Sunday, 17 May 2009

Greed Is Not The Problem. Moral Rectitude Is Not The Solution

The current media fest over the MP’s expenses claims, follows the similar furore over Bankers Bonuses amid the Financial Meltdown. Anger and disgust is an understandable and positive consequence, but as Marxists we have to be careful that the concentration on the actions of greedy and corrupt individuals is not used to divert workers attention from the real problem, and the real solution.

The furore over MP’s expenses has already acted to divert attention away from the story about Bankers bonuses – which make the expense claims of MP’s look like chicken feed – and the report of the Select Committee, last week, into the role of those bankers in bringing about the Financial crisis. The greed and corruption of the MP’s is being hyped up, and made to look as though it is something new, but, in fact, compared to the past it is if anything mild. Lloyd George openly sold peerages for his personal gain, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Parliamentary seats were simply bought, and were bought often for the direct financial benefit of those who purchased them! And, compared to the personal gain and corruption attendant on obtaining political office in many other countries, such as the US, what has been revealed in the UK is again minor. If such corruption has always been a part of British bourgeois democracy, if indeed, it forms a routine part of bourgeois democracy throughout the world, then it becomes clear that it is not a matter of individual greed, and moral decay, but is an inherent part of the way bourgeois democracy works. The solution cannot be simply to change the MP’s in the hope of putting in place other MP’s with higher moral standards – which, of course is what the current media campaign attempts to focus on – but can only be to challenge the very functioning of bourgeois democracy itself. See: Open The Books On Bourgeois Democracy .

But, as I said in that blog its not just MP’s expenses that need to be investigated. WE need to open the books on the expenses and other corrupt practices of top Civil Servants, Judges, Military Top Brass, Police Chiefs and so on as well as of the top paid journalists, and media companies. More than that as was discussed in the post Boardroom Bourgeois Democracy its not just MP’s who have these expense accounts that are open to abuse. The boss of TYCO in the US – now in gaol – Dennis Kozlowsky, spent $7,000 on a shower curtain for his office! He charged to the company the cost of hiring an island in the Pacific, along with the cost of flying in a number of well-known performers and guests for his wife’s birthday Party to the business! The bonuses of the bankers are just a tip of the iceberg that has been exposed just as the MP’s expenses have been exposed.

In a recent article the Financial Times wrote,

“The UK parliament has been humiliated by an expenses scandal of Augean stench, prompting Martin Bell, an anti-sleaze campaigner, to suggest such abuses could never occur in the business world. “If our cabinet ministers worked for a private company or public corporation, half of them would be out of a job this morning,” he said. “They would have been shown the door. Their employers might then call in the police.” Sadly, he is wrong. Shareholders are taken for a far bigger ride by their C-suites than UK taxpayers are by their MPs.

Shareholders have little insight into the perquisites enjoyed by executives: the jets, country club memberships and season tickets are never disclosed in remuneration reports. Every so often, daylight reveals shocking shareholder-funded extravagance. Ex-Tyco boss Dennis Kozlowski, for example, supplied himself with a $15,000 umbrella stand, a $17,000 “travelling toilette box” and $2,200 wastebasket. More recently, opponents of John Thain leaked to the media that the one-time chief executive of Merrill Lynch had treated himself to a $1.2m office makeover, with $87,000 rugs, $25,000 pedestal table and $68,000 credenza. But for every case that makes headlines, thousands do not. Which accounts department queries the spa treatment in the boss’s hotel bill or questions helicopter trips to far-off golf courses?

C-suites around the world are, with few exceptions, hypocritical in the extreme, demanding austerity from workforces while living high on the hog themselves.”

See: Claiming Expenses .

This is inevitable within the very way in which bourgeois democracy works both at the political and the economic level. In many ways its similar to what used to happen in Dynastic China. In China the State owned the main means of production, and economic power resided with that State. State functionaries, the bureaucracy, formed the ruling caste, whose members were recruited mostly from within the same set of dominant families, though the examination system for entry, also meant that some of these families would “adopt” a bright child to bring up and educate as their own. Through, this procedure these state functionaries also acquired means of production of their own in the form of becoming Landlords. Over time, some families would become strong at the expense of others, whilst the ruling Dynasty would inevitably engage in the kinds of corruption currently being discussed but on a much grander scale. New families would then seize upon unrest within the peasant masses in order to push forward a rebellion that overthrew the ruling Dynasty, and installed their own family in its place. Such changes of Dynasty became a regular feature, but Chinese society itself moved forward not one jot, because these changes in ruling family did not change the underlying mechanism by which Chinese society functioned, and on which this political system rested.

Bourgeois democracy works in the same way. One set of politicians is periodically replaced, or one set of company executives is replaced by another, but nothing fundamentally changes in the way the society works, in the way the political system or the economic and industrial system works! Nor can it because neither the politicians nor the Company Executives who replace each other in succession have any reason to change anything fundamentally, and even if they did, they do not have the power to do so. That power not only rests with the Capitalist class, it rests in the very functioning of the system itself, and that can only be changed if a different economic system is developed that replaces it.

