Employee ownership and socialism

coop-klBeyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book is clearly not a Marxist and he approves of arguments for workers’ cooperatives that encapsulate ‘good, basic, capitalist thinking.’  He puts forward the view that what he is proposing is, far from being woolly and utopian, not only immensely practical but has been implemented many, many times in many, many places.  It’s sheer practicality is one of its attractions and let’s be clear – the practicality of something is an attraction.  It is a clear advantage for any option that it can actually be implemented.

Much of the Left however recoils in horror at the ideas proposed in this book.  Nevertheless the impulse and development as well as the ideological case for workers’ ownership are forceful reflections of the analysis of Marx, which posits the growing contradiction between the socialisation of production and the private appropriation of this production by capital.

Ironically the author gives an illustration of this contradiction.  He compares the electronics industry in Silicon Valley favourably to that of Boston and accounts for the relative success of the former as a result of the fluidity of the movement of people involved in the industry, lack of proprietorial authority in many of the industries’ firms  and the inability of owners and managers to contain the flow of information within individual companies; all contributing to creative development of products and production.

It is notable, he says, that there is less of a top-down culture in Silicon Valley and that employee ownership has been a major driver in business development.  Companies could not attract good people simply by cash so instead used share options, a form of ownership, to get them to come, work for them and stay in the firm.  This together with the excitement of the work itself became the greatest motivating factors for employees.

The socialisation of production is evidenced by the increasing division of labour in which thousands, if not millions, of products are separately produced across the globe in order to come together as one combined product.  The necessity for this production to take place in a balanced and proportionate way, so that the final product can be efficiently produced, requires co-ordination and planning within and across hundreds and thousands of companies.

In April two years ago the BBC reported that a fire in a factory in the small town of Marl in western Germany had killed two people and affected the production of a resin called P-12, used in car braking and fuel  systems. This threatened car production across the world so that “Earlier this week, more than 200 executives from companies including General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford met in Michigan. -. . . The group said that it was clear that “a significant portion of the global production capacity” had been compromised.  After the meeting, the big car companies were saying nothing on the record.  But some sources now say there is a real worry that the potential impact could be serious, including a slow-down in production.”

Such cooperation is planned but insufficiently so.  The inevitable disproportions in production lead not to conscious alterations in levels of production in order to seek balance in the myriad locations but to individual crises of cash-flow or profitability in individual firms and production units, leading to crises and disruption.  Economic and production efficiency is calculated at the individual firm level without regard to the overall system of production, the cooperative system of labour, which is in place.

We saw this through the recent dispute at the Grangemouth refinery and petro-chemical works, on which much of the British chemical industry was apparently dependent.  The economic calculation that was carried out rested solely on the relative profitability of the Grangemouth plant and not on an assessment of the industry as a whole.

Both examples illustrate the contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and the increasingly socialised system of production on which it is based.

An even more dramatic illustration of this contradiction is shown by the following two graphs.  They show the falls in world trade and industrial production following the credit crunch in 2008 compared to the impact of the great Depression of 1929:

World Trade

eo fig 2 eichengreen_2ndupdate_fig1

World Industrial Production

What these show is the dramatic falls in economic activity consequent on the decisions of individual banks and financial institutions not to lend because they did not trust each other to be in a position to pay the loans back.  The huge socialisation of resources that is carried out through the credit system became a prisoner of the private ownership of these credit institutions.  Each feared that the other might be fatally insolvent due to speculation in sub-prime mortgages or old-fashioned overproduction of houses and offices as in the case of Ireland.

What has this to do with the growth of workers cooperatives?  Well, if we  understand that capitalism is characterised by the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production (including credit) and the ownership and control of these means in a separate class, the class of capitalists, we can see that such a system can exist only by workers gaining their livelihoods by selling their capacity to work on the labour market and using the money received to purchase the means of subsistence that they have just produced (but which are owned by the capitalists for whom they work).  The sale and purchase of these two types of commodities, labour power and means of subsistence, takes place in the market and the economics profession attempts to analyse how the economy works by focusing on how these markets work – without previously understanding or analysing why there is a need for these markets in the first place.

The explanation for this is that workers do not own the means of production and therefore cannot allocate these means or the output derived from them directly, through conscious planning, to satisfy the needs and wants that they have themselves previously identified.  They do not set the priorities for what has to be produced, how and where it is to be produced or consciously regulate the effects of what they produce so that any relative over-production does not lead to a closure of workplaces but to a planned decrease in capacity and switch to other desirable production.

The creation of workers cooperatives is a step in overcoming the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production and therefore of overcoming capitalism.

Many on the left advance fears that workers will become their own capitalists and because the author of this book is not a socialist he quotes approvingly the view that while capitalism is good at creating capital it is not good at creating capitalists. The fear is that the competition involved in the Market will lead workers, even those owning their own businesses, to compete with each other in a way that simply replicates the exploitation involved in private capitalist ownership.  The drive to produce cheapest will lower wages and increase work effort.  In effect workers will exploit themselves.

What this view does in effect is give priority to the Market in analysing capitalism in just the same way as do the mainstream economists.  What they don’t see is the potential of workers cooperatives to overcome the separation of workers from ownership of the means of production and through ending this separation threaten the monopoly of the capitalist class, in doing so undermining the existence of the market as a regulator of economic life.

This can be done through the simple expedient of individual workers’ cooperatives cooperating!  The immediate objection to workers cooperatives is that they will have to compete with each other, or at least with private capital, and while the latter may be true the former is not.  Workers cooperatives can cooperate with each other.

Will workers cooperatives still exist within a society that is capitalist?  Yes, which is why books like the one reviewed see no contradiction between capitalism as a system and workers ownership.  Will this involve competition and will this not involve unwanted and unpleasant features and decisions? Yes, but Marx explained that the new society would not be born except on the basis of the old one and not on one that we could choose.

