Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 14

The socialist society envisaged by Karl Marx can only be built on the achievements of capitalism and what has been called its civilising mission.  This progress rests on an enormously increased productivity of labour, which has reached such a level that the productive forces of society now realistically promise a society that more and more meets the needs of all its members, with inequality and insecurity vastly reduced and material poverty eliminated.

Within capitalism, progress inevitably involves increased exploitation since exploitation of labour is how this society increases productivity.  But progress there has undoubtedly been and without it socialism would not be possible.

Capitalism has created this possibility but capitalism now stands in its way.

When I first became interested in socialist politics in the mid-seventies I used to visit the Communist Party bookshop on High Street in Glasgow.  I remember picking up a CP pamphlet extolling the virtues of the ‘socialist’ countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.  It set out the daily calorific intake of the average citizen in a number of these countries with East Germany the top performer.

Even at the time this jarred and seemed somewhat disappointing.  I was by no means rich.  I lived in a tenement with an outside toilet and shared a bedroom with my sister, while my mother slept in the living room.  But I never once thought that I was going to suffer from a lack of calories; in fact I barely thought about food and was too busy running around to worry about it.

Now of course, in the space of less than a lifetime, a problem in the most developed capitalist societies is not a lack of calories for the average working class person, which I knew from my Scottish granny had been a problem in the past, but too many calories!

Reading some material on inequality and its effects, as argued in the book ‘The Spirit Level’, I came across some quotes that illustrated how very different the problem is now.  Now the stereotypical poor person is overweight or obese, or rather the latter are nearly always working class or poor, while the equivalent rich person is slim and healthy.  The capitalist food and drink industry specialises in feeding fatburgers and sugar-filled drinks to the poor while offering exotic sounding pulses, vegetables and bottled water in delicatessens for the discerning middle class.

I exaggerate of course; this is a distorted caricature albeit with a grain of truth, but the most important truth is that in many countries, for the vast majority of the population, an adequate food supply is not a problem.  Problems with its supply lie elsewhere, including in the exploitation of the humanity and nature that ensures its production.

While the productive forces of society more and more are capable of offering increased economic security, freedom from social stress and worry, and a promise of a fulfilling life, capitalism is more and more demanding that this promise can be offered for only some and on more and more unacceptable terms.  These terms include zero hour contracts, massive increases in debt, an absence of rights in the workplace and increasing threats to political rights outside it.  Working into your seventies is now the prospect for those in their youth and young adulthood.

Nevertheless, despite all this, it is unquestionable that progress has been made.  Had it not, then on what grounds could we claim that all these impositions and threats are unnecessary?  That an alternative is eminently possible?

A second aspect of this progress is that because it is capitalist progress it is accompanied by repeated crises, which can lead to sometimes dramatic falls in living standards for some, and constant insecurity and increased exploitation for many others; who are required to work longer and harder and with relatively less remuneration while having less and less security over their employment.

The financial crisis has come and many think it has also gone, with the answer to it being austerity and the bankers going back to business as usual.  Severe world-wide recession threatened after 2008, followed by crisis in the Eurozone and crises in developing countries as commodity prices fell.  This was only partially offset by continued growth in China, which is now also threatened by a similar credit boom and overcapacity

From being the fastest growing country in the west, the UK is now slowing dramatically while the Irish State, although it crashed, is now supposedly booming.  These booms and busts make crisis appear a constant threat, the boom period demonstrating the legitimacy of capitalism and the bust demonstrating the difficulty of, and for, an alternative.

For many these crises are proof that the contradictions of capitalism are insurmountable, are intrinsic to the system and cannot be escaped.  Just as progress under capitalism is built upon exploitation, so it is also achieved through crises.  It is crises that most violently reorganises production and ensures its further development.  Crises therefore not only express the irrationality of capitalism but also its rationality, its ability to achieve further development through destruction.

The most common alternative understanding is one that proposes that the system can be cleansed of its most irrational aspects while also ensuring that the growth that characterises capitalism can continue, and even increase.  The private greed that disfigures the system can be ameliorated by the state, which can be regarded as the representative of society as a whole and can act on its behalf.  Freeing this state from direct and indirect control of the 1% is therefore the most important task.

