Friday, June 3, 2011

Crisis: the stories so far

Business As Usual: The Economic Crisis And The Failure Of Capitalism by Paul Mattick. Reacktion Books: 2011.

Just yesterday, we were all supposed to believe that the globalisation of capitalism and free markets was the route to freedom, peace and prosperity for all. Then, with barely an explanation, and somewhat out of the blue, the story changed. Now we are to believe that, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, prosperity will have to give way to austerity. The good times are over.

It is characteristic of crises that the stories we are expected to believe suddenly change. But how can we understand the change? And might there not be better stories than the rather grim and gloomy one we’ve been ordered to swallow? Paul Mattick Jnr’s short book is just such an alternative. For him the crisis signals the complete bankruptcy and destruction of mainstream economics.

Why crisis is impossible

Why did the crisis appear as a bolt out of the blue? Why was it not expected or anticipated by any economist or mainstream commentator? In short, because there is no place in the standard economic story for crisis, any more than there’s a place for wizards and interstellar travel in a 19th-century realist novel. The old story goes something like this:

“Capitalism is a system for producing wealth to satisfy consumer needs. Individuals set up in business looking out only for their own interest, but in doing so produce for society. Only what can be sold will be produced; money will be borrowed, land rented and labour hired only because the resulting production meets a need. The money earned by selling one’s product will then be spent either on consumption or further production. The economy therefore tends naturally to a balanced state, in which all products find buyers. There may be momentary imbalances between supply and demand, but rising and falling prices soon take care of those. In this way, capitalism creates the wealth of nations, and all is well in the best of all possible worlds.”

No doubt the story sounds reasonable – it is, after all, part of our cultural inheritance, as familiar as Noah and his ark, Jesus and the wise men, Little Red Riding Hood and her granny. But there’s no room in this picture for the kind of crisis we’re currently living through. The crisis appears as a shock and is regarded as a mystery simply because there’s no framework within which it makes sense. We can understand that a very small scale ‘crisis’ will result if a business fails to meet consumer need: it may go bust, and this will be a crisis for those relying on that business for their living. But there’s no reason why this should cause much of a problem for the system as a whole – and economists never expect it to. Within the framework outlined above, there is no room for the sort of crises we actually see in the real world – society-wide and global crises where vast amounts of real wealth and the means of producing it (factories, mines, offices and so on) exist side by side with grinding poverty and unemployment. This kind of insanity makes no sense in terms of the story. Surely, great masses of wealth would just go to satisfy consumer demand? And if wealth outstripped consumer demand, then, well, great! The age of leisure and abundance, long promised by capitalism, would finally be upon us, and we could collectively lay back and enjoy it.

Unable to find a satisfying explanation from within the story, the storytellers are obliged to smuggle in some bogeymen from the wings. The balance we expect from the story is then upset by one of various villains, which one depending on the predilections of the storyteller: state interference or largesse, insufficient (or too much) regulation, greed, and so on. Quite why these things sometimes cause a crisis and sometimes not when they’re always lurking in the wings is left unexplained.

Why crisis is inevitable

However, there are some thinkers, Mattick among them, who were not at all surprised by the crisis. This is not, as Mattick says at the start of his book, because they are cleverer than the mainstream storytellers. Nor have they access to more or better information – in fact, for the most part, rather the opposite. Instead it is a matter “of knowing how to think about what is going on”. Or, in the terms we’ve introduced in this article, of having access to better stories – stories that capture what’s actually going on in the real world. Here’s Mattick’s story:

“Capitalism is not primarily a system for producing wealth to meet consumer demand, but for making money. This is what business is all about: using money to make more money. The capitalist (or, increasingly, a capitalist institution subsidised and backed by the state) starts off with a sum of money, which he throws into circulation in the expectation that it will return to him as a greater sum than he started with. To this end, the capitalist buys means of production and labour power on the market, then puts these to work to produce goods, which he then takes to market in the expectation not just of sales, but of profits. If he is successful in his aim, and if he is to remain a capitalist and keep up with the competition, he must reinvest at least a portion of that profit in yet more production, buying yet more labour power and means of production, to produce yet more wealth and, potentially, money profits. And then the cycle begins again, on an ever-expanding scale.”

The motive here is not the satisfaction of consumer need – a relatively straightforward matter – but the production and appropriation of profits on an ever-expanding scale – a much more tricky thing to achieve. And as the production of social wealth increasingly takes on this capitalist character, the production of the things we need increasingly relies not on our need for them, nor on our ability to produce them, but on the ability of capitalists to make profits from the whole process. When they cannot make or do not expect to make a profit from production, or when they produce too much to sell profitably, they will not invest in production, but in speculation, or will not invest at all, and hoard money. This can affect not just their own line of business, but the whole system of wealth production. Crisis, in this view, is not caused by any bogeyman in the wings, but is a necessary result of the process itself.

What’s the answer?

Once we’ve understood this story, our expectations are turned on their head. We are no longer shocked by capitalism’s periodic crises, but expect them. The question then is, do we really need to forever make our lives hostage to capitalist profit; or might we be able to do things in a different way? In the mainstream, the debate over how to resolve the crisis is between two alternatives. The first is to just let things collapse so the economy undergoes the necessary correction, restoring profitability and eventually returning the system to business as usual. The second is that the central banks should continue to print money and the state bail-out bankrupt banks and countries and so on, so that ‘business as usual’ is not disrupted by potentially catastrophic upheavals (as was the case in the Great Depression of the 1930s). The debate is between the needs of business, on the one hand, and the need to preserve social cohesion (for the needs of business) on the other. Businessmen and policy-makers are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. But what are usually thought of as ‘socialist’ alternatives are unlikely to work either – history has shown that reformist social democracy and ‘communist’ central planning have been no better at controlling capitalism’s crises than anything else. It’s no good, says Mattick, demanding jobs from a system that would happily give us the jobs if it could.

If there’s hope, it’s in the belief that human beings will eventually tire of walking into brick walls and begin to look for a door. If you have a concern that produces socially necessary goods or services, on the one hand, and poor and unemployed people on the other, and there is no way of putting the two together in a way that produces profits for owners, then that’s what capitalism calls a crisis. The solution – bringing workers, the unemployed, the poor and the means of producing wealth together, not in order to make profits, but to provide for need – is called socialism.

The story has a name

We’ve left the name of this alternative story till the end because it is liable to scare unwary readers. That’s because, in the standard story, it’s portrayed as one of those bogeymen waiting in the wings. The name is Marxian socialism. Mattick’s is the second major book from a Marxist thinker to appear since the onset of the crisis (the first was David Harvey’s Enigma Of Capital, favourably reviewed in the June 2010 Socialist Standard). And we highly recommend it – it’s a brilliantly comprehensive and yet miraculously short history and analysis of capitalist crisis. The Marxists associated with this journal will have their differences with the details of Mattick’s account. In particular, we would say he puts too much emphasis on Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and throws the baby out with the bathwater when he rightly rejects the old left but places his faith seemingly more in the spontaneous appearance of mutual aid and communist formations than in working-class political organisation. But what’s more important than the minor disagreements is the framework that Marxism provides for understanding what’s going on in the real world, and for that, Mattick’s book is an essential guide.


World Socialist Review #22



Is Obama a socialist? No, he’s not! This book of 112 pages examines Obama’s outlook and life story, his packaging as a politician, and his policy in the areas of healthcare reform, the economy, the environment, the space program, and Afghanistan.

It places Obama in the context of a largely undemocratic U.S. political system and a wasteful, cruel, and crisis-ridden world economic system.

