Unity all round after the election

Speculation continues about the formation of a new Government and that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will collaborate to ensure that it will be more or less stable for however long.  It would be a disturbing thing for many if the ship of State were to sail too long without what is considered to be the captain.  The Left repeats that there are no differences between the two parties and that they should unite, making it easier to present the opposition as the Left.   In doing so they remind me of regular sermons from Catholic and Protestant Churches in the North that its politicians should get over their differences, to which the latter’s reply should be – “ok, you go first.”

It is not that the Left are wrong, they are correct.  The historian Diarmaid Ferriter quoted Seán O’Faoláin in 1945 saying that “Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.”

This is something of an exaggeration – he’s wrong to say that the two parties’ ideas are not the same.  There are no ideological differences between them and this is only partly due to their respective ignorant assumptions that they don’t have any ideology in the first place; they do, and it’s called nationalism, which is very good at hiding and accommodating reactionary ideological views, often under the cover of left wing opinions.

But the long dominance of the two parties, with meagre ideological convictions to motivate them and stunted political ideas, rests on a population reared on a similar basis.  Of course the parties have gone a long way to create the lack of political development in the population but both have deeper roots borne out of the country’s lack of economic and social development for much of its history and the resulting political weakness of its working class.  This in turn has resulted in a politically weak labour movement.  An examination of this was written some time ago and I don’t intend to repeat it here.

The point is that the two civil war parties are both creations and creators of the population that supports them and that they have governed.  The rebound of Fianna Fail despite its calamitous performance as the previous Government only arises because of its continuing deep roots in society, roots that give it a permanence, which while not invariable and everlasting, nevertheless gives it a strength that can sustain major blows.  This reflects the nature of class society in Ireland and the social structure that grants endurance to the Fianna Fail clientelist machine and its nationalist ideology.

The Left would normally be built on similar permanent features of class society such as trade unions and other political movements but these are themselves politically weak and do not involve the majority of the members in regular joint activity.  This only takes place among union members when at work and mainly in their role as employees and not as trade unionists.  The roots of the union movement have particularly atrophied, as with social partnership there is little need for shop-floor or office activism when the relationship between low and high level reps and management and State sorts out everything important.  The Left has grown but mainly in localities through electoralism, not in the unions and not through rebuilding an active labour movement.  Ephemeral campaigns are no substitute for the permanent structures on which the right wing parties are based.

One mechanism that lies wholly within the Left’s power to build is a real political party; as we noted at the start the fragments could unite and stop throwing stones at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael while still in the greenhouse.  An obvious lesson of the elections, which shouldn’t need an election to be discovered, is the need for unity.

Unfortunately the AAA/PbP grouping showcases a left that comes together for the purposes of elections while tolerating and defending disunity outside them on the basis of tactics in campaigns and dogmatic political traditions and theories that they often don’t even adhere to.  The AAA/PbP is not only based on unity but also on a split within the previous United Left Alliance.

So even attempting unity is a major task that threatens the component parts because they may lose control.  But any attempt to maintain control would only frustrate the potential, the creation of which a united party is meant to release.  The point would be lost.

As I have said before, the capacity of the component organisations in a united working class party to contain large numbers of workers is very much open to doubt and in my view could only be successful if their dogmatic and undemocratic culture was dissolved, shattered or whatever simile is best applied to the process that would see it disappear.

Part of this ought also to include rejection of ideological assumptions that rest on unquestioned parroting of political views that should burn in the mouths of anyone claiming to be Marxist.  The day before the election I was listening to Today FM and Richard Boyd Barrett of People before Profit telling listeners that even those not on the Left regard the AAA/PbP as “good for the Dail”, as if it were ever any job of Marxists to be good for the institutions of the capitalist state.

Here was me thinking their duty was to expose the hollowness and pretence of capitalist democracy, not to pretty it up and sell it better than its real owners.

