Friday, 20 August 2010

The Lessons Of UCS - Part 2

Trade Union Consciousness

But, how “successful” was UCS? Within the immediate confines of that Trade Union consciousness, it was very successful. Not only did it force the Government to back down, and to provide the finance to keep two of the three yards open, but two of those three yards remain open! The problem with this limited view is that it suffers from another defect of that Trade Union consciousness, which is that it views such struggles, and their success not in “class” terms, but purely in sectional terms. UCS was a sectional victory, not a class victory. It was a sectional victory, not just in terms of being a victory for one section of workers in one industry, but in the even more limiting sense that the victory of the workers at UCS may well have been won at the expense not of Capital, but of other shipbuilding workers elsewhere in the country. In the years that followed, when British Shipbuilders was established, and took over most of the shipbuilding yards, its function was to do what every other nationalisation programme, since WWII, has had as a primary goal – to carry out a thorough rationalisation and restructuring of the industry under the heel of a powerful Capitalist State. UCS survived, but equally deserving workers, who frequently put up similarly powerful struggles, such as those at Cammell Lairds, saw their yards either closed altogether, or severely rationalised, with the loss of thousands of jobs.

“In 1983 Thatcher also broke up and privatised British Shipbuilders, which had been amalgamated and nationalised by Callaghan in 1977 in the lean times following the 1973 oil crisis, and which still employed 86,000 people building naval and commercial vessels, many in the north-east of England. Few of the privatised shipyards subsequently survived competition against East Asian cheap labour, with the single largest private sector group, BVT, now employing a fraction of the nationalised group's number, just over 7,000 people working on Navy contracts in the Clyde and Portsmouth yards.”


The idea that all of these jobs could have been saved, that all these yards could have been kept open by similarly militant Trade Union struggle, not only flies in the face of basic economic reality, but in the face of everything that Marx has taught us about the impossibility of such a result. The only way that such a result could have been achieved, that a principle such as the “Sliding Scale of Hours”, or “Nationalisation Under Workers Control”, might have been implemented would have been if such a struggle had been in the context of a serious struggle for State power by the working class as a whole. But, even in the most serious class actions of the period, such as the 1984-5 Miners Strike, such a development was never even likely. Not only was there no logical progression from the immediate industrial struggle to such an outright political struggle, but there was insufficient class support for such a challenge, and there was no political leadership of the movement that was capable of driving such a development. On the contrary, the leadership of the Movement, that had the backing of the mass of workers – to the extent that they were not opposed to the strike, and supporting the Government – was in the hands of people like Kinnock, whose right-wing reformist politics, would have led them to be obstacles to, not champions of such a development.

Even then it is not at all clear that even a Workers' State could have simply flown in the face of economic reality, and overcome the competitiveness of that “East Asian cheap labour”, or that it would have wanted to. The basic reality is this. If society A decides that it wishes to consume £100 billion of goods, then as a minimum it has to create new value at least equal to that. If it wishes to also be able to continue to consume, it also has to reproduce the value of the raw materials, the depreciation of machinery etc. used up in producing that new value. It doesn't matter whether it consumes, itself, all of this new value, or whether it exchanges some of it for other goods produced by Country B to the same value, and consumes that. The point is that if it wishes to consume more than that £100 billion, it has to create that new value, or else, it has to be able to make up the difference from previously stored value, or else it has to borrow the difference. In other words, rather like Greece, it would have to throw itself on the mercy of the generosity of strangers. And, as Greece is also demonstrating, this latter option is only possible for so long, and once those strangers withdraw their generosity, no amount of industrial militancy can change the economic reality previously outlined.

Of course, in reality, things are worse than that. Any society that does not want to stagnate, including a Workers State, would have to not only produce that £100 billion of new value, it would not only have to reproduce the value of the raw materials etc. used up, but it would also need to produce an additional amount of value on top of that to invest in additional machines, factories, schools, hospitals etc. Provided it had the resources, a Workers State could make these decisions based on what its priorities were. But, in a Capitalist economy there is a further consideration. Capitalists do not invest their Capital out of the goodness of their hearts, but in order to make a profit. Before they will lay out any of their Capital to produce any of these goods, and to employ workers, they will need to have good reason to believe that they can make at least the average rate of profit. If shipbuilding does not allow them to do that then they will not invest their Capital in it, but will invest instead in making aircraft or some other product that does give them the average profit. If they are already invested in shipbuilding, at the very least, they will refrain from making additional investments in it. If profits are sufficiently low, they will withdraw even their existing Capital, sell off the machines for whatever they can get, and switch their investment to something else. If, there are insufficient areas within country A where they can make that average rate of profit, or if they see that they can make higher than the average rate, by investing in Country B,C,D etc. then they will do so. In short, workers are forced not only to reproduce the value of their own labour power, represented by the goods they consume, but are also forced to produce a Surplus Value that is handed over to the Capitalists. Workers can haggle over this Surplus, but ultimately Capital will win, because although Capitalists can choose whether to invest or not, workers if they want to live, have to sell their Labour Power.

The reality is that Capital can always find sufficient Labour to exploit. If it cannot make a sufficient profit in shipbuilding, it will move to some other type of production. If it cannot make sufficient profit in Greece, it will invest in China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, and increasingly in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and so on, where it can find sufficient labour-power, available at a price that does enable it to make sufficient profit. Perhaps, at some point in the future, say in 200 years time, it may have industrialised the entire globe, and the process that has led to rising living standards in China, as available Labour-Power began to run-out, will give workers greater bargaining power. But, in 200 years time, on that kind of basis, the contradictions within global Capitalism would have become so heightened that it would probably have resulted in ferocious competition, leading to global war. Even were that not the case, then as Marx demonstrated, Capital would still have the whip hand, because it would have so developed technology that the demand for Labour-power would be greatly reduced.

In short, as Marx pointed out, so long as workers remain trapped in this kind of Trade Union struggle they will lose. That is why he insisted that they should not give too much attention to it, but should look instead to changing the basic property conditions, which trapped them. That is the basic task of Marxists, to point out the limitations of that Trade Union struggle, to point to why workers cannot win significant concessions from Capital as a result of it. As a militant Trade Unionist, but also as a member of the British Communist Party, a Stalinist Party, imbued with that kind of Trade Union consciousness, of Economism and Reformism, it would have been surprising if Jimmy Reid could have gone beyond it. Similarly, that Denham should see that limited Trade Union victory, the sectional as opposed to class victory, and should draw from it the lesson that such Trade Union struggle can win significant victories for the working-class, and in doing so perpetuates the kind of bourgeois reformist ideology against which Marx and Engels spent so much time exposing, is not surprising given that Denham like Reid belongs to a Stalinist micro-sect, whose politics are similarly riddled with Economism and Opportunism.

Back To Part 1

Forward To Part 3

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