Friday, 9 December 2016

French Elections

All of the media coverage, of the upcoming French Presidential Elections, is based on the assumption of a run-off between François Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the neo-fascist Front National. The assumption, and the media coverage, is then geared to the notion that all right-thinking people will rally to the banner of the Republicans, as a lesser-evil to a win by Le Pen. Socialists, in France, should not be swayed by such short-term electoral concerns.

In fact, the reason that this situation, presenting such unpalatable options, exists is that voters got fed up of centre-ground politicians, who based themselves on short-term electoral considerations, triangulating themselves into clones of each, presenting only marginal differences, and increasingly basing their appeal, therefore, not on advocacy of any set of ideologically defined principles, but merely on personality politics, spin and presentation, as though they were nothing more than a packet of soap powder to be sold to consumers. .

That has long been the case in US politics, exacerbated by its Presidential system, its use of open primaries, which reduce the role of party members to mere foot-soldiers, cannon-fodder in the electoral process, and why no potential candidate has a chance of winning without billions of dollars behind them to fund their advertising campaign.

It became increasingly the case, in Britain, in the 1980's, starting with Kinnock, who set his goal as being the destruction of the Labour Party, in order to substitute the Parliamentary Labour Party for it, and to turn the PLP into a pale imitation of the Tories purely to achieve electoral success. It turned the notion of a political career into its logical culmination – the notion that a party exists for no other reason than to allow a handful of career politicians, all from the same elite, to obtain lucrative life-time careers.

That assumed its most developed form under Blair and Brown, but a good illustration of it is now being witnessed. The Tories under Theresa May are stealing one policy after another from Ed Miliband, and from Labour's 2015 Manifesto. Those same policies were described by the Tories, and the Tory media as “anti-business”, and often nothing short of Marxism, when presented by Miliband in 2015. Across the ocean, Mitt Romney who only a few weeks ago was describing Trump as a phony, is now actively considering taking up the job of US Secretary of State, in a Trump government. And they wonder why people have no time for politicians?

They were able to get away with it by playing the man not the ball. Political culture has become so debased and corroded by this commoditisation of politics, over the last thirty years, that large numbers of voters are unable to think critically about any of these issues, because during all that time there has been nothing to assess critically, in the offerings of the parties, other than how well they can dress up the candidates and their manifestos. Moreover, many of the traditional means of undertaking such critical assessments via discussion have broken down.

In the past, in a factory, it was still possible for workers to talk to each other, as they sat at their bench, or stood in the assembly lines. In an engineering workshop, like that my father worked in, the craftsmen would be able to set up their milling machine, lathe etc., and then allow it to do its work, giving them a few minutes to talk so that the discussion of politics mingled with the discussion of all other aspects of everyday life.

Those discussiona would continue in large communal works' canteens, over dinner breaks; for the more active, they would continue at union branch meetings, and similar discussions would take place, at night, in the pub or club, over the wall in the backyards of terraced houses, and so on. By these means political ideas were developed and fed down, and put into the kind of language that ordinary workers could relate to. But, much of that has gone. Some of it is due to the changed nature of the labour process, some to the reduction in trades union activity and organisation, some to the changed nature of communities, and some to the fact that parties became nothing more than electoral machines, to be rolled out every few years, and whose representative in the community was reduced to a disembodied voice at the end of a phone line, cold-calling them to vote for their candidate, in the same way that they are bothered by someone calling about PPI mis-selling.

Voters are thereby turned into passive consumers, only able to choose from a range of cloned alternatives that fit into the same Overton window, for the same reasons that Game Theory indicates leads to car makers all making near identical cars, for each range. Voters, as mere passive consumers play no effective role in determining the polity within which those choices are framed. That role has become the prerogative of that elite of career politicians, and the mass media for whom it is nothing more than entertainment, to which they seek audiences, via sensationalism and gossip.

But, after 2008, it became increasingly clear that the centre-ground had no solutions for the problems that the majority of society faced. It was not that the centre-ground had solutions prior to 2008 either, but that the fact they had no solutions did not matter so long as the majority in society perceived their position to be improving, more or less, year on year.

After 2008, it became clear that was not going to be the case, as centre-ground politicians could only offer the majority endless austerity and freezes of their wages.