A further example was provided by an ‘Irish Times’ interview with the retiring (as a TD only) Joe Higgins of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who stated his faith in statist ‘socialism’ by saying that the solution to the financial crisis in 2008 was to take the banks into (democratic) public ownership, which was more or less what was done with their effective nationalisation, but which also meant taking ownership of their unpayable debts.  The idea that the socialist answer is working class, cooperative ownership was not mentioned.

No wonder so many commentators have felt able to allege that Fianna Fail “stole the left’s clothes”; a reflection of the grubby character of the clothes rather than the daring of Fianna Fail.  A promise by the latter to legislate for workers’ rights to ownership of their place of work would really have been a bold and brave step, one the Left itself hasn’t contemplated.

A left that claims to be Marxist believes that it can and has held out against the world wide right wing trend of the last decades and the even longer period of absence of revolutionary circumstances in the most advanced capitalist countries.   Of course it has not and had it done so it would, ironically, disprove Marxism, which believes that social consciousness is determined by social being, including political consciousness being conditioned by material economic, social and political circumstances.   Not simply by ideological fealty to a particular set of theories.

It would be strange if, this being the case, small and weak political formations were not subject to such forces and extraordinary if there were no examples of its effects.  Once again, ironically, the disparagement of the need for ideological debate is one such example.

While the divisions on the right are built upon denial of common ideological views that are actually there, the divisions on the Left are due to presumed ideological divisions that aren’t.  This presumption helps prevent the required political debate necessary to develop the politics of the Left beyond reformist politics that facilitate allegations of theft.

Back to part 1

The Left and the fight for reforms

SFimagesIn the first of these posts I argued that the apparent differences in various contributions to the debate on recent developments in Irish politics, including the prospects for the left, did not reveal fundamental disagreements.  Everyone from Sinn Fein to the Left alliances looks forward to a very significant challenge to the establishment and see great potential for success.

In the previous post I mentioned that the general policy platform of anti-austerity and its implementation through forming a Left Government, supported by mass mobilisation outside, is endorsed by these same organisations.

Yet proposals for an overarching alliance formed by these organisations are rejected by both sides.  Sinn Fein rejects “the Trotskyist left” because it has sought to divide the anti-water charges movement formed under the banner of the Right2Water campaign.  And it is clear that it is also rejected because Sinn Fein thinks this Left is unwilling to form a Government with the Labour Party, and incapable of any sort of political unity with the trade unions that support the Right2Water campaign.

Of course there are good grounds for these positions.  The Labour Party has spent four years inflicting austerity in Government with Fine Gael in the South and Sinn Fein has been in office with the even more rabidly right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in the North, also inflicting austerity, while claiming to oppose it through vetoing some welfare changes.  In the South Sinn Fein also voted for the justification for much of the austerity by voting to bail out the rotten banks and their gambling investors.  In this way the Irish State transferred the debts of the banks to the working class.

However the centre piece of the Left’s strategy is the formation of a Left Government in order to reverse austerity – they propose no other effective or credible means of doing so.  As I have also argued – their privileging of the non-payment tactic as the only route to defeating water charges leaves them otherwise naked when it comes to explaining how they would defeat the much greater effects of the other austerity measures.

In their arguments, despite claims to prioritise mass mobilisation over electoral success, they reveal the central and indispensable role in their strategy of electoral success.  Only by forming a Government could their demands for reversing austerity be carried out: through taxation increases for the rich and reductions for the rest; for increased state spending to create jobs; for reversing privatisation and for repudiation of the state’s debt.  The actions proposed by the Left are inconceivable without forming a Government to do these things, which is why they naturally call for a Left Government.

The Left say that mass mobilisations are key and elections are there to support them but what these mobilisations are supposed to achieve in themselves, beyond single victories on various issues that develop, is never explained.  Mass mobilisation is not itself a programme, not itself a strategy unless given some purpose and objective, given some content.  What for? To achieve what?  How and in what way would such mobilisations put forward and actually implement an alternative, except other than through a Left Government?