Marxists question this alternative and point out that inequality is not primarily a feature of market outcomes, of inequality of income, of working conditions, employment, housing and general welfare.  It is a question of utter and complete inequality in the conditions of production that generates income inequality and all the other inequalities that condition the general welfare of the majority of society.  What is distributed, and is considered fair distribution, is determined by how the wealth of society is produced in the first place.

Marx put it like this – “before distribution can be the distribution of products; it is (1) the distribution of the instruments of production, and (2), which is a further specification of the same relation, the distribution of the members of society among the different kinds of production. (Subsumption of the individuals under specific relations of production).  The distribution of products is evidently only a result of this distribution, which is comprised within the process of production itself and determines the structure of production.”

If the means by which the wealth in society is produced is not owned in common, by everyone, but by a small number so becoming a separate class, then the distribution of income and wealth that flows from this production will primarily benefit this class.

This is why we have massive increases in productivity and material wealth but it is accompanied by increased exploitation and inequality. Why it is accompanied by crises, in which private appropriation of the fruits of production, and of the means of production itself, conflict with the greater and greater cooperation required to make this production possible.

Nor do Marxists believe that the state is the true representative of society as a whole.  It is not ‘captured’ by the 1%, its functions are determined by the structure of society as a whole, by the fact that the means of production belong to a separate tiny class.  The state can adjust, within limits, inequality of income, housing and working conditions but it cannot fundamentally adjust the ownership of production that is the guarantee of general inequality.  In acting to defend the regular and ordered functioning of society, it must by this fact alone defend society’s fundamental structure, lest any radical change threaten its stability or the stability of the state itself.

And even if this were not the case, the argument for a socialism based on ownership of production by the state has floundered on the experience of the ‘socialist’ states in Eastern Europe and the USSR, which, before their collapse, could boast that their system fed their people.

Marx’s alternative is not based on the state, which is the instrument of capitalist rule, but is based on the progress that capitalism has created, it development of the productivity of labour and most importantly on the labour itself that performs this productive work.  Marx’s alternative is therefore based on the working class and its potential to control society.

Crises demonstrate the necessity of an alternative but in themselves do not create that alternative.  They can demonstrate what is wrong, but it is what it is possible to replace this system with that is the question.  Only if the contradictions which give rise to crises contain within themselves their progressive resolution is it possible for there to be a progressive alternative to capitalism.  So, what is the nature of the contradiction that Marx identified that promises that a fundamentally different society is possible?

Imperialism and Ireland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last post Boffy alerted me to a debate he has had on imperialism, the last few comments of which brought up the question of Ireland and its relationship to imperialism, and it is on this I want to make a few remarks.

He asks – “Does Ireland today conform to the ideas portrayed in Lenin’s “Imperialism, of a colony? Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?”

On the first question the answer is partly yes – at least the North-East of the country, Northern Ireland – is a colony.  It is a part of one country ruled by a larger foreign neighbour that has not been integrated into the larger conquering territory, witness the howls of rage at the DUP supporting a Tory Government when not the slightest notice is taken when this Party is lauded for peacemaking in Ireland by being in government.

A settler-colonial population has historically claimed superior social and political rights over the native population, including most importantly, the claim that it needs a separate state because the native Catholic Irish cannot be trusted not to discriminate against Protestants the way Unionist Protestants have discriminated against them.

Sectarian social and political practices have been carried out that have been variously allowed, sanctioned and enforced by the British rulers.  When resistance to this erupted, the British State employed its superior force, armed the local settler colonial population and facilitated some of the worst sectarian atrocities by paramilitary thugs based in this population.  In the worst period thousands of Catholics moved in order to escape potential pogroms.

Even today the marking of territorial conquest is expressed through segregated residential areas with flags flown and footpaths painted to denote sectarian control.