The last time such a situation arose was the late 1970's and early 1980's. It led to a series of large scale social conflicts, across the globe. And that is significant, because the French Republican candidate, Fillon, is being described as a French Maggie Thatcher. Conservative politicians and pundits see that as a good thing, because they see the problems of France deriving from the fact that it did not undergo the same kind of deregulation and diminution of workers' rights that Thatcher pushed through in Britain. French workers are being presented with a choice between Fillon and Le Pen, which effectively is no choice at all, in terms of the attack on their basic rights. It would be like being asked to choose between death by hanging or death by poison, and French workers should refuse to accept such a choice.

Firstly, Thatcher's 'revolution' in Britain clearly did not resolve the problems of British capitalism. Rather, it created their specific manifestation. So, the policy of de-industrialisation, of the creation of a low-wage, credit driven economy, created the conditions that existed in 2008, which caused it to be particularly hard hit by a credit crunch and financial crisis. The same was true of the US, as a consequence of the similar policies adopted by Reagan in the 1980's.

It was not that Thatcher and Reagan had solutions to the problems of the 1980's, but that the policies they pursued simply disguised the problem. They did not provide a basis for significantly raising social wealth, as the foundation for sustainably raising living standards. On the contrary, they, in large part, destroyed the basis of raising social wealth, which is why wages in both countries, for large portions of the population, remained stagnant, whilst, for other significant portions of the population, in those decaying urban areas, left derelict as a result of de-industrialisation, wages actually fell.

Thatcher and Reagan did not provide a solution to this problem of falling living standards, they merely disguised it, by freeing up credit. In a sense its fitting. The Tory Party is the party of the old landed aristocracy, and of the financial oligarchy, and the Republican Party is its US equivalent. The old landed aristocracy, in its decline, was renowned for such an approach. They continued to finance their consumption, not by raising their income, but by borrowing against their assets, i.e. their landed estates.

The Tories and Republicans have done the same. Marx in Capital also describes the way, the bankers, and the Tory politicians influenced by them, see interest-bearing capital as generating revenue, interest, almost magically, in the same way that a pear tree naturally produces pears. They became entranced by the power of compound interest, without asking where the surplus came from that enabled such interest to be paid. One of the first things that Thatcher was accused of was “selling the family silver”, as they privatised state assets to cover their debts. Instead of modernising the economy, investing in the country's infrastructure, and creating a modern, well-educated working-class, Thatcher did the opposite.

With almost unbounded revenues from North Sea Oil and Gas, which would have allowed Thatcher to fix Britain's roof whilst the sun was shining, by rebuilding its decaying roads, rail, schools and hospitals. Instead, she used the revenues to finance attacks on the Trades Unions in line with the Ridley Plan, and to finance mass unemployment, so as to break workers' resistance, and push down wages.

But, 2008, was the signal that this option had now run out. In the years after 2008, central banks did what they could to extend it, and thereby protect the fictitious wealth of the private money-capitalists, but now even the central banks are admitting they have run out of ammunition.

Across the globe, economic reality is asserting itself. Real wealth comes from increasing the mass of use values produced, capitalist wealth comes from increasing the mass of capital, and that requires an expansion of the mass of surplus value, which in turn arises only either by expanding the amount of labour-power employed, or by raising the level of productivity, which requires significant investment in new technologies.

“Given the necessary means of production, i.e. , a sufficient accumulation of capital, the creation of surplus-value is only limited by the labouring population if the rate of surplus-value, i.e. , the intensity of exploitation, is given; and no other limit but the intensity of exploitation if the labouring population is given.” (Capital III, Chapter 15) 

Even in terms of a short-term electoral success, therefore, Fillon offers no real alternative to Le Pen. The reason that large numbers of people in Britain's left behind communities voted for Brexit is because the policies of Thatcher, in the 1980's, continued by Major and Blair in the 1990's and early 2000's, created the conditions in which they lived, seeing some sections of the population enjoying rapidly rising paper wealth, whilst their own future looked dismal, especially as the Tories, after 2010, imposed austerity and pay cuts, whilst a timid Labour Party, under Miliband, had offered only austerity lite.

The same factors in the US led to the election of Trump. The same factors have opened the door for Le Pen.

But, all these “solutions”, be it Trump or Brexit, or Le Pen, are no solutions at all. And, that is not just because economic and political realities will neuter them. Trump has already rowed back on many of his election pledges, covered by yet more inane statements, and the appointment of hard-right politicians to his Cabinet. Brexit is already postponed for at least two years, and may yet not happen. But, even were Trump to implement his election rhetoric, it would fail.

