Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 18 – forces and relations of production 1

We have seen the importance of production to individuals and to society and how the relations of production condition our lives and thus how changing these is fundamental to any alternative that seeks to radically transform these lives.

An alternative view is that it is not possible to ascribe any objective primacy in historical explanation to any of the multiple factors that bring about a particular event.  Since multiple factors create history and all are necessary for any particular outcome there can be no fundamental ordering or understanding of historical development.  This view therefore implies that pursuit of any alternative can have no secure foundation because any particular outcome is a combination of causes, each of which is necessary for the existence of that event and its consequences, and it is impossible to control for all these multiple causes.

It is not my purpose to go into a philosophical interrogation of this claim but to point out that Marxism demonstrates the cogency of its alternative not by the attractiveness of its ideas but by their consistency and correspondence to reality; that they explain the real world, how it develops and how it may be changed.  Its correctness therefore arises from real history which must evidence its ideas and the persuasiveness of its alternative. Marxism does not therefore impose formulas on history to which the real world must adhere but establishes the laws through which history develops by looking at history itself. The existence of such laws is demonstrated by interrogation of history itself.

Its claim is therefore that there are some things more important than others to understanding historical development and therefore fundamental in determining how it can be changed and placed under conscious human control, in so far that it can.  The claim by Marx is that it is how people cooperate to reproduce their conditions of life, and the forces of production and relations of production as the key aspects of this process, that can explain its overall development.  These aspects of history have to be identified and their mutually conditioned development explained by history and not by some theory imposed from outside.

The ‘Preface’ of 1859 contains some very short remarks setting out this view:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . . At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

The key part of this that is often misunderstood is “relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.”  For some this means that that forces of production have primacy in explaining historical development, in that the relations by which people come together to produce are determined by the level of development of these forces of production and that changes in these relations of production arise from the development of the productive forces.  An alternative view is that it is the relations of production, for example, of exclusive capitalist ownership of the means of production plus a working class without such ownership, and the competition among these capitalists, that is the motor of development.  In other words, two diametrically opposite views!

In the last post, I explained what was meant by the relations of production under capitalism.  Turning to the forces of production, these can be considered to be the instruments of production including technology (factories, offices, transport, machines etc. – the physical instruments used to produce material goods and ‘immaterial’ services); raw materials used in production; and labour used in production including its mode of organisation, cooperation and division of labour.

Human labour power is the most basic force of production and since relations of production are composed of people we can see that the forces and relations of production are not physically separate things but different aspects of the way individuals combine in society to produce and reproduce that society.  The most basic force of production under capitalism is therefore the working class.

There is not therefore a set of forces of production upon which a separate set of relations are imposed to make a combined mode of production.  These are two aspects of the one production process with their own features that entail the contradictory development of capitalism as a whole and explain its development.  Just as the commodities produced in capitalism have a use value – they must have some use in order to be bought and sold – and they must have an exchange value – they must have a monetary value that determines whether they are made and sold, and at what price they are sold at; so, the forces and relations of production are aspects of the one process of (re)production.

This means that production is capitalist production for profit, which is derived from the unpaid labour of the worker.  This however can only be profit if the commodities made by the worker are sold, which means the commodities must have a use value, for if they had no use they would not be purchased, and the lower the share of wages in the value created in production the greater must be the consumption of the capitalist and other parasitic classes.  The surplus value created by the worker, the unpaid labour transformed into money, allows the capitalist to purchase more instruments of labour and hire more labour power.

Production is therefore not just the production of material goods and services but the reproduction of class relationships and the relations of production. The forces and relations of production exist as a unity, as aspects of the same process.

The reproduction of classes thus involves not just the hire of labour to make a profit but assumes that the wage can function as a wage because the commodities the worker needs to consume can be purchased with money the worker receives and are thus themselves commodities produced by wage labour.  This is also the case with the instruments of labour which are not self-produced either by the capitalist, and certainly not by the worker, but are themselves commodities produced by wage labour.

