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?

 

The Scottish referendum result – Part 2

ftdownload (1)In the first part of this post I noted that some ‘Yes’ voters said that their decision was not a vote for nationalism.  I said that in one sense this is very important but that in another it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter because, as I explained, the objective significance of an action is often very different from the subjective intention of the person acting it out.

On the other hand subjective intentions are important because if these voters were really for social justice, and saw independence only as a means to this, then these voters are open to arguments that there is a very different and much better road to take in order to fight against austerity and for a new society, one based on internationalism and not on nationalist division.

It must be clear to such people that the referendum was deeply divisive not only between Scotland and England and Wales but also within Scotland itself.  Much has been made of the bullying of the British establishment and big business, and I will come to this, but it is also clear that big sections of Scottish nationalism ran an aggressive campaign that is incapable of seeing political questions in other than rancorous and bitter nationalist terms in which the Scottish people are either courageous or fearties, confident or scared, proud or filled with low self-esteem.  Many No voters claim to have felt intimidated.

The nationalists have lost the vote but they clearly believe the relative success of their campaign may allow them to continue to push the nationalist agenda.  Already Salmond is claiming the promises of the ‘No’ parties are a trick, and by implication calling into question the basis of the referendum result.

The promises of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were one of two factors at the end of campaign which appear to have made some difference to the vote, with this one being the most important in this respect.  It is also therefore important that the promises of these parties are carried through and that additional devolution is given to Scotland.

The purpose of this is not to make the lives of Scottish workers better.  The SNP and nationalist movement have made much of getting increased powers for the Scottish parliament but such is the political shallowness of Scottish nationalism that it hasn’t even used the powers it already has.  The SNP has refrained from increasing taxation, and spending more on state services, for the same reason the Tories in England have opposed it.  Political attitudes are not so very different north of the border.

This is not the sign of a popular movement bursting with ideas to transform Scotland into a social democratic nirvana but a cynical populist one that damns Thatcherism while stating “we didn’t mind the economic side so much”; condemning Labour for sharing platforms with the Tories while the SNP relied on them as a minority administration to stay in office, and now demanding more powers when it hasn’t used existing ones.

The main purpose of ensuring the promises are kept is to confirm the validity of the result and to stymie the nationalist project.  This project has already engendered division within Scotland but has also fanned the flames of English nationalism.  That there is nothing inherently progressive about devolution is demonstrated by the Tories attempt to compete with the nationalism of UKIP by demanding ‘English votes on English laws’ and a diminution of the role of Scottish and Welsh MPS at Westminster.

The plans being hatched by the Tories have implications for the spread of resources across the UK and most of them aren’t good.  The demand for redistribution of such resources demanded by Scottish nationalists is a game that can be played by English nationalists, although of course the former can easily see through the greed, selfishness and divisiveness of the latter.  Other people’s nationalism always looks narrow-minded and egotistical.

For Scottish workers, and for their English and Welsh brothers and sisters, the fight against austerity and for improvements in their position cannot be won either by relying on the combined promises of the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat parties on devolution or by deepening nationalist division within and without Scotland.  An entirely different road needs to be taken.

If, for example, the Radical Independence Campaign is sincere that independence was not a goal in itself, but only because its supporters believed it made social justice and equality easier to achieve, will it now fight as equals with workers in the rest of Britain against austerity?  Or will it divide these forces by seeking change only within Scotland?  Will it argue that English and Welsh workers should join them in a campaign or will they maintain that these workers should remain separated and do their own thing?

Do they believe that justice and equality relies on independence or that such ideals are by their very nature international ones?  Do they really believe that further nationalist demands will further workers unity or will even be successful?

Is self-determination only the right to say ‘Yes’, and just what sort of self-determination would this amount to?

If they maintain the demand for independence as a necessary part of their work against austerity then they not only cut themselves off from English and Welsh workers, they also cut themselves off from half of Scottish workers.

