Free Trade and Socialism part 3 – Karl Marx on Free Trade i

When Karl Marx reviewed his career in 1859 he highlighted four works that he had written – The Poverty of Philosophy, Communist Manifesto, Wage-Labour and Capital and a pamphlet on Free Trade.  The last was given as a speech in 1848 at a time when the Corn Laws had recently been repealed in Britain, a sign of the triumph of industrial capital over landed interests, who had stood in the way of free trade and the interests of manufacturers in reducing wages through cheaper food imports.

Since the purpose of free trade was to reduce the price of corn upon which workers depended, and so allow a reduction in their wages, it might seem that Marx would either oppose the repeal of these Corn Laws or at best take the view of “a plague on both their houses”, and take no side between industrial capital and landlords.  As Marx noted:

“The English workers have very well understood the significance of the struggle between the landlords and the industrial capitalists.  They know very well that the price of bread was to be reduced in order to reduce wages, and that industrial profit would rise by as much as rent fell.”

Perhaps, in fact, Marx would oppose this strategy of the workers’ most immediate, growing and more important class enemy and oppose free trade?

Today a similar situation arises in the debate over leaving the European Union.  Why should workers concern themselves with either side of a debate over a European free trade arrangement when again it is one carried on between different fractions of the class enemy?

After all, it is argued that the EU is irreformably neoliberal, although those that argue this often point out that it hasn’t always been such; although this also immediately raises the issue that some sorts of capitalist arrangements are better for workers than others – an anti-austerity policy is better than a neoliberal one for example.

For others, as I have noted, it all “depends”, and the question of free trade is bound up with a range of other issues, often involving development of less industrialised countries, national oppression, “unfair” trade and super- exploitation of workers in less developed countries.  However none of this prevents one from forming a view on the question of free trade itself and facing the implications for workers of such a policy.

This was the approach taken by Marx.  In doing so he was abundantly clear what the nature of the argument was for free trade put forward by the economists representing industrial capital:

“The whole line of argument amounts to this: Free trade increases productive forces. When manufactures keep advancing, when wealth, when the productive forces, when, in a word, productive capital increases, the demand for labour, the price of labour, and consequently the rate of wages, rises also.”

“The most favourable condition for the workingman is the growth of capital. This must be admitted: when capital remains stationary, commerce and manufacture are not merely stationary but decline, and in this case the workman is the first victim. He goes to the wall before the capitalist. And in the case of the growth of capital, under the circumstances, which, as we have said, are the best for the workingman, what will be his lot? He will go to the wall just the same.”

“The growth of capital implies the accumulation and the concentration of capital. This centralisation involves a greater division of labour and a greater use of machinery. The greater division of labour destroys the especial skill of the labourer; and by putting in the place of this skilled work labour which any one can perform, it increases competition among the workers.”

“This competition becomes more fierce as the division of labour enables a single man to do the work of three. Machinery accomplishes the same result on a much larger scale. The accumulation of productive capital forces the industrial capitalist to work with constantly increasing means of production, ruins the small manufacturer, and drives him into the proletariat . . .”

“Finally, the more productive capital grows, the more it is compelled to produce for a market whose requirements it does not know—the more supply tries to force demand, and consequently crises increase in frequency and in intensity. But every crisis in turn hastens the concentration of capital, adds to the proletariat. Thus, as productive capital grows, competition among the workers grows too, and grows in a far greater proportion. The reward of labor is less for all, and the burden of labor is increased for some at least.”

For some modern Marxists many of these words of Marx make no sense – how many today would repeat his remark that “the most favourable condition for the workingman is the growth of capital”?  How many would welcome the increased accumulation of capital though it leads to crises and increased concentration of capital, because it adds to the proletariat?  When was the last time the growth of capital was welcomed even though it increases competition among workers?

Instead the depredations of capital are opposed on the basis that the effects of capitalism can be much reduced through trade union action, its evils ameliorated through state intervention, while confused notions are retained that revolution will spring naturally from capitalist crises and destroy the same state that introduced the reforms.

On only one aspect of his argument has it been widely accepted that it is not the job of socialists to prevent the development of capitalism, and this is the view that workers must be protected from the replacement of their labour by opposing the increased use of machinery.  As Marx notes – “there is no kind of manual labour which may not any day be subjected to the fate of the hand-loom weavers” whose labour was replaced by machinery, with the consequence that “the hand-loom weavers are on the verge of that state beyond which human existence can hardly be sustained. . .”

Yet today the view that free trade should be opposed in principle to protect workers from capitalist competition would be more widely held than the views expressed above.

For Marx, free trade was a moment in the accumulation of capital, as he set out in Capital Volume II in chapters one to three.  In the circuit of money capital, Marx sets out that money (M) is exchanged for commodities (C) which are then exchanged for another sum of money (M).  Obviously this has no purpose for a capitalist unless the second sum of money is larger than the first, or why bother?

Since at each stage in the exchange of money for a commodity and the commodity for money it is the exchange of equivalents, no one is short-changed, so where could a profit arise?  As Marx explains, the commodities purchased by money by the capitalist include machinery, raw materials etc. and labour power, which all go to create the newly created commodities which the capitalist sells for a larger amount of money than spent on buying the commodities used in production.  The increased value of the commodities sold for money by the capitalist arises in production so that in the circuit M – C – M’, the second M’ is larger than the first M and the whole point of the circuit for the capitalist becomes clear.

The sum of money M’ is larger than the original amount of M invested and the increase arises in production, from the employment of labour power, which is remunerated by wages.  Again the assumption is that wages equate to the value of labour power so that we again have an exchange of equivalents and no one is ‘cheated’.  The worker will receive wages to a value that will allow her or him to turn up for work every day in such a condition as will allow her or him to produce to the efficiency, quality and standard required in the particular society that exists at that time and place, and will allow new generations of workers to do the same.

However the value created by the worker in production, through their labour, is greater than the value they are paid in wages for their capacity to work, which is their handing over to the capitalist of their labour-power that the capitalist can direct with a view to producing a profit.  The circuit of capital is therefore better set out as M – C . . P . . C’ – M’; where the first C in the circuit includes the purchase of labour power for wages, P equals production carried out by the worker; the second C’ are the commodities produced by the worker and the second sum of money M’ includes the additional value created in production and included in the second C’. This is the output of production that can then be sold for a bigger sum of money that now includes the profit of the capitalist.