Only when this is the case can we really claim that the relations of production and classes typical of capitalism are adequately developed so that the features of capitalism that we will later discuss are expressed and become typical, including separation of the worker from the means of production and their re-uniting only under the control of capitalists, who now monopolise their ownership.  Only to the extent that this is the case can we talk of capitalism and we can only know this by historical investigation.  While elements of wage labour and capital have existed for many centuries, the capitalist mode of production has not.

The first claim by Marx is that certain relations of production are appropriate to, or correspond with, a given stage in the development of the material forces of production.  But in what sense are the forces of production primary?

A second famous quote from Marx sets out in a more specific way than the 1859 Preface his views:

“The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.”[i]

Marx is therefore saying that the level of productivity determines what forms of extraction of surplus from the exploited class are possible. He sets out a general relation between the level of productivity (size of surplus) and the forms of surplus labour possible given that level of productivity.  This form of surplus labour extraction is the basis for sustaining class relations in society and this class society determines the kind of political form the society takes or ‘the form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence.’

Class relations thus grow out of production so must in some way be separate from production for these relations to in turn react upon it, so that the class relations have to correspond with production.

Of course, at any particular time production takes place within class relationships but taken separately, in this sense, it may be considered as simply material production, as production of use values, as production in itself, a process between men and women and nature involving methods of labour.

This is an aspect of the actual mode of production useful in order to understand production as a whole, which also necessarily includes class relations.  The forces and relations of production therefore include the same people and the same processes but understood as different aspects of the one mode of production, aspects that are not simply conceptual but can be demonstrated through real history.

The ability of this production to support any class society, the scope and extent of this class society and the potential to abolish class society altogether, depends upon the productive forces creation of a surplus and the extent of this surplus production.

[i] Marx goes on to say that “This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.”

Back to part 17

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 17 – social classes

The relations established when people produce together is fundamental to the overall position they occupy in society. These relations of production are therefore fundamental to all the social and political questions faced by individuals.

Yet in mainstream conceptions of politics these fundamental relations do not exist – rent, profit and wages are all the expressions of relations of production but they are simply treated as a given, and the distribution of population in receipt of them also simply assumed.  Instead of examining the foundations of society, what already exists is simply assumed to be natural.

The class categories that are employed, such as ‘middle class’, are politically loaded to express either neutrality between those who work and those who own capital, and/or beg the question of what these people are in between.  Old class categories such as A, B, C1, C2, D and E are recognised as outdated even in their own terms while newer categories such as these don’t explain anything, while smothering fundamental divisions.  In Britain, and also Ireland, cultural expressions of class such as speech come to represent class, again without explaining it. Politics, as marketing, packages people into all sorts of random categories, from ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘just about managing’ to ‘people who get up early in the morning’ and ‘hard working families.’   How could real alternatives to what exists arise from such misconceptions?

All these categories appear as more or less random aspects of the lives of working people who above all else have to work for a living but cannot be categorised as such, cannot be informed that their fundamental characteristic is one of class defined by relations of production.  Other divisions heaped upon them, such as those based on religion or race, help make this a reality while these and other basic divisions such as sex overlay such division, adding, reinforcing and obscuring all at the same time but never replacing or eradicating.

Identification of new categories of social existence – be they defined in workers’ roles as consumers, the ‘affluent worker’, or as producers, ‘professionals’ or ‘precariat’ – might reflect some reality of capitalist development but never at the most fundamental level.

Marx doesn’t reject the reality behind these categories but sees their elaboration as the working out of the contradictory development of capitalism:

‘Incidentally, . . . although every capitalist demands that his workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers; and by no means does this apply to the remainder of the workers, because these relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive, by filling their ears with babble about new needs. It is precisely this side of the relationship between capital and labour which is an essential civilising force, and on which the historic justification—but also the contemporary power—of capital is based.’ (Marx, Grundrisse)

This property of capitalism is not incidental, as Marx notes, ‘the simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear merely as external consequences. Likewise, the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated as already latent within it.’

