Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Long Wave - Part 21

In Part 20, I set out how it is that, at different points of the cycle, the same economic events can have opposite consequences. As Trotsky points out, where workers have had a long period of development of their organisations, where their confidence is high, because they have had success in making economic advances, a crisis can have a radicalising effect, because workers are forced to confront capital in a more intense manner, than where, during times of economic prosperity, capital is more likely, and more able to make concessions, and where, as Marx and Engels point out, competition between capitals may make the payment of higher wages necessary.

But, under other conditions, a crisis will have the opposite effect. The longer the confrontation continues, the more workers will become demoralised. Rising unemployment will cause competition between the workers to intensify. A comparison could be made here, for example, between the successful British Miners Strikes of 1972 and 1974, and the serious defeat of 1984. 

“In all capitalist countries the working-class movement after the war reached its peak and then ended, as we have seen, in a more or less pronounced failure and retreat, and in disunity within the working class itself. With such political and psychological premises, a prolonged crisis, although it would doubtless act to heighten the embitterment of the working masses (especially the unemployed and semi-employed), would nevertheless simultaneously tend to weaken their activity because this activity is intimately bound up with the workers’ consciousness of their irreplaceable role in production.

Prolonged unemployment following an epoch of revolutionary political assaults and retreats does not at all work in favour of the Communist Party. On the contrary the longer the crisis lasts the more it threatens to nourish anarchist moods on one wing and reformist moods on the other. This fact found its expression in the split of the anarcho-syndicalist groupings from the Third International, in a certain consolidation of the Amsterdam International and the Two-and-a-Half International, in the temporary conglomeration of the Serrati-ites, the split of Levi’s group, and so on. In contrast, the industrial revival is bound, first of all, to raise the self-confidence of the working class, undermined by failures and by the disunity in its own ranks; it is bound to fuse the working class together in the factories and plants and heighten the desire for unanimity in militant actions.”

(Trotsky - Flood Tide) 

But, the period of rapid economic growth can also encourage these ideological strands too, as described above in relation to the period after WWII. The ability to obtain higher wages, and improvements in the social wage, on the one hand, encourages the view that social-democracy can meet the workers needs. On the other hand, this same facility appears to show that workers' immediate concerns, at the workplace level, can be resolved simply on the basis of the kind of syndicalist approach that was the hallmark of organisations such as the IS. But, both offer no political solution for workers, at the point that these economic conditions change. Both rely on a capitalism that continues to expand, in order for these gains to be achievable, or else, it requires that workers will simply shift their consciousness to a revolutionary consciousness, at the point that it cannot!

As Marx put it, 

“Trades Unions work well as centers 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.”

(Value, Price and Profit)

The consequence, is that social-democracy is left continually hoping for an economic improvement, that will enable it to be able to negotiate a few more crumbs from the table for workers, once more, whilst the syndicalists, adopt an opposing stance of catastrophism, of vainly hoping that, at some point, the system will collapse, causing the workers to revolt, and thereby perform the function that their own political action has been unable to achieve! Neither of these alternatives provide workers with a real solution to their problems.

The former is more rational than the latter, however. In the 1980's, I had numerous conversations with SWP comrades, who assured me that the crisis would not end.  But, as Marx makes clear, there are no permanent capitalist crises. Overall, capitalism continues to move to ever higher levels, and so ultimately social democracy is able to ensure that workers living standards do rise. On the other hand, serious economic crises create the conditions not for workers to suddenly arrive at a revolutionary consciousness, but to flock to the banner of conservative and reactionary forces. That happened in the 1930's and 1980's, for example.

Workers do not spontaneously arrive at a revolutionary consciousness, based on repeated industrial struggle. On the contrary, a focus on such a strategy conditions them to accept bourgeois ideology, on the basis of seeing their role as confined within bourgeois property relations. It is not force employed against them by capital, or betrayal by their leaders that prevents workers from liberating themselves, but the fact that capital, by its very operation, results in the actual subordination of wage-labour to capital.

In reproducing itself, capital reproduces wage-labour, and thereby reproduces the property relations upon which that social relation rests. It automatically imbues the workers themselves with a bourgeois consciousness. That can only be broken by establishing new property relations, and social relations within the existing capitalist system, but which represent its negation. As Marx puts 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.”

(Value, Price and Profit) 

In other words, the workers must begin to develop worker-owned and controlled co-operatives.

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