It is true that many of the public services in Europe, America, the UK and elsewhere are badly managed, some are corrupt, and others divisive. It is also true they were set up by bourgeois governments committed to the capitalist mode of production. In addition, many have been neglected in some places to the point of dysfunction and disintegration by a political class, that has seen only its own wealth creation and military status as the essential prerequisites of 21st century modernity.
It is also easy for those workers employed in the ruthless private sector to begrudge the often better working conditions and pay applicable in many public services. In addition, the once dreamed of inclusive ambition to level all workers up to the highest conditions, has been replaced by the neo-liberal nightmare of levelling these down to the lowest. So why should trade unionists and non-trade unionists not employed in them continue to defend public services if the recent track record is so dismal?
a) The historic function of non-profit-making organisations.
The ‘New Deal, ‘Fair Labor Standards Act’ in the US, the Beveridge ’Social Insurance and Allied Services developments in the UK, were part of a raft of alternative methods of economic and social organisation introduced in the west, before and after the Second World War. These initiatives were set up by the bourgeois elite for two main reasons. One was to grant reforms to working conditions which would distract workers away from militant action and thoughts of revolution. Another was that the massive loss of infrastructure and fixed assets, caused by the two world wars, was too great and insufficiently profitable to be replaced quickly by normal capitalist forms of investment.
From different causes, these two motivations are once again exercising the minds of the political, financial and economic elites. The state bailouts of banks and other capitalist concerns, such as General Motors in the US, and other state sponsored and funded re-structuring, indicate that from the right-wing perspective, the state is once again being used to stabilise the private enterprise system now it has started to implode. In this crisis context, nationalisations and public sector service development could also be again used by the left reformist (‘bourgeois socialist’) wing of capital to unwittingly save capitalism.
At the same time there are also those among the conservative bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois who like the state to ameliorate the conditions of workers, without changing the system. In times of crisis both these constituents are able to share a common goal – the stabilisation and resuscitation of the system – from different motives. The program of Syriza in Greece, needs to be considered with this distinct possibility in mind. Nevertheless, this possibility does not mean these calls should be automatically opposed. For it is important to recognise that this massive and necessary development of the public sector in Europe and elsewhere, after the war, represented a considerably modified economic form to that of 19th century capitalism.
b) Distinguishing the ‘essence’ from the ‘form‘.
Despite their introduction by the pro-capitalist elite, these mid-20th century developments represented a distinct, series of non-profit making forms of organising social production. In this case, as in many others, we need to carefully distinguish between the ‘essence’ of something and the particular form it takes. All of these projects successfully operated without a profit motive being the functioning incentive. They were socio-economic models of production and distribution based upon perceived (sometimes misperceived) social need as distinct from models based upon greed for surplus-value and private wealth accumulation. They had their (often severe) problems, particularly their hierarchical structures and their subservience to the bourgeois economic and political system
For some people among the working class and enlightened middle-class of the time, these forms, particularly ‘nationalisation’ were in fact viewed as completely alternative forms to capital, within and outside the capitalist system. Yet viewed more soberly, they were clearly not alternatives – as they then existed – and in the political and economic context of the time could never have been. The most large-scale examples of this mistaken concept and practice, that a potentially transitional form is actually an alternative form, was in regard to Russia and China. In such cases, whole-scale nationalisation of the ‘means of production’ placed the production of use-values in the hands of a political party oligarchy, who continued to appropriate the surplus-value, for their own use and purposes.
The ‘mode’ of production, under Bolshevik and other vanguardist forms of ‘leadership’ was one in which workers became wage and salary-working employees of the state instead of employees of large capitalists. The extraction and appropriation of workers’ surplus-value by an elite section of society continued. The elite exploiters had merely changed their social identity (their personifications of capital) from members of an economic class to those of a political class. Some of these nationalised and public service forms of organisation and production could have attained more for workers if they had been viewed as transitional vehicles in a movement that was intent upon fully abolishing all forms of wage-labour and capital – including state-capitalist forms. But they were not.
Yet if a post-capitalist mode of production based upon production for social need, rather than private greed, is a necessary development for future societies, then the ‘essence’ of these large-scale public service industries has in many ways represented something valuable. Indeed, some are well worthy of preserving whatever the mode of production – free (at the point of use) non-profit based education, (lower and higher), along with health provision – for instance. All of which are now under attack.
c) Production for need versus production for greed.
As noted, the form imposed upon these non-profit-making organisations was a top-down, bourgeois model of management and control. As such these services were always severely compromised and deformed by this structure. Nevertheless, for a time they demonstrated two important results. First, decent products, efficient services, improved wages and salaries as well as sick leave, pension and other enhanced in-service working rights. Second, a practical sustained example, that large-scale organisations can function and develop without the need for a profit motive.
So I suggest that in the 20th century, three broad non-profit based economic structures had been successfully tried – co-operative societies developed from the 19th century and nationalised industries and public service agencies from the 20th. A fourth has been developed further than these 3 in the Parecon movement. All these models have proved their initial and mid-term viability despite some being shackled by management who became progressively elitist, self-interested, parasitic and ideologically opposed to this particular form.
However, it should be obvious that any form capable of being transitional, by definition, is capable of being transitioned in more than one direction. In the absence of revolutionary changes in economic and political power and lacking democratic workers and citizen control, that direction (in the ‘communist’ East as well as the capitalist West) was not forward – but backward into degeneration – and now privatisation!