A lot of this is widely recognised but the label colony is avoided in order to legitimise the role of the British, the role of the colonialists and the role of the erstwhile resistance to this British rule which has now accepted the partitionist framework.  It is also less easily appreciated because the native population are white West Europeans and could not have been, and generally have not been, subject to the barbarity of darker skinned native populations in other parts of the world.  The Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, is a major exception.

An English leftist, working for a while in Belfast in the 1980s and attending a meeting, noted that the ‘war’ that was taking place was indeed ‘low intensity’ and comparatively few people had or were being killed.  It was noted by a comrade of mine that while this was true the conflict was remarkably prolonged and protracted.  The two are undoubtedly related, but it is also the case that the North of Ireland is a small place and scaled up the scope of the violence looks less meagre.

But for all the reasons that the North is a colony the Southern Irish state is not.  It is as independent a state as any small Irish state could be.  As I have noted before, the last trappings of foreign British rule, including the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy and ownership by Britain of certain Irish “treaty’ ports, is history.

Some ‘anti-imperialists’ reject this level of independence and want a ‘real’ independent Irish State, one that can only come from being what is called a Workers’ Republic.  In fact, behind this ideal of ‘real’ independence lies Stalinist notions of state socialism, which involves nationalist politics and nationalisation, in other words it is much more likely to involve state capitalism.

What it isn’t is socialism and a Workers’ Republic.  It’s also utopian because there can be no independence, in the sense of a self-determining autonomy, for an Irish State within globalised capitalism.  It also has no support, as the tiny level of support for the Irish State leaving the EU demonstrates.  As for a real Workers’ Republic, it will enjoy much greater integration and unity with its neighbours than the current Irish State, so if you’re supporting socialism in order to be a ‘real anti-imperialist’ and have ‘real independence’ you’re backing the wrong horse.

These considerations matter for the approach of Irish socialists to the fight for socialism.  Whoever thinks that anti-imperialism is the banner under which to organise the whole Irish working class has to explain what national liberation content there is for Southern workers who face their own state and not a British one.  On this score, the answer to Boffy’s second question – “Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?” – is that it has been advanced.

In the debate, Phil remarks that “In Ireland the pro-Moscow Sticks (Workers Party) supported imperialist investment for precisely the reasons you give. But the choice was not imperialist investment or no investment. Completely missing from that approach is the overthrow of capitalism. Not waiting until some magical figure of output has been reached and the industrial working class has grown to be a certain percentage of the population. All thanks to imperialism.”

Ignoring the irrelevant flourish of the last two sentences, and the fact that we are nowhere near approaching socialist revolution in Ireland, as a real, concrete and practical proposal in the here and now, in the sentence before these, Phil will know that it’s not just the Workers’ Party that supports multinational investment in Ireland – everybody does!

As the political joke goes, the difference between the Official Republicans and the Provisionals is merely a matter of timing; Sinn Fein do not now oppose this investment.  And neither does the social-democratic left, in the guise of the small self-proclaimed Marxist organisations, who signal their acceptance of this investment by proposing only that the low corporate taxation especially set to attract this investment actually is 12.5%; that the tax rate does what it says on the tin and is not lower than this headline rate.

The real question at issue is whether the struggle for socialism must be prosecuted under the banner of national liberation.  Those who say yes have taken last years’ centenary anniversary of the founding blow for national liberation as the guide for future action.  As I pointed out in a series of posts beginning with this one, the 1916 Rising did not itself pose a solution to the division of Ireland and neither has any nationalist or republican struggle since.

A purely democratic struggle or revolution could on paper offer a solution to the undemocratic abomination that is partition and the sectarianism that passes both for the problem and the solution in the North.  A truly democratic platform would be enough to indict the colonial Northern state but what would it offer to Southern workers.  Even a classic capitalist democracy in Ireland would destroy sectarianism and destroy the power of reactionary unionism but it would offer little to Southern workers.

What is required in Ireland therefore is the strengthening of the working class, and the prominence today of foreign capital, and the country’s history and current reality of foreign state intervention, should make it blindingly obvious that the alternative is not any sort of nationalism, under the banner of ‘anti-imperialism’ or not, but the international unity of Irish workers with their class brothers and sisters across Europe.  The idea that Irish workers will overthrow Irish capitalism because they want to get rid of foreign imperialism is utter nonsense.  Southern workers won’t go to war to fight British imperialism in the North and they won’t go to war to drive out multinational companies.