The coal and steel industry jobs in the US are not going to return, no matter what import controls the US applies. For one thing, other countries will respond by imposing controls on US imports. But, aside from that, for US companies to be competitive, they need cheap materials and energy. The biggest threat to US coal jobs comes not from foreign coal mines, and foreign coal miners, but from US produced shale oil and gas, and from the growing green energy production in the US. US coal producers seeking to be competitive will threaten US coal jobs via the introduction of new mining technologies that increasingly reduces the requirement for mining labour to near zero.

Only a few years ago, the US imposed import controls on EU steel, and the result was that US car makers, and other US producers that relied on steel, had to buy the now more expensive US produced steel. They then found themselves increasingly uncompetitive in the global markets. A handful of coal and steel jobs, in the US, were temporarily saved, at the expense of putting many more US industrial jobs at risk.

Britain will find similar problems with Brexit. In some ways, this is a repetition of what happened in Greece. An alternation of centre ground governments, PASOK followed by New Democracy, came and went, offering no real solutions, and were both swept aside by Syriza. The same is happening in Spain. But, differently to Trump, or Brexit, Syriza actually did offer policies, still within the limits of capitalism, that could have worked. They were not socialist policies, but merely old style, post-war social democratic policies, the kind of policies upon which the EU was founded, and which are fundamental to the operation of modern socialised capital. But, over the last thirty years, conservative politicians have achieved dominance reflecting the interests not of real capital, but of purely fictitious capital, of paper wealth as against real productive wealth. Those politicians, that have been responsible for printing money to keep paper assets inflated, whilst implementing austerity to destroy real wealth, and productive potential have acted to prevent the introduction of social democratic measures to save capitalism from itself, and in the process they have created the conditions for the rise of the far right, and right-wing populism that threatens to blow apart the post-war developments, to reintroduce national antagonisms, and the threat of war.

In a variation of the process in Greece and Spain, the centre-ground politicians in the Labour Party were swept aside by Corbynism, whilst its purest representation, the Liberals, were destroyed as a political party. The movement behind Bernie Sanders, in the US, represents the same process. There are also indications of similar movements across Europe, such as with the Left Bloc in Portugal.

France has been different, in this case. Hollande did the usual thing of centre-ground politicians who talk left, and then act right. That is why the Presidential Election has been turned into a two-horse race between Fillon and Le Pen. Part of the reason may be that there has always been a sizeable left outside the Socialist Party. Indeed, for a long-time, the French Stalinist Party was the main representative of French workers. The various left sects, such as Lutte Ouvriere, and the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire were also able to put up a better showing in France's two-stage, proportional representation system, over the years, than their British counterparts could ever hope.

It may be that election defeat for the socialists may act as a spur for a realignment of the left, as happened in Greece, and Spain. Or it may lead to the emergence of a new left within the Socialist Party itself, as happened with Corbynism within Labour, and with Bernie Sanders in the US Democrats.

What the left should not do is to accommodate to all of those reactionary sentiments within the more backward sections of the working-class, which have provided the electoral base of Trump, of Farage, and the Brexiteers, and for a range of right-wing populists, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, and nationalist and neo-fascist parties like the FN in France.

Such a tendency towards accommodation can be seen by some Labour MP's, who want to restrict immigration, but that kind of nationalist accommodation has also characterised Stalinists and their fellow-travellers, in the past. That applies also to the French Stalinists around Melonchon.

Although the left sects, in France, are larger and have fared better than their English counterparts, they remain political sects. Marxists always have to deal with reality. Our main focus is the unity of the working-class, as a global class. But, within each country, we aim at maintaining and extending that unity. As Engels put it to the US socialists.

“….It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than "durch Schaden klug tererden" [to learn by one's own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.” 

When the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries split the workers movement, after 1914, they did so under specific conditions. Firstly, a World War was underway, and the leaders of the workers movement had failed to resist the tide of national chauvinism that engulfed the working-class of every nation. At the same time, a large number of socialists were breaking away from that leadership, and, after 1917, it looked as though revolutions were about to sweep the globe, which would require a decisive leadership, to be successful.

In some countries, nearly the whole of the old socialist party transformed itself into a communist party affiliated to the Third International, a fact that itself was a weakness in the way the International itself came into existence. As Lenin puts it, the truth is always concrete, and in these conditions, of a large scale movement of workers from the old workers' parties to some new formation, the truth resides in the pace and scale of this movement.

