Sunday, 8 June 2008

Thinking Outside the Box

I was watching the BBC Four series on the rise and fall of Thatcherism – “Tory, Tory, Tory”. It showed that besides the role played by Hayek, and the other Libertarians around him in influencing the ideologues around Thatcher the run up to Ridley’s plan to take on the unions also began by John Hoskyns – a former systems analyst – developing a huge systems diagram to assess what were the strategic targets the Tories needed to attack. They decided that at every key point the answer was the same – the unions. Of course, that is not surprising, the unions are the basic organisational form of the working class, its means of economic defence against the power of capital. But it set me thinking as to whether a similar approach might be taken by the working class.

In reality we know what our strategic target is too. It is Capital itself. As Marx points out, our theory is not based on envy or greed against Capitalists, we are not moral socialists, but scientific socialists. Capitalists, themselves are as much the prisoner of Capital as are the workers, though there prison is one most would not mind being condemned to. Whatever, the morals of the individual capital, no matter how philanthropic the individual capitalist might be each is constrained to act in pretty much the same way by the power of Capital over them as much as the power of Capital over workers. Whatever might be the intentions of the individual capitalist, Capital must accumulate or die. And it is that fact which creates all of the attendant ideological superstructure of capitalism, the notion that competition is inevitable (indeed good as a means of reducing prices), the notion that profit must be produced by every firm and consequently that workers must sell their labour-power at a price which guarantees that profit, the idea that wealth is the product of the accumulation of this capital (which in a sense it is), and that consequently the private owners of this Capital are the real wealth creators without whom workers cannot survive. Unfortunately, the experience of Stalinism and of nationalised industry (in Britain though not so clearly in Europe) have only confirmed that ideology as Stalinism’s attempt to bureaucratically plan the economy necessarily ended in chaos and low living standards for workers as well as the workers themselves being oppressed, and capitalist nationalised industry as the Miners’ Strike demonstrated, just gave the capitalists a bigger stick with which to exploit the workers, lacked any democratic content that would have ensured that such industries met the needs of workers as consumers, and instead became milk cows for other capitalist suppliers, and the bureaucrats put in charge of running them.

The obvious solution to this is for workers to simply seize all of this Capital in a thoroughgoing revolution such as that in Russia in 1917, and having laid hold of the Capital to begin to transform it back from being Capital that has power over men to being merely tools, and means of production at the disposal of men to meet their needs as human beings. But there is a problem with this idea. The problem is that precisely because of the power of Capital over men, because of the ideological superstructure that has arisen on the back of capitalist relations of production over the last 200 years in particular, and the promulgation of that ideology as being “human nature”, the natural order of things, by the capitalist media, inculcated into children by their families even subconsciously as they were themselves inculcated with it as children – rather like the way religion is absorbed, or a belief in Santa Claus – getting workers to see the need to upset that “natural order of things” is no easy task. Indeed the longer capitalism goes on the more it appears to be not only the natural order of things, but also the way things have always been. An example, was the drama “Rome” on TV a while ago. I never actually watched it, but was put off by a clip which talked about the problem of “unemployment”, as though Ancient Rome ran along capitalist lines with capitalists and workers as the main classes with workers suffering unemployment periodically as they do today.

It was this problem that led Lenin to the conclusion that this condition of the working class as a slave class right up until it takes power makes the achievement of socialist working class consciousness an impossibility for the majority of the working class, and that, therefore, the revolution must be led by a vanguard,
a small group of professional revolutionaries, people who have cut free of these ideological binds that constrict the working class in general, a group which can influence the wider workers movement, and prepare for those infrequent occasions when the old system can no longer continue ruling in the old way, and the ruled are no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way.

