Thursday, 15 February 2018

Snakes and Magpies

A couple of weeks ago, on Peston On Sunday, GOD, otherwise known as Lord Gus O'Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, described some of the proponents of Brexit as “snake-oil salesmen”. He was responding to the statements of people like Jacob Rees Mogg, and Steve Baker, who had responded to the release of civil service analysis of the effects of Brexit with outrage, and a challenge to the impartiality of the analysis they had undertaken. The attacks, GOD said, were an alternative to the Brexiters having to actually put up a detailed, and reasoned argument against the analysis that civil servants had provided. They could not do the latter, because like snake oil sellers, what the Brexiters had been selling was not defensible on the basis of a resort to facts. 

And, in fact, we have seen that throughout the Brexit debate before and after the referendum. Throughout the referendum campaign Brexiters like Boris Johnson threw out all of these statements about how much money went each week to the EU, that time and again were shown themselves to be false, and yet on the basis of that claim he told gullible buyers of his snake oil, that this money would go to the NHS, if Britain left the EU. Of course, not only was the figure of how much money would be available wrong, but there was never any prospect that the £365 million a week would go to the NHS, as has been seen in the period since. 

In fact, even just as a result of the Brexit vote, the UK economy has lost around £365 million a week, due to growth being lower than it would have been. In addition, we have seen lots of the EU nurses and doctors, on which the NHS relies, going back home, and a 90% drop in the number thinking of coming. Even a cursory examination of the facts shows that the arguments put by the Brexiters were indefensible, on the basis of the facts. That is why, as GOD, sets out the Brexiters prefer to resort to a call to shut down debate. They have done it throughout, for example, with their attempt to prevent parliament discussing the Brexit Bill, preventing Parliament having a meaningful vote on the deal, or no deal, and so on. 

But, this tendency is something seen increasingly. Over the last few years, we have seen the Safe Spaces Movement in Universities, which is an insult to all of those workers and democrats who over centuries fought for the right to free speech, and open discussion. The tactic of “No Platform for Fascists”, was developed to deal with the specific nature of fascism, as a violent movement designed to break apart labour movement organisations, and gatherings, and which sought thereby to silence its own opponents. Even then, that policy was not applied mechanically. On occasions, where they could do so, communists openly debated against fascists, and in some cases with success, winning militant, but misguided workers, away from the fascists, and into the camp of the revolution. The demand was never intended to be used as a means of silencing even racists, as opposed to fascists, because, however objectionable their views might be, the right way to deal with racists, and racist views is through open and rational debate, not by adopting the same undemocratic tactics as the fascists. 

The growth of the Safe Spaces Movement is a reflection of a growing authoritarian and illiberal attitude, whereby the proponents of views are unable to justify them, and so congregate in “safe spaces” populated only by others who already agree with them, with a protectionist wall of censorship erected around it, so that the safe spaces become merely ghettoes, of stagnant dogmas, which in itself increases the sense of identity, and intolerance to others, and an inability to think rationally for oneself, and so to respond to alternative views with an increasing degree of intolerance, and authoritarianism. 

It is easier to brand your opponents “misogynists”, or “anti-Semites” or to demand a retraction of the comments of John McDonnell in relation to Esther McVey, because they supposedly invited others to lynch her, than to actually deal with the substantive content of what McDonnell and others were saying about the actually damaging consequences of the policies that McVey had been supporting. Now we see that the government are proposing an Extremism Tsar (perhaps not the best choice of designation for such a post), whose role will be to look at how “extremist” views can be countered, and we have already seen what this means by the various calls by government ministers for Internet censorship. 

The reason that Marxists have opposed calls for state bans of fascists and others, is precisely because the capitalist state will always justify such bans initially on the basis of defending society from violent attacks, but having opened the door to such bans, the capitalist state then always turns that power into an attack on the rights and liberties of socialists, and workers. How long before an Extremism Tsar, as with Trump's comments, in the US, a few weeks ago, simply equates the views and actions of Neo-Nazis, or Islamist terrorists, with the ideas and actions of those, anti-fascists and socialists who actually confront them? How long before, the ideas of Marxism, or even just progressive social-democracy are branded as “extremist” by a conservative government moving increasingly in a reactionary direction, as it attempts to reconcile all of the contradictions, and damaging consequences of Brexit? After all, we have seen the way the Tories have already tried to link the progressive social-democratic agenda of Corbyn and McDonnell to Marxism, and to Hamas, Hezbollah, the IRA and so on. 

Paul Mason has also recently discussed some of these issues. As he correctly points out that having failed to actually tackle the reactionary ideas underpinning various forms of bigotry, neo-liberalism, or what I would call conservative social-democracy, instead settled for simply outlawing the discussion of those ideas. 