The second new element in the latter days of the campaign was the prominence of threats by big business in the event of a Yes vote.  The pound sterling fell in value, dropping over 2 per cent against the dollar in the days following an opinion poll showing the ‘yes’ campaign with a small lead.  A fall in the value of the currency would mean that Scottish workers would pay more for imported goods.

Five Scottish banks said they would relocate their headquarters south of the border in the event of independence.  The chair of the BT group, deputy chairman of Barclays and president of the Confederation of British Industry said independence would destabilise investment in Scotland and Aegon and Standard Life also said they would move their registered offices.

The ‘Financial Times’ (FT) reported that funds data provider EPFR had said that $672m had left UK equity funds during the week, the second biggest since its records began in 2001, and one of Germany’s biggest asset managers was going to reduce its holdings of UK equities and bonds.  Share prices were therefore falling.

The FT also reported that Trusts with investments in fixed assets in Scotland such as wind farms had been engaged in an investment strike and that corporate investors had pulled more than $14bn from 36 funds with primary operations in Scotland since January.  The FT also pointed out that big Scottish companies have more customers in England than in Scotland, such as Standard life, which has 90% of its British clients south of the border.  Seventy per cent of Scotland’s external trade is with the rest of the UK and in a survey, 65% of 200 of the City of London’s top investors believed Scotland’s economy was ‘at risk’ if it voted Yes.

The message was that in the event of  a ‘Yes’ vote big business would stop investing, would move out, tax revenues of the new state would fall, its currency would devalue and jobs would be lost.

The reaction of Alex Salmond and the SNP was revealing.  Just like its response to the UK-wide parties’ claims that they would not participate in a currency union, Salmond and the SNP did not accuse big business of bullying and threatening behaviour but of ‘scaremongering’ in a campaign orchestrated by David Cameron.

In other word big business didn’t really mean what it was saying and there was nothing to worry about – an independent Scotland would be good for them.  Of course they didn’t address the problem that it wasn’t just a matter of what big business were saying but of what they were actually doing.

Salmond and the SNP could not directly challenge big business aggression because their whole case is that an independent Scotland would benefit it.  The leadership of Scottish nationalism is not anti-business, it is not ant-capitalist.  Its reaction to opposition by big business to their plans demonstrated that they are pro-capitalist, hence the weakness of their response.

The capital that supports the SNP and Scottish independence is generally small sized and there is nothing more progressive about small business with its more parochial political outlook and big business with its more global concerns.

Only one prominent independence supporter took up a different response.  Jim Sillars, a left nationalist, stated that the oil company BP would face a “day of reckoning” and nationalisation because of its opposition to independence.  However by and large the mainstream nationalist movement left him on his own and the last thing the SNP wanted were threats to business in its campaign for a business-friendly Scotland.

Not that Sillars threat was any sort of alternative.  Nationalisation would either be limited or it would produce a flight of capital.  In itself, unless there is fixed assets in the country, investment and money can move quickly out of the country and avoid nationalisation.  The Scottish State is in no position to pursue such a strategy to utmost effect and would sooner rather than later back down in the very, very unlikely event it pursued any sort of nationalisation.  The Scottish state cannot manage and operate the Scottish economy.  It would be the Soviet Union writ small.

In any case the nationalisation of the Scottish economy would not be the introduction of socialism but would rather represent a move towards national autarky with a more and more internationally isolated economy.  This is the road to regression, not to the future.  State ownership is not socialism; it is not the exercise of workers’ power.  Look at the activities of the State today?  Do Scottish workers run the state currently?  Do they have any hands –on control of it now?

The state is a strictly hierarchical structure with a bureaucracy and it is this bureaucracy that would manage and run state-owned industry under such a policy, not its workers.  That’s how all nationalised industry has worked.  In effect the state becomes the capitalist.

Real socialism on the other hand would mean BP workers owning and managing the company just as workers across the economy would own and manage their own workplaces and firms, joining together to reproduce the cooperative character of their company outside it across the wider economy.