The stages involved in increasing the strength of the Irish working class include building stronger and more active trade unions; cooperative production that visibly heralds the alternative to capitalism, and a working-class party that expresses the best impulses to political independence among Irish workers, no matter how under-developed that may currently be.  It also means clarity on the nature of Irish reality and the lessons to be learnt from the history of the Irish and international socialist movement.

Free Trade and Socialism part 1

My last post on the potential effects of Brexit on Ireland or even worse, the effects of the Irish State leaving the EU, led to the following exchange of views on Facebook:

PF:  This piece could have been written by a not especially radical employee of whatever the Industrial Development Authority is now called. …… workers will suffer because their main trading partner is leaving the neo-liberal EU? At least the Sticky 1977(?) plan for Southern capitalism had the merit of claiming a class analysis.

Sráid Marx:  But is it true?

PF:  Depends!

Sráid Marx:  On what?

PF:  It depends on the standpoint. Our man on the Dublin omnibus views everything through the prism of Brexit. Right at the end he says the Brit ruling class is undermining itself. There is, no doubt an ongoing debate, with most of big capital (and their media) opposing BREXIT (the Economist looks forward to it being overturned) while more ‘domestic’ capital – about 90% of firms – in the main support it. Not much to do with intelligence; much more to do with class interests.

As far as the interests of workers go, he suggests that wages will fall, with the implication that if Britain remained, they wouldn’t. Real wages in Britain have fallen over the past period, well before the Referendum. So this is a bit of a dodgy argument anyway.

For the rest of the piece he speculates on tariffs, foreign direct investment, the benefits of WTO rules, migration between the 26 Counties and the UK, the value of trade between the EU, Britain and the Republic and finishes with a swipe at Corbyn, the most left wing leader of the LP – EVER.

All of the economic analysis can be seen in any broadsheet newspaper any day – but the main point is not its orthodoxy. That surely is a problem from someone whose tag line contains the word Marx? The problem is this: everything is viewed through the apparent stupidity of Brexit. He takes sides in an argument between two factions of the capitalist class and berates them for not really understanding their own interests. What’s Marxist about that?

Where does this orthodox analysis lead? To an attack on Corbyn. For not saving the British capitalist class from its apparent Brexit folly by mobilising more Labour voters to support Remain? The political conclusion is even more bizarre. Presumably, the LP should ditch Corbyn and would soar to electoral victory on the promise of the heavenly ‘single market’. Since when has ‘free trade’ been a socialist demand?

If he really wants to see where this leads he should look to ‘Open Labour’, the recent creation of O’Jones and others. In order to advance their ‘Left’ coup against Corbyn, they must shut out the Left. Jones’ diatribes against Stop the War and Stand Up to Racism are designed precisely for this purpose. If the coup from the ‘Left’ succeeds (Momentum, itself divided, has been far too timid in fighting the Right in the apparatus) the Corbyn project is a goner and we’ll be back to a soft left leadership kowtowing to the well funded Blairite right. And they’ll have the right line on Brexit, immigration controls and so on. But they’ll still lose – at least while workers remember what they were like.

Sráid Marx:  So it depends on your standpoint, does it? So barriers to trading the goods and services produced by workers won’t have any effect – is that what you are saying? Less investment won’t have any effect on employment?

In my series of posts on Europe I advance an argument that I think allows workers to take a standpoint independent of the small capital that seems mainly to want out of the EU and the big capital that doesn’t. As for the socialist standpoint on free trade, if you simply google ‘Marx and free trade’ you should get an answer to ponder.

And please don’t put words in my mouth about wanting Corbyn replaced by some soft left alternative that would inevitably pave the way for a Blairite. Some more familiarity with my blog would quickly disabuse you of that speculation. And finally, there really shouldn’t be a debate about whether Brexit will lower wages because it is already happening.

