In Europe and the USA it is undeniable that there is a growing animosity to the socio-economic domination of banking capital and to the severity of the austerity programmes proposed by all mainstream political parties. As yet this animosity is predictably being directed at and toward the political process and toward existing political parties rather than the capitalist system in its entirety. The present ‘crisis’ – as yet – is not generally understood to be caused by a fundamental underlying fracture in the capitalist mode of production. In particular this current growing anger and frustration is providing the basis for numerous initiatives aimed at creating new political parties and new defensive movements.
In the UK and Europe it has given rise to the ambition to reverse the current trends of global capital and return nations to a situation of working class well-being and dignity by creating a political party with a clear programme of ‘reforms’. This view has been underwritten and complimented in the UK by Ken Loach’s film ‘The Spirit of 45’. It is the contention of this contribution to the pre-conference debate over ‘Left Unity’, that under the 21st century capitalist mode of production, this approach amounts to wishful thinking. It is a hoped for ambition which can only be sustained as long as people ignore both the systemic nature of the current economic crisis and the previous political experience of ‘left’ reformism in Europe and the west.
a) The economic basis for Reforms under Capital.
The economic origins of ‘progressive’ reforms in the advanced capitalist countries lies not in the willingness of the capitalist class to reduce their share of surplus-value extraction, but in the colonialist and imperialist stages of their mode of production. By intensively exploiting native peoples and resources in many areas of the world, the capitalist elites of Europe and the west were able to extract enough surplus-value and profits to satisfy themselves and allow moderately good wages, salaries and conditions to be granted to their workers. But nevertheless, these concessions were not given willingly.
In fact these capitalist and pro-capitalist elites had to be pressurised throughout the 19th century by trade union and other organised social movements to concede better wages and conditions. Pressure also had to be exerted to allow a greater level of public services to be delivered to their citizens. This gradual (and uneven) process was interrupted in the early 20th century by a massive economic and financial crisis which peaked before the onset of the Second World War. Progress in this regard, resumed and accelerated after that second capital-led tragic annihilation of human and material resources. Indeed, the destruction of human and material resources caused by the six years of total war (1939-45), was precisely the economic basis for a revival of the capitalist system and the pursuit of reforms.
A shortage of workers (over 6 million killed), a massive destruction of infrastructure and productive capacity (cities, industries, railways, roads and docks all flattened) meant almost full employment and steadily increasing wages for working people. This post-fascist war regeneration and modernisation of UK and European capitalism in turn necessitated and allowed a rapid expansion of public services in communication, education, health, social security etc. In other words, the material basis of the much vaunted ‘spirit of 45’ arose out of the ashes of 20th century industrial-scale extermination and annihilation. Such universal material devastation does not exist in the 21st century.
For these reasons proposals to regain such ‘reforms’ and temporary privileges granted to the workers in the advanced countries after 1945, needs to include the above understanding along with the following. Reforms – benefiting workers in advanced countries – always relied upon the ‘forced’ existence of cheap raw materials and low-paid foreign labour. In other words, under the domination of capital, reforms such as above average pay, unemployment benefits, sick pay, quality health care, adequate pensions, required and still requires low wages and abysmal conditions for foreign labour. Hence the 20th and 21st century support of the pro-capitalist elite for many authoritarian regimes which guarantee these two essential elements of production. Writing of this period, A Hoogvelt noted;
“Today authoritarian and repressive regimes in many successfully industrialising Third World countries perform a function in relation to the world capitalist centres comparable with that of the feudal overlords and slave owners of a century ago: they make available to the overseas investor both a docile, stable and unorganised work-force and the monopolistic rights to the use of land and natural resources; it is their political presence and their political domination which permit the capitalist production of commodities in the overseas countries….” (A.M.M Hoogvelt. ’The Third World in Global Development’. Macmillan. p 178.)
In the 21st century this situation has continued exponentially as the recent exposures concerning the deaths of garment, footwear, construction, chemical and other workers in the non-advanced countries, demonstrate. Note also the current treatment of workers in Quatar on World Cup preparation projects. So placing reformist demands upon capitalists and their governments in Europe, and the USA etc., for improvements in social welfare in the 21st century is to effectively turn a blind eye to the following fact. If – and as stated above it is a big IF – they are successful, then to pay for them, the capitalist classes will use their financial power to further increase the exploitation of third world peoples and their environments.
In the advanced countries a 21st century reformist agenda, divorced from a commitment to eliminate the rule of capital is reactionary not only with regard to working people but also with regard to the entire global environment. But it is also reactionary in another way. A reformist agenda pre-supposes there will be a power standing above working people which will grant these reforms and improved conditions and also guarantee them. In other words a programme of reforms aimed at modifying capitalism to benefit workers and the poor, requires a powerful and expensive state apparatus to carry out these modifications. It also requires a privileged politically trained class which will govern and administer them. Now isn’t that exactly the political basis that existed in 1945 and after?
b) The political basis of reforms under Capitalism.
The previously noted systemic crisis of the capitalist mode of production occurred in the early 20th century and exploded financially in and around the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The rise of European Fascism in the 1930’s was one of the responses to the resulting economic, financial and political dislocations and collapse in Europe during that period. The ‘Great Depression’ and the ‘New Deal’ in the USA was an alternative. The outbreak of war was another. The experience of ‘one-nation’ class collaboration and many essential egalitarian measures during this war led to the return of a kind of ‘left unity’ Labour government in the UK and left-liberal governments in Europe. In the UK, the British version of the ‘new deal’, was the introduction of nationalisations of essential services and the adoption of the Beveredge proposals. The ‘Spirit of 45’ had taken on a physical form.