The pro-capitalist government agents of the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Democrats and Republicans, (and their equivalents elsewhere) with an ideological fixation on profitability, saw the public sector as inefficient, and costly. In other words nationalisations and public services, were increasingly seen as ‘alien’ economic forms to profit-maximising, surplus-value extracting, capitalism. And of course production costs (and therefore prices) in a method of production which provides good wages, conditions and welfare under the domination of, and competition from, the capitalist mode could not be kept as low as the private sector. However, this does not mean they were not cost effective or innovative.
So I suggest when public sector workers and others are defending the welfare state, education and local government provisions, they are not only defending their own jobs and the services upon which other people rely, they are wittingly or unwittingly defending a potentially valid transitional method of producing goods and services, and should be supported. In this sense, a future post-capitalist mode of production has already been partly revealed or revealed in embryo; by the unintended actions of pro-capitalist governments during the period of late 20th century capitalist post-war reconstruction.
d) Can capitalism really give birth to its opposite?
To those who dualistically condemn everything that is produced or developed, under the capitalist mode of production and created during its existence, I would therefore suggest caution and recommend a dialectical approach to consider. The following 19th century observation by Karl Marx on the capitalist mode of production indicates one such approach:
“At a certain stage of development it brings forth the material agencies for its own dissolution. From that moment new forces and new passions spring up in the bosom of society…. ..capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of nature, its own negation.” (Marx Capital Volume 1. Chapter 32.)
The new forces, emerging out of the old, are the ‘means of production’ (machinery, raw materials, labour and the organisational methods of production) these ‘forces’ (including the waged and salaried workers) are the off-spring of, and reaction against, the domination of profit-seeking production, from within that mode. In normal times, we workers are alienated from our own production and in the regular crises of capital (financial and economic) we are further alienated from being allowed to earn and learn freely. To the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite, workers and their campaigns to protect and advance their living standards and the conditions they produce in, are viewed as an alien force resisting their pursuit of austerity for us and bank bailouts and profits for them.
Under the capitalist mode of production the processes and methods of production have been developed (over-developed in the 20th and 21st centuries), beyond the individual and narrow, localised dependency on skills and raw materials during feudal times. However, it has at the same time created a two-fold nature to the production process – one positive and one negative. The capitalist mode has developed the technical and social production process for producing use-values as a large-scale collective activity, but at the same time has created a despotic form of this process which is primarily concerned with surplus-value extraction.
So the effective socialised production of use-values is the other side of the coin – so to speak – to socialised production for the purpose of creating profits. Whilst anti-capitalists would want to end production for profit, for the few, I doubt whether most of us would think it desirable or even possible to end the socialised production of use-values. Our social reliance upon each other, (now globally) for our necessities and leisure is nonetheless a fundamental essence which will undoubtedly be carried forward beyond the present domination of capital. Marx recognised the further development of this socialised ‘essence’ and its continuous development with regard to joint-stock companies and to 19th century co-operation. He noted for example:
“The value of these great social experiments cannot be over-rated. By deed, instead of argument, they have shown that production on a large-scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands…the means of labour need not be monopolised as a means of domination over and extortion against, ..the labouring man.” (Marx. Address to the Working Man’s International.)
Correct the gender specific term and replace it with ‘population’ and this undoubtedly still stands with regard to co-operative methods of production and importantly, as noted, this model has been further developed by the Parecon movement. But the above assessment applies also to other previously noted non-profit-making forms of social organisation in the production of use-values. The nationalised industries, the health services, education institutions etc., even in their deformed and distorted manifestations, have demonstrated in practice – not in theoretical propositions or fantastic left utopian imaginings – that high quality goods and services are possible without the organisational motivation being the acquisition of personal or collective profit.
e) For the defence and democratisation of public services.
If in discussions with workers and others, now and in the future, what other models than these are we going to suggest point the way to a future post-capitalist society? Are we to point to; the ’Soviet Union’; China; Yugoslavia; North Korea; Cuba? Do we really want to influence workers into preferring to resurrect capitalist domination rather than such forms of oligarchic domination, which went (and are still going) nowhere positive?
We need to not only defend these current forms, because in the current crisis, they are the source of jobs and pensions of up to 60% of current workers, and the services other citizens presently rely upon and need – that is indeed important. But we should also be arguing for much more as we raise the issue of the need for abolishing production for profit which self-destructively accumulates in the hands of a privileged class. True such nascent forms need to be democratised, extended across all service and productive industries and placed under the direct democratic control of workers and citizen committees for their potential to become a transitional basis toward a post-capitalist form of society.
Alongside petty-bourgeois socialist demands for further nationalisations to stabilise capital, we should be placing revolutionary, transitional demands such as placing these potential transitional forms under the direct control of workers and citizens democratic committees. According to this view a post-capitalist form of society does not have to look like the Soviet Union or China, under the iron fist of political oligarchies etc. It could look more like the best parts of the twentieth-century Europe, North and South America and elsewhere, without the pollution, without the poverty, without corrupt politics, without the obscene levels of ostentatious wealth, without hierarchical domination and without wars to forcibly extract raw materials and provide markets for capitalist profit making.
Roy Ratcliffe (December 2012.)