The genuine order of priority is made clear when Paul Murphy explains the real importance of the anti-water charges campaign – “Winning the water charges battle is strategically central to the prospect of building a left that can fight for a real left government.”

The strategy of capturing government office in a capitalist state is what Marxists call reformism and I have written a series of posts criticising this view, beginning with this one.

I’m not going to criticise the Left here for being reformist but simply to point out that their strategy requires capturing Governmental office while rejecting any arrangement with Sinn Fein or the Labour Party.  The prospect of them doing this in the foreseeable future is therefore practically zero.

I have criticised the specific proposals of the Left before not because it has proposed reforms but because they are viewed, not as making capitalism less oppressive and creating better conditions within which workers can fight for a replacement, but because the reforms themselves are seen as in some way instituting an alternative to capitalism.  In this sense their policies are not an alternative to capitalism but an alternative to the real alternative to capitalism, which is socialism.

To sum up what their approach involves – it entails the capitalist state, presided over by the Left, intervening much more into the economy and creating a fairer and more just system.  It doesn’t involve a fundamental change in the economic or political structure and amounts to a fairer form of capitalism, full stop.

If their strategy ‘secretly’ involves revolution in the traditional sense of an insurrection, one that aims at the destruction of the capitalist state, this isn’t going to happen either, if only because they haven’t gone around doors giving out leaflets and telling the only people who can carry it out that this is what they should do.

Paul Murphy presents a related reason for opposition to unity with Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party.   He says that the latter involves “the notion of constructing a “social majority”, instead of building a class based movement.”  Unfortunately this opposition of a social majority to a class based movement is false since a working class movement in itself will be a majority and its creation will win to its ranks individuals and social layers who are not working class.  The idea of a ‘social majority’, however described, should not be, or allowed to be, counter posed to a working class movement.

It is almost as if what this reformist strategy needs, and what its reformists-in-practice require, is some concrete reforms in an explicit strategic alliance with reformists.

So the Left says it cannot countenance a coalition that would include the Labour Party and/or Sinn Fein because these parties have already and will in future impose austerity when in Government.

However to many voters the alternatives offered by Sinn Fein and the Left do not seem very different.  The by-election victory of Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party over Sinn Fein, in part due to a more militant stance on opposing water charges, is not unfortunately likely to be the template for the general election.

The actions of the trade unions involved in the Right2Water campaign and their transparent attempts to endorse a left alternative that includes Sinn Fein, and even Labour if it went along with it, demonstrate this.

But the answer to this is not to simply denounce these parties, for if that were all that was required, as I have said before, we wouldn’t have the problem.  The answer must be to challenge the credentials of these parties and to win the trade union members and other workers who have supported the Right2Water campaign to a real anti-austerity alternative.  If such a process were to take place it could only be through joint activity and joint debate with the leaders and members of these parties.

In such a process it would be my view that the weakness of the Left’s own anti-austerity programme, in no essential terms different, would be exposed.   However such a strategy makes sense even from the Left’s point of view.

So, in order to begin to demonstrate their claims and in order to be seen to be seeking the maximum unity of anti-austerity forces the Left, perhaps paradoxically, would need to take its pretensions to reform the Southern State and economy more seriously.

It might do this by, for example, proposing the specific measures that it would take in the first 100 days and first year in office while demonstrating that unity around these policies is essential, challenging both Sinn Fein and the Labour Party to endorse them and fight for them together.  The Left would openly propose and debate these measures, this strategy, and seek to make itself accountable to its constituency, in the process attempting to leverage this support to engage with that of Sinn Fein and the trade unions.

The purposes of this would not only be to win these supporters to more radical politics but to promote their capacity and willingness to make the parties they currently support more accountable.  The aim of this is not so much to put pressure on these parties to keep their word, or even to facilitate their rejection when they do not, but to encourage and stimulate the independent political activity of these workers.

