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Don't let capitalism off the hook

Embarrassed by the vitality and determination of the student movement against higher tuition fees, some trade union leaders are making militant noises about co-ordinated strike action against the government’s spending cuts. Whether words become deeds is debatable.

Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of Unite, Britain’s largest union, has written in The Guardian that trade unions ought to be “preparing for battle” and should not let the anti-union laws paralyse them in the face of the cuts onslaught.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), says McCluskey, will meet early in 2011 to discuss “co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement.” But before anyone gets too excited, let’s examine what is happening on the ground.

Yesterday, the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and union leaders met David Cameron for mince pies and tea at Downing Street at their request. Afterwards, Barber would only say that they had warned Cameron of the consequences of the deficit-reduction plan, as if the prime minister didn’t know already. Only Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport union, voiced support for McCluskey.

McCluskey, whose union’s endorsement was critical in getting Ed Miliband elected as Labour’s new leader, criticised the party’s front bench for meeting the Tory cuts programme halfway. Somehow he managed to excuse Miliband himself, although the Labour leader accepts that the budget deficit should be reduced. He simply wants the Coalition to move more slowly.

While Miliband quickly distanced himself from McCluskey’s support for strike action – showing that he who pays the piper doesn’t necessarily call the tune – in practice they agree in one key area. Labour-controlled local councils are busily preparing to make substantial cuts. Some like Lewisham have started implementing them already.

Instead of demanding that Labour councils refuse to draw up cuts budgets for 2011-12 based on substantial reductions in central government grant, McCluskey only says they should not be blamed “for the problem” because to do so is a “shortcut to splitting our movement”.

No-one is actually blaming them for the crisis. But local trade unionists rightly are demanding that Labour councils refuse to make the cuts as a matter of principle. Work on drawing up the budgets will begin immediately after the holiday season is over, with a view to getting them through the council by early March.

The TUC demonstration against spending cuts scheduled for March 26 will, therefore, be too late to save tens of thousands of jobs and services from the axe. Conflict between workers and Labour councils is inevitable in the next few months and trade unionists will want to know why McCluskey has nothing to say on this issue.

There is also meeting of minds between McCluskey and Barber on the ground of economic illiteracy. Both insist that the cuts are purely “ideologically driven”, being simply an attempt to destroy public services and the welfare state and are, therefore, totally unnecessary. If only it were that simple.

As we show in our downloadable Beyond Resistance booklet, the cuts are “ideological” only in the sense that capitalist governments are motivated to do everything they can to sustain the profit system. Britain’s budget deficit is part of the same global debt crisis that brought down the banks.

Deficits are a clear and present danger in so far as both governments and the financial markets are concerned. More to the point Barber and McCluskey cannot explain, for example, why parties in Greece, Spain and Portugal who call themselves socialist, have implemented massive cuts and faced down a series of general strikes.

Contrary to what McCluskey and Barber think, economic growth and tax justice is not an alternative to the cuts and lets capitalism off the hook. For any strike action to be effective, it will have to be part of a wider movement to bring down the Coalition while working up plans to replace the present madhouse with a not-for-profit economic and financial model. In other words, we need an ideologically-driven struggle against capitalism itself.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
21 December 2010

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Your Say


Tim says:

Frank - thank you very much for taking the time to make such a full and thoughtful reply. I have been away and am much taken up with work since my return but I will give serious thought to what you say before replying more fully. I have some pretty fundamental problems with aspects of the Marxist /materialist doctrine of history and humanity - I looked at it with some seriousness as young man (or at least as much as I could muster at the time!) and finally rejected it as ultimately pessimistic and deterministic in human terms but, that said, I do not wish to avoid the impact of the analysis (which I see has something significant to say) or the potential it may hold for a better society (which is where I doubt (based on historical evidence) it's capacity to deliver but that also deserves serious consideration). If your aim is truly "a global society which truly cherishes all the children equally" - then it is indeed a noble one. I suppose my generation has only the grim vision of the egalitarianism of the lowest common denominator that attempts at communism have produced so far to go on and that cherished and liberated no one. Perhaps this IS something different though.


Frank says:

Hi Tim
Clearly I have failed to express myself effectively. My apologies for this. I do not actively seek the ‘failure’ of the capitalist system. That process is well under way and needs no help from me other than my forced and continuing participation in its dysfunctional process. It’s not subject to my individual will. But it could be subject to the collective will of many people acting consciously together. That would be human thoughts transformed into a material force and working to change the world.