KH:  What about CETA and the Fiscal Compact – that effectively wipes out possibilities of reflation/deflation as well as ability to control inflation rates. It is a completely symbolic gesture if you cannot mandate your own Central Bank to carry out your own sovereign economic and monetary policies, which instead, will be set out entirely in the interests of German rather than Scottish economy.

Only a fool would voluntarily give away national control over fiscal and monetary policy. Six years of EU austerity policies and three structural adjustment programs brokered in a bid to save a massively dysfunctional currency as well as corporate and financial interests have probably guaranteed the election of at least two neo-fascist governments in the next few years.

Wages have been lowered to such an extent in the EU since 2008 that you are happy to accept the election of Wilders et al due entirely to the austerity policies imposed by your beloved ECB.

PF: “So barriers to trading the goods and services produced by workers won’t have any effect – is that what you are saying?” Nation states, including the South of Ireland, used such barriers to protect the economy up to about 1960’s. And the majority of the 26 County working class supported Fianna Fail for exactly the same reason. It only ended when the US ruling class decided post-War that they wanted to muscle in on the pickings of the British Empire (Commonwealth). ‘Free trade’ (one of the reasons the Democrats lost and the AFL-CIO sit on Trump’s Economic Advisory Council) is no more socialist than protectionism.

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There are a number of obiter dicta that could be made about the objections to my post on Brexit and Ireland including exhibition of a left-wing variant of ‘Gove’s disease’; that is an aversion to ‘experts’; a reincarnation of that other pathology – ‘project fear’ – which seemed to be a Pavlovian aversion to some variant of capitalist arguments, but in this particular case capitalist arguments you don’t have a convincing response to.

The left-wing Gove’s disease consists of an ability to dismiss argument or evidence that comes from bourgeois experts or those who place some reliance on the argument and evidence they present because:

  1. You don’t like them,
  2. No one on the left should employ them and
  3. You don’t have answer to them (or not one that addresses the point).

Unfortunately, workers are often impressed, confused or frustrated by these arguments and only rarely simply dismiss them, as we have been invited to do.  Socialists therefore need to understand and respond to them, extracting what is of value from them for the benefit of our class.  By analogy – much like Marx did with all those hours in the British library, where he didn’t spend his time simply reading socialist writers.

We have, then, an allegation of bourgeois ‘orthodoxy’ and then an assertion that what we need is “reflation as well as ability to control inflation rates.”  You must be able to “mandate your own Central Bank to carry out your own sovereign economic and monetary policies, which instead, will be set out entirely in the interests of German rather than Scottish economy.”

So, what we have is not an alternative to some sort of bourgeois orthodoxy but a different sort of bourgeois orthodoxy, one that is false.  It is orthodox because what it asserts is state (‘national’) intervention – presumably on behalf of workers – which is nothing to do with socialism since socialism is based on the power of the working class, including the power to destroy and supplant the capitalist state.

The only assumption that could make the demand for different orthodox capitalist economic policies legitimate is that some capitalist policies provide better conditions upon which workers can fight for their own interests, although never forgetting that the bourgeois alternative is ultimately to the benefit of capitalist system and cannot suspend forever its contradictions.

But I am criticised for wanting to take one side in an inter-capitalist dispute (a charge I reject) while it is asserted that socialists should fight for “your own sovereign economic and monetary policies, which instead [in the EU], will be set out entirely in the interests of German rather than Scottish economy”.  Now this really is taking sides on an inter-capitalist dispute.

It is false because, if the capitalist state could, through monetary policy, control the price of money capital, it would equally be able to control the price of all commodities, and why would this not include the value of labour power?  Being able to do so, why could it not plan the operation of the capitalist system through suitable prices so that it could avoid austerity, allow ‘sovereign’ control in the interest of ‘our’ economy (Scottish, Irish, insert country of choice) and in doing so provide well-paid and secure employment, welfare and public services for everyone?

But these are digressions.  The main point is that the original post argued that the disruption to existing free trade arrangements etc. would be bad for the working class and that there is a socialist position on this development.

So what then is the socialist position on free trade and is it one of ‘depends’?

Forward to part 2