Monday, 19 July 2010

Big Society, Big Con

As opposition to the Liberal-Tory cuts and privatisations mounts, not least from within the ranks of the upper echelons of the State whose interests are threatened, David Cameron has returned today to the idea of the “Big Society” - the idea that there should be a big move of power away from the State, and to ordinary people in Society. On the face of it, a laudable idea, and one that Marx would have certainly approved of. But, the “Big Society” is in fact, a Big Con. It is in fact, a continuation of those same Fabian, Neo-Liberal, statist ideas that have dominated politics for the last century, and which Marx vehemently opposed. Cameron proposes to shuffle off the responsibility for the provision of various services and functions to a rag-bag of voluntary organisations – presumably to be approved by them, and certainly encouraged by them – rather than being the result of workers themselves organising and establishing co-operatives under their ownership and control, and it will remain the Capitalist State, which will retain the purse strings, and, therefore, control of who is given State Aid, and how much such organisations will be allowed to spend. It will continue to be, therefore, the Capitalist State, at both a central and local level, that will continue to expand its sphere of operation, and of control, via this control of finance. It will be that Capitalist State that will continue to finance that by exacting ever increasing levels of taxation from the working and middle-class. This is not the anti-statist program of Marx, which called for Direct Taxation because,

“Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government.”

At a superficial level, the ideas put forward by Cameron, which as I illustrated in my blog Red Tories, do have some resonance in the anti-state politics of Marx, and for that reason, Marxists should use the space opened up by that debate to go beyond the limitations that the Liberal-Tories want to place on such a development, and instead argue for the development of that real “Workers Self-Government” that Marx describes, and which even finds its way into some of the programs of the twentieth century, in relation to Independent Workers Education, Workers Defence Squads, and the Workers Militia etc. The importance of this for Marxists from a Philosophical perspective cannot be overstated, but nor can it from a practical perspective of proletarian political strategy. Marx recognised the need to ensure that the working class retained its independence from Capital, and from the Capitalist State at all costs. That came from his understanding of the relation between Labour and Capital. The fundamental basis of the theory of Historical Materialism is that social classes are produced and reproduced by the very workings of the economic system, by the Method of Production. It is this which ensures that the Capitalist Class continues to rule, and that workers are ruled, not any use of force. Force only plays a role at specific times, that is when that general method of rule and reproduction breaks down.

Under Capitalism, the accumulation of Capital, raises the demand for Labour Power. Meanwhile, the need to cheapen wage goods, to reduce the value of Labour-Power, enables Capital to permit a rise in the workers real living standards, whilst still extracting additional relative surplus value. Via this process, workers become more affluent (higher living standard), but poorer (further removed from the ownership of Capital, as Constant Capital grows faster than Variable Capital), as Marx sets out in the Grundrisse. In other words, the very working of this process ensnares workers more, and more. The greater the accumulation of capital, the greater the demand for Labour, and, therefore, the more affluent the worker, but the more dependent they are for that affluence on the need to continue to work, to continue to subordinate themselves to Capital. The only way, Marx says, in the Grundrisse, for workers to break out of that is for them to become the owners of Capital themselves. That is the strategy he develops in Capital, in the Programmatic documents of the First International, in the Programme of the French Socialists, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and elsewhere. See Can Co-operatives Work Part 2.