So, for example, the mechanisms put forward in the contribution by Rory Herne come across as elaborate and wishful scenario building that involve earnest but utopian blueprints for the ‘perfect’ movement.  But they do offer some sense of how such accountability might be achieved.

Would such tactics work? Maybe, maybe not.  But the point is that a means has to be created that allows the Left to engage with those voting for Sinn Fein and (more importantly from my point of view) for Marxists to go beyond denunciation of the Left’s Keynesianism to engage it and its supporters in clarifying the means to advance working class politics and organisation.

As Marx said:

“. . nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

What exactly divides the Irish Left?

ballot downloadIn the last article on the debate on the Left and its potential in the upcoming general election I said that I would look at the most important area in which the Left generally, despite the purported differences, were pretty much agreed.  Not on everything, but what they don’t agree on is in principle secondary.

The fundamental unity is on the nature of the new society the different groups want to bring about and the means to achieve it.

Taking the contributions quoted in the last post:

Sinn Fein: “We need to present a clear, coherent and credible programme for Government, based on an alternative model of social and economic development, that offers people well paid secure employment, high quality public and community services, fair and adequate taxation – all rooted in a strategy for economic growth that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.”

Rory Hearne:   “There is, despite the caricatures of division, much ground for agreement on policy amongst the diverse groups, for example, reversing water and household charges and austerity hitting the most vulnerable, standing up to the EU on Ireland’s debt, a write-down of mortgage arrears, a living wage, proper public health, housing, education and delivering human rights for all, direct democracy returning power to local areas and communities and a state and indigenous-led economic strategy away from overreliance on foreign multinationals, wealth taxes, expressing solidarity with Greece for a European debt conference and much more.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit and others is:

“. . . committing to oppose and organise to fight against any more austerity and for an immediate reversal of key austerity measures such as water charges, property tax, USC for those on average or low incomes, health, education and welfare cuts. It also means developing a strategy for repudiation of the bankers’ debt; for a write-down of residential mortgages; for taxation of wealth and big business profits; and against privatisation of public services and natural resources.  Instead of putting money into bank debt, we think there should be public investment in housing, healthcare, education, childcare, public transport, water services, renewable energy and environmental protection – as the start of re-orienting economic activity to meet social need and provide useful work for young people and the unemployed.”

So if there is broad agreement on a radical but not revolutionary policy there is also broad agreement on how to implement it.

Sinn Fein: “We need to translate all of this activism into change at the polls to break the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael stranglehold on the southern Irish state and install a left wing Government implementing a left wing programme – if such a Government is not possible after the upcoming general election we should maintain the momentum and keep building until we have secured the requisite public support.”

“So the immediate tasks for those of us on the Left who want to seriously challenge the Right for control of the state are clear.”

“We need to ensure that popular mobilisation continues if and when a left wing Government is installed to act as a guarantor of the promises made by progressive politicians at election time.”

Brendan Ogle Right2Water: “We will win this campaign. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. We will return a Government that will be voted in to reverse the current crazy, wasteful, ideological, neo-liberal privatisation of our publicly owned water. And then what? Is that it? What about our right to housing, to a job and decent workers rights, to decent healthcare, to education? Do we, those in what has clearly become a ‘movement’ care about these things? And if so, can a water movement become a vehicle of real social and political change?”

“The anger, and mass mobilisation necessary to reclaim our nation for its citizens are present. The citizen’s hunger for their democracy back is present and the electoral means are present.”

The joint statement of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, People before Profit, said of the alternative that:

“It should fight for a Left government committed to breaking the rules that impose austerity and that prioritise the restoration of the profits of banking and big business; for a government committed to restructuring the economy and society to meet the needs of people and to protect our environment  – including unilateral repudiation, if necessary, of bankers’ debt.”

In commenting on these joint statements Paul Murphy says that:

“These statements were a positive engagement with the process – in particular focused on three areas – calling for non-payment as part of a non-electoralist, struggle orientation; a call to rule out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour; and a clear left programme, including commitment to debt repudiation and repeal of the 8th amendment.”