The unavoidable development of capitalism by its nature contains contradictions that are fundamental to it, and being fundamental, involve progress that presages its supersession by an alternative social system, based on its massive increase in the productivity of labour.  This gives rise to variations in the roles of workers in production and to their relation to, and aspirations for, the fruits of the productivity of labour in their role as consumers.

The relations of production therefore define the classes which individuals belong to, even if they have not the slightest notion that this is the class position they occupy or even misinterpret their class interests, whether due to racism, nationalism or whatever.  In reality most people do understand that they occupy a particular class position, and are members of a class, although fewer then define themselves and their social and political interests with class politics consistent with this position.

This is truer of individuals within the working class than capitalist class, whose members generally have a much higher level of consciousness of their membership of their class and appreciation of what political interests they therefore must pursue as a result. While socialists usually concern themselves with the point of view of the oppressed and exploited class and their political ideas; when it comes to the consciousness of the exploiting classes, the decisive role of production and productive relations on the form of political consciousness is much more apparent.

The rich are more conscious of their wealth and its source, because they have it, than those who actually created it but do not.  They are more conscious of who they continue to get it from, and their competitors for it, from within their class and from other classes.

This, however, does not also prevent some of them from misinterpreting their class interests or making erroneous political calculations. Not everything individual capitalists do reveals their essential ‘true’ nature and ‘true’ interests.  This is one reason why socialists should not simply seek the opposite of what one political representative or section of the capitalist class happens to advance at any particular time, but seek to identify and advance the political interests of the whole working class independently, taking account of the whole constellation of class relations.

Today, we only need to think of the numerous and varied state, state-sponsored and private think tanks proclaiming the benefits of capitalism, forecasting its development, developing policies for it and providing consultants to implement changes, to appreciate the level of class consciousness of the capitalist class, and also its variety of outlooks.

Classes are therefore collectives and not simply an addition of atomised individuals.  Atomised individuals as such do not exist, as we are all products of families, friends, work colleagues, and those we interact with on a daily basis.  More than that, our lives are products of millions of people we will never meet who set rules by which we live, through laws, regulations and standards.

Literally millions of people impact on our lives in a way that we take for granted most of the time, as we must or we would spend our time thinking of nothing else.  The cooperation among millions of people to ensure our society works, produces and consumes, that we may continue to live, grows and grows every year.

When we enter the world we do not choose how we do so and do not choose to which class we belong.  Only in young people’s sci-fi films, such as ‘Divergent’, is it possible to pick how one wants to live in society and the role we want to play.  Our position in society constrains our choices and conditions how we lead our lives, so determining our view of the world, which we can never look at totally afresh, free of any preconceptions.  What we can do is become as conscious as possible of what these are.

When Marxists therefore define a society as capitalist we mean certain things which must be studied in order to be fully understood.  Even the idea of capitalism as an example of a particular set of relations of production must be determined through research and study involving understanding the practical reality of individuals’ everyday lives.  The limits of such explanation must be determined in the process, and cannot be taken as completed or timeless without need for continual rethinking and development, just as the world changes and develops itself.

In capitalism, the relations of production define the existence of a class that has to sell its labour power in order to live and, in order that they produce for society, that they be combined with the means of production.  These means of production include factories, offices, transport, shops, warehouses, docks, mines and all machinery and equipment of every kind that workers employ when they work.  The latter are owned by a separate class of capitalists, and sometimes the state rather than private corporations.

Just as there are no individuals who can properly be understood apart from the world they inhabit, with its many other individuals, so classes cannot be understood at the individual level.  A worker may negotiate a pay rise with an employer, but what makes the worker a member of a class is that they cannot survive without selling their capacity to work to a capitalist.  Similarly, a capitalist is just such a person because they own the office or factory and the worker does not.  They have the money to pay the worker for her capacity to work on their behalf.  This work is carried out not because of the consumption needs of the capitalist but because he wants to make a profit from the labour performed by the worker.