In 1945, therefore, the strongest possible political basis for left reformism was achieved by the election of a well organised and well-funded Labour Party. It was truly a party of ‘left-unity’ which achieved control of Parliament with a substantial majority and huge programme of reforms. In future, the state would ‘protect’ the vulnerable, extract taxes and supply services to those in need. All seemed rosy to those wearing the mental equivalent of rose-tinted spectacles. But was it? Of course not! The capitalist mode of production was still in place and still dominant. Pro-capitalists still dominated the main means of production and staffed government institutions. Nevertheless the illusion that Parliament is ‘the’ source of power in society continued to be successfully promoted and dominate social thinking. The real source of capitalist power and influence – control of; the means of production, financial institutions, state organs of repression and governance – were ignored.
Ignored also was the facile commitment of the fist-thumping left unity socialists within the Labour Party and labour movement to the cause of the working class. As soon as the system of capital needed assistance, enough of the ‘left unity’ members of the Labour Party quickly sided with the needs of capital. Wage controls and Trade Union restrictions were introduced by these so-called ‘left’ guardians of the working class and the welfare state. And the traditional well-oiled revolving political door of alternative Tory and Labour governments commenced. Through numerous stages these ‘left’ and ‘right’ alternating guardians of the existing economic and political ‘system‘ in the UK and Europe, whittled away at every post-war gain achieved by the working classes. The final chapters in this process continue today under the assertion that ‘we are all in this together’ and the need for ‘austerity’.
So what’s new? Well we have now arrived at another systemic crisis of capitalism, in which the serious, life-threatening financial, fiscal, political, ecological, social and political aspects are symptoms of a new period of relative over-production and fiscal crisis. There is now not too little production – but too much! That’s certainly new! Industrial, commercial and financial over-capacity is practically everywhere. Production has been progressively transferred to countries with low pay and low-paid workers have been recruited by capital in the advanced countries. The results are low pay, zero hours and high levels of unemployment – therefore low purchasing power! That’s fairly recent but not new! But now consumer credit is also close to being maxed-out! So for these reasons a further boom is out of the question and without a boom, under capitalism, there cannot even be temporary concessions or partial reforms to benefit the majority.
c) Further irresolvable contradictions.
On top of this, the level of production and consumption achieved during the 20th century is causing catastrophic levels of pollution, ecological destruction and climate change. Any further boom periods financially engineered by pro-capitalists will merely further accelerate this one-way track to the destruction of many sections of humanity. Capital is now causing not only relative levels of over-production, but in terms of resource depletion and pollution, it is rapidly approaching absolute over-production. Any serious movement in support of working people and future humanity cannot focus on domestic reforms whilst ignoring the global effects of the present profit-based system upon the environmental, climatic and ecological welfare of other sections of the working class. But again – that is not all!
Built upon the foundations of the capitalist mode of production the funding of the state organs – governance, military and welfare – the present sources of reforms and benefits, can no longer be sustained in its present form. There is a wide-spread fiscal insolvency crisis looming – as the recent shutdowns in the USA have indicated! And it is not only the USA which face this close to terminal problem!. Under the continued domination of capital – all of the above sectors will need to be reduced considerably. Some more than others – depending upon the views of respective governments and the support these have from their respective mainstream ‘establishments‘.
Yet if the averaged out Left Unity ambition is to be elected and create working class reforms against the continuing dominant interests of capital the ‘state’ will need to remain in existence. It will need to be large, strong and expensive to maintain. It will require a huge tax burden! Even in the most favourable circumstances, therefore, an irreconcilable contradiction exists. For if this ‘Left-Unity’ coalition ever gained political power – it will not be funded by the capitalist bond-holders, its tax base will continue to be too small and there will still be no sustainable prospect for capitalist inspired growth. So how and where will this powerful pro-worker Left Unity governed ‘state’ get its financial resources from?
d) In conclusion.
The ruling pro-capitalist elite and the capitalist class itself have no material reason for subscribing to a renewed spirit of 45. If they had, they would have already done so in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and in view of the current devastating effects of austerity. Only the threat of revolutionary transformations would induce each countries ‘establishments’ to consider such reforms as those implemented in 1945 and after. And if the threat of revolution does not fully materialise would not any future ‘spirit’ of general welfare soon evaporate away – again? Irrespective of this, however, the economic, social and political base for the development of a renewed reformist politics does not presently exist and it is unlikely to develop in the foreseeable future. The present crisis is one concerning the fundamental basis of the entire capitalist mode of production itself. No amount of wrestling with secondary symptoms or its superstructures will solve this problem.
In my view any political party or movement advocating future reformist possibilities will be naively misleading those people who choose to believe its proposals. Well before such a political party or movement could get near to parliamentary ascendancy with even a half decent reformist programme the pro-capitalist establishment would unleash its dogs of class war upon it – which it is already preparing and will do in any case – as anger and resentment increase. For this reason the energies, commitment and resources of anti-capitalists are best allocated to arguing and organising for local community self-reliance and defence. In other words work towards a revolutionary-humanist – Class Unity! Funding and working for a reformist-based, populist, egotistical and therefore inherently unreliable ‘Left Unity’ has been done before and utterly failed – lets not be fooled into doing it again!
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2013.)