Ruling out coalition with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour is a central part of this. The left needs to be ambitious and inspiring – this means not settling for the old mistakes of coalition with the right, and betraying and disappointing people in order to get Ministerial positions. Instead, it means fighting for a real left government.”

“A left government is not just one where people who describe themselves as left-wing are in government. It is one that implements a left programme – which reverses austerity measures, which pursues a strategy of debt repudiation, which stands up to bullying from the EU, which uses the wealth and resources of society for people’s needs rather than corporations’ profits and which tackles the oppression of women, migrants and LGBTQ people.”

However where Murphy claims to be in disagreement with the likes of Sinn Fein, and those in the Right2Water campaign who wish to see it as part of a left alternative Government, is his claim that a real left alternative is not so focused on elections and would not include the Labour Party.

For him the real left alternative is one that is less focused on the elections, in particular the next election, and is orientated more to both struggles outside of the Dail and to using elections and elected positions to assist the building of these movements.

Of Eoin Ó Broin’s contribution he says that “The embracing of the Labour Party by someone who has a profile of being on the left of Sinn Fein is significant. It is an illustration that unfortunately Sinn Fein is prepared to be part of a government that will continue with austerity.”

So despite similar programmes the Socialist Party opposes an alliance with the Labour Party and Sinn Fein, which means that the prospect of a ‘left’ Government after the next elections is practically zero.

It is in this sense that Burtenshaw’s argument that the population has rejected the left’s alternative is rather obviously true, so obviously true it is difficult to see how it can be denied.  A left Government in the next election that does not include Sinn Fein and/or the Labour Party is not going to happen.

In the next post I’ll look at what the Left might do, even with a reformist strategy.

Workers’ cooperatives as an alternative to Capitalism – 2

10698536_420301091453164_5593204590190940624_nMarxists believe that conditions determine consciousness.  The ideas that most people have are products of their circumstances.  Currently workers sell their labour power as a commodity.  That is why they concentrate efforts on the price of their labour power (wages) and the terms and conditions at which it is sold.

It is why they value those services that they cannot provide for themselves individually but are unable to provide collectively because they lack the consciousness and organisation to do so.  This includes such things as unemployment insurance, pensions, health care and education.

The sanctification of capitalist private property means that the former is not strictly political while the distribution of the revenue from capitalism is.  Through the latter the working class is made dependent on the state for these services, including through employment in their delivery.  The welfare dependency culture repeated like a mantra by the right has this much basis in fact.

What there is not therefore is the material basis for the growth of a consciousness that workers should own, manage and control the productive activities of the economy and the state.  Instead the growth of the state and its acknowledged political leadership are the grounds for the view that the redistributive powers of the state are the basis for a solution.  This mistaken view takes the extreme form on the Left that the state should take over production itself.  Of course this has been tried.  It didn’t work well.

What we have with the Keynesian alternative then is an expectation, doomed to disappointment, that the capitalist state will divide the fruits of capitalism to benefit those who have first been exploited in opposition to those who have carried out the exploitation, which must remain in place in order to continue funding the redistribution.

Marxists believe that the future socialist society is not utopian because current society contains its anticipation in various ways.  Capitalism is pregnant with the future socialism; except that if the state is the embryo then the pregnancy taken to full term does not result in socialism but something else entirely.

Workers’ cooperatives are one of the crucial elements of this anticipated new society growing within the womb of the old.  It reunites workers with the means of production and removes the capitalist from the workplace.  It gives ownership to the workers and elevates their power, confidence and consciousness.  It can prepare the workers involved and other workers for the task of making the whole economy the property of the working class, which is socialism.

Workers ownership can provide the basis for workers to provide the services that are currently provided by the state and which leaves them at the mercy of the state and the politicians who preside on top of it.  Such services include education, health, welfare and pensions.  Workers self-provision of this would result in their own priorities being imposed on their provision.