The sometimes contradictory arguments of this book reflect this contradiction existing in real life.  No more so than the argument about how the transition to workers cooperatives can come about.  Here it is argued, obviously on the basis that there is no contradiction between cooperative production and capitalism, that the capitalists themselves should simply transform their companies into cooperatives.  ‘The powerful need a change of heart’; senior managers will have to ‘make do with a smaller proportion of the wealth’; managers will ‘certainly have to learn how to exercise their power differently’ and ‘advisors will need a change of outlook’.  The book has explained why this should happen but not why it is in the interests of these people that it should happen.

The author calls on Government to prefer cooperatives and points out that this will increase prosperity, boost tax receipts, reduce social problems, increase citizen welfare and reduce social expenditure.  This makes sense only if you think the State is there for all citizens and not just for a few.

It calls on trade union leaders to realise the importance of workers gaining ownership rights and the potential it has for higher earnings, enhancing workers’ rights to information and their power to influence company decisions.  On this score it might appear that the author is on more secure ground since trade unions claim to represent workers and their interests.  Unfortunately it is just for this reason that many do not support worker ownership since such ownership would undermine claims that they exclusively represent workers in a particular workplace.  Normally union leaders prefer state ownership because the state will often guarantee union recognition, and therefore the dues income that pays the salaries of the union officials, while it allows these same officials the ability and right to claim exclusive representation rights.

The alternative perspective of some of the Left – of a once and for all take-over of all capitalist production by a workers’ state – has its own problems.  It leaves no role for the accumulation of prior social power and experience by the working class or of the potential radicalising effect of prior widespread workers ownership.  Such ownership would allow a ready reply to the accurate critique we now hear – where is your workers’ and socialist alternative?

Through many posts we have pointed out the fact that this has disarmed workers in fighting austerity, debt bondage and workplace closures.  Keynesianism – increases in state expenditure – is usually put forward as the only alternative to austerity but it is not an alternative that belongs to the working class.  The perspective of a workers’ economy can take root as a concrete alternative, at least in part to the degree that workers already own and control production.

Instead the ideal of a revolution, that in one blow achieves the requirements of decades of class struggle and experience, slides into the view that this comprehensive creation of socialised property becomes a single task of a country wide mechanism, usually the state.  So the State which is the protector of private ownership is wrongly held up as the means of overcoming it, through nationalisation etc.

Even those who see the creation of workers’ ownership as a task only for a workers’ state do not appreciate that this workers’ state itself must be based on workers ownership of production and of society.  How else do we prevent the bureaucratic degeneration experienced after the Russian revolution or expect the state to ‘wither away’ after revolution, which is the goal of Marxists and which was proclaimed by Lenin after the revolution?

The fight for workers cooperatives is a transitional one in that it contains the seeds of future society within the old.  It therefore contains elements of the old and those of the new but to condemn it for the former while ignoring the latter is a mistake.  In the next post I will look at criticisms of the idea of workers cooperatives as a means of achieving working class liberation and socialism.

Reforming the Northern Ireland Economy – A job for the State

No_Entry_to_Joy_Street_in_Belfast,_Northern_Ireland,_1974The following two articles originally appeared in the newspaper of the Irish Socialist Network.

CHANGING THE NORTH’S PUBLIC SECTOR

Northern Ireland got a new Finance Minister in August, Simon Hamilton from the DUP, and he made a bit of a splash in his first major speech.

He noted the well known facts that around one third of the workforce is in the public sector and two thirds of economic output is in the State’s hands.  However, instead of simply deploring these figures and blaming an inefficient and bloated public sector he said that the public sector can help the economy grow and not simply hold it back.  He said that what was needed was a reformed public sector that was more efficient.  And who could disagree with that?

Let’s skip for the moment what he means by reform and efficiency.  Surely socialists are in favour of reforms and efficiency? Aren’t we?

Well, the answer has to be yes.  Socialists are in favour of change.  In fact we want so much change that this requires not only reforms, not only radical change, but revolutionary change.  Of course we know the DUP aren’t advocating this but that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome change that involves genuine reform that, for example, improves efficiency.  And yes, we are in favour of increased efficiency.

In fact we are socialists because we believe a socialist society is a higher form of society than capitalism and is higher because, among many other things, it is more efficient.  Such efficiency could eliminate the need for unnecessary work, reduce the burden of work that does need to be done and create enough wealth so that poverty is eliminated and everyone has a standard of living that can satisfy our reasonable needs.

Simon Hamilton also said that he is in favour of alternative models of service delivery – like mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises.  In other words public sector organisations or companies run or owned by the people who work in them.  What could be more socialist than firms or state bodies owned and controlled by workers?

Some might think this is a very naive approach to what Simon Hamilton is saying.  Surely he isn’t advocating the sort of reforms we would want?  Since when did the DUP become socialist and advocate workers’ ownership as a solution to economic underdevelopment?

Well there is a reason for the above approach and we can appreciate this reason when we compare it to the reaction of the trade unions to his speech.

I got a copy of the speech through a circular by my trade union NIPSA.  The letter from the General Secretary of NIPSA, Brian Campfield, noted the references to different models of public service delivery but said only that the view of NIPSA is that these would be detrimental to the interests of the union’s members and to the general community.

Of course Hamilton referred not only to cooperatives but also to ‘partnering with the private sector’, which is code for privatisation.  (You see! I’m not so naive!)  But this is only part of the story and not the most important part either.

Sticking only to the question of privatisation, which of course we should vigorously oppose, presents only a negative answer.  When our class enemies propose change our answer isn’t that things should stay as they are, but just be funded better.  We don’t defend the current state – or public sector as many call it – we want it changed just as much as we want the private sector changed.  We want the whole capitalist system changed, not just big private corporations but the bureaucratic state that supports and defends the corporations.

Socialists don’t look at the current state as a model for socialism. It’s bureaucratic and undemocratic.  I’ve worked in various bits of it for nearly 30 years and I haven’t had any meaningful say about how I do my work in all that time.  I have a boss, in fact I have loads of bosses, and I don’t have any say over who they are or what decisions they make.  How could this be any sort of socialism?