The same was true of the break of the British workers from the Liberal Party, in order to establish the Labour Party. The Fabians opposed that move, and initially, the Labour Party could offer no immediate alternative to the Liberals, as a means of obtaining legislative reforms. Yet, it was clear from the scale and speed of movement of workers to the Labour Party, that to continue to oppose such a move was to be constrained by formalism rather than to view reality dialectically, in terms of process and dynamic.

Engels had advised his followers to shun the sects, such as the ILP and the SDF, and to relate directly to workers within the Liberal Clubs, and that has a direct parallel today. There is a world of difference between the sects that perennially declare the formation of a new Workers Party, and who, just as often fail to attract the workers to their banner, which is what Engels was warning against, and a situation where the working-class itself breaks dramatically from the old organisations and the old ideas. The difference is being illustrated again with the way the sects who represent nothing and no one, today use their sharp elbows to take over a more or less spontaneous movement like Momentum, to pursue their own sectarian interests, and, as always, thereby, act to destroy such organisations.

Even after the Communist Parties had been established, the revolutionaries had to try to speed up the process of the transfer of workers from the old reformist parties to the communist parties, and that was why they formulated the tactic of the United Front. Yet, the difference between then and now is stark. Look at what Trotsky said in discussing the United Front tactic.

It was, he said, only relevant where the Communist Party already had around 30-40% of the working-class marching behind its banner. If they had less support than that there would be no reason for the reformists to negotiate with them. If the CP had a majority of workers already supporting them, and the direction of travel was in their favour, there was no reason to do deals with the reformists.

Yet, today, nowhere do the sects have anything like such support, and their existence, separated from the real workers parties, is a sectarian extravagance driven often by the egos of the leaders of those sects. That does not mean that Marxists have to mechanically demand that socialists stick with the traditional workers parties, however. It would be ridiculous to demand continued adherence to PASOK in Greece, for example! The truth is always concrete.

But, there seems no equivalent, yet, in France, of Syriza or Podemos. The main left alternative, around Melonchon, suffers from the old influences of nationalism, at a time when socialists need, more than ever, to resist the lure of nationalist solutions, and instead to be promoting the idea of EU wide workers solutions, and internationalism, as part of a fight to forge a different kind of Europe.

For now, therefore, Marxists should advise work in the French Socialist Party, throughout the coming months. As I suggested some months ago, in relation to the US Presidential Election, such activity should not be understood in simple electoral terms, as being about a desire for a socialist electoral victory, still less a victory based upon lesser-evilism. The basis of the work should be about building the kind of workers unity described above, a unity based upon an honest reckoning of the weaknesses of the policies pursued in the last four years, and the weaknesses still represented by the programme of the Socialist Party. Our task is to use the elections to gain the ear of the widest number of workers, and in the first instance, the most advanced workers, for such a discussion of those deficiencies, and how to overcome them.

We say, vote Socialist despite Hollande's record, and begin the process of building the alternative to it. Marxists should propose a vote for the Socialist Party, in the first round, and, if the choice is between Fillon and Le Pen, in the final round, we should advise an active abstention. It is not our job to advise a vote for one reactionary candidate as against the other. If it were, we would end up advising a vote for Le Pen, if she were the lesser-evil compared to some even more reactionary alternative! 

The reality is, and Hollande's Presidency over the last four years shows it, whoever wins, our message to the French workers is the same, organise to defend yourselves. Over the last four years, Hollande has followed the line of other conservative politicians across the EU, like Merkel, of imposing austerity, when, even in the interests of European productive-capital, what were required was measures of fiscal expansion, of investment in modernising and productivity raising infrastructure, in increasing education and training etc. Such measures would have saved economies like Greece, Spain and Portugal and so on from the devastating destruction of capital, which austerity imposed on them. It would also have prevented the rise of right-wing populists like Le Pen that have rode the wave of popular anger that the austerity and decay has brought about.

Hollande has stood aside, knowing he had no chance of winning, but it currently looks likely that the Socialist Party will choose some other Blairite as their candidate. Such clones have no chance of winning support from the French workers, any more than a search for a mythical centre-ground has proved fruitful for the British Labour Party, for Pasok, the British Liberals, or Clinton in the US. For now, workers have to rely not on some elected saviour coming to their rescue, but on their own strength to resist, and to push forward their interests wherever the conditions allow. In future, having rebuilt our organisations, on that basis, we will be in a better position to push forward better political representatives to help us in that endeavour.

No comments: