Monday, 11 March 2013

The Chicken Shit of Redistribution

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

Yesterday morning, I was listening to Yvette Cooper on the TV, and she was talking about what Labour have now labelled the Mummy Tax , which she said would take £180 a year from mothers. Of course, given the whole panoply of benefit cuts, tax rises and so on that the Liberal-Tories are implementing, this is just one of many such reductions facing workers. The Liberal-Tories respond by referring to the fact that they have taken millions of low paid workers out of tax altogether by raising the Basic Tax Allowance to £9440 a year, though they fail to mention either that this also benefits better paid workers, or that they have taken even more money off poorly paid workers in Tax, by raising VAT from 17.5 to 20%!

Lakshmi Mittal has a personal wealth of
£20 billion.  Even at a 2% p.a. return on
it, that is an annual income of £400 million!
Yet, the fact remains, and is highlighted by Marx's comment above that for all the sound and fury that is being devoted to these changes, in the end they amount to chicken shit. That is not at all to say, that if you are a poorly paid worker, loss of these benefits, the increased tax you will pay, and so on will not badly affect your living standards, it will, which is why those attacks have to be resisted, but it is to say that even if successful, the restitution of those benefits is hardly going to transform your life, still less is it actually going to change anything fundamental in terms of the relations of wealth and power in society.  Its not even going to lift average paid workers into the ranks of the Middle Class, and as I've pointed out before - Who Are The Middle Class - there is a huge gap between even the Upper Middle Class and small capitalist class, and the Big Capitalists whose wealth runs into tens of billions of pounds.

Take the Liberal-Tory crowing over the lifting of the Basic Tax Allowance. They say they want to raise it to £10,000 p.a. What is so marvellous about that? £10,000 is less than half the average wage. Even the current Adult Minimum Wage is £12,875 a year based on a 40 hour week. That means that someone earning even the measly minimum thought necessary, would in fact, receive less than that because they would be paying £575 in Income Tax. Why should someone only earning the Minimum pay any Income Tax at all? But, also the Minimum Wage is not a Living Wage. A decent Living Wage, would be at least two-thirds of the Average Wage, or about £17,000 p.a.

But, its clear why capital would not do the decent thing and take everyone out of paying Income Tax up to this minimum level. Its because, it would expose the true nature of the Welfare State, and of the Tax System. If everyone earning up to £17,000 a year was taken out of paying Income Tax, the burden would fall to an impossible level on better paid workers and the middle class. That is because, as recent events have demonstrated, the rich and big business only pay tax on a voluntary basis. The consequence is that the only redistribution that the current Welfare State brings about, is a deminimus redistribution from one group of workers to another.

Despite Marx's analysis in Capital, summarised here, in terms of its effects on the distribution of income in society, the Second International largely accepted instead the views of the Lassalleans, and of the Fabians, described here as “Vulgar Socialism”, by Marx. Their reformist view, rather than making the economic struggle, conducted by the trades unions, or for amelioration of the workers condition via Parliament, a necessary defensive struggle by workers, that should not detract from their main task of transforming the productive relations, instead made it the centre of their activity.

Unfortunately, many people today who call themselves Marxists, adopt the same view. In part, this “Economism”, as Lenin called it, is driven by their attempts to “build the party”, which leads them to try to recruit new members on a piecemeal basis, from where they see the best prospects i.e. amongst trade union militants. In part, that mentality, also leads them to extend it, as the earlier reformists did, into the perspective that the way forward is by simply mirroring the industrial struggle in the political sphere. The industrial struggle is about ameliorating the workers conditions by higher wages, the political struggle doing the same thing via the social wage. For these “revolutionary” Marxists, the only distinction between them, and the reformists, is that they keep the end goal of Socialism as part of their programme, but in reality, its achievement is postponed until some time never in the distant future. For them, the approach put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto,

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement...

In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

is turned merely into a reformist, trade union struggle, and the interpretation of taking care of the future of the movement is interpreted as merely the need to build their own sect. Gone is the idea that they should bring to the fore the question of property, other than the reformist demand that the Capitalist State should itself increase its power, over the workers, via nationalisation! Marx and Engels' view, that the property question involved immediately its transfer, from capitalist property into worker owned, co-operative property, because “If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one” is in fact, rejected by these revolutionaries. That is because for Marx and Engels, the class struggle is really a struggle here and now between different forms of property, and the social relations that rest upon them, whereas for today's “Marxists” the class struggle has become synonymous with merely a reformist, trade union struggle.

Marx and Engels set out just how limited that struggle really is.

“The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves.”

Engels - The Condition Of The Working Class In England

In his debate with John Weston in the proceedings of the First International, Marx restates this argument made by Engels.

So in discussing the struggle between Capital and Labour over wages Marx says,

“.. the question now ultimately arises, how far, in this incessant struggle between capital and labour, the latter is likely to prove successful.

I might answer by a generalization, and say that, as with all other commodities, so with labour, its market price will, in the long run, adapt itself to its value; that, therefore, despite all the ups and downs, and do what he may, the working man will, on an average, only receive the value of his labour, which resolves into the value of his labouring power, which is determined by the value of the necessaries required for its maintenance and reproduction, which value of necessaries finally is regulated by the quantity of labour wanted to produce them.”

He goes on,

“As to the limits of the value of labour, its actual settlement always depends upon supply and demand, I mean the demand for labour on the part of capital, and the supply of labour by the working men. In colonial countries the law of supply and demand favours the working man. Hence the relatively high standard of wages in the United States.”