From the Introduction:
We have nothing against Obama personally. We do not accuse him of going into politics solely in pursuit of fame and fortune. He started out with the best of intentions, hoping that one day he might be able to do something to make the world a better place. Our aim is to show how the capitalist class, who exercise real power in our society, corrupt and co-opt well-intentioned young people like Obama, how capitalism frustrates and corrodes even the noblest aspirations.”

Topics include:

U.S. Midterm Election Results * The Tea Party * Obama: The Brand and the President * The World Outlook of the Young Obama * Health Insurance Reform * Obama and the Environment * The Invisible Primaries * The Electoral College * The Politics of the “Lesser Evil” * Unemployment * Waste and Want * Economic Crises * Afghanistan * Asteroids * Right-Wing Talk Radio

To order, go to and click on the icon at top right (showing the Obama photo). This will take you to a page at where you can create an account and buy copies of the book. You can also get the book through Amazon. Price $7. World Socialist Review is published by the World Socialist Party of the United States, which forms part of the World Socialist Movement together with companion parties and groups in other countries.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Class against class

It’s exploitation that causes workers’ problems.

On an ultra-simplistic level we could say that capitalism in the persona of capitalists uses capital (in its basic form, money) to make a profit. By utilising capital in the form of property, equipment, machinery, investment or speculation the capitalist needs to employ members of the working class in order to increase the original capital for the benefit of the capitalist. This can only be done if the workers agree knowingly or unknowingly to their own exploitation.

Why exploitation? In the monetary world society we live in everyone has a need for money on a regular ongoing basis in order to secure the essentials of life. By accepting employment workers undertake to work (knowingly or unknowingly) part of the time for their own remuneration and part of the time in order to meet the capitalist’s need for reinvestment in their business and to augment their accumulation of profit.

There are three elements to the capitalist’s expectation in relation to employees. First, workers must be paid sufficient remuneration to keep them returning to work; the terms and conditions of work may change depending on the available source of labour. Second, the capitalist’s own ongoing costs must be met – replacement machinery, upkeep, purchase of materials etc. And third, there must be a sufficient element of profit for the capitalist as his incentive to continue. As a business gets bigger, employing a larger workforce, the accumulated ‘extra’ time (over and above the length of time required to earn the wages) from this extra workforce gets added to the capitalist’s pot, increasing their profit, not the workers’ pay packets. When demanding a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay who stops to ask about the capitalist’s own fair day’s work? Capitalism labour to make profit, to make big money for a few at the expense and from the labour of the majority, i.e. exploitation.

When the recognition hits home that money is the recurring impediment, the fundamental issue in the daily life of the worker awareness grows of all the many problems it causes. Whatever issue is under consideration – be it getting to and from work, getting married, having children, repair and maintenance of personal property, heating the home sufficiently, having a holiday or a reasonably comfortable retirement – the primary issue is a financial one. Money is the issue.

A season ticket for premier league football is beyond the means of most of us, as is a ticket for the opera, a family trip on an open-top London bus, or even higher education for a growing child (add your own would-be-nice list). For the worker it’s a constant prioritising of seemingly never-ending constraints in the form of utility bills, car payments and servicing, rent or mortgage – all eating away at the possibility of a financially stress-free enjoyable family day out, let alone a financially stress-free month until the next pay day rolls around.

None of the simple pleasures mentioned above are beyond the capitalists’ reach however. They, the tiny minority, can have it all. But, actually, who is dispensable, who indispensable? In a monetary society the worker needs the capitalist and likewise the capitalist needs (some) workers. Notice just how unbalanced this equation is: there are always more looking for work than can find it, whilst those seeking workers have an almost inexhaustible supply. However, in a world of voluntary work and free access (a post-money society) the worker will have no need for the capitalist who will then need to join the rest of us and become a contributor too to fit into the new, inclusive and cooperative society.

Whether from an individual or community standpoint economic problems greatly impinge on social life. Individuals are severely limited within the system as to the impact they can have on their overall situation. Similarly, communities are limited by their local budgets as to the overall impact they can have on the general quality and quantity of facilities available for their residents. Any so-called political ‘solutions’ that are offered or imposed to ease social problems are almost invariably economically based (because what can be done without money?) and limited in scope (because of economic limitations) thus not offering genuine, complete, satisfactory solutions at all.

It’s a vicious circle of individual or community issues requiring solutions which invariably need economic input. The entanglement of social/political issues with economic concerns keeps us bogged down in an illusory, ostensible, false position, one we are led to believe has no alternative– an apparent but deceptive case. Inequality of access, whether to goods or services, is largely an economic factor alienating sectors of society one from another.

The main factor – exploitation – being the element that needs to be eliminated if we are to win the class war, let’s ask ‘who needs money most?’ The working class can win this fight when they recognise the antagonism between the capitalists’ need and their own needs. Money is not what we need – it’s the things it buys us we need. Capitalists do need it – it’s the basis of their accumulation. We win the class war when we plan together for a society of voluntary work and common ownership that will overcome the constraints of capitalism and rid ourselves of the divisive class system. It’s not a moral issue but a simple material fact: the principles of capitalism and socialism being opposite and antagonistic.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Union Maid

The Guardian makes an interesting comment upon the the head of the IMF’s alleged rape of his hotel’s chamber maid, ”…it is likely that Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim might not have felt confident enough to pursue the issue with either her supervisors or law enforcement agencies, if she had not been protected by a union contract.” The housekeepers at the Sofitel are members of the New York Hotel Workers’ Union. There is job security.

It is illegal for an employer to fire a worker for reporting a sexual assault. However, it is completely legal for an employer to fire a worker who reports a sexual assault for having been late to work last Tuesday or any other minor transgression. Since employers know the law, they don’t ever say that they are firing a worker for reporting a sexual assault. They might fire workers who report sexual assaults for other on-the-job failings, real or invented. All the countries of western Europe afford workers some measure of employment protection, where employers must give a reason for firing workers. Workers can contest their dismissal if they think the reason is not valid, unlike the United States where there is no recourse.

Imagine the situation of the hotel worker had she not been protected by a union contract. She is a young immigrant mother who needs this job to support her family. According to reports, she likely did not know Strauss-Kahn’s identity at the time she reported the assault, but she undoubtedly understood that the person staying in the $3,000-a-night suite was a wealthy and important person. In these circumstances, how likely would it be that she would make an issue of a sexual assault to her supervisors? Housekeepers are generally among the lowest-paid workers at hotels, often earning little more than the minimum wage ( Housekeepers perform the most physically demanding work necessary to operate a luxury hotel. Assigned 10 to 14 rooms a day on average, they strip beds, dump sheets down laundry chutes, remake beds, scrub bathroom floors, clean tubs and toilets, empty trash, polish mirrors, clean glasses, vacuum carpets.) It is a high turnover job, meaning that any individual housekeeper is likely to be viewed as easily replaceable by the management. If this housekeeper did not enjoy the protection of a union contract, is it likely that she would have counted on her supervisors taking her side against an important guest at the hotel? Would she have been prepared to risk her job to pursue the case? Housekeepers with the main hotel workers union, Unite Here, said that housekeepers were often too embarrassed or scared to report incidents to management or the police. Sometimes they fear that management, often embracing the motto “the customer is always right,” will believe the customer over the housekeeper, the guest’s opinion of the situation holds quite a bit of weight, and that the worker may end up getting fired. Union membership affords some protection and reassurance

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Waste of Luxury

Like hunger and homelessness, the global trade in luxury goods is booming. Turnover fell from $254 billion in 2007 to $228 billion in 2009 – a decline that observers attributed to “luxury shame”. Rich people could still afford all the luxuries they wanted, but apparently they felt a trifle uneasy about flaunting their wealth at a time of crisis. They soon got over their unease. Sales recovered to $257 billion in 2010 and are expected to surge to $276 billion in 2011. “Luxury shame is now over,” declared marketing consultant Claudia d’Arpizio in March.