“When it worked, it encouraged something inside business and politics that I call performative neoliberalism. Everyone performs, as in a play: so long as your department meets its quota for hiring black people or women, nobody cares what is in your head. You can actually believe, as large numbers of young American men do, that sexually liberated women are participating in the oppresion of so-called Beta Males. … 

Neoliberal economics encouraged the creation of multiple false personalities, whereby the real beliefs of people were never questioned, never placed under the stress of collective discussion. So as long as I meet the criteria for fair employment practice at work, privately I can hate everybody I am hiring.” 

As I pointed out recently, this kind of conservative protectionism, of erecting walls around identities, is also mirrored economically in the attempt to erect protectionist walls around countries and industries, which is the basis of the kind of economic nationalism of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, but also of some on the Left such as with Melonchon, or the increasing calls for state intervention within ranks of Corbyn's supporters. 

And, this kind of identity politics, of the sealing off of small communities into these ideological, self-defined ghettoes, is also precisely what characterises the various left micro-sects, and those influenced by them. GOD pointed out that the politicians who today criticise civil servants for producing economic analyses they don't like, are the same politicians who say nothing about that civil service when it is producing analysis, or ideas they do like. A decade or so ago, I had the same experience when I was invited to write a blog for the AWL. For several months, I had been writing numerous and lengthy comments in general support of the AWL's position on a range of issues, all of which were welcomed by that organisation, whose predecessors – the WSL and I-CL – I had belonged to between 1974 and 1987. But, when in a number of my blog posts, I started to disagree with the AWL's position in relation to the class nature of the soviet state, in relation to Iraq, and in relation to Venezuela, the AWL suddenly decided that my posts were no longer desirable. 

In previous times, the AWL's predecessors had analysed the nature of bureaucratic centrism as being one in which the positions of the organisation are characterised by a series of zig-zags, as it responds to each event, each time having to justify why its position has changed by 180 degrees. Examples, are of the change in position of the Stalinist Comintern to the sectarianism of the Third Period, followed by its adoption of the Popular Front, but the same kinds of turns can be seen in the cases of other organisations such as with the change of position of groups like the SWP and Militant in relation to the Common Market, or to Ireland. The actual change of position cannot be justified by any resort to facts or logic, without the leadership of the organisation admitting that its previous position was wrong. So, the organisation simply closes down debate, and acts to censor those who point out the inconsistency. A similar thing can be seen over the last decade or so with the AWL's position over the Labour Party, one minute describing it as a stinking corpse, and disastrously standing candidates against it, and the next denying all knowledge of holding such a stance, as it tries to ride the bandwagon of Corbyn's success. 

And I have recently experienced an even more extreme version of this phenomenon. For some time I have had on my blogroll a link to an Australian website called Magpie's Asymmetric Warfare. Its not a site I have frequently visited, but recently I noticed a blog post that talked about how global capitalism was going to hell in a hand cart, and how things were going pear shaped, even compared with the situation ten years ago. This kind of argument is common fare amongst a section of the Left – and indeed is mirrored on the right amongst anarcho-capitalists, as well as amongst the nationalists and populists of the Trump variety, not to mention the fascists, who continually pray for some such catastrophe of global capitalism, in the hope that it will result in the impoverished masses flooding to their doors. 

What makes such catastrophist nonsense so ridiculous at the present time is not only that Marx intellectually exposed its bankruptcy 150 years ago, but that having been able to point, during the last ten years, since the Financial Crisis, to a period of slow growth which they have variously described as “The Long Depression”, or “Secular Stagnation”, “The Great Recession” and so on, the world economy currently is expanding at a pace not seen since before the 2008 Financial Crisis. Many parts of the global economy are growing at rates not seen since the period of economic boom that arose after 1999. In fact, 90% of the world's economies are now growing at above trend rates of growth.  You might think that the proponents of these catastrophist theories would then consider the validity of their analysis and arguments, but instead they simply double down in their denial of reality, and in their hostility to those that point out that reality to them 

Even during the period after 2008, as I have set out in many posts, since that time, despite all of these above apocalyptic descriptions, despite all of the claims that “the next recession” was just around the corner, and when it failed to materialise, its onset was simply put back for another year, and another year after that, the fact has been that the majority of the world's economies have not been in recession. That is despite the fact that in the EU, and UK there were deliberate attempts to hold back economic growth with policies of austerity, whilst the policy of QE, encouraged money-capital to leave the real economy in favour of speculation in financial and other assets, so as to reflate them, and thereby restore the paper wealth of the capitalist class that now holds its private wealth almost exclusively in that form. 

Accordingly, I wrote a brief comment to that effect pointing out that, in fact, the global economy was growing, that economies in Africa, in a number of countries were industrialising as they had done in Asia thirty years ago, for example, Ethiopia, once a place known only for its famines, has been growing at 10% p.a. for more than the last ten years, and I pointed out that, in fact, the current falls on stock and bond markets are a consequence of the renewed economic growth, as the demand for money-capital increases causing interest rates to rise. The blog owner responded in a rather flippant manner, without actually dealing with any of the points made. 

