortably in right-wing rhetoric that socialists are only interested in those at the very bottom of society as opposed to better off or better placed workers. It makes poverty the issue rather than the class inequalities and class divide in society. It does not make one more of a socialist, or revolutionary, to deny that capitalism can improve the living standards of workers in particular ways, within particular limits and with regular crises that threaten the lifestyle that workers have slowly tried to create for themselves.
Worst of all, it fits with the view that socialism is created not out of the strength of the working class – that it has employment, that this employment is often skilled, that society is dependent on this skilled labour, that the working class is increasingly educated, and that it is not on desperation and oppression that socialism will be built but on hope, expectation and confidence of the working class in its potential power.
Above all, the unity of workers is based on shared interests regardless of more or less temporary differences in status and income. The income inequalities within the working class are barriers to its political unity while the reformist emphasis on redistribution ignores what all workers share regardless of levels of income.
Poverty, unemployment and marginalisation are most important from a political point of view because they present barriers to a common class identity and unity. Denying what little improvement there is robs whatever else is said by socialists of some credibility and it is not necessary to deny the growth of capitalism in order to argue for its greater failure and the need for an alternative.
When we move to the programme of the AAA the gap in the perspective of the left becomes apparent. In proposals to repudiate the debt the case of Syriza’s attempt to renegotiate the Greek debt is recalled. While it is proposed that “a left government in Ireland would demand a negotiated write-down of debt to a sustainable level” it is acknowledged that “if as the Greek experience indicates seems likely, it did not have success at the negotiating table, it (a left government) would then turn to the option of repudiation.”
The proposals state that this would involve an audit of the debt and that “it is reasonable to estimate that such a debt audit repudiation would result in a reduction of the total debt to at most 50% of GDP.” The issues this proposal throw up – of opposition by the EU and of private capitalist measures that would be taken in retaliation, in other words of everything that makes this option a challenge, is unexplained. The unwillingness to state how this would be successfully implemented and the opposition to it defeated hides an inability to explain how it could be carried out.
No amount of rhetoric will hide the failure to explain what needs to be done to implement the policy. In a previous post I have looked at the lessons that the Greek experience might teach us, which elicited some discussion, but none of the potential lessons touched upon there are presented in the proposals of the Anti-Austerity Alliance. Unfortunately problems are not overcome by ignoring them.
A second area in which purely reformist perspectives are evident is in the proposals for ‘Public Investment, Jobs and Decent Work’. Here it is argued that “the state should not only be willing to employ people in public services, but rather should also invest and create jobs in “wealth creating’ sectors of the economy – construction, communications, natural resources.”
This proposal cannot be confused with the demand for employment presented in the Transitional Programme written by Leon Trotsky, which was written to “deal with the present catastrophic period” and which was not a perspective for long term development of the (capitalist) economy. It was required in order to protect the working class “under the menace of its own disintegration.” Its purpose was not primarily to protect living standards or to provide a long-term solution to the ravages of unemployment but was necessary because “the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. . . Trade unions and other mass organizations should bind the workers and the unemployed together in the solidarity of mutual responsibility.” Its purpose was plainly mainly a political one, to put the workers in a better position to take over society, not to confuse such measures with socialism itself.
The proposal is mistaken not only on the grounds of principle, that it proposes, and expects, that the capitalist state could “provide the investment necessary for the creation of a an economically and environmentally sustainable recovery”, in other words a more efficient and effective capitalism, but that its proposals are concentrated on development of infrastructure that private capitalism has been so bad at providing almost everywhere and on which it has often relied on the capitalist state to provide. In other words state investment in infrastructure is complementary to private capitalism not a competitor to it, even if state ownership in itself could be so considered, which it can’t.
The specific proposals for investment make this clear, mostly directed to traditional state sectors – a public works programme based on the water and sewerage industries, healthcare and education; childcare and development of wind energy. All are complementary to existing private capitalist accumulation and are supportive of it. Even development of the wind industry is already well established and already has state companies at its core – ESB and EirGrid.
The most dynamic industries situated in Ireland are in the ICT and chemicals sectors (including pharmaceuticals). Encouraging the setting up of workers cooperatives in these would signal a real appreciation of the possibility of a workers’ owned cooperative sector of the economy growing in competition with the private capitalist sector, laying the basis of a future economy totally based on cooperative principles. But there is no evidence that this has been considered at all.
Finally, the AAA proposes not to raise the corporation tax rate but simply asks that the headline rate of 12.5 per cent becomes the effective rate. It is obviously aware of the timidity of its approach despite saying that: “by maintaining a regime of low effective corporation tax to entice foreign multinational companies, Irish society pays a heavy price by depriving our wrecked public services of the funds they require to provide decent living conditions for all.”