Unfortunately the cooperative movement is currently too small and politically undeveloped to step up to the challenge of running society and the labour movement has not taken upon itself the task of making this its goal.  The sabotage of big business and the strangulation of bureaucratic state control would both produce disaster but the working class is not yet in a position to put its own rule forward as the solution.

This is nevertheless the real solution to the problems posed in the referendum debate.  The alternative to austerity is a new social system that priorities the satisfaction of social needs and not private profitability.  The answer to the demand for a democracy that satisfies the demands of the majority is a society where this majority controls society itself, not seeks the promises of career politicians to do it all for them.

Only a state structure and apparatus that isn’t separated from workers but whose management and control is a part of their working lives can end the subordination of working people to the bureaucratic state.  A country that really is ‘ours’ can only exist where the productive infrastructure of society that satisfies it varied needs is owned directly by society itself and directly managed by it.

The possibility that such a society can exist is demonstrated by existing cooperative production.  What such production needs is its extension, its politicisation by socialists and the creation of a new workers’ cooperative State that protects this form of production.

It is ironic that Monday’s ‘Financial Times’ contained an article in the Fund Management section of that paper which was headlined ‘power to the (working) people works’.  This provided evidence that even financial asset investment it is firms that are majority owned by their workers or have some form of workers’ ownership that perform best.

Rather than seeking a new capitalist state as the answer, the lesson of the referendum is that the most impressive power comes from working people themselves when they begin to organise.  Instead of falling in behind any variety of nationalism working people should set out a programme that advances and develops their own power so that one day it is their own independent power that becomes the alternative.

Scottish nationalism and British imperialism

Canny-Glasgow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism?’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2007.

‘Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose’, edited by Gregor Gall, Scottish Left Review press, 2013.

One way of addressing the arguments about socialism and Scottish independence is to review the two books above, which give a platform to a fairly wide range of views, both those in favour of a Yes vote in the coming referendum and those in favour of a No vote.  It is also interesting to compare the arguments between the two over time to see how they have stood up, or fallen down.

In my first post I said that for socialists the relationship between independence and the self-determination of the working class involves a number of questions and not just that independence must in some way be a move towards socialism or makes it easier to achieve.  It would be possible to be a passionate supporter of independence by believing that in itself it was a step forward without also implying any great move forward for socialism.  What is striking in both books is the absence of this argument and the keenness of those supporting independence to minimise such an argument and argue that independence is either intimately bound up with socialism or makes it easier to achieve.

In 2007 one contributor wrote that “when the national question rears up again, as it inevitably must, the debate will not be over the degree of devolution, but a blunt choice between defending the British state or a bold demand for independence and socialism”.  In fact, of course, it is not.  It appears as a choice between the British state and a Scottish state – both capitalist.  Two instead of one and the consequences of each.

Colin Fox argues in ‘Time to Choose’ that “the key question is can the socialist cause be advanced in Scotland through independence or not?  And the answer is yes it can, but only provided it involves a complete repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

The first problem is that the independence campaign is led by the Scottish National Party, a “pro-capitalist, neo-liberal party moving to the right” according to Fox, which would undoubtedly form the first government of the new capitalist state and, buoyed by a stunning victory, would put an indelible stamp on its new constitution. If there is a Yes majority there will therefore be no “repudiation of neo-liberalism, corporatism, the financialisation of our economy and existing class relations.”

If independence can only advance the socialist cause in Scotland by a complete renunciation of these things then clearly independence, the real independence currently on offer, will not advance the cause of socialism.

However if Scotland was an oppressed country, so that everyone within it suffered some denial of democratic rights, by virtue of being Scottish or living in Scotland, then it would be possible to argue that Scotland should be independent and that socialists should support such a demand even without the repudiation of neoliberalism etc.