So, I responded again that on every metric from literacy, to life expectancy, to health, to infant mortality, a growing number of the world's population are seeing improvements, and have seen improvements even over the last ten years. I was amazed that this comment was then deleted. What was more surprising is that no reason for doing so was given other than to read the comments policy, but having done so found that nothing in the comment breached that policy! And, when I asked for an explanation none was forthcoming other than 

“"My word is law and final". Or, as my grandfather used to say: "My house, my rules". It's up to me, and up to me alone, to determine when my rules have been breached.” 

I responded in return, 

“However, whilst I accept that its up to you to make the rules, there is surely a requirement that the rules should be easily understood by everyone, and that they be applied consistently rather than arbitrarily, otherwise we end up with a repetition of the Stalinist system of making up rules as and when.” 

Note this statement otherwise we end up with a repetition of the Stalinist system of making up rules as and when.” (emphasis added), because it was later to be used to argue that I was accusing the Magpie of being a Stalinist, which clearly is not what it says. 

The Magpie having made this leap to the charge that I had accused him of being a Stalinist, responded to the point about Ethiopia, but does so without actually dealing with the argument, and also throws in a comment about him not reflecting the standpoint of the “aristocracy of labour”, which again is a response to a comment I had never made! 

Still having not received any kind of guidelines about what constituted a comment that breached the comments policy, nor any commitment that any further comments would not be deleted will-nilly, I submitted a comment reiterating the thrust of my original comment that had been deleted, and also dealing with the response to my point about Ethiopia. The comment split into two, can be seen in that thread. No further response, and so no further rational debate, or development of ideas was made to it. Instead, a new post appeared, which when read is clearly intended to respond to the point I had made in the previous thread, in which the development of countries such as Ethiopia, China etc. should be seen in the light of Marx's comment about capitalism rescuing millions from the idiocy of rural life. 

This comment was published, but rather than provoking a reasoned reply, it provoked only a further accusation of breaching the still undefined “comments policy”, and a decision to ban me from commenting! The heinous crime I was apparently guilty of was that having previously accused the Magpie of being a Stalinist, I had now made a personal attack on him by criticising his argument as Sismondist! A moment's thought shows just how ridiculous that response is, because if I disagree with the ideas put forward by anyone, and criticise them accordingly for being wrong, that could likewise be characterised as a personal attack on them, because the ideas they hold in their heads cannot be distinguished from them as a person! It is precisely the approach discussed at the start of this post, whereby any criticism of ideas cannot be tolerated, and so the capacity to confront ideas by rational debate is abandoned in favour of censorship, of throwing up a protectionist wall around the given identity/community. 

I had been intending to write a series on Lenin and Economic Romanticism. The question occupied a large part of Lenin's writings in the 1890's, and early 1900's, including his opus The Development of Capitalism In Russia. By Economic Romanticism Lenin means the Sismondist ideas that were being purveyed by the Narodniks. Towards the end of last year, I eventually got round to starting to write up notes for this forthcoming series, which I hope to publish later this year. In one of these works, Lenin refers to the ideas put forward by one of the Narodnik writers as not only Sismondist, but objectively reactionary. In a footnote, Lenin says that, in describing these ideas as reactionary, he was in no way calling the proponent of those ideas reactionary, and in fact, the individual concerned, like many of the Narodniks, had a proud history of revolutionary activity. 

I don't know if the Magpie has a proud history of revolutionary activity or not. All I can address are the ideas he presents in his blog posts. If I point out that X was drunk yesterday, it does not mean that I am calling X a drunk, i.e. that being drunk is a permanent characteristic of their behaviour; if I say that immigration controls or import controls are racist, because they implicitly blame foreigners for economic woes, that does not mean that I am calling every proponent of immigration controls, or import controls a racist. If I say that a particular argument is Sismondist, it does not mean that I am saying that the proponent of that idea is a Sismondist, rather than a Marxist. 

But, even having pointed out the nature of Sismodism, its clear in the Magpie's attempt at a response that they really do not grasp the point. I suppose it should be no surprise that a magpie should see things in only black and white, but it is precisely that deficiency that Marx sets out in relation to Sismondism. The Magpie points to the story of the condition of Chinese workers employed by Foxconn, and concludes that this damns capitalism absolutely. But, it was precisely that approach of Sismondism that Marx criticised. The fact that the conditions of Foxconn workers are deplorable, just as the conditions of millions of British workers during the Industrial Revolution were deplorable does not mean that their previous condition was better! Nor does it mean, as Marx points out in criticising Sismondi, that this deplorable condition is not a necessary cost extracted by history, as the price of human development, and the creation of the potential for Socialism. 