So the long-term trend still points sharply upward. This reflects the continuing polarisation of the distribution of wealth – that is, the process by which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. It also reflects the rapidly growing number of rich people in fast-growing economies like Brazil and China (already the second largest market after the United States).

The figures are misleading, in that they refer only to goods purchased over the counter – liqueurs, fashionable apparel, cosmetics, perfumes, jewelry, gold watches, handbags, luggage, etc. They do not include fancy cars, yachts and jets, for instance. Or mansions and penthouse apartments.

Estimates based on a broader definition are harder to locate. But I did find a figure of $445 billion for sales of luxury goods on the “broadest definition” in the United States alone in 2005. Extrapolating to the global level and allowing for growth, I derived an extremely rough ballpark figure of two trillion dollars ($2,000 billion) a year.


A couple of comparisons will help put this huge number in perspective. Annual world military expenditure is also roughly two trillion dollars. Thus, the luxury consumption of the wealthy ranks alongside military expenditure as one major component of the waste of resources under capitalism.

Now let’s compare spending on luxury goods, which is concentrated in the richest strata of the population, with spending on staple foods, which is concentrated in the poorest strata. Average per capita annual spending on staple foods is about $300 in low-income countries (population roughly 5.5 billion) and $800 in high-income countries (population roughly 1.5 billion).

There are complications in interpreting these figures. In particular, some staple crops are grown and consumed by subsistence farmers rather than sold on the market. In general, money is an inadequate measure of resources in many ways. But it can give us at least some idea of relative scales of magnitude.

And here the overall message is clear. The resources devoted to the luxuries of a few million wealthy parasites are on a comparable scale to the resources used for the basic nourishment of billions of the world’s poor. Cancelling by a million on both sides of the equation, the luxuries of one roughly correspond to the necessities of a thousand.

Serving the parasites

And yet this is still a gross understatement of the waste of luxury. We have been considering only luxury goods. What about services?

The wealthy use a wide range of services. This often takes the form of hiring workers to provide personal service, usually full time – servants. In most cases, obsequious servants are their only point of contact with the great majority of the population who have to work for a living.

I am not talking only or even mainly about servants of the Upstairs Downstairs variety. Although they still exist – cooks, gardeners, butlers and all. In fact, butling has undergone something of a revival (to butle – a colloquial verb meaning “to serve as a butler”).

The staff of the “family office” that handles the financial affairs of a wealthy family. The tutors who teach their children. The caterers who arrange their parties. The personal assistant who makes travel arrangements. The “concierge physician” who limits his practice to a handful of rich patients, who each pay a yearly retainer of $25,000. The accountant who finds ways for the rich to pay less taxes. The legal adviser. The call girl or “sugar daughter”. A tennis coach, perhaps. These too are all servants.

So in addition to the parasites themselves, society has to bear the burden of all these people who do nothing with their working time and diverse talents except serve the parasites. This in itself represents no small waste of human resources.

Environmental footprint

One of the problems with using money as a measure of resource use is that it takes insufficient account of ecological impacts. And the consumption pattern typical of the wealthy leaves a disproportionately heavy environmental footprint.

One reason is that the rich travel around the world a great deal, usually by air and often on private planes. It is common for them to maintain residences in far-flung countries, cross an ocean just to go shopping, and fly numerous guests to the venue of a celebration. Air travel harms the environment and needs to be minimized: not only do aircraft engines run on petroleum-based fuel, but they also emit particulates and gases that contribute to climate change.

The rich are also largely to blame for the fact that so many species are threatened by extinction. Apart from the depredations of wealthy hunters, wealthy consumers create most of the demand for body parts of endangered species – elephant tusks for ivory, leopard skins for fur coats, various parts of numerous species for traditional Chinese medicinal use, and so on.


Monday, May 23, 2011

The Killing of Bin Laden: Understanding the American Reaction

A large majority of Americans – 87 percent, according to one poll – approve of the killing of Bin Laden. Many were visibly overcome by joy when they heard the news, and the subsequent warning by CIA director Leon Panetta that the operation would actually increase the terrorist threat to the US only slightly damped their spirits.

Within a few days of the operation, video games were on the market offering simulated experiences of killing Osama – or, in one case, his ghost! If you get killed by him first, never mind: you can just start over again.

Sam Sommers, a sociology professor at Tufts University, explained the jubilant reaction as follows: “September 11 shook our belief [that] the world [is] a just and fair place where you get what you deserve. Innocent people died senselessly. Seeing this closing scene, for many people, provides a just ending.” Hence the “sense of relief” expressed by the widow of one 9/11 victim.

What can account for this strange belief that the world is a just and fair place? How is it possible not to know that innocent people die senselessly every day? Perhaps it has something to do with religion, which has more influence over people’s minds in the United States than in most of Western Europe. Perhaps it also reflects the complacent platitudes of “positive thinking”.

Good sense

Besides, was 9/11 senseless? It made good sense to Bin Laden. In his journal, captured by the Navy Seals, he wondered how many Americans it would be necessary to kill to make the United States withdraw its forces from the Moslem world. He pursued a carefully devised strategy – to lure America into a long and exhausting war of attrition that would eventually lead to its economic collapse. It was the same strategy he had used – in alliance with the US – against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This time too, the strategy so far seems to be working very well.

The worst that can be said of Bin Laden is that he was a ruthless warlord willing to sacrifice innocent people on a large scale to achieve his political goals. Let us grant that this makes him an evil man. But let us be consistent and place this judgment in a broader context. World history is full of such evil men (and a few evil women). They are called “great statesmen”.

And look who’s talking!

Many American presidents, whether Republicans or Democrats, have been no less ruthless. Osama killed some 2,800 Americans on 9/11. Compare this with the 3,500 civilians killed by Bush Senior in the December 1989 invasion of Panama – a minor affair as American military interventions go. Or the 3,800 Afghan civilians killed by American bombing within three months of 9/11. Or consider the statement by then US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright (in an interview on 60 Minutes on May 12, 1996) that the deaths of half a million children caused by the US-led embargo on Iraq were “a price worth paying.”

The United States has now avenged 9/11. “Justice has been done,” says Obama. Bin Laden also saw himself as an agent of justice and vengeance (neither of them drawing any distinction between the two). In 2004 he revealed how he first got the idea of destroying the Twin Towers. He was watching the destruction of tower blocks in Beirut on television in 1982, when Israel, backed up by the US Sixth Fleet, was invading Lebanon. Why, he asked himself, should he not “punish the unjust in the same way”?

Clearly, the Towers in New York are not the only twins in this story. It is also a story about twin barbarisms. (Gilbert Achcar elaborates on this thought in his book The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, Paradigm Publishers 2006.)

The assumption of benevolence

The Americans who celebrated the death of Bin Laden were not bothered by reflections such as these. But let’s not be too harsh on them. Facts that might inspire critical reflection are never mentioned in the mainstream corporate media aimed at ordinary people. Now and then it is admitted that the United States may sometimes make a mistake, but the assumption of benevolence – the idea that America is inherently a force for good in the world – can never be questioned. No alternative perspective is ever presented. And this “patriotic” outlook is drummed into American hearts and minds from the earliest school years.