Once again however the argument that Scotland is an oppressed nation is by and large conspicuous by its absence in the two books, despite the large and varied pro-independence contributions.

However one contribution in ‘Time to Choose’ does not shy away from making such a claim.  “The struggle for Scottish independence is, at its heart, an anti-colonial struggle.”

But who are the colonists?  It can hardly be the English born population in Scotland, its largest ‘minority’, all 422,386 of them.  But what other candidates for this role are there?

“Scottish independence is a blow at the heart of imperialism.”  But if imperialism is understood as an economic system nothing of the economic system in Scotland will essentially change.  If it is understood as the political arrangement of states we will have two capitalist states instead of one, both in the EU and both in NATO.

Both countries currently form a unitary state in which both are part of the same imperialist state.  While Britain has often been called England the Empire has always been called by its proper name – the British Empire.  Scotland has played a disproportionate role in this Empire, in its expansion and exploitation of the rest of the world, despite the proclivity of Scottish nationalists to talk about the British state and Scotland as if they were two entirely different places.

Left nationalists obscure the integral role of Scotland in British imperialism, talking about “independence that would . . .  free us from the shackles of British imperialism”, (Colin Fox ‘Time to Choose’). How could Scotland be shackled by British imperialism?  The Scottish people have been exploited not by the English but by fellow Scots.

Or rather they used to be.  Scottish capitalism, in partnership with the English as part of the British Empire, took an identifiably large role in building this empire precisely because it was separately involved.  The Scottish banks and other financial institutions, which continue to this day, and most of its major industrial corporations were owned and controlled within Scotland.  So much was this the case that one recent study by an economic historian has said that Scotland was even more oriented to Empire than the English.[i]

Part of this was due to the narrowness of the domestic market, a result of low incomes, itself a result of relatively low wages or the greater exploitation of Scottish workers by Scottish bosses.

In the 1960s however manufacturing employment began to fall in Scotland, in this respect no different from that of Britain as a whole.  In the UK manufacturing as a share of employment peaked in 1966 while in Scotland the percentage of industrial employment fell from 39.3% in 1965 to 32.3% in 1979, 17.7% in 1993 and 11.1% in 2007.  Scottish deindustrialisation looks greater than that of many other OECD (advanced capitalist) countries only because its starting point was higher while its finishing point is unremarkable.

The British government succeeded in postponing this deindustrialisation through regional policy and attracting multinationals through incentives, which increased sixteen-fold from 1962/63 to 1969/70, but these increasingly failed to have the desired effect in the 1970s, at the end of the post-war upswing in the world economy.  Decline in Empire and decline in industrial Scotland went in tandem because the latter was in integral part of the former.

The British state had failed to prevent deindustrialisation and the demands of the Left today for nationalisation show how little they have learnt from this failure, with their repeated calls for nationalisation.  Much of the Scottish left now wants a Scottish instead of the British state to do the business.  Nationalisation did little to reverse the decline of the railways, coal or steel industries.  In fact much of the decline took place under nationalisation, with employment in the Scottish railways falling from 55,393 in 1951 to 22,910 in 1971 and employment falling in the coal industry from 89,464 to 34,315 during the same period.

It has been argued that the beginning of deindustrialisation coincided with the beginning of serious pressure for devolution and the growth of Scottish nationalism; a section of the petty bourgeoisie clearly registering the need for another capitalist project to take over from the existing partnership in a declining empire.

In this the nationalists typically saw things in reverse, with the SNP candidate in the famous Hamilton by-election in 1967 proclaiming “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on”.  In fact Scotland had been rampaging on the world for two centuries and many colonies at the time wanted it to get off.

