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  Old class categories such as A, B, C1, C2, D and E are recognised as outdated even in their own terms while newer categories such as these don’t explain anything, while smothering fundamental divisions.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

What is Anti-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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