Its ‘failure’ is not an event, but a protracted process with periods of apparent quietness, punctuated by crisis points of extreme catastrophe. We know this from the history of the scientific study of society (Scientific Socialism) which is well developed. Yes, capitalism, and everything that exists changes and develops over time. It is that simple! And the profit motive is the primary driving process of capitalist society. That in no way excludes the need for me to live and love, enjoy music and wine. But each of these is mediated to a greater or lesser extent through a money relation with my fellow. Grasping the courage to examine this process honestly, and maybe having to give up some comfortable but unsound ideas about it, that is not so simple a matter.

What I do seek, is the transformation of society from a crisis-ridden state which has nothing to offer people but poverty, the abolition of comfort and peace, vicious warfare and the destruction (murder) of massive layers of humanity – and all this in a vain effort to try and restore the potential to extract surplus value (profit) through a failed market system which serves the interest of a tiny minority.

To achieve transformation requires a conscious active human intervention in this real world, effectively guided by the best and most up-to-date concepts related to the objective; A partisan intervention by those who have little to lose but the chains which bind them to a dying market process, and a whole world to win for themselves.

And I believe, rather, I know, anyone who is serious about working for such a transformation must look to the material realities of the situation, not just think wishfully of changing hearts. That will come in due course when those brave hearts make their own very material revolution.

Here, again, Scientific Socialist history can inform us of some general features of this process. I do not think it will be helpful to embrace utopian hopefulness as a method of changing the world. The ineffectiveness of these ideas was dealt with more than a century ago by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. And it’s worth noting they undertook their scientific work motivated by compassion for the awful conditions which capitalism forced on working people. But they did not stall their thoughts at the moment of their emotional response.

They took on the intellectual job of examining the process which created the cruelty they observed. They had the courage to discard their old ideas when these proved inadequate in the face of their new discoveries about human society and the way it evolves. In doing this they had to develop a more accurate way of analysing the world and assessing the validity of their conclusions. A more scientific approach.
And this body of knowledge is available to you also, Tim, if you choose to embrace it.

They found that the values (including the deeper ones) which govern the cultural aspect of a human society emerge from the process through which that society reproduces itself. And that this social process of reproduction has a beginning and an end. Furthermore, they identified and proved that the motion of a society through its many moments of history is governed (like everything else) by laws of nature.

Anyone who is serious about changing the world will have to begin with an acceptance of these objective laws. And continue by using them as a guide to their actions.

I am not sure what you mean by the term ‘boss’. I am old enough to own a definition of the word which roughly equates to a capitalist (and here may I say to you that although I live in a capitalist society, I am not a capitalist myself, nor have I ever been, nor do I wish to be one), and maybe more broadly, to define a willing agent of the ruling elite. (Maybe life was more simple in the sixties of the last century). I have no intention of replacing such bosses with some sort of replica in a red shirt! I think your fear here understandably arises out of the emergence of Stalinism and its method of dictatorship which castrated democracy in the Soviets, replacing it with the rule of terrorising gang bosses acting on the instruction of a very sick man and his clique.

A process of Economic Democracy is the exact opposite to this, empowering the individual through collective action. But such outcomes were not inevitable. They arose in particular conditions which do not exist now. The development of computerisation and digital technology is a material force which is changing human interaction and interconnection right at this moment. It is the objective enabler of active democracy among people. No wonder the capitalist establishment fear it so. It announces the possibility of the end of their rule. But what are we – and you, Tim – going to contribute to this real possibility of the process of change?

The modus operandi of capitalism is the exercise of power by a tiny minority through its ownership of the money system and cultural resources. And if you don’t change that, you leave the tiny capitalist class in charge of your future. And they have plans for you. Bad plans

You define and deplore the cultural basis of the capitalist ethos; An empty value system and a forlorn personal life. But these are not the value systems I embrace. I would not ask the British people to follow me down that barren road. Nor the people of Ireland, Portugal, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Italy et al.

Instead, I wish to work for a material change in the ownership of, and rights to happiness within society. I prefer to travel a road of thoughtful, well considered preparation, to make a scientific journey, no matter how difficult, to a global society which truly cherishes all the children equally. And this will involve taking away the ‘right’ of a small group (the capitalist class) to exploit everything and everyone else in the name of profit-seeking. They and those who support them will use all they have to prevent this change.

My road map will not be an imaginative construction out of my own head, nor based on the deceiving distractions of those who refuse to see reality, who hope I will fail, or who fear the risks of change.

Like any useful map, it has already been largely drawn by those who have walked the road before. Sure, there will be many new features on the changing landscape, unforeseen obstacles, and the collective scientific reasoning which drew my map will give me the solutions to these new problems along the way. For I will not be alone.

Perhaps Tim, you might look with fresh eyes on the emerging struggle and join this real journey, learn a new type of map-reading, and a new skill for map-making. Your final sentence says “System change or no system change, we need a massive change of heart”. No change? I’m pretty sure your heart is in the right place. But what about your ideas?