However to posit this as the alternative immediately demonstrates a major difficulty.  While it is possible to envisage workers cooperatives supplanting individual capitalist production it is much more difficult to envisage this in regard to the services now provided by the State.  What this once again demonstrates is the role of the state as defender of the capitalist system – through exclusion of the working class from direct control within society and protection of the accumulation needs of capitalism.

Workers’ self-provision of what are now services provided by the state would necessarily lead not to demanding more taxation by the state but less, so that workers would have more control of their earnings and would have more to pool together and employ to their collective benefit.  In short workers would take more and more responsibility for their own lives, even when temporarily or permanently unable to work.  The dependence on the capitalist state would be weakened, at least in this respect.

In Ireland workers would have the grounds for recognising that there is an alternative economic development model to reliance on US multinationals.  They would have an example of a model of development that didn’t rely on the state.  They would have a living alternative to the threats that they need the capitalist banks.

Instead of workers relying on the state to provide for them by taxing the rich or investing in infrastructure to promote private capitalist investment they would have an alternative in which it is their own activity which is the alternative to capitalist crisis.

Is this the viewpoint of a reformist and utopian scenario?  I think not.

Firstly thousands of cooperatives already exist; they are not purely idealistic mental constructions.  What’s more they can be, and many are, very successful; providing hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Living proof that workers can do without capitalists to tell them what to do.  Workers can take control, can make decisions and can be successful.

The spread of workers’ cooperatives in entirely possible, their growth and development is not precluded by any necessarily limiting factor in capitalist development, at least to the point where capitalist accumulation appears threatened by it.

The trade union movement and the political organisations of the working class can play an important role in their development.  Workers’ cooperatives are therefore not an alternative to the existing workers movement but are something that can be complementary to its development, freeing it more and more from dependence on private capital and the state.

In fact workers’ cooperatives will inevitably demonstrate through their development the antipathy of the state to workers ownership and the power that workers as a class will develop as a result of its development.  The state will inevitably be used by the class it serves, the capitalist class, to undermine competition from workers cooperatives and support private capitalist accumulation.  Such a development will clarify the lines of battle between the workers’ movement and the capitalist system.

Workers’ cooperatives are not an alternative to class struggle but a means of carrying it out.  The creation of workers’ cooperatives in Argentina following its capitalist crises is evidence of this – how much better to promote workers’ cooperatives before such cataclysmic crises rather than in their midst or aftermath.

When workers say – “where is your socialist alternative after over a 150 years of your movement?”, we might have a living movement to point to rather than a simple promise for the future.

And such a movement will be an international one because just as capitalist development has become international there is every reason why workers’ cooperative production should also be international.  Every bit of such development will strengthen the international bonds between workers and undermine nationalist solutions that are currently growing.

In other words workers’ cooperatives provide the living link between resistance against the injustice of the current system and the creation of a real alternative.  Instead of simple rejection of cuts and lack of democracy workers’ cooperatives not only posit employment and democracy within the cooperative but the transition to a new society.  Workers’ cooperatives thus provide the material basis for linking the struggle against capitalism to the creation of socialism.

Workers’ cooperatives are not a magic bullet answer to the current crisis on the Left.  There is no simple or singular programmatic answer to a crisis that exists at the level of working class consciousness and organisation.  But for the Left a programmatic answer is currently by far and away the most important contribution that it can provide to workers.

Traditionally the revolutionary left has rejected workers’ cooperatives because they have been seen as an alternative to revolution – a militant class struggle against capitalists and the state culminating in an insurrection, the smashing of the capitalist state and creation of a new one.  I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that the patient work of class organisation involved in union organising, party building and creation of workers’ cooperatives would get in the way of a burgeoning revolutionary movement.  Anyway, when was the last revolution in an advanced capitalist state, one in which the working class is the vast majority of society?