Its interesting that Marx, in Theories of Surplus Value, sets out the fact that the ideas of Sismondi in this respect had the same root as those of the catastrophist Malthus, except that Sismondi was led down that reactionary path out of a sense of concern for the workers, whereas Malthus had no concern for the workers, and only a concern to protect the interests of the landed aristocracy whose paid servant he was. 

For Marx and Engels, the dissolution of the primitive commune, and the establishment of slave societies was historically progressive, despite the fact that for millions of human beings, who were enslaved as a consequence, life took a decisive turn for the worst. It was historically progressive precisely because no further social progress was possible on the basis of the productive and social relations that existed within the primitive commune. It is a similar point that they make in relation to the forcible dissolution of the village commune in India and elsewhere, by colonialism, as being the only true social revolution that such societies had experienced. Without the break-up of those communes, no social progress was possible, no accumulation and centralisation of the means of production was possible, no use of the social surplus for the development of science and technology, and ultimately no development of capitalism as the most effective means of developing those productive forces seen by history, as the prerequisite for socialism. 

We can all deplore the condition of Foxconn workers, just as we can deplore the condition of British workers as described in detail by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class, but rather than being blinded by moral outrage at those conditions, as Sismondi was, Marx and Engels saw it as a great step forward in human development, precisely because it created the working-class as a powerful economic and social force, as a class whose historic mission is to liberate the whole of society, and along with it, the creation of productive forces so powerful that it becomes possible to begin constructing a socialist society, in which that liberation of all becomes possible. 

As Marx puts it in criticising the moral opponents of Ricardo, 

“He wants production for the sake of production and this with good reason. To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo’s did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself. To oppose the welfare of the individual to this end, as Sismondi does, is to assert that the development of the species must be arrested in order to safeguard the welfare of the individual, so that, for instance, no war may be waged in which at all events some individuals perish. Sismondi is only right as against the economists who conceal or deny this contradiction.) Apart from the barrenness of such edifying reflections, they reveal a failure to understand the fact that, although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed for the interests of the species in the human kingdom, as in the animal and plant kingdoms, always assert themselves at the cost of the interests of individuals, because these interests of the species coincide only with the interests of certain individuals, and it is this coincidence which constitutes the strength of these privileged individuals.” (Theories of Surplus Value, Chapter 9, p 117-8) 

The condition of Foxconn workers might be miserable, but is it more miserable than the condition of all those millions consigned to the idiocy of rural life? In fact, some analysis of suicides amongst Foxconn workers showed that, given the million people that the firm employs the suicide rate was actually lower than the average not just for China, but also for the United States!  In fact, other analysis suggests that the conditions at Foxconn are better than elsewhere.  But, even if the conditions were miserable are they more miserable than the condition of millions of Chinese peasants who in living memory died from starvation, including from the misguided policies of Mao during the Great Leap Forward, and amongst whom a  high rate of suicide is also to be noted; is it more miserable, and are the lives of an increasing number of Ethiopian workers more miserable than for those same Ethiopians who 20 years ago were dying as a result of famine? But, more importantly, as Marx describes in the above, and elsewhere, without those millions of peasants becoming Foxconn workers, and workers in other large scale enterprises, three could have developed no working-class, and consequently no possibility of socialism. 

Moreover, as Marx points out for countries developing capitalism at a later stage of history, the problem is not just capitalism, but an inadequate development of capitalism.  Marx notes, in his Preface to Capital I,

"Where capitalist production is fully naturalised among the Germans (for instance, in the factories proper) the condition of things is much worse than in England, because the counterpoise of the Factory Acts is wanting. In all other spheres, we, like all the rest of Continental Western Europe, suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead."

And Lenin makes the same point in Two Tactics of Social Democracy

“And from these principles it follows that the idea of seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism is reactionary. In countries like Russia, the working class suffers not so much from capitalism as from the insufficient development of capitalism. The working class is therefore decidedly interested in the broadest, freest and most rapid development of capitalism. The removal of all the remnants of the old order which are hampering the broad, free and rapid development of capitalism is of decided advantage to the working class.”

In putting forward his response, by referring to the Foxconn workers the Magpie has merely shown the inadequacy of the argument he is proposing. But, unfortunately, in banning me from posting comments to his blog, the potential to further that discussion, in that forum has been lost. I am quite happy for the Magpie to post his comments to my blog, for any such further discussion, and unlike him, I will not delete his comments, unless they are merely spam, or abusive. Then my readers can be free to judge the merits of the arguments themselves. In the meantime, I have no desire to promote or encourage readers to visit a site that implements an arbitrary policy of censorship on comments, as that may be taken as an implied support for such an approach, so I am removing the Magpie's blog from my blog-roll. 

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