Aden2005

 

Today however 87% of Scotland’s manufacturing industries turnover is in companies owned outside Scotland.  One study quoted in ‘Time to Choose’ states that “economic power does not lie in Scotland.  It still predominantly lies at a UK level.”  Scotland does have an autonomous financial services industry, in so far as any financial services in Britain can be described as autonomous. It also has oil but it isn’t owned by Scotland no matter what we think ‘Scotland’ means in this context.  Trade is dominated by the relationship with the rest of the UK – “Scotland exports more than twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as we do to the whole of the rest of the world put together.” (Time to Choose p. 108)

The basis for a nationalist Scotland has therefore eroded except in one very important respect, pointed out in the paper noted above.  This is in the growth of employment by the state: official Scottish Executive figures give public sector employment as a share of total employed as 23.5 % or 580,000.  However another estimate, taking account of out-sourcing and the growth of state-funded but non-state employment, puts the figure at 31% or 772,000.  The responsibility for most of this employment belongs to Edinburgh, not London; the official figures showing that 485,000 of the 580,000, or over 80%, falls under devolved budgets.

State employment in this respect substitutes for that lost by deindustrialisation.  This employment is financed by taxation of the increasingly service based economy including financial services, with its imperialist appropriation of surplus value, and of course oil, and also by debt.  What matters to Scottish nationalists are the revenues controlled by the state and hence the centrality of the debate about the tax revenue from oil and the levels of state expenditure it might support.

Scottish nationalism represents an attempt not so much to turn its back on Empire as to give a layer of the middle classes and capitalists direct access to the fruits of state activity, its taxation and expenditure.  To the working class the SNP promises fairness while to big business it promises a lower rate of corporation tax.  It doesn’t particularly matter what this rate is as long as it’s lower than that set in London; as the Tories lower it the SNP say lower still.

The state is no less the base of the nationalist left, in fact more so since it expects the state to do even more wonderful things to the Scottish working class.  For those who believe socialism is nationalisation of the economy it is no matter of principle what state might appear the most likely candidate to carry it out.

All this is why the proposals of the SNP promise such remarkable results from independence while also promising such little change to the fundamental features of the status quo.  While the currency stays the same and no radical change in policy is offered, relatively minor differences based on pure assumptions and assertions are open to the grandest of unproven promises.  No wonder there are complaints about the lack of clarity generated by the debate and confusion caused by claim and counter-claim.

Hypotheses, projections and counterfactuals take the place of hard and immediate alternatives.  So the debate is about can Scotland continue to use the pound sterling; can it stay a member of the EU or negotiate membership within months; can it continue with the Bank of England as lender of last resort and with financial regulation ‘from London’, otherwise a term of nationalist abuse.

There is no or precious little debate about whether the pound should be the currency or what a currency means or is supposed to achieve, or about how the financial services industry could provide the catalyst for a new economic crisis.  Keeping the pound, keeping financial regulation from the city of London, staying in the EU and continuing to cut corporation taxes are the marginal ‘changes’ upon which grand nationalist rhetoric hides reality.   Meanwhile the No camp assists the nationalists by claiming that they can’t have many of their fairly timid set of demands.

But if Scotland actually was an oppressed nation the nature and characteristics of such oppression would be central to the debate.  Even accepting a continuing capitalist Scotland there would be something important, something urgent, something raw that would inflame passion.  But there isn’t.

 

[i] The Economic basis of Scottish Nationhood since 1870, Jim Tomlinson, University of Glasgow.

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.

What is Anti-capitalism?

electronblueOver the last two decades the left has attempted to respond to the heavy defeats of the working class by breaking out of its isolation and creating, or rather supporting the creation of, broad left parties.  Similarly sections of society, especially youth, have responded to the obvious unfairness of global capitalism by involving themselves in protests and movements against globalisation.  Both of these moves have to one degree or other come under the label of anti-capitalism.  It has never been very clear what this anti-capitalism consists of.

The left groups have more often than not attempted to create these broad, anti-capitalist parties themselves rather than insert themselves into genuine broad movements.  The anti-globalisation movement has also by and large been separated from working class struggle due to the latter’s decline.  In the absence of such struggle speculative attempts to create broad parties can have only limited success but this does not account for complete failure.