And yet it is not just a matter of information and ideas not being available. After all, while by no means a democracy in any real sense, the United States is not a totalitarian state either. Thanks in part to the internet, alternative ideas and sources of information are now easily accessible to those determined to seek them out. But not so very many do seek them out.

Why? One reason is that most people are too preoccupied with earning a living, ensuring their own survival. Social pressures are a very important factor. But perhaps the crucial barrier is within the psyche. If your positive self-image is based on the idea of how marvellous “your country” is, then even if you do encounter discordant information it must be rejected or interpreted as somehow irrelevant. Accepting reality would be too painful, too threatening to the self.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Myth of the Transitional Society

by Adam Buick, in Critique (Glasgow) [ISSN 0301-7605]. – 1975 (5) : pp. 59-70

Critique has recently published the translation of an article by Ernest Mandel, in which he develops his now familiar theme that, in the course of social evolution, there intervenes – and must intervene – between capitalism and socialism a transitional “society” with its own social base, relations of production, etc.[1] This is a point of view worth discussing but, despite the Marxist terminology in which it is expressed, it is in fact not a view held by Marx himself. As the present article will try to demonstrate, Marx did indeed speak of a “political transition period” between capitalism and socialism but never of a “transitional society”.

What, then, did Marx mean when he spoke of this “transition period”? Contrary to what is generally supposed (largely as a result of decades of Stalinist and Trotskyist propaganda), for Marx this period was not that between the establishment of the common ownership of the means of production and the time when the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” could be implemented. Rather it is the period during which the working class would be using state power to bring the means of production into common ownership. In other words, the transition period is a political form between the capture of political power by the working class within capitalist society and the eventual establishment of socialism, a period during which the working class has replaced the capitalist class as the ruling class, i.e. as the controller of state power. The end of this transition period is the establishment of a classless society based on the common ownership and democratic control by the whole of society of the means of production, with the consequent disappearance of the coercive state, of the system of working for wages, of the production of goods for sale on a market with a view to profit, indeed, of buying and selling, money and the market altogether.

That for Marx the “transition period” was the period after the capture of political power by the working class and before the actual establishment of the common ownership of the means of production is clear both from his early and his later writings.

In 1852 he wrote to his friend Weydemeyer in America that one of the things he had proved was that “the dictatorship of the proletariat” (as he called the period of working class control of state power[2]) “only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society”[3](emphasis added). Engels summarizes his own and Marx’s view in 1873 as follows:

“The views of German scientific socialism on the necessity of political action by the proletariat and of its dictatorship as the transition to the abolition of classes and with them of the state. . .”[4] (emphasis added).

The transition period, then, is the period up to the establishment of the common ownership of the means of production. Again, in 1875 in his private notes on the Gotha Programme adopted by the unity congress of the German Social Democrats Marx wrote:

“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”[5]

Marx, we can note here, used the words “socialist” and “communist” interchangeably to refer to future classless society (if anything, he preferred the word “communist”, but we shall follow Engels’ later usage and employ the word “socialism” to describe future classless society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production). The idea that “socialism” and “communism” were two successive phases of post-capitalist society is not to be found in Marx, but derives from Lenin. Thus, when Marx writes, in the above quote, of “communist society”, he means precisely the same as when he wrote of “classless society” in 1852.

It is true that Marx realised that, had socialism been established in his day, it would not have proved possible to implement immediately, or even for some years, the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, i.e. free access for all to consumer goods and services according to individual need. In the early years of socialism, established at this time, there would inevitably have had to have been some restrictions on access to consumer goods and services, some form of, if you like, “rationing” (if this word’s association with the war-time and post-war ration cards is forgotten, for although full free access according to need would not have been possible in 1875, the amount allocated for consumption could have been considerably higher than the workers were then getting under capitalism). Marx suggested as one such possible method so-called labour-time vouchers. It is important to realise that this was only a suggestion and, moreover, one open to serious objections. But Marx’s point was that, for some period of time, some method of rationing consumption would be necessary. He referred to the period of socialism during which this would be so, as “the first phase of communist society”, as compared with a “higher phase” in which free access to consumer goods and services could be implemented. Note that Marx is talking of different phases of the same society, society “based on the common ownership of the means of production”[6], i.e. a classless, stateless society with no wages or monetary system (Marx made it clear that the “labour-time vouchers” were not money, “no more ‘money’ than a ticket for the theatre” as he put it in Capital [7]). No doubt one could speak of a transitions from the “first” to a “higher” phase of socialism, but the fact remains that Marx did not employ the concept of “transition period” in this sense. For him, as we have explained, it was the transition from capitalism to socialism and not from one phase of socialism to another.

How long did Marx expect this political transition period to last? His opinion on this question changed over the period of his political life. In 1848, he clearly felt it would have to last quite some years. Thirty years later, he and Engels thought it could be considerably shorter, as a result of the tremendous development of modern industry in the intervening period.

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 speaks of the working class capturing political power and using “its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible” (emphasis added).

Marx and Engels go on to list various immediate measures which they and the other members of the Communist League felt the working class should take on coming to power, in order to make “despotic inroads on the rights of property”.

They conclude:

“When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character”.[8] (emphasis added)

Clearly, in 1848, Marx and Engels expected the transition period to the establishment of common ownership and the consequent abolition of classes and the state to be fairly long. Engels, in his draft for the manifesto which was not used but was later published under the title Principles of Communism (and which is always a useful gloss on the Manifesto), stated this explicitly. Answering the question, “Will it be possible for private property to be abolished at one stroke?”, he wrote:

“No, no more than existing forces of production can at one stroke be multiplied to the extent necessary for the creation of a communal society. In all probability, the proletarian revolution will transform existing society gradually and will be able to abolish private property only when the means of production are available in sufficient quantity”.[9]

It was not until later, after the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm of 1848 had ebbed, that Marx and Engels worked out the full implications of this. They had been saying, in effect, that the establishment of socialism was not possible in 1848. Engels, in 1895, in an introduction to some articles Marx had written, in 1850, on French politics, openly stated this:

“History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development at that time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production.”[10]

Engels was clearly correct on this point. Capitalism, as Fritz Sternberg has pointed out, was then dominant only in one country:

“When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, – that is to say, about the middle of the nineteenth century – capitalism was dominant only in England; the United States was still a colonial country, in which the agricultural population far outnumbered the industrial; in Europe, the beginnings of capitalism were confined to the west – in Germany, for instance, pre-capitalist forms of production were still dominant; Russia and Japan were still feudal states; and there were relatively few points on the Asiatic coastline which were in contact with those occidental countries in which capitalist development had begun. To say that, at that time, perhaps 10 per cent of the world’s population were engaged in capitalist production is probably an optimistic estimate.”[11]

If socialism wasn’t possible in 1848, this raises the interesting question (clearly relevant for later attempts to establish “socialism” in a single, backward country): What would the working class, or rather a determined group of Communists, have been able to do in the unlikely event of them having gained control of political power at that time? Surely, only to develop capitalism. In fact, the measures listed at the end of Section II (“Proletarians and Communists”) of the Manifesto, and referred to above, could accurately be described as being of a state-capitalist nature. Many of them have since been implemented in openly capitalist countries (progressive income tax, state bank, nationalisation of railways, free education, prohibition of child labour, etc.), thus indicating that there was nothing inherently anti-capitalist about them.