But, as I have argued, in many other places, I believe this concept, developed by Lenin, is, in fact, non-Marxist. It substitutes the actions of a small, revolutionary party for the actions of the working class, it substitutes the role of ideas for the role of material conditions, as the determining force in historical change – as Lenin puts it politics dominates economics – and, by setting up this model of social change, it inevitably leads to a top down conception of socialist construction. Having taken over state power, the revolutionary party’s role becomes the driving force of socialist construction through the state apparatus. The revolutionary fervour of the working class having been based on a resentment of the old ways rather than an ingrained socialist class consciousness driving them forward to take control of society for themselves, begins to wane, old ideas begin to creep back into it and a necessary schism develops not just within different sections of the working class – and peasantry where they form a significant section of society – but necessarily between the workers and the revolutionary party, and state apparatus. Confirmed in its belief that it knows best, that the workers, as Lenin had said, remain dominated by bourgeois ideas, the revolutionary party increasingly uses the state to suppress counter-revolutionary outbursts by workers, but, in reality, it is the state, created by the revolutionary party, in the name of the workers, which has become counter-revolutionary. We have arrived at Stalinism in whatever flavour.

The ideas are developed in these posts:

Vanguards, Revolution and Socialist Transition

Marx on the Party

Reform and Revolution

The Workers Party

Class Consciousness and Revolutionary Consciousness

Schactman and Leninist Apologism

Marxists, Leadership and Engels on the Workers Party

It is for the reasons outlined above, that I have now rejected those aspects of Leninism. That is not to say I have rejected everything that Lenin says, not even everything in terms of his writings on organisation. I can fully appreciate the need for a tightly organised group of Marxists, or even several such groups, if they cannot find sufficient agreement to exist within the same organisation, to develop their ideas, to propagandise for those ideas, and to fight for them within the workers movement, but not to exist as a separate party from the Workers Party, which must be the first priority, for all Marxists, to develop outside consideration for development and building of their own small organisation.

But this then leads back, rather circuitously, to the beginning of this post. If socialism is not to arise from some revolutionary situation, out of which the revolutionary party seizes state power, how is it to come about? I believe the key is to reject the dichotomy between reform and revolution, a dichotomy I believe to be false, and which has its origins within the factional debates, within the Marxist movement, at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century.
If the key to the Thatcherite strategy was to attack the power of Labour by attacking the Trade Unions, how can workers attack the power of Capital as a means of weakening it, and strengthening themselves as the precursor to defeating it, and achieving domination over it? In short what reforms can workers demand which achieve this end, what quantative changes can be undertaken that ultimately turn into a qualitative change in the relations of production? How can these reforms and other changes be fought for, and won?

A part, I think, is being manifested, before our eyes, in the struggles of workers in Argentina, for example at the Xanon ceramics factory, where a co-operative has been established, by workers, that is integrated into the local community, and the class struggle of workers throughout Argentina.

There seems to me a number of changes that have occurred since the time of Lenin, and certainly from Marx’s time, that need to be incorporated into the Marxist world view, and into our strategy. The first thing is that the concept of the working class as a slave class seems to me an absurd dogma to maintain in most capitalist economies today. The working class is educated, has access to culture, leisure and even to some extent capital that could never have been envisaged by Marx, and was not the case for Russian workers in Lenin’s time. True the education, the culture, and the leisure activities remain dominated by bourgeois ideology they are undertaken by workers on an atomised individualistic manner, rather than as activities undertaken as workers in a consciously collective way, but there is no reason why that has to be the case. It is, in fact, a result of weakness, by Marxists, and the workers movement in general, that that is so. In fact, you don’t have to go back too far, in history, to a time when it was, in fact, being challenged. Think of the Plebs, the various workers reading groups that used to exist, the social and leisure activities that used to be organised by the Young Socialists, the Co-op etc. Moreover, teachers are workers too. Indeed, many are socialists. Acceptance of curricula, dominated by bourgeois ideas, is not something that has to be accepted, it is open to challenge.