But turning to Europe, Marx says the position is completely different for the reasons he has described in Capital. There industrialisation has created, and continues to create a surplus population. Workers produce surplus value which capital accumulates, in part into new more efficient machines that replace workers. But, also because, as Marx states above “ a general rise of wages would result in a fall in the general rate of profit” this in itself acts to limit the rise in wages. As the Rate of Profit falls, so the accumulation of Capital will slow down, and so the demand for labour-power will fall, reducing wages.

Despite huge, and valiant battles
in the 1980's, print workers and
their supporters failed to prevent
 the bosses introducing new
technology that undermined
their strength and pay.
Marx continues,

“I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. … 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.”

Marx - Value, Price and Profit

In other words, its necessary for workers to organise and to oppose attempts to reduce their wages, because this is one means that workers can also organise to provide themselves with more adequate solutions. If they don't fight to maintain their wages at the Value of Labour-Power, they will be unlikely to fight for anything else. But, Marxists always have to emphasise the limitations of that struggle, and the need to go beyond it. If workers succeed in raising their wages above what is compatible with the accumulation of capital, it will only ever be an exception, and will be reversed, because Capital will respond by reducing accumulation, or by introducing machines to replace workers. Marx describes how agricultural capitalists did that when agricultural wages rose in the period up to 1859. But, what is true for wages, is equally true for the Social Wage.

That isn't to say that real wages cannot and do not increase. When Marx says that wages in the long run equal the Value of Labour-power, he is making clear in that that real wages do rise, precisely because the Value of Labour-power itself rises. As productivity increases so the volume of commodities produced rises. In order for capital to accumulate, it must be able to sell this vast quantity of commodities, and the only place it can sell them in these amounts is to the workers themselves. So, increasing workers real wages itself becomes a fundamental aspect of Capital Accumulation. This becomes incorporated into what Marx calls the Historical and Cultural Element of the Value of Labour-Power. But, also alongside this rise in productivity goes also a change in the type of Labour-power required by Capital. It needs more educated workers, which in turn means it needs healthy workers, because there is no point investing in workers education, if those workers are unable to repay the investment because they die young.

That is why Capital develops Welfare States to provide those things on a mass production, industrial scale, and insists that workers pay a minimum amount for them, so that they are forced to consume enough of these commodities to become efficient workers. But, as with Taxes and Benefits, whenever the needs of Capital dictate, these services are reduced, and once again, although workers have to fight to defend what they have, even if they win, the victory brings no change that fundamentally alters their position.

As Marx says, that change can only come about by changing the ownership of the means of production. Bosses can respond to a rise in wages by reducing investment, and laying off workers, by introducing machines, or simply moving overseas. Workers can only ultimately prevent that if they own the means of production. The workers at the Ralahine Co-op in Ireland, were the first to introduce a threshing machine. They did so not in order to be reduce their numbers, but to reduce their workload, and be able to produce more efficiently. Marx describes the same thing in his analysis of the Lancashire textile co-ops, that were more profitable than private capitalist firms.

The Co-op itself in the 19th Century, was able to introduce a range of welfare schemes for its workers and members, to cover illness, and retirement, as well as providing education. Yet, it was still able to out compete private retailers, and grow its business rapidly. It introduced a shorter working week, and paid holidays, as well as higher wages, for its workers decades in advance of private employers.

Alongside the Co-op, workers via their trade unions also established other forms of welfare provision and social security in the form of Friendly Societies, as well as the trade union schools, convalescent homes etc. Marx and the First International saw these once again as a form of workers property in open class struggle against capitalist property. So, they were insistent that the Capitalist State keep its hands off them. In the Programme of the French Socialists, Marx writes,

“Prohibition of all interference by employers in the administration of workers' friendly societies, provident societies, etc., which are returned to the exclusive control of the workers;”

But, Capital recognised what a threat such worker owned and controlled provision represented to them. In Germany, Bismark had already developed National Insurance and a Welfare State to meet the needs of Capital. When the German socialists put forward a similar plan in the Erfurt Programme, Engels opposed it, for these very reasons. He wrote,

“Here I want to draw attention to the following: These points demand that the following should be taken over by the state: (1) the bar, (2) medical services, (3)pharmaceutics, dentistry, midwifery, nursing, etc., etc., and later the demand is advanced that workers’ insurance become a state concern. Can all this be entrusted to Mr. Von Caprivi? And is it compatible with the rejection of all state socialism, as stated above?”
This struggle continued into the 20th Century. A classic example was that of the Plebs. At the beginning of the last century, trade union students at Ruskin College in Oxford, rebelled. They were demanding that they be taught the writings of Marx amongst others. Out of this struggle developed the Movement For Independent Working Class Education, and National Labour College Movement.

The Plebs were eventually defeated by the forces of reformism, as the TUC put its efforts into building the WEA, which had backing from the Capitalist State. That is symptomatic of the way independent working-class organisation, and workers property has been undermined, as the Labour Movement has settled for a compromise with its class enemies. Continual efforts at defence have left the Labour Movement devoid of all concept of attack. Despite, Marx's warning huge amounts of energy are devoted into struggles, which at best are marginal in their effect on workers condition.

In concluding his response to John Weston, Marx comments,

“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. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: 'Abolition of the wages system!'...

...Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

The “social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society” were the Workers Co-operatives, and other forms of Workers Property like the the Friendly Societies. The vision of Socialism, even revolutionary socialism today, has become limited not to the transformation of the means of production via workers ownership, but simply a defence of existing, inefficient, bureaucratic state owned capitalist property, and other aspects of Welfarism, alongside an over emphasis on trade union struggle. As with the reformist struggle to change the balance of power within existing society via trade union and political bargaining, it is a struggle which inevitably will be lost, for the same reason.

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