Neither Marx nor Engels went quite so far as to repudiate these measures, or to state that the Communists of 1848 were wrong to have imagined that they could even capture political power, let alone establish socialism at that time. But this is what Engels wrote in 1872 of these measures:

“. . . no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. . . this programme has in some details become antiquated.”[12]

Also, writing in 1850, Engels discussed the fate of Thomas Munzer, as the leader of a communistic party coming to power before conditions were ripe for establishment of a communistic society. This passage is worth quoting extensively:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government at a time when society is not yet ripe for the domination of the class he represents and for the measures which that domination implies. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the degree of antagonism between the various classes, and upon the level of development of the material means of existence, of the conditions of production and commerce upon which class contradictions always repose. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him or the stage of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to the doctrines and demands hitherto propounded which, again, do not proceed, from the class relations of the moment, or from the more or less accidental level of production and commerce, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus, he necessarily finds himself in a unsolvable dilemma. What he can do contradicts all his previous actions and principles, and the immediate interests of his party and what he ought to do cannot be done. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whose domination the movement is then ripe. In the interest of the movement he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with talk and promises, and with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. He who is put into this awkward position is irrevocably lost.”[13]

Marx himself had written something similar in October 1847 (a few months before he and Engels wrote the Manifesto) :

“If the proletariat destroys the political rule of the bourgeoisie, that will only be a temporary victory, only an element in the service of the bourgeois revolution itself, as in 1794, so long as in the course of history, in its ‘movement’, the material conditions are not yet created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production and thus the definitive overthrow of bourgeois political rule.”[14] {Marx’s emphasis)

Is it too much to say that, had Marx and Engels and the others in the Communist League come to control political power in 1848, that, not being able to establish socialism, they would have been “irrevocably lost”, in that they would have had no alternative but to develop capitalism (even if in the form of a state capitalism)?

In any event, this situation never arose, nor was it even a remote possibility. In exile in London, Marx and Engels soon realised the futility of communists plotting to seize political power in the immediate future, and turned to concentrating on the long, hard task of preparing the working class to organise itself to capture political power.

After 1848, modern industry made great advances. In 1847, Engels had written of the means of production not being available in sufficient quantity to permit the immediate, or even rapid, establishment of socialism. A quarter of a century later, in 1872, he was writing:

“…it is precisely this industrial revolution which has raised the productive power of human labour to such a high level that – for the first time in the history of mankind – the possibility exists, given a rational division of labour among all, of producing not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also of leaving each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture – science, art, forms of intercourse – may not only be preserved but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and may be further developed.”[15]

And six years later, in that part of Anti-Dühring later published as the immensely popular pamphlet Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.” [16](Engels’ emphasis)

In other words, it was Engels’ opinion that by the 1870’s, contrary to the situation in 1848, “the state of economic development was . . . ripe for the elimination of capitalist production”. While he might not have answered the question, “Will it be possible for private property to be abolished at one stroke?” with a ‘yes’, he would certainly have answered that it could be abolished (i.e. common ownership, and a classless society established) fairly rapidly. The principle is clear here: for Marx and Engels, the higher the level of development of the means of production, the shorter the political transition period needed to make them the common property of society as a whole.

Engels was exaggerating when he wrote in 1872 that the means of production could then have provided “enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund”. Certainly, they could have provided enough to completely eliminate material poverty and to raise the consumption of all well above the level they had to endure under capitalism, but it would not really have been possible to implement the principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. Engels, or course, recognised this, and it was precisely Marx’s point as well in his notes on the Gotha Programme about the inevitability of some limitations on free consumption in the “first phase” of socialism.

Having discussed the question of how long Marx and Engels expected the political transition period between capitalism and socialism to last, we can now ask, how long did they think the transition (as one might want to call it) between the “first” and “higher” phases of socialism itself would take. This is something they don’t seem to have discussed, but it is clear that the same principle applies: the higher the level of development of the means of production, the shorter the period.

One thing is clear, though, that the development of the means of production during this period would be on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, and the consequent abolition of the market, money, buying and selling, wages, profits, etc, The “first phase of communist society”, like the higher phase, would be a non-market society in which production would be consciously planned to satisfy human needs. What would be produced would be useful things, for direct allocation to democratically-decided social uses (individual consumption, collective consumption, expansion of productive resources, reserves, etc.). What Marx called “commodity-production”, the production of goods for sale on a market, would not exist; indeed could not exist without the society ceasing to be socialist.

Marx repeatedly made it clear that socialism, in both its phases, was a non-market, production-solely-and-directly-for-use society. The Communist Manifesto specifically speaks of “the Communistic abolition of buying and selling”, and of the abolition not only of capital (wealth used to produce other wealth with a view to profit), but of wage labour, too.[17] In Volume I of Capital Marx speaks of “directly associated labour, a form of production that is entirely inconsistent with the production of commodities …”,[18] and, in Volume II, of things being different “if production were collective and no longer possessed the form of commodity production. ..”. Also, in Volume II, Marx, in comparing how socialism and capitalism would deal with a particular problem, twice states that there would be no money to complicate matters in socialism: “If we conceive society as being not capitalistic but communistic, there would be no money-capital at all in the first place. ..”, and, “in the case of socialized production the money-capital is eliminated”.[19] In other words, in socialism the production and distribution of wealth is solely a question of organisation and planning.

It is precisely Mandel who is the most influential and able opponent of Marx (and the others who have agreed with him, notably Bordiga) on this point about the entirely non-market nature of the “first” phase of socialism. In his essay Economics of the Transition Period, Mandel notes that,

“Immediately following the victory of the October Revolution, and especially in the period of War Communism, the Communist theoreticians saw the construction of a socialist economy primarily in terms of an immediate and general disappearance of the market and monetary economy.”

Significantly, he does not question why this should have been, since this would have led him to have to admit that, on this point, the Bolshevik thinkers were in the Marxist tradition.

Mandel goes on to state that in Russia it soon appeared that “maintaining money and market relations was best suited to maximising economic growth and to the best defense of the interests of the workers as consumers” and to conclude by formulating the following general law:

“The survival of market and monetary categories thus proves inevitable during the period of transition from capitalism to socialism.”[20]

(Actually, what the experience of Russia under so-called “War Communism” proved was that isolated Russia was ripe at that time only for some form of capitalism – with its “market and monetary categories” – and not for socialism). Mandel accepts socialism as a world-wide, classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society (to define it somewhat negatively). As he wrote in The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism:

“Socialism means a classless society. It therefore presupposes not only the suppression of private property of the means of production, henceforth managed in a planned way by the associated producers themselves, but it also calls for a level of development of the productive forces which makes possible the withering away of commodity production, of money, and of the state.”

“The working class … is not capable of building a socialist society in a single country, not even the USA (not to speak of Britain or Western Europe).”

All that can be established in the immediate future, says Mandel, is a third society neither capitalist nor socialist, which will have the aim of developing the means of production to the level where world socialism becomes possible as a society of abundance: a “transitional society” between capitalism and socialism, with its own social structure and economic laws different from those both of capitalism and of socialism. Mandel describes this so-called transitional society of his as follows:

“nationalisation of all the means of production under workers’ control, democratically planned economy, but still with commodity production of consumer goods, with the survival of money, with foreign trade, and with a workers’ army as long as the threat of strong bourgeois states subsists.”[21]

This “transitional society”, like capitalism but unlike socialism, can be established on a national scale. In fact, says Mandel, it should be the immediate aim of each national working class (thus rejecting the Marxist view that the working class of all countries should be aiming at a more or less simultaneous world socialist revolution).

