The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3


“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.

The state of job creation

In my last post on the politics of the left I questioned proposals on state investment as the answer to unemployment.  In this post I want to look at this further.  The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), an economic think-tank affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has published a similar proposal to that of the United Left Alliance (ULA).

Its paper is entitled ‘An Examination of the Effects of an Investment Stimulus’ and its research shows that an investment stimulus of €1 billion would create about 16,750 short term jobs and between 675 and 850 long term jobs.    In the longer term the competitiveness of the economy is increased so that the economy grows, which increases taxation, which more than offsets the interest cost of any loan to fund the investment in the first place.  This means that “overall there is a long-term permanent decrease in the government deficit as a result of an investment stimulus.”  This is what has been referred to often as growing our way out of the crisis and debt problem.  NERI therefore proposes a phased investment stimulus of €15 billion over 5 years.

The net cost per job created, at around €34,500, is nearly the same for both the NERI and ULA proposals.  The paper by NERI sets out more fully its assumptions so it is fair to assume that these are not dissimilar to those of the ULA, which in any case we can also fairly adduce from the ULA proposals themselves.

In order to arrive at its estimates the NERI researchers use an economic model.  Like all models these require assumptions as to how the economy works and therefore how the parameters of various economic variables interact, e.g. how imports will increase given a certain increase in income as employment increases.  This is calculated from historic data from the Irish economy.  The HERMIN model used “combines Keynesian short term features with neoclassical longer term features.”

This is a problem, or rather there are two problems, not perhaps so much for the presumably Keynesian researchers at NERI but for the ULA, whose biggest components claim to be Marxists.  The Marxist analysis of the way capitalism works is very different from the Keynesian or neoclassical one.  Unfortunately, through the budget proposals of the ULA and their similarity to those of NERI, the policy proposals of the ULA display much affinity to Keynesian economics.  We have noted this already in their definition of the problem as being one of insufficient demand, which is also the view of Keynesian economists.

For Marxists this is indeed a feature of the current crisis, indeed of all crises.  Where the difference lies is that Keynesians think that this problem can be put right by state-led investment while for Marxists the lack of sufficient demand is really just one expression of deeper problems but not the fundamental cause of the crisis, which will not be put right by expansion of state expenditure.  This fundamental difference is invisible when the proposals of the ULA and NERI are compared.

For Keynesians the capitalist economy can reach equilibrium, where demand for investment funds and its supply are equal, in a situation where there is nevertheless massive unemployment, both of people and resources.  The autonomous action of the state in increasing investment can solve this problem and bring the system back into an equilibrium that resolves the unemployment problem.  For Marxists state investment can at most postpone the crisis but is not itself an answer.  By contrast the ULA present it as part of the answer.

For Keynesians the autonomous action of the state can provide a solution because the system can reach equilibrium and investment can be the driver of the economy to this equilibrium.  As the Keynesian Minsky puts it –“Investment and government spending call the tune for our economy because they are not determined by how the economy is now working.”  That a model shows state investment to be self-financing when that model contains Keynesian assumptions can hardly be called convincing. Keynesianism believes that “if entrepreneurs can only screw themselves up to do enough investment, it will eventually justify itself, since the income generated will absorb the excess capacity.” (Robin Mathews in ‘The Trade Cycle’)[i]

On the other hand Marxists see this type of statement as an example of bourgeois economists overwhelming tendency to assume that the capitalist economy works like a socialist one; that all production will more or less fulfil a useful role.  After a crisis based on massive construction expenditure that powered a phenomenal boom and then bust, this is just an incredible assumption.  The NERI and ULA proposals are based on further infrastructure spending by the same state that encouraged the last ‘stimulus’. That NERI believes this will lead to long term growth is again built into the neoclassical assumptions of the model.  Neoclassical economics assumes that capitalist markets are totally free and efficient.  A model built on such long term assumptions could hardly show anything else.

Neoclassical economics assumes that production is efficient and finds a market and that growth is the result.  Marxism makes no such assumptions but instead demonstrates the contradiction at the heart of an economy determined, not by autonomous investment, but by the pursuit of profit.  The recent massive overproduction of infrastructure was massively profitable, which is why it continued for so long.  The contradiction between this profitability and real need; the contradiction between the limitless expansion of capital and the limit of the market, was suspended temporarily and resolved temporarily by the expansion of credit.  When this expansion of credit can no longer continue the limits of the market are exposed and massive overproduction , which inevitably involves massive over-accumulation of capital, is revealed.  Keynesianism’s answer is to continue the accumulation because investment will find its own market and in any case can be autonomous within the system, as we have seen.  Marxists believe on the contrary that the accumulation of capital is determined by profit and lack of it may see accumulation shudder to a halt and collapse.