It can be legitimately claimed that workers in existing cooperatives lack socialist consciousness so how can they provide the material basis for socialism?  This objection however must also take on board the reality that decades of union organisation has also not turned the majority of trade unionists into socialists.  However no one advocates abandoning the organisation of trade unions.

Finally an objection is made that workers’ cooperatives will simply teach workers to exploit themselves within a market economy based on competition.  They will simply become their own capitalists.

However, at the extreme, the ownership of all production by the working class would not only remove the capitalist class but would also remove the need for all allocation by the market, or by socially necessary labour time, to use the strictly Marxist definition.  In other words workers’ cooperatives would cooperate with each other.  Such competition as would exist would not play the same role as capitalist competition just as the continued existence of money tokens would not make it a capitalist system.

So for example, a factory making shoes that became unfashionable would not close down and throw its workers into unemployment but would see them transfer to either production of shoes that were in demand or to some entirely different branch of production.  Other workers would support this because they would all know that what they produce might equally go out of fashion, become technologically obsolete or have its workforce reduced by automation.  In the same way the receipt of money as salaries and wages would not mean that this money would exist as capital, able to purchase labour power in the pursuit of profit.

The current value of workers’ cooperatives is not just as living practical examples of socialism but that they allow theoretical and political clarification of just exactly what socialism is.  They shine a light on the difference between workers power and all the solutions that rely on the state – from Keynesianism to nationalism.

This is the second part of the post.  The first part appeared here.

Workers’ Cooperatives as an alternative to capitalism – 1

420389_494371703955556_1654331871_nIn October I was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Glasgow South branch of Left Unity on the subject of workers’ cooperatives.  The post below is the first part of the text on which the speech delivered was based.  I would like to thank the comrades for the invitation and for the couple of pints in the pub afterwards.


The first thing I want to do is look at two problems to which I think workers’ cooperatives can play an important role in providing an answer.

In 2008 the Irish banking system was on the verge of complete collapse.  It had lent exorbitant amounts of money to commercial property development and for the construction of houses.  Not only finance but employment and state revenue became overly dependent on construction.  When the price of houses rose beyond a certain point, and when the commercial property market became saturated, the over-extension of property developers became evident in bad loans that bankrupted the banks.

This was an international problem because much of the financing of Irish banks came from Britain, the US and Germany for example.  The bankruptcy of the Irish banks would thus have had severe repercussions for investors in these and other countries, including the financial institutions in these countries.

To save the Irish banking system, to bail out the native bankers and foreign investors, the Irish Government launched a bailout of the banks through a state guarantee of all their liabilities, worth around €440 billion in an economy nominally producing €154 billion a year.  It was declared ‘the cheapest (bailout) in the world’ by the Irish Finance Minister.  This could not possibly be afforded and has so far cost an estimated €64 billion, although the exact figure is still a matter for development.

This bill and the huge budget deficit caused by the collapse of construction resulted in a series of attacks on working class living standards involving seven austerity budgets consisting of a variety of tax increases, cuts in public services and investment, the robbery of workers’ pension funds, massive unemployment, emigration and lots of praise from around the world at how well the Irish swallowed the austerity medicine.  From poster boy for the boom the Irish have become poster child for austerity.

In the following election the ruling Fianna Fail party was badly mauled and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour Party was elected on the promise of a ‘democratic revolution’ and by Labour the promise it would reign in Fine Gael.  The vote was a choice between ‘Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way.’

In truth however no one could really be surprised that this coalition continued and intensified the policies of austerity began by Fianna Fail.  That anyone thought differently demonstrated only a very low political awareness.

On the ‘left’ 5 United Left Alliance candidates were also elected and 14 Sinn Fein TDs out of a total of 166, although Sinn Fein had also voted for the bail-out.