There seem, to me, also changes, within capitalism, that provide openings, for socialists and for the workers movement. Technological changes, for example, mean that ideas, such as these, can be transmitted to millions of workers around the globe, at virtually no cost, and instantaneously. Further changes in technology are breaking down the grip of capital on the dissemination of ideas. Look at TV News. Increasingly, they are asking people to send in their own digital images, video etc. because they realise that they can cover almost any news story instantaneously, without the need to employ their own news crews and technicians. This will have a dramatic effect, in the near future, on workers in these industries. But, it also opens massive possibilities for socialists and the workers movement too. Before long, no one will watch TV as they do now.
Everything will be downloaded to PC’s and mobile devices over broadband connections. That means that every socialist organisation can have its own TV station at very little cost. If the workers movement had its act together, it would be doing it now. Instantaneous news, sent in from people with digital videos, or mobile phone cameras, giving a workers perspective of strikes, demonstrations etc., sent out in a video stream, to every worker with a PC or mobile phone to receive it.

This relates to another aspect of the development of capitalism. Marxists have always argued that, as Capital develops, it becomes ever more concentrated. The economies of scale favour larger production, the larger firms are more efficient, make more profit, accumulate faster, employ more up to date equipment, become more efficient, become bigger and so on. But, in some of the most important aspects of modern capitalism, this is not true. I suspect, for instance, that as far as media is concerned, there will be a growth of small independent media producers, who bear the risk of production and sell their products to the media outlets. The reason that is possible, is because technology has significantly reduced the cost of the equipment required for media production, so a much larger number of enterprises can enter that area of production.
Michael Moore has shown that you do not have to be a Media Mogul to do this, and at the same time, he has shown that, as long as what you produce is good quality, there is a market out there for material that is critical of the status quo. The Socialist Movement has rarely been short of creative people capable of producing good quality material that could meet this need. It is being slow to take up the opportunities being presented to it. Imagine if this website not only provided written propaganda, but also provided free streamed video of workers news, free 24 hour a day, seven days a week video of socialist films, dramas etc., was a gateway for new productions, music, stories, and other material produced by working class artists, that otherwise would not get a hearing.

But it is not just in the realm of ideas that such changes open opportunities for workers and socialists. Take software production for instance. Its true that the massive monopolies, like Microsoft, have huge advantages and the ability to dominate the market. But, the example of Linux shows that such monopolies can be challenged, and Linux, developed organically and co-operatively, by its users and programmers, around the world, itself demonstrates an alternative to capitalist production. The cost of software production resides not in massive capital requirements, but in the creativity and intellectual capacity of the programmers that develop it. For very large applications, like Windows, and its attendant programs, like Office, having large teams of programmers is necessary, but, for many more specific applications, it would offer no great advantages, on the contrary, a small team of programmers could work more co-operatively on a specific task than a large one. The other capital cost, then, is in the actual physical replication of the software on to media, but most software companies now outsource that work. In short, the kind of objections that Marxists have had, in the past, to utopian schemas, of “islands of socialism”, no longer apply to many of the more important aspects of production, important because, unlike the failed worker co-operatives of the past, which were attempts by workers to save their jobs, in already dying industries, these new areas are ones at the cutting edge of the economy, high value added industries, but in the case of the above important also because of their role in terms of the dissemination of ideas.

I saw recently that in California's San Fernando Valley, even Porn Actors have come together (no pun intended) to create their own Co-operative that produces, and distributes their work so that they have full control over their Labour Power, and the profits do not go to some Capitalist. That is not insignificant. The Porn Industry in America is a multi-billion dollar business, and it is generally accepted that, without it, the Video and now the Internet and DVD market would have been much slower to develop as important industries and technologies.

But, if such new industries were to be more than just small co-operative enterprises, run on capitalist lines – Linux remains the product of capitalist enterprises such as Red Hat for example – then more is required than this. The example, of the workers in Argentina, I think, will be instructive here. From the reports I have read of the workers at Xanon, they have not just attempted to run the factory as a self-contained enterprise. They have integrated it with the community, in which they live, and, in doing so, that begins to challenge the capitalist mode of production, in general, if only on a small scale. It has the power to spread out. They have also made links with workers, in other co-operative factories, which is also fundamental to such enterprises not being isolated. The whole basis, of a socialist organisation, of the economy, is that each enterprise does not operate as an individual unit, but is integrated with all others. That is the basis of building organic links between such enterprises, and the foundation on which the development of an organic, democratic workers plan can be formulated.