Socialists are socialists not only because are we against the present set-up but because we actually have an alternative – something positive to say.   So when the DUP says the present state is in need of change the first thing we should say is yes – and here is what it should look like.

It is much easier to be against things but much harder to say what you are for; even harder to explain what the alternative is and harder again to put it into practice.  That’s why when we see an opportunity to say we have an alternative and explain what it is we should grab it.

Part of the current weakness of socialism is that we, like the majority of people, are against how things currently are – with unemployment, inequality, crap jobs and the stress of everyday life – but we haven’t fought for the socialist answer that demonstrates the alternative.

Instead socialists have often been seen as defenders of the status quo – opposing privatisation but not offering any alternative to how the state delivers services, except to demand that it gets more money to do it.  Instead we are often seen as demanding solutions that don’t offer any radical change to the present system.  A better funded and bigger state is often how our alternative is presented, not just by our enemies but by ourselves!

The economy in the North of Ireland is well know as a bit of a basket case and the big size of the state sector is not the cause of it but is an expression of it.  This is also pretty well known by many.  It should be a big clue that a big state is not the answer.

Simon Hamilton thinks the public sector can be a vehicle for changing this situation and ironically the trade unions agree with him.  They just have slightly different ideas about how this can be done.

Socialist don’t agree with this and so don’t agree with Simon Hamilton or the standard trade union view.  In my next article I’ll explain this a bit more by looking at what else Hamilton said in his speech and what the standard left response has been.

STATE LED DEVELOPMENT?

When the new Finance Minister in the North said that the public sector could be a vehicle for developing the North’s economy, instead of being simply a drag, this was welcomed.  But with suspicion that this might mean privatisation.  There was also concern that he was continuing to boast of his party’s record of supporting low taxation.  In response the NEVIN economic think tank, sponsored by the trade unions, called for adequate levels of taxation; that is it was calling for increases in taxes.

What attitude should socialists take to this argument?

First of all we should recognise that states all over the world have involved themselves in promoting economic development, some more successfully than others.  Nationalists of all types are in favour of the nation state promoting its own economy in competition with other states.  For much of the last century this type of political programme was held up as ‘national liberation’. More and more state ownership was and still is presented as socialism.

It is very hard to see how the Northern state could ever be one of the successes.  State led economic development elsewhere has been successful to a point but the Northern State is dysfunctional.  Behind the rhetoric what is being proposed is not state led development but state enablement and facilitation of growth, but it is doubtful if the Northern State could even make progress with this.  Instead it will at best be reduced to attempting to lower taxes and entice a few footloose multinational companies to invest, based on a bucket of state hand-outs.

How desperate this has become was illustrated at the beginning of October when £3.3 million was given to a call centre company to promote nearly 1,000 jobs.  Half already existed, no capital investment was being made by the company and it had previously closed in Derry two years ago with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

The Northern Ireland Assembly hardly meets, it discusses things it can do nothing about and hasn’t a clue about what to do about things it can influence.  The Executive meets but has nothing to talk about since the DUP and Sinn Fein can agree nothing except to give hand-outs to multinationals.  But state led economic development requires much more than this.

It is doubtful if this is understood.  The DUP is a party of small businessmen who see the state and taxation purely as red tape and expense.  The need for the state to provide high class infrastructure and a well-educated and healthy workforce is all far removed from their immediate concerns with ‘how much tax do I have to pay?’

However a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development records that in Northern Ireland (and England), 16 to 24-year-olds scored  266 on average in a literacy test, which put them third from bottom in a 24-nation league table.  In numeracy, 16 to 24-year-olds scored 257 – putting them fourth from the bottom.

Sinn Fein thinks the economy would be great if there were only one Irish economy rather than two but there is not even an inkling that a united economic state might result in benefits for the larger Southern bit to the detriment of the smaller Northern bit.  It’s called uneven development.

A policy of relying on the state in the north for economic development looks hopelessly improbable not least because the state hasn’t been able to modernise itself never mind anything else.  The new minister, Simon Hamilton, announced the creation of a new Public Sector Reform Division but there is no strategy.

It is recognised that innovation comes from people but in his speech all he can do is ask the question – “and how do we motivate our public servants and unlock their ability to innovate?”

Don’t expect an answer.  Workers won’t get paid any more and they won’t be trusted with ownership or control over their own workplace or job.  And if you’re not trusted to control your own job how could you be trusted to make truly transformative changes to society?

One ideological supporter of capitalism once wrote a book with the interesting title ‘Why most things Fail’.  It noted that most companies fail sooner or later.  While the capitalist state will accept that this or that capitalist enterprises can fail there is one capitalist undertaking that cannot be allowed to fail, ever, because it protects the rest.  That is the state itself. Only the most trustworthy can be entrusted with state power which is why the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t really have it.  What they have are the powers of a glorified council and they don’t even exercise the powers they have.

If workers were really to be given the power to develop a new economy there would still be many failures but the powers unleashed would ultimately lead to a new society.

This however isn’t the model of state economic development on offer or championed by any nationalist party.

The Northern state has failed but unfortunately for Sinn Fein so has the Southern State.  The nature of the capitalist state everywhere is that it cannot give workers the autonomy or freedom to take risks, innovate and try to change society, for example by promoting workers’ cooperatives.  Such economic power might sooner or later form the basis of a rival political power.

In other words state led economic development is nothing to do with socialism, which is the power of the working class.  And ‘national liberation’ tells us that the key problem is liberating a state in the oppressed nation instead of liberating the working class of the oppressed nation from the state – foreign and domestic.

This means workers have no interest in supporting many of the measures usually associated with such a programme, including tax increases, which will inevitably hit them hardest, or supporting local industry against foreign as if it was somehow ‘ours’.  Socialism is not the growth of the existing state or its accretion of more and more powers.

Simon Hamilton’s proposals on privatisation are widely recognised as bad news but the bureaucratic state is not the alternative.  If the Northern economy shows one thing it shows this.