In a contest of economic ideas, between neoclassical economics where crisis are not supposed to happen and are self-correcting when they do, and Marxism, in which overaccumulation driven by super-profits is periodically inevitable, the real world has given a decisive confirmation of the latter. In a contest in which Keynesianism can assume investment creates its own demand and is self-financing and Marxism which points out the contradiction in production between use and profit, the empty office blocks and ghost estates are again striking confirmation of the truthfulness of the latter.  So why oh why would the left want to promote Keynesian solutions?

There is absolutely no reason to believe that a renewed burst of construction spend would not create new imbalances.  Perhaps the left believes that because the state carries out the spend it does not have to earn a profit but this is false for a number of reasons.

First it has to pay for the investment.  If it takes out a loan it will have to pay it back and if the investment does not create tax revenue by promoting further private capitalist investment it will not raise the necessary tax.  In these circumstances taxation would have to come instead from workers or business, which would remove the stimulus that has been created.  If the investment does stimulate or facilitate private investment then this only confirms ULA reliance on the state promoting capitalism as the way out of crisis.

Although the ULA does call for €5.3 billion of state investment in modern industry it calls for much more, €26 billion, to be invested in infrastructural investment.  In fact even some of the modern industry investment is in infrastructure.  Such infrastructural investment is normally not competitive with the main private capitalist industries but complimentary to it, facilitating it to make profits.  By making such spend central to its economic alternative the left, subconsciously no doubt, evidences the inadequacy of its alternative and subservience to capitalism.

An alternative is that state investment is directed to the production of goods and services that people actually need and want and are prepared to pay for.  This would indeed be competitive with private capitalist owned industry but this is not what is proposed by NERI or the ULA.  Instead either taxes or the promotion of private capitalist production through helpful infrastructure is proposed.

In our last post on this we questioned the policy of reliance on state investment given its history of incompetence, even in areas of no great complexity or requiring no great innovation.  The left sometimes excuses this (why?) as the result of subordination of the public sector to private capitalism.  And the answer to this is yes, that is what the capitalist state is for.  It is not for creating competition to private capitalism so why would the left demand that it does?

Even if the specific proposals of the left, in the particular circumstances that Irish workers face, are not practical this is not the main objection to them.  The main objection to them has possibly more force where they actually to work.  For if they worked, even if only temporarily, they would be both a diversion from creation of a socialist alternative and some evidence that this alternative is not needed.  The success of state industry would be the success (temporarily) of state capitalism.

The successful development of capitalism has been facilitated by the state many times and it may be argued that the more recent, and quicker, that development the more it has relied on the state.  This may be true going back through the development of every new major capitalist power from Holland in the 17th century, to Britain in the 18th, Germany and America in the 19th and 20th, the Asian Tiger economies of the late twentieth century and the Chinese of the 21st century.

The socialist alternative is something very, very different from this but the left’s fixation on the power of the capitalist state is strong and we shall look at the question some more.

[i] The quotations above are taken from a new paper that compares the Marxist explanation that the capitalist economy is driven by profit with the Keynesian alternative of the role of investment – ‘Does investment call the tune? Empirical evidence and endogenous theories of the business cycle’ See link.


Back to the Future? – the State to deliver jobs?

Before it went on holiday the government announced the stimulus package for the economy that many in opposition had demanded. An additional €2.25 billion is to be spent over the seven years to 2018 on roads, schools, a new college site in north Dublin, primary health care centres and Garda headquarters. The government claimed it will create 13,000 new jobs and is designed as a stimulus to the economy that will promote growth.  Green Party leader Eamon Ryan got it right when he said the “plan is a throw-back to the last century when the only way Irish politicians knew of stimulating the economy was to pump money into the construction industry.”

Unemployment is 309,000 or over 440,000 if you include part time, seasonal and casual workers entitled to Jobseeker’s benefits or allowances.  The stimulus will therefore not stimulate very much.  The chief Economist for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) nevertheless said it was “an important step in Ireland’s recovery.”  The Irish Business and Employer’s Confederation (IBEC) welcomed it in almost identical words saying it was “an important first step in helping to restore domestic demand in the Irish economy.”

The feeling of déjà vu became overpowering when the Minister announcing it, Labour’s Brendan Howlin, had to ‘explain’ why road projects were going ahead in his own constituency.  His Department was also unable to provide a journalist with any cost/benefit analyses for individual projects, which are always nice to see even when they begin ‘once upon a time’.  A commentator described one road project as “largely a vanity project” and that it “never added up even at the height of the boom.”