How does that relate to the present situation, for most workers, and how could such co-ordination by workers be developed in Britain, and in Europe? In discussing the crisis of pensions, the example of the scheme, in Sweden, has been raised, as a means by which capital can be forced to pay for pensions.

"The answer was already seen by someone who was, in my opinion, one of the most far-sighted strategists of the European workers’ movement of the last fifty years — Rudolf Meidner, the chief economist of LO, the main Swedish trade union organisation.

Meidner understood that the Swedish welfare state was a sort of compromise between labour and capital. In the 1970s, he said, comrades, we have come to the point where either capital moves against us, or we move against capital. At the 1975 national convention of LO, he set out the need for what he called wage-earner funds.

He argued for requiring every corporation employing more than 50 people to contribute 20% of its profits each year in the form of new shares, to be held by the wage-earner funds as a social reserve.

He saw the problems looming up, and he said that either they would tip the balance in favour of labour, or in favour of capital. The wage-earner funds were the way to tip things in favour of labour and its social allies.

Meidner was a social democrat, but from a Marxist tradition. He was German-Jewish, not Swedish, in origin, and was a disciple of Rudolf Hilferding.

From the 1950s onwards he designed the Swedish welfare system to ensure decent benefits without unemployment. Right down to this day, even though aspects of Meidner’s proposals have not been introduced, and Sweden has abandoned many of Meidner’s ideas, official unemployment is under 5% in Sweden while it is 10% in Germany and France.

The wage-earner funds proposal was implemented by Olof Palme in a quite diluted way in 1982. It worked for about ten years, and the funds acquired a stake of about 7% of the Swedish stock market. Workers did not have proper control of the wage-earner funds, which had been the original idea, but even so they were seen as a big threat by the twenty families which dominate Sweden’s economy."

See:Robin Blackburn - on Pensions "A Fight that Must Challenge Capital

The problem, with the Swedish scheme, was demonstrated by what happened to it. A change of government led to the scheme being scrapped. This, indeed, is the problem with relying on reforms, introduced through the bourgeois state, rather than won by, and under the control of, the working class, they are liable to be taken away. In my opinion, it would have been better for workers to have created their own national pension fund ,under their own ownership and control. They could, then, have negotiated, through a co-ordinated campaign, of all Trade Unions, for a payment, from all employers, into this Pension Fund. I would not have had that payment in shares, but in cash for the simple reason that share issuance dilutes the share value, and thereby reduces the value of the shares owned by the pension fund. Moreover, having the payments in cash gives flexibility to the workers pension fund to buy shares in the companies it chooses. Such a scheme could not have been so easily dismantled, it places no reliance on the bourgeois state, and, should any employer refuse to pay in, they would be easily dealt with by a co-ordinated response, not just by the workers of the firm involved but by all workers.

Such a fund then opens the possibility, for the capital accumulated within it, to be directed to those co-operative enterprises referred to above. Is that fanciful? I don’t thinks so. For some considerable time now, on working class estates, throughout the country, the problems of individual debt have been addressed by the formation of Credit Unions. In addition to the Co-operative Bank, which is itself a large financial institution, there is the Unity Trust Bank set up by the unions. In fact, the TU European Fund was, for a long time, the best performing European Unit Trust, in the FT list of best performing funds. If all of the money, locked up in workers pension funds, even at this moment, were transferred to a single pension fund, under the democratic control of workers it would give, such a fund, tremendous financial muscle. If it were combined, with the existing resources of the Co-operative Bank and Insurance Services, and with a huge inflow, resulting from a large negotiated annual contribution, into this fund, by all employers, its muscle would be even greater. (See also why we should demand compensation for the land and means of production stolen from our forefathers not just as a means of raising a political campaign to demand financial compensation, but also to point out that expropriating the expropriators is nothing more than restitution of property - We Was Robbed

Such a shake-up would also have to change the nature of existing Co-operative organisations such as the Co-op Bank, and Co-operative stores. Their present status, as consumer co-operatives, controlled by time-serving bureaucrats, would have to go. They would need to be turned into workers co-operatives controlled by joint boards of workers from within them, and representatives of all workers whose pension fund financed them. But, such a change, would have other benefits too, not only challenging the dominance of finance by the commercial banks, and City Financial Institutions, but also challenging the domination of the retail trade by TESCO.