But, this relation of Labour to Capital is replicated in the relation to the Capitalist State. It is replicated in two ways. As an employer, the Capitalist State is, as Kautsky put it, only distinguished from the private Capitalist employer in that it is far more ruthless, and far more powerful as against its workers than any individual Capitalist employer. You only have to think of the experience of the Miners in 1984, to recognise that fact. Yet, so long as workers consciousness remains at the level of Trade Unionism, or reformism, of bargaining within the system, they will relate as Workers to the Capitalist State as to any other capitalist employer, they will remain trapped within that Capital-Labour relation. They will not want to see that State overthrown, any more than workers in a private company want to see it go bust, because it is their means of livelihood, it is their only source of income. But, in the twentieth century, the Capitalist State became far more than just an employer. In the 19th century, alongside their Trade Unions, and Co-operatives, the workers had established Friendly Societies into which they paid small sums, and thereby accumulated their own reserves to cover periods of sickness, unemployment and old age. It was what Marx meant when he spoke about the need for Society to take on this responsibility – by which he meant workers collectively as opposed to individually, and most definitely NOT the State, which Marx was always very careful to distinguish FROM society. In fact, even in the 19th Century the capitalist State was trying to make inroads into these workers funds, and independent provision, which provoked Marx to raise the demand within the First International for the State to keep its hands off them.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the twentieth century, the growth of “New Unionism”, the development of unions for the millions of unskilled workers, the development of National Union structures as opposed to the previous local federations, and the sharp rise in workers living standards that accompanied the Long Wave Boom from the late 1880's up to 1914, meant that these funds could be used by workers as an effective defence against the repeated threats of unemployment by the bosses, and could begin to create a serious worker-owned sector of the economy. Already by this time, the Co-op had become a major retailer that was threatening established stores, as well as having branched out into wholesaling and production, which confronted the Capitalist cartels, such as that in Soap production, effectively. As early as the 1850's, the Co-op was the only provider of workers education, and established a Co-operative College that drew in students from all over the globe, through which it advocated international co-operation, and workers solidarity. In the early part of the 20th Century, Communists were declaring War on bourgeois education, and establishing a movement for Independent Workers Education by establishing the PlebsLeague, and National Council of Labour Colleges. They declared no compromise with bourgeois education, which mirrored Marx's position when he declared that State involvement in education was “wholly objectionable”, and instead advocated education tied to employment. The development of the State into these areas – what has come to be termed The Welfare State – was a move to head off these developments by the workers, and further entrap them in that same Capital-Labour relation.

In Education, the State had already begun to be involved in Elementary Education so that it could indoctrinate working-class children, at the same time as producing that more educated workforce of the future that Capital required. In the face of a growing movement of independent workers education, the bourgeoisie responded by establishing the WEA. In a good example of how workers should move from finding that demands for greater democratic control over Capitalist property is impossible, and leads to the lesson that such control can only arise if they create their own property and institutions, the Plebs League and NCLC had been established because workers attending Ruskin College had refused to stay within the bounds of bourgeois education, and were demanding courses based on Marx's “Capital”, for instance.

The same was true for the establishment of National Insurance, on the supposed basis of the State providing for workers when they were unemployed, old or sick. In fact, what it did was to drain those workers resources that were going into their own funds, and organisations to provide for those things under their control, and to make them wholly dependent for them on the capitalist State, just as capital made them wholly dependent on wages for their livelihood! And, as I set out in my blog Cut & Run, this was no more than a huge Mafia style protection racket, or a repeat on a national scale of the kinds of “Truck System”, that individual employers had operated in the 19th Century, and against which Trades Unionists and Socialists had campaigned. Workers funds were drained from their own Friendly Societies into the coffers of the capitalist State, and the things they were supposed to get in return such as Pensions, they never lived to collect – and now they are that same State demands they don't collect until they are older! - or like Unemployment Benefit was only accessible under the most extreme and demeaning basis, and was cut in the Depression at the very moment it was most required!

The Left has perpetuated the myth that these things were in some way won from the Capitalist State as concessions, a story it tells itself as part of its own infatuation with the Capitalist State, but it was no such thing. The Welfare State was from the beginning, the brainchild of the bourgeoisie. The basic elements of it were drawn up by the Tory Neville Chamberlain in the 1920's. Its purpose is to undermine the potential for that workers' “self-government” that Marx spoke of, and to trap workers within that Capital-Labour relation. And, for those who are most heavily dependent upon that Welfare, provided by the Capitalist State, the relation could not be clearer. In place of that self-government and the self-confidence and moral strength that Marx saw as necessary for the advancement of workers if they were to supersede the bourgeoisie, it traps them in a grinding level of dependence that saps their moral fibre, and turns them into virtual serfs. That in itself plays a role for capital. In the English Civil War, many serfs, if not the majority, fought on the side of the King. They did so, because under feudalism it was the King, and the substrata of the aristocracy that maintained them, provided them with the only source of income they had. That was true of some of the poorer peasants too, who looked to the King for defence against the rising tide of Enclosures being pushed through by the richer peasants, and Capitalist farmers. In Germany in the 1930's, it was the lumpenproletariat, those dependent on the State for a living, to supplement what they could make from crime, prostitution etc., who rallied to the Nazis, whose function was to maintain the Capitalist State. Those who work for the Capitalist State, or who are dependent upon it will undoubtedly seek to defend it, on the basis of defending their only source of income, employment etc., and in doing so, necessarily perpetuate their own subservience to it, just as workers fighting a private employer for better conditions in doing so simply reinforce their own dependence upon him.

As Marx put it,

“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.”

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