The danger of concentrating on sleaze, greed and all these other moral concepts is that in doing so that basic fact, for a Marxist, that only a change of system can provide a solution is lost. Worse, under current conditions the main beneficiaries of the concentration on moral rectitude, and the diversion of attention away from the real cause – Capitalism – is not a move towards the left, but the increasing support for right-wing capitalist parties such as UKIP and the BNP.

If the problem is seen solely in moral terms then the working class will be wholly misled and miseducated. After all, if the real problem is greed, then all that is required is for society to instil moral values in its politicians and business leaders. Society would simply have to put a premium on those businesses, and business activities that were “moral”. Capitalism could simply be “morally” reformed with no consequent need for socialism. The problem is that in the 19th century when Capitalism was at its most brutal there was no shortage of such “moral” Capitalists. Indeed, the 19th century was renowned for its philanthropy. Wealthy Capitalists almost competed with each other in their attempts to outdo each other in their charitable good works, engaging in Prison Reform, the establishment of model workers villages, the establishment of Orphanages, Children’s Hospitals, Parks and so on. The US today is similar, and in fact, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have both agreed to donate almost the whole of their personal fortunes – around $40 billion each – to the Gates Foundation, which concentrates on providing free healthcare solutions for the world’s poor.

The problem is not greed, the solution is not moral rectitude. The problem is Capitalism, the solution is socialism. In Ancient Greece the politicians were not elected, but chosen by lot. That might sound most undemocratic, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was a symbol of the fact that having to act as a politician was seen as a burden not a privilege. But, its also necessary to understand the role of the politician in such a system. In reality, the democratic decisions were not taken by the politicians as happens in bourgeois democracy, but were taken by the people or “demos”. The people were actively involved in a direct democracy, and the politicians role was more or less to carry out the decisions arrived at. A similar system of Direct democracy existed in 18th century Switzerland as was described by Rousseau. But, such direct democracy implies control, and control implies ownership.

Workers in a factory can engage in whatever direct democracy they like, but without ownership of the factory their ability to implement the decisions arrived at are pretty meaningless. They can strike to achieve them, but ultimately if they are against the interests of the owner, he can simply shut up shop and move his Capital elsewhere. Only if the workers then take over the factory for themselves can the decisions arrived at be implemented. The same is true on a workers housing estate. Workers can organise a Tenants and Residents Association, and democratically arrive at decisions on how they want the estate to be run, what repairs they want doing, what facilities they would like, and can present those demands to the Landlord be it the local Council, a Housing Association, or Private Landlords, they might be able to force through some of those demands, but again the Landlord has the upper hand to say yes or no. Only if they take over the houses on the estate, become themselves the collective landlord can they be in a position to implement those decisions.

In other words the practical solutions both economic and political to these problems run through changing the basis framework of society, of replacing individual ownership with collective ownership by workers, and thereby allowing the kind of direct democracy that prevents the corruption etc. inherent in bourgeois democracy from becoming entrenched. It does not require workers to have to simply wait for some socialist revolution in the distant future, or to rely on some new dynasty of politicians to resolve their problems, but revolves around the direct self-activity of workers here and now to change that basic framework of society around them. In so doing it fundamentally changes the workers consciousness here and now.

Its rather like Marx’s argument against Lassalle over the Iron Law of Wages. Marx had demonstrated in his economic writings, and particularly in Capital, that the fundamental objection to Capitalism was not some moral objection to the conditions it imposed on workers – on the contrary Marx understood that the very functioning of Capitalism necessitated a steadily rising real standard of living for workers – but, was the fact that its very functioning necessitated regular crises that would both impoverish a large number of workers, and that these crises would also result in a massive destruction of Capital, and society’s wealth and productive capacity. IN short, his objection was not a moral objection, but a scientific, historical materialist objection that a better means of society producing and distributing existed in the form of socialism. Despite that, he was infuriated that his opponent in the workers movement Ferdinand Lassalle argued a moralistic case that undermined this argument, both because it was a return to pre-Marxist moral socialism, and because it was fundamentally wrong. Lassalle argued that Capitalism because it needed to maximise profits, would always be forced to reduce workers wages and conditions, resulting not just in a relative decline in the workers position, but in an absolute impoverishment. He called it his “Iron Law of Wages”.

Marx, slammed the notion in a number of places, including here in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme”.

“It is as if, among slaves who have at last got behind the secret of slavery and broken out in rebellion, a slave still in thrall to obsolete notions were to inscribe on the program of the rebellion: Slavery must be abolished because the feeding of slaves in the system of slavery cannot exceed a certain low maximum!”

In other words what Marx is saying here is that no matter how lavish the lifestyle of a slave might have become he would still be a slave!!!! The objection to slavery would not change, because that objection is not based upon the moral objection to the poor living standard of the slave! No matter how lavish the lifestyle of the worker, he remains a worker – a wage-slave (i.e. only works on the basis of handing over a portion of his production free to the Capitalist).

In similar vein our objection to bourgeois democracy is not based upon some moral objection to the greed and corruption that are inherent within it, but is based upon the fact, that it is itself based upon and serves the needs of Capital, and thereby is forced to assume certain such forms.


Anonymous said...

This isn't the time to stand back and reflect but to engage in some good old fashioned rabble rousing.

Arthur Bough said...

The good old fashioned rabble rousing you are engaged in is driving workers into the hands of the BNP and UKIP!!!!!