If Marx had really subscribed to this view, that there was another system of society –lasting for a whole “epoch” – between capitalism and socialism, it is curious, to say the least, that he never mentioned it. Nowhere, in fact, does Marx speak of any “transitional society” in between capitalism and socialism, or, to use some of the phrases employed by Mandel, “the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism”, “a transitional-economy”, “the society in transition from capitalism to socialism”. He certainly spoke of a “political transition period” and of “a period of revolutionary transformation” between capitalism and socialism but, as we have seen, this was merely the period during which the working class would use its control of state power to establish the common ownership of the means of production, a relatively short political transition period, which would be shorter the higher the development of the means of production was at the time the working class won control of political power, and certainly not lasting an “epoch”.

Mandel tries to justify his position by identifying his “transitional society” with Marx’s “first phase of communist society” (despite the fact that the phrase “first phase of communist society” obviously means what is says: the first phase of communist, not some other, different, society). Marx, we have seen, did recognise the inevitability of some limitations on free consumption in the early stages of socialism (had it been established in the 1870’s), and did mention “labour-time vouchers” as one possible method of doing this. Mandel claims that whether these labour-time vouchers or money is used in these circumstances, is just a matter of choice. Money, he argues, is better because it allows workers, as consumers, more freedom of choice than would labour-time vouchers, or some system of physical rationing.

But, this is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Marxian theory of money. For Marx money was not a thing but a social relation, an economic category which existed on the basis of certain social relations between the producers, specifically, an exchange economy, reflecting the fact that production was not yet socialised but carried out by isolated individual producers – and later the fact that, despite socialized production, there was still private or sectional appropriation. He pointed out that “labour-time vouchers” were not money; they were simply pieces of paper entitling a person to draw so much from the stock of goods set aside for individual consumption. They did not circulate, nor did they reflect a relationship of private property. As Marx put it, in a passage in his notes on the Gotha Programme, – a passage incidentally quoted by Mandel in the Critique article – “within the co-operative society based on the common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products.”[22]

We do not want to defend the “labour-time voucher” system. Even for Marx’s day, it was inappropriate, suffering from numerous anomalies, only some of which Marx himself recognised. We would subscribe to the view that Marx’s criticism of schemes to introduce “labour-money” under capitalism, applies to some extent also to the scheme for “labour-time vouchers” in the early stages of socialism.[23] But it is clear that Marx did not regard the use of money (a commodity that has come to be universally exchangeable with all other commodities) as an alternative form of rationing in the “first phase of communist society”. In fact, he would have regarded this as an absurd, contradictory proposal. We can imagine him lambasting Mandel in the same terms as he lambasted Proudhon for similar inanities!

Let us now return to the question of how long, after the establishment of socialism, some restrictions on free consumption would have to continue. Today, looking back, we can say that, had world socialism been established in the 1870’s, it might have taken about a generation before full free access to consumer goods and services, according to individual needs, could have been implemented. This estimate is based on the fact that it was by around 1900 that the effects of the so-called second industrial revolution – the application to production of the electric motor and the internal combustion engine – were beginning to be felt. Marx and Engels, remember, were judging the possibilities of socialism on the basis only of the first industrial revolution (the application to production of the steam engine). Marx, who died in 1883, never saw either an electric motor or an internal combustion engine. But of course every advance in technology made his case for socialism even more relevant.

By about 1900, thanks to this second industrial revolution, capitalism became the predominant world system. By “predominant” we don’t mean that capitalism existed all over the world, but merely that all the people of the world, even if they lived under pre-capitalist conditions, were decisively affected by the workings of world capitalism, 1900 marks, if you like, capitalism becoming a world system – a fact which some Marxist writers have described as its becoming “imperialist”. 1914, with the outbreak of the first world war in the history of mankind, was a bloody confirmation of this. To quote Sternberg again:

“Capitalist development had taken several hundred years to arrive at a stage at which perhaps 10 per cent of the world’s population produced along capitalist lines, but within the two-thirds of a century which followed – approximately from the middle of the nineteenth century up to the outbreak of the first world war – capitalism became the dominant form of production not merely in one country, England, but all over the world, until perhaps between 25 and 30 per cent of the world’s population were producing along capitalist lines, whilst in Great Britain, the United States, Germany and Western Europe in general, capitalism held practically a monopoly of production. At the same time capitalist development had made considerable progress in Russia and Japan, although the remnants of feudalism still existed, whilst in the other Asiatic countries the pre-capitalist forms of production had been definitely undermined.”[24]

We can, in fact, place the end of capitalism’s role in history – to create the material basis for a world socialist society of abundance – at this time. By 1900, capitalism had completely outlived its usefulness. From then on only the immediate establishment of world socialism has been “progressive”. From then on, in fact, world socialism – given, of course, the development of a majority socialist movement amongst the working class in the industrialised parts of the world – could have been established “at one stroke” by a more or less world socialist revolution.

Since 1900, the working class has still, it is true, needed to organise itself to capture political power in all the various states of the world, and, in this sense, a “political transition period” during which the working class uses state power to establish the common ownership of the means of production, is still necessary. However, since this period would be so short as to be negligible, the concept of a transition period has become outdated.

Similarly, though in the first few years of socialism, as the mess left by capitalism is cleared up, some restrictions on full free consumption may still be necessary, world socialist society could now move rapidly (i.e. in well under a decade at the most) to implementing free access to consumer goods and services according to individual need as the principle of distribution. To sum up, the concept of a “transition period”, lasting some years, between capitalism and socialism is today an obsolete 19th century concept, while the ideal of a “transitional society” between capitalism and socialism, as proposed by Mandel, was never to be found in Marx in the first place.

Adam Buick

Critique 5, 1975

[1] Ernest Mandel, ‘Ten Theses on the Social and Economic Laws Governing the Society Transitional between Capitalism and Socialism’, Critique 3.

[2] As is clearly shown by Hal Draper in his detailed study of the occasions Marx and Engels used this, and similar, phrases. See Draper’s “Marx and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, New Politics, Vol. I, No.4, Summer 1962.

[3] Marx to J. Weydemeyer, March 5,1852. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1958. p.452

[4] F. Engels, “The Housing Question”, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I; FLPH, Moscow, 1958, p.613.

[5] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, p.26.

[6] Ibid, p.16.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital Vol I. I, FLPH, Moscow, 1961, p.94.

[8] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, FLPH, Moscow, 1954, pp.80-81.

[9] F. Engels, Principles of Communism, Pluto Press, London, n.d., p.13.

[10] F. Engels, “Introduction” to “The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850”, Selected Works, Vol. I, p.125.

[11] Fritz Sternberg, Capitalism and Socialism on Trial, Gollancz, London, 1951, p.19.

[12] F. Engels. “Preface” to the German Edition of 1872 of Manifesto of the Communist Party, p.10.

[13] F. Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, Lawrence and Wishart, 1969, p.115.

[14] Karl Marx, “The Moralizing Critique and the Critical Moral”, quoted in Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, Ed. T. B. Bottomore and Maximilien Rubel, Penguin Books, 1963, p.244.

[15] F. Engels, “The Housing Question”, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, pp.564-565.

[16] F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, FLPH, Moscow, 1959, pp. 389-390.

[17] Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, pp.72-73.

[18] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p .94.

[19] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. II, FLPH, Moscow, 1957, p.451, p.315 and p.358.

[20] Ernest Mandel, “Economics of the Transition Period”, in Key Problems of the Transition Period, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1970, pp.38-40. Originally published in Fifty Years of World Revolution (1917-1967): An International Symposium, ed. by Ernest Mandel, Merit Publishers, New York, 1968.

[21] The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism, International Marxist Group. London, 1969, pp.17-18.

[22] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, quoted by Mandel in a footnote on p.13 of Critique 3.