In Ireland we have just witnessed the failure of the United Left Alliance, which follows on the failure of previous initiatives such as the Socialist Alliance.  This comes as similar initiatives in Britain such as its Socialist Alliance, Scottish Socialist Party and RESPECT have also ended in failure.

To a greater or lesser extent these projects have been based on the idea that there exists a vacuum on the left through the rightward trajectory of social democratic parties which the left organisations can fill.  There has been no pause for thought that this movement to the right is a result not of some pathology to betray traditional social democratic politics but results from the assault of right wing forces, consequent defeat of workers and an undermining of the basis for social democratic answers.

Much weaker forces from the left trying to occupy this ‘space’ with not dissimilar policies, in the absence of any change to any of these larger factors, could only expect to face a similar evacuation of this ‘space’ – usually through collapse.

The invention of the term anti-capitalism that is supposed to sit outside the traditional reformist/revolutionary dichotomy has been the programmatic basis for these initiatives although these take various guises.  In this blog I have critiqued the anti-capitalist programme of the left organisations in Ireland as they have grouped themselves around the United Left Alliance.  This criticism has examined their programme of debt default, their budget proposals, taxing the rich, state investment and nationalisation.

This programme can nevertheless be called anti-capitalist because no pro-capitalist force currently comes anywhere near supporting it.  No party supports high taxation of the rich, defaulting on debt or much increased state spending to lower unemployment.  The capitalist class would bitterly oppose implementation of these measures, which would be better for the working class than current austerity policies.

None of these considerations however make this a working class programme.  Capitalist states have defaulted on their debt before – many times; taxation of high incomes was well over 90 per cent in the post-war United States during the cold war; deficit spending by the state has been an automatic result of the current crisis and nationalisation has been a response across the world to the current crisis.  In Britain and the US parts of the financial system were effectively nationalised and in Ireland almost all the banks were nationalised.

The anti-capitalist policies proposed differ only in degree to those imposed by capitalism many times before.  Above all this programme is not a working class one because it does not provide an alternative to capitalism in the sense that working class power is built and strengthened and the germs of alternative relations of production are created.

The social democratic programme was evacuated because it was not seen as the best option for capitalism.  If the capitalist class or its representatives change their minds about this they will get their own parties, including social democratic ones, to implement it.

The anti-capitalist content of this programme is twofold.  First it may target particular sections of the capitalist class or its representatives but only to benefit others.  Thus debt default will impose losses on sectors of financial capitalism that may benefit industrial/producer sectors.  High taxation will hit the highest paid mangers of capitalist enterprises such as bank CEOs, so depressing their salaries, which may be to the benefit of capitalist owners as shareholders.  Deficit spending on infrastructure will obviously directly benefit capitalist construction companies while putting pressure on lending to other capitalists.  Nationalisation of banks has been a means of protecting capitalist investors, not of expropriating them, but it also maintains the integrity of other capitalist’s liabilities.

The second way this programme is anti-capitalist we have explained – the capitalists oppose it.  The anti-capitalism of the programme is very like the anti-imperialism of Irish republicanism in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was heartfelt and genuine in a subjective sense and involved enormous sacrifice.  In an objective sense it was unrealisable by the methods adopted – armed struggle by republicans and electoralism by the left, which means that eventually the means change or the objective is abandoned.  In the case of republicans it was both.

In both cases neither programme opposed or presented an alternative to the class interests that they fought against.  In the case of republicans they never had a programme that opposed and had an alternative to the British and Irish capitalist classes who defended partition.  In the case of the left even implementation of their programme would not end the capitalist system or threaten the power of the capitalist state.  In fact most of its programme involves strengthening the capitalist state.

As I posted before: in one aspect of their programme these weaknesses might be seen to have been mitigated if not overcome.  The demand for workers’ control of enterprises taken over by the state might seem to present a means to increase working class power while encapsulating the potential of an alternative, new society.