The inequality in capitalism, including different levels of exploitation and power, and the resulting insecurity, stress and degrees of poverty are a result of what arises in production and the class relations that are founded in this production.  To seek to right the wrongs of capitalism through opposition to trade, through trying to make it ‘fair’, or to seek to limit in any fundamental way the inequality and exploitation that capitalism gives rise to through changes to trade, is to miss the point.  All these are a result of the class relations resting in production.  To seek to limit trade is to seek to disrupt C’ – M’; to disrupt the accumulation of capital – or to make it ‘fair’ – when the problem lies within the whole circuit of capital, with the existence of production based on capital itself.

As Marx explained, in all the exchanges within this circuit we have the exchange of equivalents; before the commodities denoted as C’ are produced for sale other commodities, including machinery, raw materials and labour power are also sold and purchased.  Trade unions try to determine the level at which labour power is sold through fighting for “a fair days’ work for a fair days’ pay”, but even they cannot overturn the way capitalism works and cannot fundamentally alter the drive for profit that animates the circuit of capital. Trade unions can no more make capitalism fair than demands for fair trade can prevent exploitation or inequality in the class relations based on production.

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 10 – crises and contradictions iV

aaeb3f49f0044521a0b0904c2599b84b_18In 1921 Leon Trotsky argued that “If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given.”

I will argue against this view but it should not be taken that by this Trotsky believed that any particular country had to have fully developed capitalism before socialist revolution could succeed because obviously his theory of permanent revolution argued precisely that this was not the case. The argument just presented is a view of the world taken as a whole and not any particular country.

In his view capitalism could break at its weakest link but this is not Marx’s theory of the transition to socialism.  For capitalism not only to break but be replaced by socialism it is necessary that capitalism be broken not where it is weakest but where the working class is strongest, and the two are not the same.

The view that the productive forces have to have exhausted themselves has been a default view of much of the Marxist movement since 1938 and the writing of the Transitional Programme, which was called ‘The Death Agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth international’.  Adherence to this view means accepting that we have been living during a period of capitalism’s death agony for the past nearly 80 years.

It is this that justifies the view that objective conditions make the world ripe for socialism and that what faces socialists is a crisis of working class leadership. The task is simply to fight for leadership of the working class as it presents itself; its objective position and situation within society is relevant only in so far as it lends itself to gaining such leadership.  Since capitalist crises cannot be definitively solved by capitalism then such crises provide the opportunity for Marxists to win this leadership.

Those who have read earlier posts in this series will know that I reject the view that the productive forces of capitalism have stagnated.  This view was certainly challenged by the post Second World War economic upturn.  Crisis conditions in the 1970s and 1980s might have revived the view that capitalism was in long term crisis but the period since has seen huge economic growth.

Again the view that capitalism is in crisis might be bolstered by the financial crash in 2008 and the secular stagnation following it that has been posited by some writers but such crises do not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism suggested by Trotsky and secular stagnation has yet to be demonstrated.  If it were, it would still not amount to the long term crisis of capitalism that has been claimed, except that stagnation is not compatible with capitalism and if it existed it would create conditions of crisis.  

In previous posts I noted that capitalism had continued to develop the productive forces over the last century, including the expansion of the working class, its health and education and also its living standards.  Of course this does not mean that the next century will follow the pattern of the last.  This is as unlikely as the twentieth century following the pattern of the 19th, but it is at least necessary to appreciate what has already happened before thinking we are qualified for the much more hazardous task of speculating on what will happen in the future.

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A recent article in ‘New Left Review’ notes that:

“Our available economic resources are greater than ever before. Between 1980 and 2011 world GDP per capita (in constant prices and purchasing power parities) increased 1.8 times, the IMF reports. As a comparison, we may remember that between year 1 and 1820 global product per capita is estimated to have increased 1.4 times, and from 1870 to 1913 1.7 times. More reliable are figures for 1950–73, 1.9, and for 1973–2003, 1.6.”

In his book ‘Postcapitalism a Guide to Our Future’ Paul Mason quotes figures that show global GDP per person rising by 162 per cent between 1989 and 2012 and in the developing world by 404 per cent.  It rose by ‘only’ 33 per cent in the 100 years after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas and by 60 per cent in the fifty years after 1820.

Of course, this is not to deny the growth of inequality and ecological threat arising from the capitalist nature of such growth, how could it be otherwise?  Paul Mason notes that while the real incomes of two thirds of the world’s people rose significantly, as did that of the top 1%, the majority of people in America, Japan and Europe had no real increase and some a decline.  As the article in New Left Review notes:

“Furthermore, the conventional norm of progress obscures the unequal distribution of its opportunities. Almost half, 46 per cent, of the world’s income growth between 1988 and 2011 was appropriated by the richest tenth of humanity.  In the US, since the late 1990s, there has been a progressive decoupling of GDP per capita—advancing with short-lived fallbacks—and the family income of four-fifths of the population, which has been stagnating and recently declining, above all from the median and below. The spread of the Anglo-American financial crisis of 2008 has meant a substantial decline in the income share of the bottom 40 per cent in the recession-hit European countries, from Greece and Ireland to the UK and Spain.”

One Marxist[i] makes a persuasive case that the official figures underestimate the growth of specifically capitalist production because they ignore the conversion of the Stalinist states to a new economic system.  These figures treat the production in these states prior to the introduction of capitalism as if it were already capitalist but this ignores the boost to specifically capitalist production of the acquisition of productive forces on the cheap and the availability of huge pools of labour power that can now be exploited to further the accumulation of capital:

“In 1991 the centrally planned economies had a population that was 35 percent of that in the market capitalist economies. The restoration of capitalism in them massively increased the world’s working class that could be exploited by capital, while at the same time the world’s capitalists paid almost nothing to privatize the assets of entire economies. . . .By 2006 China, now the second largest capitalist economy in the world, employed 112 million industrial workers (Bannister 2009), not including millions more in the former USSR and CEE.”

“During the 1990s capitalist production of electricity rose 44 percent, aluminium 45 percent, hydraulic cement 60 percent, steel 39 percent, automobiles 21 percent, and GDP 42 percent, with the rate of increase accelerating the decade after. This is particularly significant as this period extends to 2010 and so includes the period of the credit crunch recession after 2008. The growth of output in the emerging markets has been combined with the accelerated decline of industrial output in the West, but this is a transfer of production, not its disappearance. By 2010 the transition economies as a proportion of total capitalist production produced 29 percent electricity, 52 percent aluminium, 65 percent hydraulic cement, 53 percent steel, 30 percent automobiles, and 26 percent of GDP.”

It is hardly credible that the objective and subjective conditions for socialism could be bifurcated for so long – that the problem is simply one of mis-leadership – while the social and political power of the capitalist class over the working class, effected by the enormous development of capitalism, reflected also in the ideological hold of the former over the latter, can be considered a secondary matter.

That this continuing subordination of workers by capitalism for decades, without challenge in any fundamental respect, could be considered not to have affected the consciousness of new generations of workers, were it true, would prove Marxism false.  The idea that the fundamental problem is simply one of working class leadership is not credible.

Marxists are always keen to assert that they do not seek crises and do not welcome the attacks on workers which large crises inevitably result in, including unemployment, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ democratic rights to organise.  But if crises do provide the opportunity to replace capitalism, and the grounds for socialism already exist, then this would be something of a puzzle.

In part we have already noted the answer – that crises openly express capitalism’s contradictions and posit the need for an alternative.  However, it matters not whether socialists wish or do not wish for crises, capitalism will see to it that they erupt anyway.  It is not workers who create economic crises but the contradictions of the system itself.

Socialists do not welcome crises in themselves because they become opportunities to overthrow capitalism only under certain conditions.  Since capitalism has had many crises and we do not have socialism we can infer that these conditions are rather restrictive, or have been so far.  Is there anything in Marx’s alternative that explains why this has been the case and therefore what might we change to address our failures so far?

An answer to this means going beyond seeing capitalist crises as simply the opportunity to overthrow capitalism without understanding what makes them such an opportunity, as opposed to an opportunity for capitalism to resolve its contradictions at workers’ expense.  The answer does not lie in the illusion that capitalism is a system in permanent crisis or is in an epoch of revolution. Crises there have been and even revolutions but clearly this hasn’t been enough for Marx’s alternative to have flowered.

The last 100 years has witnessed many revolutions.  The most important at the beginning of the last century were carried out under the banner of socialist revolution but they nearly all failed very quickly.  Later revolutions that destroyed capitalism did not usher in socialism or even societies controlled by workers taking decisive steps towards socialism.   The belief was widespread that socialist revolutions would be complemented by national liberation struggles which would lead to democratic revolutions, but again there were numerous democratic revolutions, few overthrew capitalism and none of them brought about socialism.

Since the decline of such struggles the most important revolutions have involved the overthrow of Stalinism and the concomitant reintroduction of capitalism while the Arab Spring has not resulted in any fundamental reordering of society, except in the sense that in some societies it has led to their disordering and collapse.

There have been plenty of revolutions but the changes have been mainly one of political regimes without fundamental changes to class rule, at least in the sense of the working class ruling society.  Such glimpses of a new worker-controlled society have been brief and fleeting.

Marx’s prognostication was that “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” 

The history of modern revolutions is testimony to this.  The absence of working class revolution is not.  Ironically, if you seek to reduce Marxism to a task of resolving a crisis of leadership you weaken its explanatory power, its guide to political intervention and its appeal.

Marx was aware that sometimes decades of political development are necessary for a working class to make itself capable of ruling society.  This is true now for reasons that Marx could not be fully aware of.  What he did do however was provide analyses of capitalism that may help socialists appreciate why we have failed so far.

[i] On the Alleged Stagnation of Capitalism, William Jefferies, available on the net.

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Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 9 crises and contradictions iii

economic crisisCapitalism’s crises are the expression of its contradictions, among which must be those that provide grounds for resolution through working class creation of a socialist society.  While the absence of crisis at any time does not mean that the system’s contradictions have been removed, it signals that they must at least have been temporarily contained or limited while continuing to develop, without erupting into violent disruptions of the system. Marx reacted to the return to some sort of prosperity following a crisis as a signal that socialist revolution was for the time being off the agenda.

For capitalism the eruption of economic crisis is also the means by which the contradictions of capitalist accumulation are (temporarily) resolved, by reducing the costs of raw materials and machinery etc.; destroying competitors by making the least efficient firms go bust; increasing unemployment, so putting pressure on workers to increase the pace of work and reducing wages; and by prompting the state to lower legal protections for workers or lower corporate taxes etc.

Only in a crisis does it seem obvious that capitalism is unable to cater for the needs of the majority, and to a degree that stimulates mass resistance and opposition, so what then may result is a political crisis of its rule.  There is less reason to expect the working class and other oppressed parts of society to seek an alternative to the system if it is not in some sort of difficulty.

On the other hand if workers are not prepared to react to crises by defending gains and can’t be radicalised sufficiently to achieve overthrow of the system, or have the social and economic power to do so, then socialists must accept that the limits placed on the scope of working class action at such times do not yet include the system’s overthrow.

While economic and political crises signal the possibility of an alternative and a possible opportunity to create one there is no longer a view that they point to the inevitable triumph of socialism.  Crises can awaken workers to politics, can propel them to political organisation, push them to fight and make them seek out alternatives but if this is true of the vast majority and such development only takes place on the eve of revolution then it is only a minority who enter the fight with some idea of what that fight is, about how it might be won and what constitutes victory.  These are rather weak grounds on which to expect success.

As I noted in the last post – what attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  This strongly determines the outcome of crises

“There are no permanent crises” Marx said, which means that such crises in themselves cannot be the grounds for socialism since these grounds must be continuous and persistent conditions within the capitalist system.  Crises therefore cannot be confused with the contradictions of capitalism that provide the source for anticipating its replacement.

So if not permanent crises, is it the nature of the stage of capitalism that warrants the claim that the possibility of socialism exists, as Marx claimed.  It would appear that for the majority of Marxists the answer is yes: we have been living within the highest stage of capitalism for the last one hundred or more years, set out most famously by Lenin in his short book – ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism’.

Further to this, the other Marxist leader of the Russian revolution wrote a political programme for his supporters in 1938 in which he clearly characterised the nature of the epoch during which he lived:

“The economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth. Conjunctural crises under the conditions of the social crisis of the whole capitalist system inflict ever heavier deprivations and sufferings upon the masses. Growing unemployment, in its turn, deepens the financial crisis of the state and undermines the unstable monetary systems. Democratic regimes, as well as fascist, stagger on from one bankruptcy to another.”

“All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

This political programme, The Transitional Programme, became the guiding strategy for those Marxists who rejected the distortion of socialism by Stalinism in the Soviet Union and who stood in the revolutionary tradition of Marx.

The view that socialism was retarded not so much by capitalism itself, or the political forces that defended it, but by other factors can easily be appreciated in a world in which the most powerful forces claiming to be Marxist ruled over vast parts of the globe. In these countries workers held no political power except through a bureaucracy that ruled in its name and unilaterally claimed to be its leadership.  As long as this was the case the struggle for genuine socialism had to counter the claims of Stalinism that the degenerate bureaucratic dictatorships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were the future socialist society which Marx foresaw.  In this sense, the view that the crisis facing socialists boiled down to who was able to claim the mantle of leadership might seem to have not a little currency; if only because if Stalinism was socialism then the majority of workers and many Marxists weren’t interested.

Trotsky’s predictions of catastrophe should also be viewed in light of the headlong march towards world war, a war that would exceed the death and destruction of the Great War that had ended only twenty years before.  In fact this second world war had already begun with already catastrophic results for the Chinese people.  When we consider that the possible number of deaths due to World War II is as high as 80 million people it is no exaggeration to have stated in 1938 that “a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

What matters today is whether the context in which this happened now prevails, or has prevailed ever since it was written in 1938; in other words that “the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism.”

If this were so then the series of posts of which this one is a part, dealing with Marx’s alternative to capitalism growing out of capitalism itself, would have little need to go beyond a political analysis of the class struggle and specifically how and why the working class still allows itself to be politically led by political forces opposed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

to be continued

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Forward to part 10

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 8 – crises and contradictions ii

A view common among Marxists is that socialism will arise out of a crisis of capitalism.  This is believed for a number of reasons.  The most fundamental is the view that socialism will arise from the contradictions of capitalism and these contradictions give rise to repeated crises; crises of overproduction, of profitability and of class relations.  Economic and political crises point to the inevitable triumph of socialism as every such capitalist difficulty signals the possibility of an alternative and the opportunity to create one.

A more common sense way of understanding it is that if capitalism continued to deliver the goods then why would anyone fight to change it?

These contradictions include the contradiction between capital and labour in which capital accumulates and grows through augmenting itself with the value created by labour for which labour is not remunerated in wages.  These contradictions also include the tendency for the development of the forces of production to conflict with the relations of production within which they develop.  The productive forces of machinery, technology and other means of production and productive relations determined by the ownership of these means of production by capitalists and the exclusion from ownership of those who create and work with these means of production, the working class.

The contradictions are the tension between the more and more effective socialisation of production and its private capitalist appropriation. Production is more and more subject to a division of labour with hundreds if not thousands of components produced and shipped from all over the world before final assembly in one location.  This final product such as a computer can then join thousands of other products in creation of another final product such as a car.  The workers who produce this final product likewise consume commodities created from all across the world which are themselves assembled from products created across the globe.  A vast meshed network of companies, of communications and transport has been created by capitalism that requires an enormous degree of co-ordination and planning by millions of workers to ensure this all takes place, and takes place profitably.

Yet this production is sold on a market in competition with other similar products from other companies or in competition with very different goods that could equally be bought instead.  Only after the fact is it recognised whether the labour employed in producing these goods has been wasted.  If the prices obtained for them do not result in sufficient profit the capitalists will close down, reducing production and reducing the market for goods generally as workers are laid off and supplier companies equally reduce employment.  If this happens on a big enough scale economic crises result.

Were imbalances in production to arise in an economy under workers’ collective ownership this production would be rebalanced without making workers suffer for any misallocation.  It would be in the interest of everyone to reallocate this labour to produce goods or services for which there is more need.  With capitalist appropriation however, despite the socialised nature of production, despite the enormous cooperation and scale of planning required, it is only the private profit of individual capitalist companies that counts.  And if this means closing down productive assets, wasting resources and creating unemployment well . . production is only for profit under capitalism.  It is competition not cooperation which predominates, competition between companies for sales of commodities and competition between companies to extract the maximum surplus from their own and other workers.

For Marxists this global economic result arises from the very nature of the commodity itself and its simultaneous existence as a use value and as a value.  As a commodity it must have usefulness for it to be purchased by anyone but it must also have a value that can be exchanged with other commodities and money.  At the end of the day it is the value in exchange that matters for the capitalist because it is from this aspect of the commodity that profit is derived.

A more common way of describing this is that production is for profit and not for use; commodities are produced only in so far as they procure a profit but which are only purchased in so far as they are useful.  Goods and services are produced which are profitable but which only a tiny minority of the world’s population find useful while goods useful to millions are not produced because they are not profitable.

The craziness of this has been on display in Ireland, which has had an enormous economic boom largely built in its last years upon housing and other property production. A boom that eventually turned to bust not because everyone had a decent home, or the commercial fabric of society had been completely renovated, but because the prices demanded by developers and construction firms could no longer be afforded by those expected to buy or rent. Prices collapsed, building firms went bust sacking tens of thousands of construction workers; developers went bankrupt, their loans could not be paid and the banks that lent them the money then also went bust, unable to remain solvent given the scale of the bad loans on their books.

The capitalist State then stepped in to assure the banks’ solvency by guaranteeing their loans and when it was proved that it could not afford to do so it too went bust; so the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund also stepped in to ensure that the State could make good its guarantees to the banks – in exchange for the State cutting the tripe out of state services, increasing taxes, lowering public sector wages and reducing public sector employment.  The State survived all this by spreading its debts across the generations so that even in 2050 the children and grandchildren of the boom generation will be paying for the boom and the bust.

At the peak of the boom 90,000 houses a year were being built by employing around 274,000 workers. Last year fewer than 13,000 new homes were built while demand is running at 25,000 a year.  There are over 1,000 families homeless compared to 400 at the beginning of last year while there are an estimated 90,000 families on waiting lists for social housing.  But this is happening in a country that has 230,000 vacant homes, some in “ghost estates” in far-flung towns where few Irish people now wish to live — if they ever did.

This is reported in Ireland and elsewhere as if this was a peculiarly Irish problem, but not only have there been property booms across the world but housing and property booms are only the most visible manifestations of classic crises of overproduction that have been a feature of capitalism for almost two centuries.  Visible because the commodities overproduced sit there staring everyone in the face for years.  This is not an Irish problem, although it has to be said that the Irish are very good at doing it with houses, but is a classic capitalist problem of desperate need not being addressed because to do so would not deliver the requisite profit.

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It has been reported by the Society of Chartered Surveyors in Ireland that it costs €330,000 to provide a standard family home, a figure that appears to have changed little despite the deep recession!  Construction costs account for less than half of this figure with the rest made up of fees, levies, site acquisition costs, finance costs, and tax and profit margins.  Developers would rather hoard land they over-paid for in the boom because to do otherwise would mean them accepting a loss.  This would then hit the banks who everyone is pretending are now fine and no one wants a repeat of the 2008 crash.  So the process of the previous boom and bust is repeated for the sake of avoiding another one.
Housing 3

But very few people can afford houses at these prices and single people and those on even average incomes can’t afford them and would drown in a sea of debt if, or rather when, interest rates increase (although of course no one is thinking of this now). Instead the solutions put forward by the Government include grants to first time buyers, which will simply increase prices by the amount of the grant, or subsidies to developers, who will probably pocket the money while maintaining their asking price.  In short, the same policies pursued during the boom.  As the table below shows the huge debt already built up is a big constraint on any solution that seeks to stuff working class people with even more credit.

Housing 2

The solution is to build affordable houses by expropriating the land holdings of developers and re-employing many of the construction workers who were made unemployed in the crash.  However, this calls for a radical break with the prerogatives of private property which is a more entrenched religion in Ireland than theCatholic Church.

From the point of view of our look at Karl Marx’s alternative to this sort of mess there is another striking question that arises.  Just how do such crises lead to replacement of the system that produces them with a new one called socialism?

Yes, capitalism leads to these crises and yes, they would not arise within a socialist society, but what is the mechanism by which this contradiction leads from the former to the latter? What leads workers from recognising there’s a crisis to understanding that it’s a result of capitalism and agreeing that socialism is the answer, and then fighting to introduce it?  All while their starting point is not so much a very conscious rejection of socialism so much as a recognition/acceptance of capitalism because it is the system that actually exists, works (however badly) and places them in a subordinate position within which, by and large, they are powerless to effect very radical change, either as individuals or even as individuals that are part of collective organisations.

A lack of understanding of what socialism actually is and little confidence that the world can be changed, or that they must do it themselves, are not even the first condition of this problem but the result of the more basic conditions within which workers live.  Is there a contradiction at this more basic level of workers’ everyday lives that can provide the experience that they can learn from either directly or indirectly; that capitalism does not have to be accepted and that an alternative can actually exist, already exists even if in an underdeveloped form that must be developed further?

In all this it is clearly the development of political consciousness that is key.  Only through its development will workers become active makers of their own future, seeking greater and greater control over their lives and thus greater and greater control over society.  But Marxists believe that it is material conditions that generate consciousness and it is not at all clear that conditions of crisis can generate socialist consciousness.  They have not done so in Ireland.  Some of the first posts on this blog were a record of how previous capitalist crises generated reactionary solutions and the growth of xenophobic and racist solutions today are testament to this.

Marxists do not believe that the rational superiority of socialism on its own will lead to socialism.  Or rather, to be more precise, Marxists do not believe that rational argument about the superiority of socialism over capitalism will bring it about.  It plays a vital part in the work of socialists in the workers’ movement but rational argument is ultimately only powerful if it corresponds to the rational development of capitalism itself.

If capitalism tended more and more to a state antithetical to socialism, to a position that was further and further away from the possibility of collective workers’ ownership of the means of production, then ultimately no amount of rational argument about the putative superiority of socialism would matter because it could not arise in the real world. And if it could not arise in the real world the argument as to its superiority would not be rational either. A world built on unqualified love between all members of humanity may appear a rational argument, as opposed to the hate and oppression of the existing one, but it is not rational because we all know such a society cannot exist.

Crises are ephemeral, they are the means by which capitalism resolves its contradictions, even if only temporarily. They generally weaken the working class and its movement and they often present opportunities to disorient them.  They invite immediate solutions when many workers generally experience capitalism as individuals or are not grouped in organisations that are by their nature capable of providing answers.  What attitude workers take to crises, how they understand them, who they blame and what solutions they seek are strongly conditioned by their previous experience prior to and outside capitalism’s difficulties.  Generally this experience does not prepare them for taking conscious control of society, which is the essential challenge posed by the greatest crises.

Capitalist crises therefore give expression to the contradictions of capitalism but are not themselves the contradictions upon which the alternative higher form of society will arise.  History is replete with subordinate classes’ willingness to fight against their oppressor classes, such as the countless rebellions by Chinese peasants against their ruling dynasties or medieval peasants against their feudal lords.  But even when the contradictions involved in their class antagonism burst through in successful rebellion no stable society was created by these victorious oppressed class because the class contradiction evoked no mode of production resting on the unified class interests of the victorious class.

Even when the class of feudal lords disappeared from history it was not a peasant mode of production that was eventually built on the bones of their feudal rule.  Similarly, when the working class in Russia succeeded in overthrowing the Tsarist state and the capitalist economy in Russia it failed to create a new socialist society because the material conditions would not allow a new socialist mode of production to grow and develop.

So basing the alternative to capitalism on the crises of capitalism is not enough.  Developing consciousness of the need for an alternative is not even enough.  The contradictions that exist must contain within them the potential for a new socialist society to arise out of them.  In other words, it is not enough that there is contradiction but that the contradiction is resolved, in this case in a new and higher form of society.  And for this to be the case the nature of the contradiction has to contain the potential for this to occur.

It is not that the contradiction creates a clean slate upon which something new can be built but that the new arises from within the development of the contradiction itself.  Clearly the nature of this is therefore key, for its development must not only contain the end of the old but the beginning of the new at one and the same time.  Consciousness by the working class of the necessity for a new society is necessary for it to happen because it must be its creation but this is only possible if the process exists in reality.

Back to part 7

Forward to part 9

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 7 – crises and contradictions i

white-america-1-e1448033371744Last year an academic paper noticed that there has been a marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013.  The effect of this has been dramatic: if the previous decline in mortality among this group of people had continued as before there would have been almost half a million fewer deaths during these years.

There has also been an increase in morbidity among this section of the population, reflected in increased self-reporting of poor health, pain and psychological stress.  Nor can this be put down to the well-known increase in obesity among some sections of the American population because this decline in the health of middle-aged men and women has affected both the obese and non-obese, with the former accounting for only a small fraction of the overall deterioration in health.  This worsening has particularly hit those with a poorer education, those with only a high school degree or less, and is primarily the result of increases in the rates of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

fd2a8a276c172deed75f43e23ef7b229The significance of this is even more noteworthy because this segment of the US working class was part of the embodiment in the middle of the twentieth century of the American dream and therefore of the capitalist vision epitomised during the American century.  Visions of white families in suburbs, owning automobiles and domestic appliances, in new homes with pretty gardens and white picket fences were a domestic ambition so strong it fired the imagination not only of American workers but millions of the poor across the world who wished to become American.  An ambition millions succeeded in achieving.

In the twenty first century this dream is collapsing amid widening inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation and an increase in economic insecurity, with precarious employment and pensions reliant on the vagaries of the stock market.  It is reflected in large increases in disability; falling participation in the labour market, particularly among women and addiction to prescription painkillers where for every death in 2008 due to addiction there were 10 admissions for abuse, 32 emergency department visits, 130 people who were abusers or dependent and 825 non-medical users of the drugs.

I remember seeing a programme on the collapse of the Soviet Union which noted that a French researcher had predicted its fall due to an increase in infant mortality.  No one is predicting the collapse of US capitalism but things are really bad when people stop living longer and start dying earlier.

In my previous posts in this series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I have noted the prodigious development of the capitalist system across the globe and its achievement of what Marx called its ‘civilising mission’.  This, I showed, was evidenced by increasing life expectancy, better health, higher levels of education, higher living standards and the sheer increase in numbers of the working class and the world’s population. In fact five out of six of my posts were an attempt to substantiate the argument that the civilising mission of capitalism continues into the twenty first century.

But surely this is now blown apart by this example of the death of the American dream, something inconceivable 60 years ago?

A few years ago I met an American socialist who I believe was from Detroit who was not so much arguing but simply incredulous that anyone could believe other than that capitalism was in crisis and failing badly

But world capitalism is not Detroit.

Accepting this point however, is it not the case that socialists should be pointing out the failures of capitalism, its crises and its contradictions?  After all, if capitalism is to be overthrown and replaced it must be because in some way it has failed.  Surely a capitalism that keeps on developing and retains a ‘civilising mission’ is not one that will suffer this fate? 

Should socialists not criticise capitalism and certainly not heap praise on it and its achievements?

Marx himself, although he praised capitalism’s prodigious development of the productive forces and the human capacities it had unleashed, hardly spared it his condemnation. Development brings industrialisation and the goods and services that change peoples’ lives for the better but it is built on exploitation of humanity and degradation of the planet’s resources and ecosystem.  Capitalist industrialisation brings the capitalist phenomenon of periodic or partial unemployment on a massive scale – “it makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.” (Marx)

So the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were 218 million unemployed workers in 2009 and that of the 1.4 billion wage workers in 2011 many are only employed part time or precariously employed and a further 1.7 billion are “vulnerably employed”, being “own-account” workers (including street workers in poorer countries or those engaged in subsistence agriculture) and “contributing family workers” (those who worked unpaid in the home).  “In most of the world, open unemployment is not an option; there is no safety net of unemployment compensation and other social welfare programmes.  Unemployment means death, so people must find work, no matter how onerous the conditions” (Michael Yates, all quoted in ‘The Global Reserve Army of Labour and the New Imperialism’)

So why the series of posts on capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’?

The short answer is that the arguments set out above are mistaken.  The slightly longer answer is that they are wrong because they are one-sided.  The longer response again is that the whole answer is not simply an addition of capitalism’s achievements and its failures, of its successes and crises, or more simply of its good bits and its bad bits.  Even to understand its contradictions is not to think of a good side and a bad side in opposition.

To seek simply to condemn capitalism requires a standard by which it should be judged to have failed – it must have failed against some criteria.  Even if there were ‘good bits’ to capitalism to weigh in the balance against its ‘bad bits’, which together would allow one to make a judgement, some measuring criteria would be required by which to determine the relative weight and importance of its good and bad aspects.

But what would these criteria be?  They could be derived from what capitalism itself claims to defend, uphold and promote – economic growth, political equality, equality of opportunity, individual freedom, efficiency, modernisation and progress.  It would then be possible to, indeed socialist regularly do, expose these claims as hypocritical, false, misleading, one-sided and often simply untrue.  But this would be to limit one’s case to the criteria that capitalism’s defenders themselves identify as important and socialists usually find themselves making arguments that go beyond what capitalism can accommodate and what its supporters will consider legitimate.

Appeals to loftier ideals such as justice or fairness beg the question of how such things are to be defined and how realistic or practical any definition is, given the real world we live in.  A definition of justice that cannot possibly exist in the real world is not just because these criteria must apply to a world which is possible.  A just and fair world that cannot exist is neither just nor fair.  The civilising mission of capitalism is therefore not one of the ‘good’ sides of capitalism against which the bad must be weighed.  This civilising role of capitalism is itself grounds on which the alternative to capitalism rests.

I have tried to make this easier to appreciate by pointing out that the amazing economic growth of capitalism has produced an ever larger world working class without which, obviously, there can be no socialism.  And without a working class that has developed a relatively high cultural level we cannot expect socialism either.  The civilising mission of capitalism has created both.

This is generally understood among some Marxists only in the sense that unless the productive forces have developed sufficiently there will not be the level of resources necessary to ensure that inequality will not breed class divisions after any successful socialist revolution.  If society cannot develop sufficient levels of consumption to satisfy the needs of everyone then class divisions will re-emerge.  Society’s productive powers will be distributed so that these are owned by a separate class because society as a whole cannot address the needs of everyone. 

Leon Trotsky explained how this laid the foundation for the development of Stalinism after socialist revolution in Russia in 1917:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and who has to wait.

A raising of the material and cultural level ought, at first glance, to lessen the necessity of privileges, narrow the sphere of application of “bourgeois law”, and thereby undermine the standing ground of its defenders, the bureaucracy. In reality the opposite thing has happened: the growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.

In its first period, the Soviet regime was undoubtedly far more equalitarian and less bureaucratic than now. But that was an equality of general poverty. The resources of the country were so scant that there was no opportunity to separate out from the masses of the population any broad privileged strata. At the same time the “equalizing” character of wages, destroying personal interestedness, became a brake upon the development of the productive forces. Soviet economy had to lift itself from its poverty to a somewhat higher level before fat deposits of privilege became possible. The present state of production is still far from guaranteeing all necessities to everybody. But it is already adequate to give significant privileges to a minority, and convert inequality into a whip for the spurring on of the majority. That is the first reason why the growth of production has so far strengthened not the socialist, but the bourgeois features of the state.” (The Revolution Betrayed)

So there are two reasons why socialists in particular should welcome the development of the productive forces that capitalism is responsible for – the material foundations for socialism in terms of sufficient consumption for everyone in society and the growth of the working class that develops as these productive forces develop.

To these are added the civilising mission of capitalism through the productive forces developing new and higher needs that lead to a higher cultural level among the working class, on which basis it becomes more and more fit to become the ruling class of a new society.

The development of the productive forces must also be welcomed for other reasons which we shall come to in future posts.  What is important for the argument here is that the development of capitalism’s productive forces is necessary for the future of socialism.  As Marx explained in a letter written two years before his death:

“The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.  . . . Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration of the dominant order of society continually proceeding before our eyes, and the ever-growing passion into which the masses are scourged by the old ghosts of government – while at the same time the positive development of the means of production advances with gigantic strides – all this is a sufficient guarantee that with the moment of the outbreak of a real proletarian revolution there will also be given the conditions (though these are certain not to be idyllic) of its next immediate modus operandi [form of action].”

In this quote Marx does not seek to place class struggle and the development of the productive forces, which can only mean the development of capitalism, as opposites but welcomes both as positive factors leading to socialist revolution.  Yet many socialists cannot think how the development of capitalism assists its eventual overthrow and can only conceive that capitalism must be in perpetual crisis, feeling that without this not only is there no prospect for socialism but no rationale for it either.  But if this were true then the prodigious development of capitalism over the last two centuries or so would have proved the advent of socialism impossible.

It is enough to recognise that such a viewpoint, which leads to denying capitalism’s continuing growth, divorces socialists from some of the concerns of workers who experience its reality, its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides, without ideological blinkers. If it were indeed true that only capitalism’s failures or crises were grounds for socialism then we would have to recognise that those grounds are not enough.

So, the marked increase in mortality among white middle aged men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013 is all the more remarkable because it contrasts sharply with the experience of other demographic groups.  Mortality declines among Hispanics and black non-Hispanics continued to decline, as they did for this segment of the population in France, Germany, UK, Canada, Australia and Sweden.

mortality

All-cause mortality, ages 45–54 for US White non-Hispanics (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).

Back to Part 6

Forward to Part 8

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 6

china1larg.workers.giThe continued growth in the productive powers of society can only mean the increased productive power of human labour, exercised through increasing use of the implements of labour and the organisation and application of scientific knowledge.  This in turn can only manifest itself in the growth of the working class that exercises this power, wields the implements of labour and develops and applies advances in scientific knowledge.

The result has been the increasing creation of the material conditions that can provide the foundations for a more equitable and socially just society.  The most important of these is the growth of the global working class.

From 1980 to 2010 the world’s labour force grew by 1.2 billion, to approximately 2.9 billion, with almost 90 per cent of the growth occurring in what has been called developing countries, including 500 million in China and India.  In the process 620 million people have been lifted out of poverty, as defined by the World Bank at $1.25 per day (at 2005 purchasing power parity).  Global non-farm employment rose from 54 per cent of all jobs in 1980 to 70 per cent in 2010.

From 1990 to 2010 China’s productivity was estimated to have grown by an average of 9.8 per cent per year, about one fifth as a result of the move from countryside to the city.   Wages grew as a result, and the ‘Financial Times’ has recently reported that the scope for this mass migration to continue had now ended.  (All figures from McKinsey)

In what are called the advanced economies 165 million new non-farm jobs were created and a large number of these taken by women joining the workforce.  Over this period the number of women in the labour force rose by 77 million accounting for the majority, 61 per cent, of the net new additions of 122 million.

Average skill levels of the workforce have also risen with the number of college graduates in the world labour force doubling in the economically advanced countries and growing by two and a half times in developing countries.  Around 700 million high school graduates joined the world’s labour force, increasing the proportion of those with secondary education to 48 per cent in 2010 from 39 per cent in 1980.

The assumption that only the ‘advanced’ countries have educated workers with the knowledge and skills necessary for innovation and more advanced production is now untrue.  In 1970 approximately 30 per cent of university enrolments were in the United States but by 2006 this was only around 12 per cent. The share of the world’s Ph.D.’s accounted for by the US has fallen from around 50 per cent in the early 1970s to 18 per cent in 2004.  By 2005 South Korea was sending a larger proportion of its young people to university than the US. And, for example, only 10 per cent of Italy’s working age population had a college degree in 2010, lower than in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.  Countries such as Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and Poland more than doubled their university enrolments in the 1980s and 1990s. (Quoted from ‘The new global labour market’)

The McKinsey report quoted above states that in the advanced countries the share of national income going to labour rose during the 1950s and 1960s, peaking in 1975, but has fallen ever since and is now below its 1950 level.  The wages of less skilled workers have stagnated or fallen in all but a handful of advanced countries while the incomes of those in the top 10 per cent have risen.  Capitalists complain that they cannot get the necessary skilled workers and unemployment among those with only secondary education is nearly twice as high as among those with college degrees.  In the advanced countries unemployment among the least skilled is two to four times higher than the most highly skilled.

As illustration of the insanity of capitalism’s failure to develop in any sort of rational manner, an article in the ‘Irish Times’ earlier this year notes that the Irish State has the dubious distinction of having the most overeducated workforce in Europe with around a third overqualified for the jobs that they do, just in front of Cyprus, Spain and Greece.  It reports one young woman with a degree and a Diploma in primary school teaching who made 80 job applications last year and didn’t get one interview.  As the duration of unemployment grows the skills previously acquired atrophy and the social labour expended on their acquisition is wasted.

So some educated workers can’t get a job commensurate with their education while capitalists complain they can’t get skilled workers.  A further twist is added when you consider the well paid jobs that some workers get have relatively little to do with their accumulated knowledge.

I recall reading some time ago an article in a British newspaper that noted that the knowledge and skills of those with science qualifications is socially wasted in jobs within the media industry, in companies like Google or Facebook, doing jobs that involved not much more than high-tech advertising and selling.  I know of one young woman who has a PhD. in science, in which she studied the transfer of drugs through the body for those with cystic fibrosis but who could only get a decent wage by requalifying as an accountant.

When production is profit driven, without any conscious societal mechanisms to determine social priorities, such waste appears in statistics as remarkable progress.  What isn’t measured is the potential contribution that millions of working people could make but can’t because of the lack of opportunities and subordination and lack of democracy in the workplace that stifles their ambition and creative powers.

Despite all this however it has to be understood that capitalism continues to develop, and the productive power of humanity continues to grow massively.  The need for skilled workers grows even if the system often wastes much of the knowledge and skills created.

There can be no doubt that the ‘civilising mission’ of capitalism, which the last few of these posts have been about, continues.  Of course it does not develop evenly and does not develop without antagonism or contradiction and in the next posts I will look some more at the limited and contradictory character of this development.

However if capitalism were simply as system in crisis we could not explain why it still exists.  If it were not still revolutionising the means of production and developing the productivity of labour it would no longer be the capitalism analysed by Marx and we would have to find some other approach to understanding it.

Most important of all, as I have said before: if capitalism created only oppressed, exploited and alienated human beings where could the alternative come from?

Back to Part 5

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 5: capitalism’s achievements

classroom-19th-century-1140x684One comment on an earlier post on the blog relating to the situation in Greece included the following: “So I think the task at hand is not to solve Greece’s economic crisis, this will certainly take years. Rather it is to add some political organisation and direction on to the instinct to fight. I believe that you are thinking too far ahead, overly concerned with what socialism should be in the future, and not really catching the fire of the present.”

Leaving aside whether this was true of this particular post on Greece or even of other posts; a point I have made is that the Marxist movement is too concerned with attempting to “catch the fire of the present”.  This has usually meant jumping on whatever bandwagon it thinks might propel it along in some opportunist direction.  This is informed by the view that socialism will arrive through a capitalist crisis that precipitates political revolution that will destroy the existing state and then introduce the new society.  All of which it will lead through “catching the fire” in some sort of eschatological conflagration.

Missing is the development of the alternative, evolving within capitalism in advance of any crisis, that creates and develops workers’ power in the present and most of all creates the conditions that means workers actually seek a socialist alternative long before any crisis.  Missing is the building of a working class movement that fights for an alternative society now, sees such a new society as its answer to its problems and does not limit itself to the necessarily defensive struggles against capitalist attacks.

This understanding of the working class movement, as embodying the future alternative within itself, is now more or less completely lost but would have been the foundation of workers’ socialist consciousness during most of the first century of the movement’s existence.  So, the building of mass workers’ parties, trade unions, friendly societies, educational organisations and cooperatives were all seen to be the visible rise of the more or less inevitable final victory of socialism.

No such confidence now pervades the socialist movement and part of this impoverished outlook is the perspective of fighting for and relying on the state to deliver the goods.  This and/or the view that some future, but always more or less near, political crisis will quickly precipitate a struggle and a consciousness adequate for a successful political revolution.   A view that forgets that socialist revolution is distinguished by it being primarily a social one and the Marxist view that social being determines consciousness: that is the development of consciousness is based on the development of capitalism, including what workers do over many decades to develop their own power and organisation within it. There is no exception in such a view for small groups propagandising for revolution, crisis or no crisis.

The patient building of workers organisations, such as cooperatives, is viewed by some as simply reform of capitalism when in fact no successful revolution will be possible without them.  Opposition to what has been termed the stages theory of revolution, that every workers struggle is inevitably limited to certain non-socialist goals, is confused with rejection of the truth that the working class will go through stages of development and that earlier stages that do not immediately threaten the system are also just as necessary because they are expressions of the workers own activity and power.

That this has been more or less forgotten is both a product and producer of the decline of the socialist movement.

That is why I started to write a series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, because without such an alternative there will be no, well to state the obvious – alternative!  It’s why this series is now continued.

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In the last post on Marx’s alternative I said I would look at the evidence that the development of capitalism continues to provide the grounds for socialism as an alternative.  By this I mean the contradictory nature of capitalism is still creating on an increasing scale its gravediggers, the working class, and that even “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.” Marx.

A look at the long term development of capitalism illustrates what Marx called its civilising mission, a product not just of the growing requirements of capitalist production for an educated and relatively healthy workforce but of the needs of the capitalist state itself that provides most of this education.  By 1985 mass education was compulsory in 80 per cent of the countries of the world and over 90 per cent of the world’s children spent some time enrolled in school.

Estimates for the year 1900 put participation rates in primary education at under 40 per cent in most parts of the world outside North America, northwest Europe and English speaking areas of the Pacific, where it was over 70 per cent.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century every part of the world had achieved the minimum of the most industrialised countries at the start of the 20th century and most had exceeded it.

The picture of course is far from universally rosy and a 2007 UNESCO report estimated that in 2004 781 million adults did not have minimum literacy skills and close to 77 million children of school age were not enrolled in school.  Nevertheless the twentieth century was the first in human history in which the majority of the world’s population learned to read and write.

The development of higher level education has been just as dramatic.  In 1900 roughly half a million were enrolled in higher education institutions across the world.  By 2000 the number had grown two-hundredfold to 100 million people.  Growth in higher education has not slowed but accelerated in the latter part of the twentieth century; particularly after about 1960, with enrolment rates climbing rapidly, especially of women.  This growth has created what amounts to a global higher education system with “the same subjects . . . taught with the same perspectives leading to very similar degrees . .” (The Worldwide Expansion of Higher Education in the Twentieth Century)

If we look at population and health we can see the capacity of the productive system to support a growing population and improved health.  “Since 1800, global population size has already increased by a factor of six and by 2010 will have risen by a factor of ten. . . . The length of life, which has already more than doubled, will have tripled . . In 1800, women spent about 70 percent of their adult years bearing and rearing young children, but that fraction has decreased in many parts of the world to only about 14 percent, due to lower fertility and longer life.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Global life expectancy (years at birth) in 1700 was 27, still 27 in 1800, 30 by 1900 47 by 1950 and 65 by 2000, while population was 0.68 billion, 0.98, 1.65, 2.52 and 6.07 billion in the same years.  This decline in mortality began about 1800 in northwest Europe, and in many lower income countries at the beginning of the twentieth century, accelerating after the Second World War.

“The first stage of mortality decline is due to reductions in contagious and infectious diseases that are spread by air or water. Starting with the development of the smallpox vaccine in the late eighteenth century, preventive medicine played a role in mortality decline in Europe. However, public health measures played an important role from the late nineteenth century, and some quarantine measures may have been effective in earlier centuries. Improved personal hygiene also helped as income rose and as the germ theory of disease became more widely known and accepted. Another major factor in the early phases of growing life expectancy is improvements in nutrition. Famine mortality was reduced by improvements in storage and transportation that permitted integration of regional and international food markets . . .”

“In recent decades, the continuing reduction in mortality is due to reductions in chronic and degenerative diseases, notably heart disease and cancer (Riley, 2001). In the later part of the century, publicly organized and funded biomedical research has played an increasingly important part, and the human genome project and stem cell research promise future gains.”

“Many low-income populations did not begin the mortality transition until some time in the twentieth century. However, they then made gains in life expectancy quite rapidly by historical standards. In India, life expectancy rose from around 24 years in 1920 to 62 years today, a gain of .48 years per calendar year over 80 years. In China, life expectancy rose from 41 in 1950–1955 to 70 in 1995–1999, a gain of .65 years per year over 45 years.” (The Demographic transition: Three centuries of Fundamental Change)

Again however the gains in life expectancy are not uniform and the productive advances of capitalism, some of which are reflected in public health and medical advances, are subordinated to the accumulation of profit.  This is most clearly seen in the two significant exceptions noted in the article quoted above – the stagnation in mortality gains and increased mortality from HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and the decline in life expectancy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union arising from their transition to capitalism.  The article quotes the UN in 2002 noting that male life expectancy in the Russian Federation was 60, similar to that of India.

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Forward to Part 6