an alternative to the age of austerity

by Chris Ford

The new decade began with The Times predicting an “age of austerity” in the UK which will last for years. We can expect, they said, cuts in public spending to offset the Treasury budget deficit of £178 billion, caused to a large extent by the bank bailouts after the September 2008 crisis.

The view that the financial sector is at the roots of our current predicament is not restricted to the bourgeois papers like The Times. This view is common amongst liberal, Labour Party and socialist opinion. John Cruddas and a hundred other MPs are campaigning for a High Pay Commission, arguing our current predicament was caused by “greed”, as banking and executive salaries grew excessively. There is certainly widespread bitter resentment amongst working class people that we are paying for a loan to rescue the banks. Cruddas appears like a philanthropist from a Dickens Christmas story coming along to help the poor, making the rich share the pain of the recession. But state controls on high pay would only scratch the surface of the crisis: we need something far more fundamental.

The problem is not the capitalists as individuals but the social and economic system – capitalism. What controls the economy is not the Treasury, the City or company managers – it is the laws by which this system operates, which work independent of anyone’s will or intentions.

Capitalists are constantly looking for ways to keep down costs whilst expanding production at the same time to create more profits. But for all their efforts this system is prone to a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It is also prone to a recurring debt crisis as capitalists borrow not only to invest but to repay previous debts. Over recent decades the finance sector of the economy expanded massively beyond the actual flow of value being generated in the “real economy”, like an elastic band reality caught up and it snapped with the “credit crunch” in September 2008. The whole system is fragile, as The Times noted: “there was a serious prospect that the entire Western financial system would fail. Without the lifeblood of access to credit, the economy might have suffered not just a bitter recession but a repeat of the misery and penury of the Great Depression.”

The Times asserts that state intervention “appears to have worked in its immediate aim. But the side-effects are severe.” The “severity” is the burden of austerity which will now be placed on majority of the population – the working class. But worse, there is no guarantee that the de facto nationalisation of capitalist bankruptcy will offset a further crisis of equal or worse impact.

The remedies paraded before us in the coming months by Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians will all agree on the fundamental need to keep the system afloat and in one way or another introduce austerity policies to cope with the Treasury budget deficit. They will all assist employers introducing tougher measures at work against their workforce.

How can workers respond? We have a large trade union movement: although we are hindered by union bureaucrats, it does have real potential: the power to say ‘no’!  No, you can’t introduce a pay freeze, or a new sickness management policy, no, you can’t introduce a new process to make us work more for less pay. To get our union movement actually engaged in such things would be a big step forward, and a necessary one in the coming “age of austerity”.

But whilst workers have immense potential power, we have no control over the places we work other than by the pressure we can bring to bear on employers. It would be a step forward to be able to stand up to management and stop them in their tracks, but still, we are not the managers; there is no democracy at work or in the economy.

The coming general election will not give us any say on these questions, it will be dominated by a politicians and a media who will manipulate a debate all premised on an acceptance of capitalism.

Communists say all the solutions in offer are inadequate, we need to organise our struggles not against this or that aspect of the system, or solely on ameliorating capitalist society or nationalising it as state-socialists propose. We need to fight against – and uproot – capital itself, value production itself.

Against the tyranny which exists in the economy and the sham of parliamentary democracy run by corrupt MPs communists advocate workers’ self-management across society. A system of participatory democracy based on the sovereignty of those who produce the good and services in society, covering every community, factory, office and workplace. Instead of state or private ownership we advocate a genuine social ownership, organised on the basis of workers self-management.

We counterpose communal self-government to the current system where every aspect of life is increasingly becoming a commodity. This is a daunting task, but as a goal, it offers a solution to the age of austerity.