Unfortunately the demand for workers control is proposed as part of the demand for nationalisation as if the capitalist state is in some way a facilitator for the creation of working class power.  The Marxist analysis of the state is that when the capitalist class is threatened by working class action it is the state which is strong enough to defend capitalist interests.  State ownership is not therefore a route to workers’ control.  No aspects of the many forms of state organisation involve workers’ control of any aspect of its bureaucracy.

In capitalist society ownership entitles control and capitalist ownership entails capitalist control.  State ownership entails state control.  Only in times of extreme crisis is the possibility of workers’ control raised and it is raised only when it is imposed by the workers themselves.  If they are in a position to do so, and to make it work, the demand should also be for workers ownership.

Above all the demand for workers’ control must be posed as a practical demand because it is necessary in order to achieve certain objectives.  In the past this has often involved keeping a workplace open when it is threatened by closure.  It does not normally arise in workers minds as an objective in itself.  Unfortunately this is how it is posed by the left – not as a burning necessity to achieve certain things which only the workers have an interest in accomplishing.  It is rarely posed as a practical measure needed to achieve particular objectives.

As I posted before in relation to the Transitional Programme, demands must be concrete and practical or they are simply tools of education (when not means of spreading confusion). Nothing wrong with this in itself, if that is where the struggle is at, but for the left the education given creates illusions in the state by demanding nationalisation as the key. The demand for nationalisation under workers’ control fits comfortably within a general programme that is reliant on state action for implementation.

More often lately the primary role assigned to state action is reflected by the left’s dropping of the rider to nationalisation since it plays no vital role.  Workers’ control in itself is not necessary to achieve any particular goal.  It is what Trotsky referred to as workers’ control “for platonic purposes.”

So we have the ULA before the last election demanding that “key wealth and resources must be taken into democratic public ownership.”  Another Left organisation demands taking “Ireland’s natural Resources into public ownership”.  Another states that “AIB, Bank of Ireland and other banks should be nationalised.  The banks should be amalgamated into one state bank.  The boards should be sacked.  A new board under the democratic control of working people should be established including elected representatives from the workplace and representatives elected from society as a whole.”

Another demands that “a publicly controlled banking system should be administered by elected representatives of the Irish people, representatives of employees of the banking industry, and trained financial experts employed on public sector pay scales.”

These proposals become blueprints, not demands that workers are to impose through their struggle to achieve certain practical needs.  Demands that workers exercise control coexist with formulations that are perfectly consistent with bog standard capitalist state nationalisation.  Demands for ‘public’ or ‘democratic’ control can be perfectly understood to mean the existing forms of state ownership.

On the other hand claims that workers’ control, when it is part of the Left’s propaganda, really means what Marxists have traditionally meant by it would be hard to accept.  Calls for widespread workers’ control were characterised thus by Trotsky in 1931:

“Thus the regime of workers’ control, a provisional transitional regime by its very essence, can correspond only to the period of the convulsing of the bourgeois state, the proletarian offensive, and the failing back of the bourgeoisie, that is, to the period of the proletarian revolution in the fullest sense of the word.” It hardly needs saying that we are nowhere near such a situation today, not in Ireland or anywhere else.

Instead today’s routine demands for workers’ control, when they are made – instead of mealy-mouthed formulations about ‘democratic public ownership’- are closer to this description of it, again by Trotsky, in the same article:

“If the participation of the workers in the management of production is to be lasting, stable, “normal,” it must rest upon class collaboration, and not upon class struggle. Such a class collaboration can be realised only through the upper strata of the trade unions and the capitalist associations. There have been not a few such experiments: in Germany (“economic democracy”), in Britain (“Mondism”), etc. Yet, in all these instances, it was not a case of workers’ control over capital, but of the subserviency of the labour bureaucracy to capital. Such subserviency, as experience shows, can last for a long time: depending on the patience of the proletariat.”

We shall examine further the historical experience of workers’ control in a further post.