A well-paid worker, or someone who considers themselves middle class, can hire childminders or even a few hours of a person to clean their house, but they will never get rich doing so because the childminder or cleaner is not paid in order to make a profit.  The money paid in wages to the childminder or cleaner is not therefore capital aimed at procuring profit.  No matter how well paid the worker is, she will not be better off financially from having paid wages to childminders or cleaners.

The capitalist on the other hand will hope to make a profit and become richer through paying wages to his workers, who can indeed be childminders or cleaners, whose services are sold to others, and who are paid less by the capitalist than the value of the labour they perform on his behalf.

The worker on the other hand, no matter how affluent she is likely to become, cannot abstain from selling her labour power because she has no other source of income.  For the vast majority neither savings nor family support can substitute for their wage or salary.

In such a society, the need to sell one’s labour power exists because the ability to cosume at the prevailing standard of living expected in that society cannot be achieved through the worker labouring on her own behalf or through ownership of capital in any form, be it money or material means of producing commodities.

At the beginnings of capitalism peasants or farmers who owned or had customary rights to land could provide for themselves and did not need to sell their ability to work to someone else.  Capitalism sometimes drove them from their land in order to make them dependent on selling their labour power to capitalists.  Ironic then, that capitalist ideologues condemn workers for not standing on their own two feet while their system originates, and can only stand on its feet, through depriving the labouring population of its independent ownership of the means of production.

These are the characteristic relations of production under capitalism.  These relations dominate people’s lives because they determine what they do eight or more hours a day; what income and security they can provide for their families; what levels of consumption they can aspire to; and what general social characteristics they will share with neighbours and friends.  In short, all these social characteristics are entwined with the relations of production, which are therefore infused into every aspect of our lives.  Our culture as expressed in everyday behaviour is not reducible to our relations of production but neither is it separate from these relations, which define the fundamental social relationships of which our daily lives consist.

This is what is meant by the first section, quoted in an earlier post, of the ‘Preface’ of 1859 drafted by Marx:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

Back to part 16

Forward to part 18

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 16 – the production of life

Marx’s alternative is undoubtedly the most radical alternative to capitalism, which can mislead some to reject it on the grounds that it must therefore be utopian.  Years of reaction have drastically reduced expectations among those who oppose the worst aspects of capitalism and much of the anti-capitalism of the last few decades has not actually been anti-capitalist at all, never mind socialist.

In fact, it is the far-reaching character of Marx’s alternative that makes it a real alternative because it is based on capitalism’s own revolutionary character, a character that encompasses its civilising mission and the repeated crises that demonstrate its contradictions and potential for replacement.

The depth and comprehensiveness Marxism seeks is both a barrier to its initial acceptance and absolutely necessary in order to understand its presentation of an alternative to capitalism.  Many come to reject capitalism through its immediate exploitation and cruelty, through appreciation of its inhumanity and destruction, understanding this opposition in terms of moral judgements that stand apart from the crude and degrading material requirements of the system.

Marxism by contrast starts from these material requirements, ones that are required of any social system, but which take a particular social form within capitalism.  It seeks to understand both requirements and particularly how the working of capitalism paves the way for its supersession.  Marxists do not therefore condemn capitalism only for its cruelty, destruction, exploitation and inhumanity, but also because, in its development of the needs and capacities of humanity, these are in turn restricted and disfigured by it, when capitalism itself has created the grounds for all these needs to be met and capacities to be developed.  If this were not the case there would be little point in opposing an exploitation or oppression that was inescapable and could not be replaced.  At the same time, Marxism realises that what is required is replacement of the system, not mere adjustment or reform.

Exploitation and oppression is built into the structure of capitalism, and is at the core of Marx’s understanding of historical development including the development towards socialism.

For Marx “History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real living man, that does all that, that possesses and fights; “history” is not a person apart, using man as a means for its own particular aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels ‘The Holy Family’).  And by ‘man’ we should understand all of humanity.