Employee ownership and capitalism

{3E6643C4-0E2F-4C4C-B00C-DB42B68D2316}Img100Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book has an unusual pedigree.  He was born into a family which owned its own business from the year Charles Darwin was born, in 1809.  As a child he did not lack for money and joined the firm in 1977, at which time 1,500 people were employed in the company.  In 1985 he became its effective Chief Executive Officer.  In between he had led a rather different life, getting a job as an unskilled labourer on a London building site after leaving university

Through this real life experience he leant what thousands of Professors of economics are not – that it is employee’s work that creates wealth – and that the key to a company’s performance is leadership and commitment; leadership and commitment from everyone in the organisation.  That leadership is important should be readily understood by socialists.

He is therefore a strong advocate of employee ownership and the book presents his own experience of turning his family business into a workers’ cooperative and his own views on the benefits of such ownership.  He notes that because workers are so used to being ignored and exploited even the most minimal change, such as being allowed to own shares in the company, have positive effects in boosting productivity and performance.  He also notes however that such schemes transfer no real influence.  He is therefore clear that what is necessary is ownership because without ownership there is no real control.

Employee owned businesses do better because their workers are better trained, contribute more to the business and are more adaptable to change.  They generally do not suffer from underinvestment, do not lack ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and do not exhibit shirking as workers monitor each other’s work effort.  Academic studies show them to be more productive and, while business problems are not solved by employee ownership in itself, or prevent strategic mistakes that may threaten the company’s existence, employee ownership will help the company survive longer.  If you own something you will look after it better.

He contrasts this with the views of traditional economists who, with no evidence, in fact against the evidence, claim that employee ownership will witness workers extract cash at the expense of the long term health of the business, take too long to make decisions, will see them avoid difficult decisions and witness the performance of  their business decline

In contrast he claims that the participation of everyone in decision making, and everyone being equally affected by the decisions made, makes for better decisions.

In his quest to turn the family company into a workers’ cooperative he was repeatedly told by finance advisors and other professionals that this was not a good idea.  The Market is always right – by definition.

He quotes one supporter of employee ownership who complains that workers normally have none of the rights associated with ownership, such as information, participation and control, and that while capitalism is good at creating capital, it is lousy at creating capitalists.

The view that cooperatives make capitalists of workers is one also heard from trade unions and argued as a reason to oppose workers’ ownership.  The author provides many examples of real employee ownership where workers have struggled with issues of productivity and competitiveness and where jobs have had to be cut because of threats of wholesale closure.

However the view that the Market is inimical to workers’ cooperatives is interesting because  in strict logic this is obviously not the case while it is also not the view most widespread on the Left, which is that workers’ cooperatives are simply not an alternative to capitalism because the market does not disappear and therefore capitalism does not disappear.

But it is not at all that simple and the hostility of some defenders of the market to worker owned companies is perfectly rational.

Irrespective of this the author notes that every generation throws up experiments with workers’ ownership but that most often this is not the result of the initiative of the workers themselves but arises from existing owners, from unusual individuals who stand against prevailing orthodoxy.  Who, from ideals of fairness, from appreciation of the contribution made to the company by workers, or realisation that the company can do better under their ownership, seek to transform ownership of their business.

Among the many issues arising from the idea of employee ownership, access to finance is often held up as the insuperable barrier to a business owned by those who work in it.  However the author notes that millions of small businesses do get access to finance, that most companies finance themselves from their own resources or can get started on the basis of the business itself, with funding based on sound business plans or backed by existing assets.  Or, in the case of the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country, the workers can set up their own bank to finance their other cooperative initiatives.

This he contrasts favourably with the massive funding of mergers and acquisitions by private companies, which have a consistent record of failure, and the funding of property and other asset bubbles.  Mainstream dismissals of the viability and efficiency of workers’ cooperatives ignore the actual history and experience of capitalism as opposed to the mythical equilibrium properties of mathematical models of the market that exist nowhere outside of the models.

The massive increase of executive pay is ridiculed as an example that explodes the glib justifications of the market – that high pay for those at the top is simply the outcome of the interplay of supply and demand.  The demand for executives has not increased exponentially in line with pay but demand, fuelled by the cult of the capitalist exhibited in the growth of business schools and the MBA, alongside TV programmes such as ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘The Apprentice’, has seen supply multiply.  So why has the price risen?

Even if it could be argued that the demand for executives lies behind massive increased remuneration (to use the prevailing argot) the market is then supposed to increase supply to drive down prices to an efficient level.  Why hasn’t it?  Is it not working or is it rather that this is not how it actually works?

In the race to justify the rampant growth of inequality we now read about the ‘winner-takes-all’ society, which states baldly that market competition rewards those who win not those who come second or third or the rest.  The problem with this of course is that it is contradicted by the reality in which executive failure is still handsomely rewarded.  More worryingly for its proponents it contradicts the claim that the market rewards efficiency and is fair even minimally.

The author rejects many of the fashionable corporate claims.  For him employee ownership makes companies work better and their workers lead happier lives.  The contract of employment, which a worker signs, removes his right to his own product and pretends that he or she is a thing that can be rented.  Through case studies he argues that ownership make workers feel different – just as capitalism says it is supposed to!  But, he asks, why should such an effect be restricted to a few?

He has had enough experience to acknowledge the difficulties, not just of creating cooperatives but of running them.  How do you ensure workers’ actual as opposed to nominal participation and how do you deal with sometimes unrealistic expectations?  How do you overcome apathy among the workers?  After all, it is necessary not just to limit and control power exercised at the top but also necessary to ensure that it is wielded to effect at the bottom.

He addresses these questions and gives some practical answers, such as ownership being held collectively and not individually by particular workers.  This, he claims, has been the mechanism that ensures longevity of cooperative enterprises and obstructs private capital inserting itself and gaining control.  He acknowledges however that there is no obvious answer to what he calls the corporate governance problem.

It is exactly this question that is addressed by this recent blog post.  It is also only a Marxist approach that can address some of the apparently incongruous workings of capitalism that the author points up, such as why does it limit ownership of capital and not spread it around?

For a Marxist the obvious reason that capitalism does not encourage workers’ ownership is that by restricting such ownership capital compels workers to sell their labour power to those that do own capital and impels them to work on their behalf.  If all production was owned by workers then clearly an individual capitalist would be unable to compel anyone to work for them.

If all production was owned by the workers then equally clearly such production would be geared to what the workers wanted to produce and not to what capitalists believe would make them the most profit.  On both accounts production for profit would end.  Capitalists could find no one to provide the unpaid labour on which profit is based and the enterprises owned by the workers would have no incentive to pursue wasteful or aggressive competition aimed at forcing other enterprises out of business.  In fact they would have every incentive to collaborate in order produce in a way that met their collective needs.

When ownership becomes collective workers will feel differently but this simply demonstrates the truth of Marx’s claim that capital is not a thing but a relationship between capitalists and workers in which the unpaid labour of the latter expands the capital belonging to the former.  When workers own all the so-called capital it ceases to be a relationship between an owner and a worker, between an exploiter and exploited, and ceases to be capital.  When ‘capital’ is owned by everyone it ceases to be owned by anyone in particular so ceases to be capital.  This is why, unrealised by the author, the extension of workers ownership would spell not the expansion of capitalism but its ending.

Again and again the author reflects on how difficult it can sometimes be to get workers to think and act as owners of the enterprises they work in.   For Marxists this is indeed a big problem and is what we mean by saying that we need a revolution to change things, including changing the workers themselves.  Because a revolution is about transforming the lives of the working majority, which they can only do themselves, this includes transforming the vast amount of their lives they spend at work.  Probably unlike the author, we believe there are all sorts of obstacles and impediments put in workers way to gaining control of production, impediments that require workers taking political action to remove.

Production is only one aspect of how society works and attempting to take control of it requires ultimately taking control of the rest of society as well.  Taking control of society as a whole also reinforces the activity of workers control within the workplace.  It is also the Marxist case that ultimately no permanent and stable workers ownership or control can succeed unless the workers also control the state to defend such ownership.

There is therefore a real contradiction between workers cooperatives and capitalism, pace the author of this book, and equally no contradiction between cooperative production and revolution, pace the left opponents of workers’ ownership.

To be continued

Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

Workers’ control of production Part 2

0425.1974_Portugal-newspapeIn my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure.  Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning.  If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun.  When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.

The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.

The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action.  The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces.  He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers.  “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.

Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry.  That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant.  This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development.  They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles.  One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.

By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically.  Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember.  This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives.  This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.

The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited.  Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry.  Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.

Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union.  The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008.  In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!

The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be  learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.

In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive.  It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination.  Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present.  This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class.  Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.

The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.

It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace.  In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle.  This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result.  Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.

For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution.  Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense.  Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.

In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves.  Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner.  Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage.  Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war.  On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market.  Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.

Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed.  I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises.  But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project.  In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.

In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state.  This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control.  It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state.  The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.

What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it.  This however is not the question and not the argument being put.  There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.

The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant.  More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.

What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism.  Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.

The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers.  On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party.  Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system.  A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’  Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.

The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.

In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings.  Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.

Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents.  A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left.  Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.

In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state.  In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.

Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power.  A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.

The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base.  This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.

The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation.  In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.

Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers.  Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.

But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles.  A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present.  The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.

Trotsky and nationalisation

trotskyIn two previous posts I have looked at Leon Trotsky’s transitional programme and the general approach to a working class programme which it encapsulated at a particular point in time. In this final post on the question I want to look directly at what Trotsky’s views were on nationalisation. As I said at the start of these posts, many organisations claiming inspiration from his politics place calls for state ownership high up in their political programme. This conflicts directly with Marx’s views but we need to look at Trotsky to see if this is also true of him.

First we should note that in the transitional programme Trotsky explicitly counterposes ‘expropriation’ to “the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalisation’”. He gives four reasons for doing so. The first is that he rejects ‘indemnification’, i.e. compensation to the capitalists. Secondly he does so as a warning against reformist socialists who, while also advancing this demand, nevertheless remain the agents of capitalism. Thirdly he says workers must rely on their own strength. As we have stressed, nationalisation relies on the state. Lastly he does so because he links the question of expropriation with the seizure of power by the workers. This latter point is crucial in his presentation while, because we live in less revolutionary conditions, I have laid greater emphasis on his third reason.

Thus in the very next section of the programme from that above, in which he argues the importance and the benefits of expropriation of the banks and statization of the credit system, he says that the latter will “produce these favourable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers.”

When pushed, Trotsky accepts that ‘nationalisation’ may be accepted as a slogan but only in so far as it actually means expropriation and involves a workers’ government to achieve it. In other words reason four must apply.

It is possible to argue that the socialist programme must be taken as a whole and that therefore calls for nationalisation are perfectly valid when part of a comprehensive programme. There are several problems with such an argument but we will point out only two.

First – try finding the call for destroying the capitalist state or creation of a workers’ state in the programme of the left that might act as an alibi for demanding capitalist state ownership in the here and now.

Allied to this is the second reason. In every advanced capitalist country the working class is separated from conquest of state power by a huge gulf in social and political development and experience. The left might often be opportunistic but it is not immune to registering this fact, if only through avoidance of demanding overthrow of the state. In effect a link between nationalisation and a change in the character of the state is non-existent and the former becomes a simple call for the capitalist state to take ownership from private capitalists.

In other words the organ of the capitalist class as a collective, and its principal organ of defence of its system, is called upon to play a role in the destruction of this class and system.

For some on the left their understanding of Marxism and the working class political programme has degenerated so much that nationalisation of the economy is itself seen as the transformation of capitalism into socialism. In such circumstances however the relations of production remain unchanged; capitalism continues and the working class remains exploited, oppressed and separated from the means of production. It is precisely the establishment of this last condition that made for the creation of capitalism, and its ending that will signal capitalism’s overthrow, when the working class as the associated producers become owners of the means of production.