[23] See “La Période de Transition (deuxième partie)”, Révolution lnternationale 8, Paris, March-April 1974. See also “Labour-Time Vouchers”, Socialist Standard, London, May, 1971, and “Marx’s Conception of Socialism”, Socialist Standard, December. 1973.

[24] Fritz Sternberg, op. cit., p. 19.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Capitalism – barrier to useful work

Many are suffering the misery of unemployment while much useful, necessary work remains undone. One of the contradictions of capitalism. We want free time, to reduce the working day so that we can move beyond the tyranny of survival into free and creative mutual activity. Both employment and unemployment are capitalism preventing our human development in this direction.

The problems of unemployment are huge – worldwide problems affecting millions in some countries and billions globally if we include the massive numbers of ‘informal’ workers, those recognised as outside of the system, many of them non-persons living on the very edge of existence with no access to even the basic services.

What is this strange system that grants ‘remunerated employment’ to some who produce nothing worthwhile or useful for themselves and others whilst totally rejecting others who have the skills and ability to grow food, to build houses, to recycle others’ rubbish, to contribute all manner of useful work? Why such a seeming imbalance between the work we can all see needing to be done but left undone and actual available work?

Given the way the world economic system is structured, we recognise the logic that requires a surplus of labour, a spare pool to be drawn on as and when required, a surplus that keeps down wages and favours the employer minority over the employed majority. But, as a member of human society, who can recognise any logic based even faintly on empathy or solidarity or common sense use of human capacities for the benefit of society as a whole?

Much of worldwide discontent and dissent is predicated around this matter of unemployment which creates unnecessary and unnatural divisions between sections of both domestic and international communities. Migrant labourers working for a pittance in lands which themselves have high domestic unemployment; migrant skilled workers enjoying artificially high wages in lands where local graduates can’t find work; young people fresh out of education with little or no prospect of finding work while those wishing for retirement are told to expect to work for longer before earning such a luxury; production decimated in many developed countries because overseas underdeveloped countries have won the competition for the lowest wages.

This disconnect, this illogicality stares us all in the face. We know it makes no sense for any of us as a class, a class of workers, or would-be workers. Over the years we have experienced the circumstances getting worse, not better for many. We worry for our children, our grandchildren, the next generation, the stability of the world and the whole human race. We see the inequity (and iniquities) and worry.

The work to be done versus available work

If we were to approach the problem from a different angle we could see how to turn something totally illogical into something that would work better for everybody wherever they are in the world. Doing this would entail ridding ourselves of useless work and wasted time and effort and result in getting the work that is widely recognised as necessary to be done for the good of the people done, by the people.

It will be natural for anyone considering this topic to focus first on their own country and, in particular, their own locality, if only because this is the most familiar and best understood. However, considering at the same time the wider world in general will greatly increase individual capacity to focus on the enormity of the shortfall facing the global population, a shortfall deliberately ignored by the minority who capitalize greatly by their neglect.

This shortfall, this work needing to be done, includes all the obvious stuff seen around any location but neglected because of a different kind of shortfall, lack of funds in the individual, municipal, national or international budget. It can range from the very basic to much larger issues. Housing in disrepair for which private owners are without the means for proper upkeep, public housing which is underfunded and slums which should have been cleared long ago. Holes in the road. Leaks in classroom ceilings. Grubby town centres. Negligence with regard to the safety of the general public. Heavily polluting industries affecting air and water quality. Poor standards of safety allied to working conditions. Old, substandard, decaying or lack of infrastructure of all kinds. Shoddy public transport poorly planned to meet the needs of the greater community. Inadequate and inappropriate energy provision. Lack of local production facilities, whether food or industry. Localities not structured to meet the requirements of citizens. Health and education provision woefully inadequate with insufficient trained personnel to meet the wide and varied needs.

These examples can be expanded ad infinitum according to the local neighbourhood or the wider regions of the globe. The one thing they have in common is that there is much work waiting to be done that, in all likelihood, will not get done for a very long time, if ever, within the constraints of capitalism. The logic of the capitalist system is that profit must be considered above all else, society’s needs are a poor also-ran.

Useful work is manifold and includes the production and distribution of material goods and food, scientific research and development, aesthetic and artistic endeavours, service of all kinds including installations, communications, infrastructure, maintenance, health, education, recreational, technological and social; producing and providing the goods and services required and needed by society as a whole on an ongoing basis.

As unemployment figures reach ever higher it must point to the fact that there just isn’t enough remunerated work available. Meanwhile, if a comparison is made of the above work waiting to be done with much of the worthless, useless work currently being undertaken for remuneration by millions worldwide it begins to become clear just what a crazy system we are operating within. Work that offers no product, service or benefit to society must surely be considered useless work. What cannot be considered useful or necessary includes all the jobs currently involved in the huge financial industry; jobs which are tied to the movement of money from one place or person to another.

Being considered unnecessary because they produce nothing of use, provide no useful service and are of no benefit to society a large number of institutions would be redundant. All banking establishments, insurance companies, tax collection, benefits and pension offices, to name a few, would no longer be required and, as a consequence, many buildings would be freed up for use to be decided upon by civil society whilst technicians, office and other associated staff would be available for more people-beneficial work schemes.

The worker – employment or meaningful occupation?

When we consider in detail the vast range of tasks undertaken by humanity of blue or white collar variety – manager, foreman, labourer, part-time, full-time, self-employed, indentured, casual, indoor, outdoor, on land, sea or in the air – all are employed in order to fulfil the same requirement, their ongoing needs. All require regular remuneration in order to feed and clothe themselves and their dependents and keep a roof over their heads.

We must wonder why then, in some quarters, there is still a derogatory slant to the use of the term ‘worker’. For what is it in reality but a misunderstanding of one’s own position in the scheme of things? Whether labourer or architect, hairdresser or world-famous model, cashier at a supermarket or hedge fund computer screen minder, BMW production line worker or BMW owner – whoever must work on a regular ongoing basis in order to live, whatever the size of their remuneration, is a worker. S/he works. S/he is a member of the working class. Anyone not convinced should ask themselves how long as an individual they can afford to be out of work and without pay before their own personal crisis happens?

Isn’t it ridiculous, too, that there are still those who can’t recognize the different but equal importance of all contributions to society? Who’s to say what or who is more important or necessary to society’s functions when we know that (a) even if we wanted to we can’t all do everything, all the tasks that are needed in our lifetime because we all have limited skills and time, (b) we would suffer as a society without all the seemingly menial, dirty, dangerous or difficult tasks being taken care of and (c) as individuals we don’t want to be denigrated or undervalued for our own contribution. When we acknowledge these terms we are also ready to accept all others’ contributions as valuable too. Apart from not being able to do everything, most of us probably don’t want to have to do everything, preferring to have the time to engage in the things that take our individual fancy, interest or passion; time that the majority do not have at their disposal now.

‘Not enough jobs to go around!’ This is the mantra. Of course there are! In a global socialist society unemployment will be a word confined to the history books. In a world of voluntary work and free access to goods and services, when society is structured deliberately and logically to do the work that we, the people, declare to be necessary and important, there will be ample occupation for all, liberating us, at last, to forsake individual advantage in favour of the common good now and into the future.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Role Modeling Socialism

New Biography of WSPUS founding member Issac Rab

For most of the twentieth century, Isaac Rab (1893 – 1986) was well known in the Boston area as a socialist soap-box orator, lecturer, and teacher. He was a founding member of the World Socialist Party of the United States and a central figure in its Boston Local for many years.