This means that both the oppressive and civilising characteristics of capitalism are not something disembodied, inflicted upon humanity from without.  Both aspects arise from the actions of humanity itself resulting from the form of society inhabited, given to it and which it only imperfectly understands.

“Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.”(Marx and Engels ‘The German ideology’)

Humanity is therefore ‘a tool-making animal’.  Direct and individual acquisition, or appropriation of naturally occurring items, that can be consumed directly by nonhuman primate populations, differs from the social production through the expenditure of energy among human populations. This capacity comes to define and redefine human organisation.

“Labour, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labour, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself” (Marx, Capital Volume I). People must work no matter what type of society they live within; how they do this defines the human community within which they exist.

Those that work with nature to ensure the continued existence and reproduction of humanity, at whatever level of development it has achieved, act upon external nature and change it, and in this way simultaneously change their own nature.

“When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.”  (Capital Volume I)  For Marx, humanity, in the shape of those who work, who will liberate it from oppression and exploitation, “must pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.”

Of course, if they do not, workers can become “apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production . . . degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.”  We constantly come across the extremes of both: working people who inspire and those whose apathy and ignorance dismays and demoralises.

However, it is work itself, which by definition working people must by and large perform, which forces upon them, by necessity, considerations that can lift them above apathy and degradation.  Work is therefore central to how human society is structured, how it reproduces itself, how it develops new forms, how it understands itself, and how it can change human perceptions and desires for potential new forms of social organisation.

So, what is particular about human labour?  “[Let us] presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be” (Marx, Capital Volume 1)

To the extent that the worker is compelled to labour for a purpose that is not hers, that she may even oppose or detest, such labour is against her nature as a conscious being and her freedom to express her consciousness in whatever way she wishes.  Her views and awareness of compulsion and lack of freedom, which she will see as inhuman and against her human nature, may lead to resistance and ultimately revolt against such a society that entails such constraints.

Since labouring is a social activity – no one can or does work alone – the rebellion by a worker against the drudgery and oppression of work reflects not just the constraints on the realisation of this worker’s own purposes but the purposes of everyone with whom she works, the purposes of her fellow workers, and in an extended sense of all those who work, the working class as a whole.  This is true whether she is conscious of her membership of a class or not.  Thus does capitalism, at a very basic level, engender opposition to its inhuman workings.  The more accomplished its civilising role has been, the more conscious will workers be of constraints and more capable of seeking to remove them.

This recognition of the most fundamental need of people to work together upon nature to ensure their existence at whatever level of development they have reached is sometimes viewed as so fundamental that it has no specific or practical significance for understanding contemporary problems and issues.  But a moments’ thought disposes of this.

“All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a definite form of society.”  “Human life has from time immemorial rested on production, and, in one way or another, on social production, these relations we call, precisely, economic relations.”  So not just the products of labour, or how that work takes place, but also the form of society itself is determined by the relations in which people come together to labour in production.

Unemployment, the threat of it and insecurity it evokes; the lack of decent work and of low pay; of poor conditions, pensions and welfare rights; of zero hours’ contracts, food banks and reliance on benefits; the allocation of the labour of society that does not value or provide for sufficient health and education.  All these aspects of society are simply elements of how humanity allocates its labour in order that humanity maintain its existence in the fashion that it has been born into. How people work and produce together is therefore fundamental.  For Marx material production “is the basis of all social life, and therefore of all real history.” (Capital Volume 1 p 286)

Marx describes the general process in his booklet ‘Wage, Labour and Capital’:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.”

“These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the discovery of a new instrument of warfare, the firearm, the whole internal organisation of the army was necessarily altered, the relations within which individuals compose an army and can work as an army were transformed, and the relation of different armies to another was likewise changed.”

“We thus see that the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production. The relations of production in their totality constitute what is called the social relations, society, and, moreover, a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with peculiar, distinctive characteristics. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois (or capitalist) society, are such totalities of relations of production, each of which denotes a particular stage of development in the history of mankind.”

Back to part 15

Forward to part 17

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.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

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.


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.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

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

Back to part 8

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.

housing 1
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