In 2012 the Irish State was compelled to hold a referendum on the new EU Fiscal Compact that limited state deficits and debt.  It basically required signing up to continued austerity which is why it was called the ‘austerity treaty’.  Despite the unpopularity of austerity it was approved by 60% to 40%.  In my view a crucial reason for this was the complete lack of a convincing alternative.

What was the alternative proposed?

This consisted of a number of elements – repudiating the debt, opposing austerity, taxing the rich, and increasing public expenditure in order to improve public services, boost employment and further economic growth.

There are two points to note about this alternative – first it doesn’t change the nature of the economic system, it is what is called Keynesianism.  This does not mean that socialists should not support some of these measures, or point out the hypocrisy in their not being implemented.  But the question is, if the problem is capitalism and this alternative doesn’t threaten the system then quite obviously it cannot be a solution.

The second flows from this, because if it isn’t a solution would it actually work?  I’ll just take two examples from this programme – why on earth would the rich allow their wealth and income to be taken off them?  And how then could the state increase public sector investment when it was heading towards budget deficits of over 13%?

This illustrates a deeper problem with looking to the state as a solution.  This is because the burden placed on Irish workers was not simply, or even mainly, carried out by the banks and property developers.  It was the State that made their debts the debts of the Irish people and it has been the State that has increased taxes and cut services, making their own particular contribution to cutting wages and increasing unemployment.

Since the state is a capitalist state, funded and staffed at the highest levels by the propertied classes this can really be no surprise.  The actions of the capitalist state are not therefore the answer.  Not only does it not have any interest in providing a solution but it is incapable of being the solution.  State ownership, bureaucratic ownership, is not democratic and is totally unsuited to running productive activities the civil servants that staff it have no knowledge of.

There is no point calling for the state to nationalise the banks – they did and that was precisely the problem!

At bottom this is the root of the failure of resistance to austerity and is why it has not only failed in Ireland but in every other country affected by the financial crash.

The second point is connected to all this.  If the Keynesian alternative is not a road to socialism what is the road to it?

The alternative to the view that the capitalist state will reform society is that the state is actually the mechanism for enforcing oppression and exploitation and should therefore be smashed.  In this scenario of revolution the oppression of capitalist society breeds resistance which develops into a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class that then proceeds to build a new socialist society.  In this society the market is replaced by planning and capitalist economic crises become history.

But how are workers to become aware that their own ownership and control is the alternative?  How does it not only come to consciousness of this but is actually trained, ready and able to play this role?  How in the middle of crisis is a workers’ economy supposed to rise from the ashes more or less fully formed and present itself as a qualitative advance on what has went before?

Of course in some ways capitalism itself anticipates this planning through the growth of big business with advanced forms of planning within it, increased cooperation between companies that ostensibly are in competition and increased interdependency of different firms and different countries, encapsulated in the term globalisation.  This has all been demonstrated negatively through the simultaneous near collapse of the financial system, world trade and economic growth through the credit crunch plus the increased role of the state despite privatisation.

There is however one thing missing from this anticipation of the new society in the existing one and one thing missing from the scenario of revolutionary overthrow.

The missing factor is what the new society, the harbinger of socialism, actually is – the rule of the working class and its allies; the rule of the majority of society in place of the capitalist class and its managers, bureaucrats and politicians who all currently administer its rule.

Where in the anticipation of socialism within existing capitalist society is the growth of workers participation in running the economy, in preparation for taking over complete control?  Where are the grounds for workers to build a new society before, during and after revolution?  Where is the alternative that would avoid a new version of Stalinism where the State rules society rather than a society ruled by workers subordinating the state? Where even arises the motivation for workers to see that their own rule is the only valid unfolding of their resistance to the exploitation, oppression and iniquity of current society?

How are workers to come to see that it is they that not only can but must take control of society and its productive powers if they do not first take initial steps now through workers’ cooperatives?  Are we to believe they will suddenly come to realise through a revolution – an episode of at most a few years – that they must take over the economy?  How will they come to seek this as their solution unless many of them have already tried to do it and become committed to it?