Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Win, Lose or Draw, The Election Changes Nothing Fundamentally

Whatever the result of the election, on Thursday, it will change nothing fundamentally. That's not because “they are all the same”, or because “elections achieve nothing”. There is a difference between the parties, and elections do matter, they do achieve something. But, what they achieve is not something fundamental, what they achieve is to create a different framework within which the rest of us operate. For a Marxist, real change only comes when the majority of the working-class themselves bring it about, and that requires a change within the working-class itself, alongside a fundamental change in property relations, which no change of government can bring. What a change of government brings is a change of the framework, within which our ability to take control of our lives, and to bring about that fundamental change in our class and property relations is made either easier or harder.

Take, for example, the introduction of the Minimum Wage. Has it changed anything fundamentally? Absolutely, not. Workers still have to work for capital, and because they have to work for capital, they are exploited. They provide some labour for free. Only if workers themselves owned the means of production would they not have to work for capital, thereby ending their exploitation. The Minimum Wage changes something; it means that they are perhaps not as exploited as they were. But, our objection to capitalism is not that it causes poverty or that it causes low wages. In fact, neither of those claims are particularly true. Over time, capitalism has reduced global poverty, because it has brought about a rise in production and wealth unheard of before in human history, and for the same reason, real wages have also risen. As Marx put it, in opposing such crude ideas on the part of the Lassalleans, and the “Iron Law of Wages”,

“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!”

Whereas the actual problem is not this low level, but that,

“... the system of wage labour is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.”

(Critique of the Gotha Programme)

The importance of the Minimum Wage is not that it resolves workers problems of low pay, but that it provides workers with a framework to take measures to resolve that problem themselves. In the last five years, despite the law, only five firms were prosecuted for not implementing it. The same thing could be said about Health and Safety Law. More than 150 years after the first Factory Acts were introduced, hundreds of workers still die at work each year. Many more suffer overwork and poor conditions. Clearly, simply passing a law does not solve workers problems for them, and nor is simply employing more state inspectors of those laws the answer either, because not only do they still face the problem of not being everywhere all the time, of limited sanctions in the courts and so on, but when the interests of capital dictate it, their numbers and powers will be reduced anyway.

The importance of all these acts is not that they resolve workers problems. The answer still resides with workers themselves. The answer is for tens of millions of workers to join trades unions, and to play an active role within them. That way, each worker, armed with a knowledge of their rights under those laws, themselves becomes a factory inspector, a regulator of whether employers are abiding by Minimum Pay laws, and so on. Once again, what government is in power makes that easier or harder for workers to achieve, because those governments can pass legislation that make it harder or easier for trades unions to operate and to attract members.

But, we should not over egg that pudding. We are not dealing with the kind of situation that faced workers under the 18th century Combination Acts, or that faced the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is not fear of imprisonment or transportation that stops workers joining trades unions today, still less of playing an active role in those unions. In large part, the reason resides in an ideology that has developed that the answers to our problems does reside in actions taken by someone else on our behalf, whether it is a trade union negotiator, or a politician, or the state. It is not a change of government or law that is required to change that, but a change within ourselves as workers, and amongst our class, back to the same kinds of ideas of self-reliance, self-activity and self-government that motivated Marx in opposition to the statist socialists of the type of Lassalle, or the Fabians.

One of the reasons that workers do not engage in trades unions, is that identified by Marx and Engels themselves, which is that the very operation of capitalism, as a system based upon market competition, necessarily sets one worker against another, as individuals, just as it sets workers in one firm against those in another in the same industry, one industry against another, one town against another, one region against another, and one nation against another, which is the material foundation of powerful and divisive ideologies such as nationalism. When times are good, that competition is lessened, workers are better able to join together, and employers are more prepared anyway to pay higher wages. But, it is precisely when economic times get hard that this competition increases, and workers are themselves compelled to assert their own individual interests against those of their fellow workers. As Engels put it,

“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 - Condition of The Working Class in England p 243)

For so long as capitalism continues, those fluctuations in the economic cycle will continue, and workers will continually be thrown into competition with each other. Only if workers, themselves own the means of production, can they begin to break that cycle. 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. 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!"”

(Value, Price and Profit)

And its for this reason that the statists and Fabians, which today includes most of the left, including many of those that call themselves Marxists or revolutionaries, offer no solution to workers, but only feed into this crippling ideology that encourages workers to see their salvation in the actions of someone else. Those who put forward the idea that workers problems could be resolved by a Labour government, or some other government nationalising the commanding heights of the economy on behalf of this working-class show that from a Marxist perspective they have simply lost the plot. As Anton Pannokeok put it,

“Public ownership is the program of “friends” of the workers who for the hard exploitation of private capitalism wish to substitute a milder modernized exploitation. Common ownership is the program of the working class itself, fighting for self liberation….”

( Public Ownership and Common Ownership)

We have after all seen it before.  In neither the Stalinist States, nor in the nationalised industries of Western Europe, was any of this state owned property controlled by workers.  The state in both cases would not have allowed such control by workers, but it could get away with that, because in both cases, it is first required that workers themselves must be able and willing, let alone demand to exercise such control.  Given that currently, few workers are even prepared to join a trade union, or take an active part in it, or to find out anything about the politicians who seek their votes, let alone to take an active part in politics themselves, there is no logical reason why anyone should believe that a left-wing government that nationalised all and sundry would be flooded with demands from workers to exercise such control either! 

Over the course of the election, I have heard the well worn refrain from people that they do not intend to vote, or that they intend to spoil their vote, because all politicians are the same and so on. Okay, don't vote, or spoil your vote. In that case, you will have had no say in that aspect of your future, and those who have voted will then have a say in their own future and in yours. They will deserve it, however they have voted, for having made at least that minimal commitment that you could not.

You say that all politicians are the same. In many ways I agree with you. But, in that case, join a political party and change it, or get together with others and create a new political party. If you are a racist, join UKIP and make it more racist, if it currently doesn't meet your requirements; if you are a Tory and Cameron is not enough like Boris Johnson, join the Tories and help Boris become leader; if you're a Liberal they will be glad to have you, or anyone else; or if you are a socialist and Ed is not Red enough, join Labour and make them redder. But, whatever you do, for God's sake stop whining on about other people not meeting your requirements, and start doing something about meeting them yourself.

If you were worried that your house might be burgled, or your car stolen, you wouldn't wait for someone else to resolve that problem for you. You'd find out the best way to secure them and take action. Why do you expect someone to look after your life for you, if you can't be arsed to take responsibility for it yourself, even with the most minimal involvement, such as learning something about politics, voting, or joining a trade union?

You say that voting changes nothing. Again, in many ways I agree with you, as set out above. But, the answer to that is not to abstain from voting. Its to vote for people who will at least make the conditions for actually changing things fundamentally easier, rather than harder, its to get involved in political organisations so as to create parties that will more closely reflect that need, and, more fundamentally, it is to get involved yourself in changing the actual conditions under which your life is lived.

If you are a worker join a trade union and take an active part in it; if you are a tenant join with other tenants to form a tenants association, to begin to take control of your properties; begin to join with other residents to take control of your community. If the firm you work for is facing closure, don't expect someone else to deal with that situation for you, look at ways of taking it over and turning it into a worker owned co-operative that you can combine with other co-operatives across the country and across Europe.

In other words, as workers, its time to end this cretinous reliance on someone else, and begin to realise that the future is ours to create, no one else will do it for us.

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