The money will come from what’s left of the National Pension Reserve Fund, so workers will know their future pension money is being craftily spent.  Some will come from the European Investment Bank but it’s not clear how much.  Some will come from the sale of state assets.  This is where the state buys duff things from the private sector – like banks – which cost it a lot of money and sells good stuff – like companies that make profits – which also cost it money.

No spanking new construction project would be complete without the involvement of the banks and they too will be involved, although again it isn’t known by how much, but since these are funded by the State this doesn’t really matter that much.  Finally, to complete the story, much use will be made of Public Private Partnerships, a partnership where one partner gives money to the other, for example when roads don’t have the traffic that was predicted but one partner gets paid anyway.  Again we don’t know the figures but we’re not expected to get much exercised over this because it’s all for a good cause, although it’s the usual story of being bribed by your own money.

Fianna Fail complained that many of the announcements would have no effect for six years, which might have been a good thing had it applied to their own policies.  They complained that some of the announcements were bringing back projects that the government had just cancelled, such as the Grangegorman project, which inspires confidence that planning by the capitalist state will continue to be used as a weapon to discredit socialist planning. The word planning might however be going a bit too far since Howlin said it would be nice to give the new jobs to people from the Live Register and also to apprentices who haven’t finished their training, but “I don’t want to promise  that that can be done.”   It’s wonderful how governments can promise to spend billions of workers’ pension and tax money while saying that they can’t promise that it will deliver what it’s supposed to deliver.  The sense of building new health facilities while preparing to get rid of health staff and of building new college facilities while cutting the number of lecturers seemed not to have been questioned by many.

The Irish State doesn’t have a great record when it comes to investment.  It bought 700 electronic voting machines for €55 million and they didn’t work.  It wasted money on hospital co-location, decentralisation and €100 million on the ‘Bertie Bowl’.  It commissioned a PPARS IT system for the health service with an original budget of €9 million in 1997 which ballooned to €120millin in 2004 before being pulled in 2007.  The Auditor General reported that the roads programme which was supposed to cost €5 billion ended up costing €20 billion.  The high-technology Media Lab Europe set up jointly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was to focus on the development of digital technology but went into liquidation within five years with consultants describing its output as “mediocre, “surprisingly weak” and “dismal”.

The United Left Alliance’s budget statement stated that “the current crisis cannot be resolved without a state led programme of investment.”  It proposes a reversal of cuts in capital spending and an emergency state programme of infrastructure investment costing €26 billion to get 150,000 back to work.  If we assume unemployment at around 310,000 this would still leave 150,000 unemployed. What happens to them?  The programme is to last “for at least five years”.  What happens after that? The economic contraction has already been going nearly five years and the slump could continue five more.

The ULA wants to employ workers’ private pension funds just like the government wants to use the pension funds of public sector workers.  The ULA wants the latter money, €5.3 billion, to fund investment in modern industry and it rejects privatisation.  Instead it wants state companies to carry out this investment.  If successful this might make some further dent in the unemployment total and at the cost of job creation estimated in its infrastructure programme this would reduce unemployment by perhaps 30,000. Of course there would be further multiplier effects but this depends on the overall performance of the economy.

It is the assumption around this performance that motivates both the proposals of the government and the ULA.  As we have seen, the bosses organisation IBEC, and also ICTU, see the problem as one of insufficiency of demand and the government’s stimulus “an important first step in helping to restore domestic demand in the Irish economy.”  The ULA say “direct government job creation through public works is necessary to promote effective demand and halt the deepening crisis.”  The government, bosses, trade unions and the left offers a similar analysis of the problem and a rather similar remedy.  Of course the trade unions and left oppose privatisation but state ownership in itself is not socialist. What we have, as in the sphere of taxation, is a difference of quantity in the measures being proposed, not a difference of quality.

What the ULA proposes, based apparently on a Keynesian analysis of the problem, is not socialist although, if successful, would have a big impact on defending workers’ living standards by reducing unemployment and defending its welfare entitlement, take home pay and public services.  Were its proposals to succeed they would go some way to providing a capitalist alternative to the policies of austerity although they would do little to prevent the regular future occurrence of capitalist crises.

Lest it be thought this judgement too harsh let’s go back to just one proposal of the ULA, that of using workers’ pension funds.  This is a proposal that the capitalist state that has saddled the working class with an unsupportable debt and denuded its state pension fund, imperilling the pensions of future workers, should also take a chunk of workers’ private pensions, and it with its sterling record of investment and economic management.  In effect it’s a capitalist expropriation of workers funds with no more than a promise from a politician for comfort, and a few Irish workers have had letters of comfort from the Irish State before.

The workers should take over management of their own pension fund?  They should promote worker owned firms to address the problem of unemployment?  Heaven forbid!  That sounds like socialism.