Finally, there are all those other aspects of workers lives which such a change could affect. For example, in place of ALMO’s or even Council Housing, workers could begin to buy up their estates, to be run as Housing Co-operatives, under their immediate control. They could use the resources, then at their disposal, to rejuvenate them, to finance alternatives to the police etc.

There is one other change that I think could strengthen the position of workers vis a vis capital. Marxists have always said that the problem faced by workers is that whilst they are forced to sell their labour power, and compete against each other driving down wages, Capital is limited in its supply, it forms an effective monopoly against labour. Increasingly, workers are being forced into temporary jobs. One of the biggest growth areas has been in the mushrooming of employment agencies, which hire out workers to fill these temporary positions. If workers resurrected the idea of “One Big Union”, this single union could act as a huge employment agency.
In effect, it would establish a monopoly, of the supply of labour, to match the monopoly supply of capital. If all employers could only hire workers, via a contract with this agency, the agency would have massive bargaining power in setting wage levels, and in demanding the kind of pension contributions referred to above. In order to ensure that workers sold their labour-power only through this agency it would be necessary that the Agency guaranteed payment at rates higher than workers currently enjoy. By mobilising the financial resources, of the pension funds, Credit Unions, Co-operative Bank and Insurance Services, the Unity Trust Bank, and the profits from any co-operative enterprises, such a possibility is not at all difficult.

During the 19th century, the Pottery unions, in Stoke used a similar tactic to great effect. They would each year set a rate to be achieved, and then focus their attention on the worst paying employers, to force them to bring up their rates. They would pull out key workers that could not be replaced, and as employment contracts were legally binding for 12 months, they would get laid off workers to sue the employers for breach of contract. Similar tactics have been employed, by unions, in the US, who focus their whole attention on key employers, putting all their resources into supporting workers in those firms, forcing up rates, which then all other employers are forced to adopt. Similar tactics are employed in Germany. One Big Union, acting as the sole supplier of labour, could employ this tactic far more successfully, and, given the financial backing of the workers pension funds, and other resources, could sustain strategic groups of workers indefinitely in such targeted disputes. It has a further benefit, it also gives, to workers, a sense of their shared interests and common goals. By building co-operative enterprises that have a chance of succeeding, enterprises that are organically linked each to one another, and to the whole of the working class, through the central financing function of the workers pension fund, workers begin to learn that they do not need bosses, that money and financial resources need not act as Capital against their interests, but can act under their control as a means of furthering those interests.

None of this is to say that workers should not also conduct a political struggle alongside it. There are plenty of things that require continued political struggle. For a start, it is clear that the bourgeoisie would find all kinds of legalistic reasons why such a monopoly of labour could not be allowed to interfere with the operation of a free market. A political struggle would be required to override such arguments. A political struggle would also be required to draw out the lessons of the things the workers had achieved would also be required, and, more fundamentally, the idea that the bosses would do everything, in their power, to reverse them, including, if necessary, abandoning the façade of bourgeois democracy, would need to be explained, and workers prepared to resist it. In short, the struggle to wrest control of capital, away from the capitalists, would need to be conducted not just on the basis of direct action by workers to secure it, but would require political action, to give it the necessary legal form, and would need to be carried forward, all the time, on the basis of explaining to workers that capitalists would try to undermine it, and would, ultimately, resort to violence to prevent their power being taken away, that, in the end, the gains, made by workers, could only be defended, against such attack, if they secured, for themselves, complete political control by smashing the apparatus of the capitalist state, and replacing it with a Workers State.

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