Trotsky was scathing about just such a belief in the socialist character of nationalisation. When talking about expropriating the banks he says that “of course this question must be indissolubly linked to the question of the conquest of power by the working class.” In the same article (Trotsky, Nationalised Industry and Workers Control, Writings , 1939) he writes that “It would, of course, be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to Socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer, into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In many formulations of the call for nationalisation there is not even a call for nationalised property to be transferred to workers’ organisations, although the sometimes call for nationalisation under workers control is a nod in this direction.

We are thus left in the following position having reviewed Trotsky’s programme:
The socialist programme must be understood as a whole and it involves the destruction of the capitalist state and creation out of the working class itself of the new state.

In no country does the working class accept such a task or seek a way to achieve it. In no county is it subjectively revolutionary.

Trotsky seeks to adapt the working class and its political consciousness to its historical task but if it is not seeking revolution and has a very low level of political consciousness how do we proceed in a revolutionary way that does not address workers with politics that undermines the revolutionary goal?

Trotsky said that “comrades are absolutely right when they say we should tell the workers the truth, but that doesn’t signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid’s geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such time, in such place, that they can accept it.”

It would therefore be wrong to believe that because the complete programme of revolution cannot right now profitably be canvassed among the working class that the programme that must be fought for is less revolutionary. This is so only in degree but not in any qualitative sense. The revolutionary programme does not lose traction, does not cease to truly encapsulate the interests and immediate tasks of the workers because we cannot yet concretely and practically today propose the arming of the working class and destruction and replacement of the capitalist state.

What is also not involved is shying away from arguing outright for a socialist society, a society run by workers, and nor is it necessary or desirable to run away from this vision to the refuge of an improved capitalism. The vision of a systemic alternative to capitalism must capture the working class for it to put it into practice. It cannot be the result of stumbling blindly into it through some disembodied ‘logic’ of class struggle. Not speaking the whole truth every time and everywhere does not mean renouncing the goal of socialism at any time.

The revolutionary programme in non-revolutionary conditions means first rejecting illusions in capitalism and in its state – encapsulated in the demand for nationalisation.

It involves rejecting the substitution of the state for tasks that must be accomplished by workers themselves and it means identifying the steps forward that workers must take to develop their political consciousness, through increasing their economic, social and political weight in existing capitalist society.

There is no shortage of demands which can do so. It involves the demand for workers’ cooperatives – production without capitalists, not just as an answer to failing enterprises but as the model for new ones, through employment of workers’ pension funds and sponsorship by existing workers organisations such as trade unions. This is a question to which we shall return.

It involves workers reclaiming their organisations from the bureaucracies which currently control them through challenging and defeating these bureaucracies. In Ireland one form this takes is opposition to the policy and practice of social partnership. This in turn may involve creation of new trade unions; whether this is so is a practical and tactical question involving judgments that must ensure socialists and other militants do not become isolated.

It means creation of a workers political party that does not become the creature of electoralist stratagems and of TDs, as in the dying ULA. Similarly it does not mean the erroneous view that declarations of revolutionary virtue can in themselves guarantee anything in the wider working class, within which lies the only promise of revolution. The working class will of necessity learn from its own mistakes just as in will be its own liberator.

A programme which proclaims that the emancipation of the working class will be the achievement of the working class itself would go a long way to providing such a programme, were awareness of the dangers of reliance on the capitalist state for solutions as strong as it should be. It is arguing against such illusions, at what might seem excessive length, that many of the posts on this blog have been directed.

It is therefore time to turn to alternatives.

Does the demand for workers control represent such an alternative and does its joining together with a call for nationalisation represent a positive overcoming of the reactionary character of the latter – nationalisation under workers control? (Hint – the answer is no).

Does the call for workers cooperatives represent a real working class alternative to capitalism? Not, it would appear, to the organisations in Ireland’s left. But are they right?

BBC ‘Masters of Money’ considers Karl Marx (Part 2)

The BBC programme was called ‘Masters of Money’ and was ostensibly all about money but there was nothing said about Marx’s theory of money, which is fundamental to explaining the current economic crisis.

For mainstream economics money is essentially just paper that can be used to exchange commodities.  Provided it is not issued in too high a quantity it will maintain its value and is useful for this purpose.  Already we can see a problem.  What is the intrinsic value of pieces of paper or metal coins?  If it had an intrinsic value its issue would hardly be a problem. It becomes a problem because paper money cannot fulfil all the functions of money precisely because it does not have an intrinsic value.

The massive expansion of credit makes credit too look like money in that it is used to exchange commodities.  However at a certain point people want paid with money and not yet more credit.  When this happens credit stops being given to some people and we have a ‘credit crunch’ such as developed in the latest financial crisis when banks refused to lend to each other and Governments had to step in.

For Marx money is itself a commodity with an intrinsic value because it too is the product of human labour.  Historically it has taken the form of gold.  This is why commodity exchange is an exchange of equals because when money is exchanged for a commodity the money is either gold directly or indirectly if it is convertible into gold.  The end of such convertibility does not abolish exchange being one of equivalents.  Just as credit cannot become real money and this is proved during a credit crunch so paper money is exposed when it is over-issued and creates inflation and when in a crisis capitalist investors look to put their money into something that will preserve the real value of their wealth.

In fact this occurs during booms when speculation on one type of asset after another leads to bubbles – in high-tech company stocks, houses, commodities and now certain government bonds. The price of oil is one barometer of this activity.

Thus just as the massive expansion of credit is not a solution to the problem of capitalist crisis and the contradiction between a limited market and profitable production so also is the printing of money through quantitative easing not a solution.  Yet according to mainstream economics there is no reason why printing money should not be a solution.  The proof of the pudding is that while quantitative easing  has prevented collapse it has not abolished the crisis.

Many companies are sitting on piles of cash including US multinationals holding money outside the US and so evading US taxes.  There is an ‘investment strike’ because of the recession which has created unemployment, falling incomes, debt crises for many countries and austerity which promises not a recovery but continued recession.  All this is worse in Ireland because it is not mainly the policy of austerity which is the problem but a massive overhang of debt, which must otherwise be repaid, and shrinkage in demand due to lower wages, unemployment and emigration.