In this book, Karla Rab, who is the granddaughter of Isaac Rab, tells the story of his life and presents a large selection of his surviving correspondence as well as many photographs. She draws on her own reminiscences and on those of many others who knew her grandfather.

Isaac Rab was born into an immigrant socialist family on December 22, 1893. He devoted his whole life to the cause until his death on New Year’s Eve 1986. In 1916 he helped form the WSP from the left wing of the Michigan Socialist Party in Detroit. Later he settled in Boston, where he organized the Boston Local of the WSPUS in 1932. He also taught classes on Marxian economics for other organizations, including the Communist Party, the Proletarian Party, and various Trotskyist groupings.

Karla Rab’s book is, of course, about much more than her grandfather as an individual. It is the first history of the World Socialist Movement in the United States. Its importance is great but subtle. It is often said that history is written by the winners. Even the obscure history of North American left politics has its hierarchy. Credibility is given only to “winners” such as the International Workers of the World, the Communist Party, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations – even though many of the problems that plague the workers’ movement are the logical outcomes of their policies.

Social democrats and Leninists like to portray smaller groups like the WSPUS as “isolated sects.” And as the history of the working class movement has been written mainly by them, who is to challenge what they say? However, with the collapse of the left in the United States there has been a reassessment of what various political organizations actually accomplished.

This book demonstrates that the WSPUS, while small, was hardly isolated. Rab’s letters demonstrate involvement in the United Auto Workers and the Typographers’ Union (a model of democratic unionism) as well as discussions and debates among a wide range of left groups. Among the members of the WSPUS there were highly experienced class warriors. William Pritchard and Jack McDonald had helped lead the Western Labour Rebellion in Canada. Sam Orner had been an IWW organizer in the hard metal mines of the American Rockies as well as the leader of a famous strike of New York City taxi cab drivers in 1934. (He was the model for the character Lefty in Clifford Odett’s famous play, Waiting for Lefty.) The Detroit Local of the WSPUS had members who had helped form the United Auto Workers and played roles in the educational services of the most militant UAW locals (Irving Cantor, Joe Brown, David Davenport, Frank Marquart).

Another important thing about Karla Rab’s book is that it shows how Rab organized his political activity. His letters are a lesson of lasting value in how to approach the personal as well as the intellectual and educational aspects of building a movement for socialism.

Buy on Amazon (benefits WSPUS): Role-Modeling Socialist Behavior: The Life and Letters of Isaac Rab

Poverty is Being Poor

The number of American people living in poverty has soared to record-high levels. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 million Americans out of a population of about 310 million live in poverty in the Unites States. In January, figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau stated that one in five children in the United States live in poverty, with almost half of them living in extreme poverty.

Another report released found a job doesn’t always pay enough for families to be self-sufficient. Despite full-time employment, many still rely on food stamps, subsidized child care or other types of government assistance to make ends meet.

“Poverty persists because … we have a lot of lower-paying jobs,” said Philip E. Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, which commissioned the analysis.

Of Ohio’s 10 largest occupations, only one pays enough for a family of three to pay for food, housing and other basic needs (that was nursing)

The two annual reports yesterday, “The State of Poverty in Ohio 2011: A Path to Recovery,” and “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Ohio 2011.” note that 1.7 million Ohioans – 15.2 percent – live below the federal poverty level, the highest rate since the 1960s. A self-sufficiency analysis aims to provide a more-accurate read of what families must earn to meet their basic needs. It calculates costs for housing, food, child care, transportation and health care in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. It does not include “luxuries” such as cable television and fast food.

For instance, a family of three is considered to be living in poverty if it earns $18,500 a year or less. But to be self-sufficient in Franklin County, the same-size family – a parent, preschooler and school-age child – would need $46,978 a year. So while a single adult in Franklin County can survive earning $8.98 an hour, a single parent with an infant and preschooler must earn $25.70 an hour to meet basic needs. A two-parent household with an infant and preschooler would each need to make at least $14.37. In Ohio, 8.9 percent of people are jobless and even higher numbers want to work more but can only find part-time jobs. 85,483 Ohio families had to file for foreclosure last year alone.

“Wages have not gone up in Ohio, but costs have,” Diana M. Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington said. “Even without a lost job or reduction in wages, many families are having a hard time.”

Yet, we also read the richest 1 percent of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined.That the 400 richest Americans have a bigger net worth than half of all Americans collectively.

Crisis? What crisis?

There is no crisis. That deserves to be said twice. There is no crisis. What happened in Japan was a crisis. Haiti was a crisis. What we have is a failure of mathematics – the mathematics of greed.

We as a society have never been so productive, and we have never had such wealth available to us, as we have today. Our ability to produce has grown faster even than is needed to provide for longer and happier lives.

Think what has supposedly caused this crisis. Too much was produced. In particular, too many houses were produced for poor Americans. We had not yet produced enough for our whole community, but we were doing well – all too well.

What happened? Building workers were stopped from building. People living in good houses were thrown out of them, and the houses left to become derelict. Across the world, workers who were producing wealth for their communities were stopped from doing so, by being thrown out of work; and then we were all forced to live on less.

Why would something so crazy happen? Because production is not for use, it is for a profit. No work is allowed to take place, no houses can be lived in, no food and drink can be consumed, before first one person makes a profit out of another person’s work. The basic matter of producing wealth and consuming it is interrupted until first those who claim to own what we all have made in the past, can profit from what we all make now. We are bought and sold: but whereas once we were bought and sold for a lifetime, now it is by the hour.

As workers we all, if we are lucky, have enough to live on, to tide us over when we are ill or unemployed, and to provide some care for when we can no longer work. That is all. Some are more comfortable; some live on far less, or are crushed by debt. And this brings us to the point: indebtedness. What we produce as a community is taken from us and held by a few. Since we do not own the means to support ourselves, we have to work for these people, in effect paying off the loan of the very things that we and our forebears made. We are like indentured workers, who contract a large debt and are left paying it off for years, decades, except in our case it is our entire lives.

As for students – students are getting indentured servitude for real. Many will retire before ever paying off their debts incurred before even starting work. Slave-owners across the ages would applaud such an ingenious scheme.

The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, as trade unionists, we must resist any attempt to make their problem, our problem. We are able to produce quite handily for ourselves; if the equations of capitalism – the trade in our lives – no longer make sense, then that is a matter for the economists. Our demand here remains a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work – that means at the very minimum the maintenance of pensions as they stand and yearly increases in wages at a minimum in line with RPI – along with compensation for the years of restraint that we have had. At all levels, the workplace, the national negotiating bodies, even government, we should turn round and say that we are producing very well, thank you very much, there is no real crisis, and they should put their house in order at their own expense, not ours.

Secondly, we should take this as an object lesson. There is no fairness here, only the war of a small group of people against the entire community to control all of its wealth and keep us poor unless we do as we are told and hand over the large part of what we produce to them for their own entertainment and to keep us further indebted in the future. It is not a government that needs to be overthrown; it is a new and refined system of slavery, where we are bought and sold by the hour because of the fact that we do not own the things we produce.

All of this will happen again, and again, and again: debt is to us what shackles are to the slave. Capitalism must be abolished, in order for us to do the simplest of things which is to produce and consume in our communities, free from fear and free from exploitation. The equations that hold us in thrall must be overthrown in our minds, and then we must overthrow those who keep us in those mental chains. That doesn’t just mean a new capitalist government, no matter how well-intentioned: it’s not ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’. It’s the abolition of the wages system, not in the future, but now; we already produce more than the capitalists can handle, and we can do far more for ourselves. They need us. We don’t need them.