Given its view of the paramount need to redistribute income from the richest corporations to workers it makes little sense to propose that these corporations incur a tax rate of 12.5 per cent while the lowest income tax rate for workers is 20 per cent (excluding the universal social charge). The reluctance to even make them equal arises from the knowledge that such a rate would not be considered credible. The AAA is unable to rebut the claims of establishment society that low corporate taxation is essential for the State’s economic sustainability:
“If it is truly the case – as claimed by the entire political establishment (as well as Sinn Féin, who support not only maintaining corporation tax at its current levels but extending that rate into the North) – that the slightest rise in effective corporation tax, to say fund the expansion our healthcare system and end the scandal of homelessness, would lead to a flight of companies out of Ireland then that is an indictment of their system, not a mark of economic irresponsibility on the part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance.”
So despite stating that “it is not simply a matter of tweaking with elements of the system here and there”; that a “rupture is needed”; “rules must be broken” and “a fundamental transformation of our society . . needed”, it becomes clear that this rupture lacks foundation, except as a generalised declaration of the existence already of “the wealth and resources . . to deal with all the ongoing problems of the crisis”.
The calls for a “move to a socialist economy, with public ownership of the key sources of wealth, under democratic control of working people, and planned in the interests of the majority”, like the AAA “indictment of their system”, becomes a moral condemnation separated from a programme to achieve the goals desired.
If the AAA cannot have the confidence that multinational capital will not up-sticks and leave upon increased corporate taxes, never mind actively seek to sabotage a left Government’s plans, then what confidence can workers have? More importantly – what will give workers this confidence to take steps to tax the rich, tax the corporations and slash corporate welfare? The AAA itself admits that: “as was unfortunately demonstrated in Greece, the wealthy are unreconciled as a class of people to any encroachment on their privilege. . . . the rich . . . will attempt to do whatever it takes to avoid paying for the crisis in their system.”
Unfortunately the AAA comes nowhere near explaining just what “whatever it takes” means, or whatever it takes would mean for the working class to defeat this capitalist resistance. A radical left Government that truly sought to introduce a socialist society could not do whatever it takes, and this wouldn’t be mainly because of the opposition of capitalism, but because socialism can only be the creation of the working class itself, not a left government sitting atop a capitalist state. If multinational capital struck against a radical Irish state this state is not capable of taking over the production vacated even if it were able to sell internationally what it produced.
This demonstrates in a very practical way how reformist notions of a state-led transformation of capitalism into socialism cannot work. Only working people themselves can take over production and organise it on a cooperative basis. Only workers can implement a radical restructuring and development of a cooperative economy and only they can replace, if necessary, the production vacated by fleeing multinationals. That no significant section of Irish workers sees this as a possibility, as a mission, is why they buy into the fear that to challenge multinational capital too hard would only invite a retaliation they would be unable to cope with.
All this is why the creation of workers’ cooperatives is so necessary – in order to establish in the minds of workers the realisation that they can own and control production themselves; that they can create their own firms, provide their own jobs, develop their own products and markets, and impose their own discipline in the workplace. On such a basis the failure of capitalist production will more and more witness a successful rival that, as the cooperative sector grows, would provide a potential alternative to it, one based on more than simple propaganda or agitation.
This alternative would involve the realisation of workers that their future lies not in sacrifices for the capitalist system but the development of their own cooperative sector to cover the whole of production. In this rival sector of working class power all firms would be under the ownership and control of their workforce, all jobs their creation and all products those that workers see a genuine need for. Within this sector of the economy their own discipline would determine the relations of power which would more and more come into conflict with the relations of power across the rest of society. Such an exercise of power would see them shed illusions in the neutral role of the state and would see them stop looking to the state as the solution to all their problems – a state that they can never control and that can never reflect their interests or will.
Unfortunately the AAA like many others present the state very differently, as all its proposals demonstrate. I will not dwell here on whether its devotion to the capitalist state as the vehicle for socialist transformation is a result of electoralism, which posits a left government at the top of the state as the key task, or whether worship of the transformative power of the state makes pursuit of a left Government the only rational objective. But even the AAA sometimes can’t help expose the contradictions in its whole approach, as when it states that: “the contrast between the state’s efforts to publicise its corporate welfare schemes and its miserly approach to social welfare claimants could not be starker, or more revealing of the capitalist interests the state exists to serve.”
So if the state exists to serve capitalist interests why would it tax a resistant capitalist class, provide jobs for workers and strengthen their bargaining power; attack corporate welfare; countenance the replacement of private capitalist investment for its own and agree to a programme that clams will lead to socialism?
Perhaps some defence of the AAA proposals is possible by recalling its statement that “the purpose of the Anti-Austerity Alliance budget statement is to give an illustration of how things could be organised differently – how the wealth exists to provide decent living standards for all.” Except that what it holds up is more than an illustration but is proposed as an important step on the road to a socialist society. Of course socialists should not oppose the measure proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance but only because their implementation, even partially, would make taking the right steps on the right road to working class power easier.
One purpose of the examination of the AAA proposals has been to demonstrate that the conception of change held by the left is not so very different from that of Sinn Fein; one based on state led economic development directed by a left Government with popular support. In the next post I will look at further proposals to separate the left from the Sinn Fein by People before Profit and what approaches the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have for dealing with the situation after the election when there will not be the left Government they seek.