We are back to ‘solutions’ that are based on more investment and higher wagers but which ignore that it is the system based on profit which is the cause of the problems.

Two other issues occupied the last part of the BBC programme.  The first was whether capitalism would last more or less forever or would be temporary and replaced by something else. The programme accepted that Marx’s analysis of capitalism had a lot of sense to it but it did not, to no one’s surprise I am sure, think that he had any alternative.  In fact the very scarcity of his views on this was held up a number of times while recognising that no one else had much of a clue either.

This was more than a little disingenuous.  The programme started off with shots of the Berlin Wall being demolished and of pictures of Red Square in Moscow and of Stalin.  The presenter recalled that she was at university at the time the Berlin Wall came down and one thing she was aware of was that ‘communism’ had definitively failed. The programme she said would therefore not look at what Marx had to say about communism.  To return at the end of the programme and say that Marx had no alternative while excluding what he did say about an alternative is, well, not exactly fair.

Also unreasonable was the nonsense that Marx, although he had been poor, had towards the latter years of his life become a bit bourgeois.  This seemed to consist of such things as worrying over the future of his children and taking walks in the park in quite nice areas of London.  What a traitor!  He hadn’t even been down a coal mine, unlike the presenter who went down one for the programme.

That leaves me a bit conflicted as I worry over my children, like nice walks in the park (sometimes) but have been down a coal mine (once).

More importantly the programme argued that Marx had no alternative and implied that this explains the otherwise puzzling phenomenon, gleefully expressed by ex-Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, that many people were not flocking to the banner of Marxism.  The latter is a fact, so is it the result of the former?

In an earlier post on the defeat of the opposition to the austerity referendum I asserted that the Left and the working class generally did not have a real alternative, as opposed to some theoretical one, and that this was fundamentally why many workers had voted for something that was against their interests and which some knew to be the case.  The programme actually expressed very well what is meant by an alternative, if I recall more or less accurately, it said that this would be when ‘a compelling alternative would appear.’  What is this ‘compelling alternative’?  If we are talking about the replacement of the political economy of capitalism we are also talking about its replacement by the political economy of the working class.  What is this?

Marx described the alternative to capitalism this way:

“But there was in store a 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; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. In England, the seeds of the co-operative system were sown by Robert Owen; the workingmen’s experiments tried on the Continent were, in fact, the practical upshot of the theories, not invented, but loudly proclaimed, in 1848.”

(http://www.Marxists.org/archive/Marx/works/1864/10/27.htm)

The beginning of an alternative to capitalism arises only when the working class takes action, however small, and is not limited to creation of worker owned and controlled production.  The creation of its own organisations to defend itself against capitalism also foreshadows its future control over the whole of society.  The creation of its own workers party is the pinnacle of it being conscious of its tasks.  Many of the political organisations claiming the banner of the working class and the mantle of Marx replace the centrality of the working class itself with calls upon the state, the capitalist state, to take the action only the working class can take and only which if it does take, can it be considered any step towards socialism.

So the BBC programme on the alternative of Karl Marx got his essential teachings wrong but unfortunately, through empirical impressions, got the current weakness of the socialist alternative right.  The programme itself however is an indication that this alternative is as necessary as it ever was.

Following the Beautiful Game

Capitalist ideology tells us that the consumer is king and that the decisions of millions of consumers decide what production takes place. If companies fail it is because they don’t sell goods or services that people want or at a price they are prepared to pay.

There is just enough truth in this to give it the credibility to make it widely accepted. What it leaves out, among other things, is that production also has to make a profit and that indeed this is the main reason any production takes place at all. Given the ownership of the means of production in the hands of only one group of people, these people thereby being called capitalists, and the exclusion of others, who must be required to provide workers for these owners, it is the relations of this production that, more than anything else, determines the wealth and income of the respective classes. This in turn determines to a large degree the pattern of consumption, which is further conditioned by advertising and monopoly suppliers etc.

The idea of consumer as king appears as a joke set beside the experience of recent bank failures to process even the simplest transactions on behalf of their customers, mis-selling of insurance and pension products, multiple products with safety problems, food that is positively harmful, the bottled water scam and simple, homogenous products like gas and electricity, which is sold in such a bewildering array of ‘choices’ that you can switch supplier and end up paying more. No wonder there also exists a consumer rights industry, which one could hardly imagine if what is claimed for capitalism were true.

The clash of human need with the demands of profit was analysed in detail, starting in its most simple commodity form, in Karl Marx’s Capital. Commodification and all its contradictions have since spread over an increasing variety of human activities. Sport has for some time become a global industry, more and more determined by the demand for profit.  Since the competition demanded in sport is not that trumpeted by capitalist ideology the clash is all the more ironic. Sport must have room for chance, accident, unexpected triumph and unexpected failure while sporting contest subject to the requirement for profitability more and more implies certainty and the elimination of the possibility of monetary loss.

In the recent Euro 2012 championship some things didn’t change, like England going out on penalties. But we also saw commercialisation right from the off with the child escorts entering the pitch dressed in the colours of McDonalds. How long before the kids are asked to hold a Big Mac in one hand while holding on to the player with the other?  We also saw the hypocrisy on display that goes with the increased politicisation of the game as team captains read out statements in support of diversity, opposition to racism and homophobia, support for the environment, world peace, healthy eating and helping old ladies across the road. (OK, I made some of this up.) The real priorities of UEFA were revealed when it fined the Croatian Football Federation €30,000 for the display of racist banners by their supporters at one game while imposing a fine of €100,000 on a Danish player for revealing the name of a bookmaker on his underpants while celebrating a goal.

Apart from the Euros the biggest football story of the summer has been the impending liquidation of Glasgow Rangers, claimed by its supporters to be the most successful club in the world, although I expect Real Madrid and about a couple of dozen others might find decent grounds to demure. This is not just a sporting story but involves many of the failings that have been played out in the wider economy. The collapse of Rangers is not so much analogous to the collapse of the banking system in 2008 as an integral part of it, as it boomed and bust propelled by the reckless lending of Bank of Scotland.