You are not just you. And I am not just me. We also are continually changing in response to the emergent changing world we inhabit. Whether we are aware of it or not. Whether we like to admit it or not. Whether we choose to do it consciously or not.

The (capitalist) system of social reproduction within which we try to meet our needs as best we can, that is changing too, every moment. Fixed concepts, formal ideas, (me, you, profit etc.) these are not equal to the task of understanding such an essentially dynamic process. Nor can they illuminate the potential possibilities and contradictions which lie in each moment of development. But it is open to you to explore more advanced methods of grasping the world beyond your thought. Methods which can provide a clearer picture, a moving picture showing change as a living reality which can be influenced by you in harmony – yes, and sometimes in disagreement with others.

As more and more people see, experience, and become conscious of the bleak future on offer by capitalism, they will seek an alternative which meets their real needs. This is now emerging with great urgency. There can be no doubt people will take things into their own hands. Would you be willing to learn some new skills and help lead the way towards the more kind and secure world you wish for? I hope you will. Your contribution would be valued.


Tim says:

Frank - The point is that you actively seek the failure of the system and to mobilise action to bring it about. Surely if it must fail of it's own accord no such action would be necessary? In fact Capitalism seems to have evolved and changed over time and I think you over simplify in representing it as nothing more than the profit motive in action. Other values and considerations have played as significant a part in the evolution of Western Society as profit. In that we all live in a capitalist system we cannot help but be Capitalists – but not all are driven only by greed and lust for power. I have no ideological attachment to Capitalism (or any other system) but any system will be faced with the same basic problem. Human beings are driven to make things better for themselves and their families. This can be, and mostly is, an entirely healthy and worthy thing if it is set in a context of values that prevent money and power being the measure of all human worth but it can also descend into mere selfishness and greed. What you describe as economic democracy, or any system, will not make that struggle go away. In my view the problem is not fundamentally a mechanistic one. You might be right that this particular mechanism is breaking down and another is needed to take its place but you will still be you and I will still be me. Until you and I (and everyone else) are changed then swapping one set of bosses for another set will not make a huge difference. (And we both know that there will be another set of bosses whatever democratic titles they may adopt.) It would, as you admit, be a horrendous process for everyone – particularly those least equipped to deal with the privations that would ensue – but, while things would certainly look and be hugely different on a political level, things would not really have changed at the deeper human level. Fortunately human beings are not determined by systems and historical process (affected, yes of course, but not enslaved by them) and are uniquely blessed with a capacity to change and to bring real value and purpose into situations where there is little or none. My prediction is that the hard lessons we are learning now will draw people together and force us to look at ourselves and the way we live and what we stand for. We all need the basic necessities of life but we also all know that life cannot be so empty as to mean nothing more than what more of the same can buy. I don’t think the British people will want to go down the road you want to lead them down but I do think real change is coming. System change or no system change we need a massive change of heart.


Frank says:

Hi Tim, I agree with you that workers and ordinary families will face huge pain as the global financial system fails. But it will not fail due to a choice made by any government, rather it is the only path capitalism knows how to travel. That's the way it works.

Of course, there is an alternative. Dump the profit-seeking process, which is more disfunctional every day anyway, and force the introduction of economic democracy where those who do the work own and control their labour and its outcomes on a not-for profit basis.

To do this means we must first dump the capitalist political apparatus which is also in massive crisis around the world, but which is now in open economic/class war against ordinary people everywhere. Here the alternative you could choose is to help local people build community defence councils and organise people assemblies. The parliamentary system has no answers anymore.


Fiona says:

What alternative to cuts? This might be one alternative. Although as George Monbiot has pointed out it won't even be particularly environmentally friendly.


Robbie says:

Tim makes it sound as though the national debt is just like the country going over its overdraft limit and it needs to be paid back or else we won't be trusted. But of course it isn't just the UK - Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Greece, USA... ad infinitum. A World to Win has sought to show that the issuing of credit/debt has been the way of capitalism trying to resolve the problem of the declining rate of profit, not naughty people overspending.

And they are going to make ordinary people pay for it - estimates of 2 million people getting the sack in UK, already millions of people in the USA have lost their homes - if we embark on their course.


Tim says:

What alternative to cuts is there? If the country owes 4.1 Trillion pounds then people can argue about how much is due to the recent banking crisis and how much it is due to successive governments (particularly the last one) spending money they simply were not raising in taxation but whoever is in power will have to pay that money back somehow. Unless of course the plan is to renege on the debt (effectively declare national bankruptcy) and let the currency collapse completely and start again from scratch. Some sort of barter system presumably. I think that is an option but I don't think you are being honest with people about he pain ordinary people would have to go through if we embark on such a course. Is this the plan?


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