Allied to this was massive tax evasion and failure to stick by the rules of the national football association, which requires that the details of all payments to players for playing football are registered by the club with the Scottish Football Association (SFA). It is more or less clear that this did not happen. Failure to do so potentially renders most of the games involving these players 3 – 0 defeats. Cue potential loss of all those trophies achieved by cheating.

Regulatory failure, just like the banks, is on display as the footballing authorities, often headed by ex-Rangers Directors, failed to notice all this even though some had been responsible for it in their previous career with the club. Now one of these individuals, as President of the SFA, is nominally at the head of the organisation responsible for investigating these potential misdeeds and applying the appropriate punishment, though he availed of the tax scheme himself!

Corporate failure, greed, arrogance , criminality and cheating now join a long list of accusations against a club renowned for sectarian discrimination and violence, but which according to the Scottish First Minister is part of the fabric of Scottish society and should be saved.  At the end of the day however Rangers is just a football club. The State will not intervene to save it despite some of its supporters inflated sense of entitlement expecting and demanding it.  The Chairman of one club described it as a dead parrot or in the words of Monty Python – it is not resting or stunned, pining or sleeping, tired or shagged out; it is deceased, ex, finished, gone, and shuffled off its mortal coil.  Such is the ridicule now heaped upon the club.

Despite this Rangers were a huge club in Scotland and central to the whole professional game and to the money to be made from televising it by Sky and others.  The regulatory authorities thus threatened all other clubs with financial Armageddon if the new ‘Rangers’ company, which has apparently bought over the assets of Rangers, was not allowed to go straight into the Scottish Premier League, avoiding all those minor technicalities like winning football matches to get there.  The mainstream media, which feeds like a frenzy on the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers and the like of which simply does not exist in Ireland, dismissed the prospect of anything else as the ravings of ‘bampots’.

Then something extraordinary happened.  The requirement of ‘commercial reality’, of profit and the iron laws of capitalism came up against the force of sporting integrity, in other words football is a game where 22 men or women kick a ball and the team that scores the most goals wins.  It is not a consumer product in which the clubs that generate the biggest TV audiences get to dispense with this inconvenient requirement.  This force was embodied in the vast majority of ordinary fans of all the other clubs in the SPL who didn’t want to watch a version of wrestling, didn’t want to watch a rigged game and at bottom didn’t want to be treated as mugs.  A little respect for them was required when the footballing authorities, the old Rangers and the new company were displaying quite the opposite.

Through well informed blogs, such as The Guardian’s Orwell Prize winning Rangers Tax Case, the truth about what was happening at Rangers was revealed, and through on-line polls organised by fans, polls by clubs themselves, newspaper polls, supporters associations’ meetings and other consultations by the clubs made it clear that the vast majority of football supporters simply would not accept the new company in the SPL.  The way had looked clear for the new company to be voted in by the other clubs’ Chairmen but by the time the vote was taken on Wednesday this week all but the new company voted yes, with ten voting no and only one abstaining, much to the anger of its own supporters.  Not only had the authorities been thwarted but Sky and its owner had been told that there is something more important than its profits.

All this has been an almighty shock to the remnants of the establishment club, the authorities, mainstream media and many commentators.  It has been achieved by the spontaneous action of supporters across Scotland and beyond but the battle is not yet over.  Having failed to shoe-horn the new company into the SPL the footballing authorities are trying the same strong-arm tactics on the clubs in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th tiers of the league structure, organised in the Scottish Football League, in order to put the successor to the disgraced club into the 1st Division of the SFL.  Will the fans of these clubs prevent this as well? We shall see.

This display of power by fans has given everyone a glimpse of what can be achieved but so much more can be done.  The various supporters associations of all the clubs must find a way of meeting, discussing and acting together to continue to exert their collective will.  A permanent vehicle for their organisation must be created to develop the game in the future to the benefit of everyone involved.  The demise of Rangers has demonstrated the current bankruptcy of the whole organisation of the game in Scotland.

Clubs such as Motherwell and St. Mirren are moving to refound themselves as community clubs owned at least partly by their supporters.  At the end of the day this is the only way that the fans can assure themselves that the game they love will retain its integrity and not become the plaything of rich tycoons from the other side of the world.

Coincidentally the ‘Financial Times’ this week had a pull-out section on Co-operatives and employee-owned businesses.  This is just the alternative required so that the working people who support and participate in football can run their own sport.  The FT pull out demonstrates the practicality and benefits of such a model.  It reports that the UK has 5,900 co-operative businesses; compared to 4,800 three years ago and these businesses are more resilient, with 98 per cent still in operation after three years compared to 65 per cent of others.

It gives the example of how such companies can be run, by reinvesting into the business, sharing revenue and helping other co-operatives.  It reports on one company in the North of England in which there is no Chief Executive – “big jobs are split into teams of people”, there is a good pension, job security and flexible hours and plans for regular pay increases.  The books are open to all (which would have prevented the Rangers disaster).  “The general secretary can get to every Blackburn Rovers game.  He works in credit control two days a week, drives a forklift on Thursdays and catches up on paperwork on Fridays.  Everyone has stints in manual and office work.”  This company has been around for 35 years and the model could be easily adapted to involve fans in the ownership and running of the clubs and of the league.

Behind all the threats of financial collapse lies the reality that Scottish Football must change.  This does not require selling out on the vey fundamentals of the game but nor does it mean turning inwards.  One football blog has proposed that Scottish teams join the English league and that each club finds its level within it.  This at first sight might seem the very antithesis of the alternative above.  I believe it is not.  The rebuilding of Scottish Football on the foundations of worker and supporter ownership and control could seek to export and demonstrate this model to fans in England and further afield.

The late, great Scottish manager Jock Stein said that “football without fans is nothing” and the fans have just proved it.  That other great Scottish manager Bill Shankly, who plied his trade in England, said that “the socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”  The ordinary fan in Scotland has set a tremendous example of challenging authority and winning; a small battle in a very large war, but most importantly – a victory!