the dual crisis of capital and labour

editorial of the commune

Much of the analysis of the storm raging across the global economy within the labour movement, and particularly the traditional left, suffers from tunnel-vision. This not only obscures understanding of what is happening but is intimately connected to the inadequate remedies being proposed. Despite their nuances, the majority of the responses from across the spectrum of the movement are in essence the same: against the “financial socialism” enjoyed by the banks, the call is to subject capital to greater control by means of the state.

Some on the traditional left may find it difficult to accept, but this state-socialism is an indication of the degree to which capitalist economic ideas have infiltrated the labour movement, a theoretical complement to the practical accommodation of the movement to the capitalist system. To a large degree, state-socialism has bought into the very illusion that is a characteristic of the crisis which has unfolded.

Illusion and Reality of the Crisis

As opposed to transcending ‘boom and bust’ New Labour enjoyed a partial recovery in the economy. Part of the capitalist strategy was keeping real wages down: under New Labour, who gave a free reign to finance capital, this situation was shrouded in debt. Personal debt exceeded GDP; the financial service sector grew to one-third of the economy. It was a grand illusion that finance capital could uncouple itself from production as the source of profits.

The reality is that capitalism is a value-producing society where the specific skills of the worker, their labour power, are the source of all value and surplus value. In the course of the working day, a worker produces commodities worth more than the combined costs of production and value of their labour power paid in wages. The difference is the surplus appropriated by the capitalist as capital, i.e. the repository of these unpaid hours of work – surplus value, the source of profits. Capital is not simply a thing, it is a social relationship. It lives by obtaining ever more surplus value, or unpaid hours of labour, from the worker who produces it.

The finance sector expanded in advance of the actual flow of new value being generated in the “real economy”. The first signs of trouble could be seen in the 13% fall in the rate of UK company profits, a tendency set to write off the gains of 2007. Reality caught up with the illusion and the ‘recovery’ stretched and snapped with the “credit crunch”. Taking all this on board, it would take tunnel vision to consider the crisis of capital separate from labour, since simultaneous with the crisis of capital there is crisis of labour manifested in a profound crisis of ideas.

State-socialism and the crisis of ideas

The turn towards greater state regulation has been welcomed as having put the question of nationalisation back on the agenda. Symptomatic is Slavoj Zizek who says that the “real dilemma is not state intervention but what kind of state intervention”. But at least the interventionist bourgeois economist John Maynard Keynes (now back in vogue) was honest: his life mission was to save capitalism from itself. Anti-capitalists have no such excuse. Similarly Chris Harman of the Socialist Workers’ Party writes: “The answer to the banking crisis is not regulation or nationalisation of one or two banks, but takeover of the whole banking system” along with “the oil, gas and coal industries” as a solution to climate change. Even the Financial Times noted: “Politicians on Europe’s right are speaking the same statist language as the left”. This is a tragic situation, where the “socialist alternative” has been reduced to a disagreement over the scale of state intervention

To call for “public” and “social ownership” and mean state ownership is to confuse the state with society. This to accept the myth that the state is in someway neutral in this society divided into antagonistic social class. There is no doubt the state does conduct some necessary functions such as refuse collection – but its primary function remains safeguarding capitalist rule. Nationalised capital has been used extensively to preserve capitalism. It may differ from private-capital, but as regards the worker, both thrive on exploitation. The Parliamentary or Labourite socialists are not alone: many revolutionary or Party socialists, who believe that an elitist party will introduce socialism, call for “nationalisation under workers’ control”.

This epitomises what Hegel called an “empty negative”, for it is not the workers but the state that shall enact this “control”, whereby they will manage their own exploitation! Underlying this state-socialism is mistake of locating the key problem of capitalism in the market, not in the social relations of production, within the workplace. The result is to portray nationalisation and state planning versus the ‘anarchy of the market’ as the equivalent of socialism versus capitalism.

As stated above, capital is not simply a thing, it is a social relation: it lives by obtaining ever more surplus value from the worker who produces it. For this reason any effort to control capital without uprooting the basis of value production is ultimately self-defeating. This error has led to consistent historical failures. Social-Democrats adopted state ownership and the welfare state. They failed. Labour governments revealed time and again that it was not they who controlled capital for the benefit of the majority, but capital that controlled them for the benefit of itself. The Stalinist “Communists” thought capital could be abolished by state ownership and planning. They failed, creating totalitarian regimes in the USSR, China, North Korea and elsewhere.

There is no reason to believe state-socialism or state-capitalism will succeed anymore than it did in the past, from the standpoint of labour or capital. How this recession will fully manifest itself is unclear, but one thing is clear – we face the threat that the burden will be placed upon the working class. As such this understanding of the crisis and of all forms of appearance of capital is essential in developing a strategy in response.

A working class counter-crisis policy

The crisis is having a contradictory effect on the working class: on the one hand there is anxiety and caution, as seen in the NUT’s strike ballot, but on the other hand, it may provoke new opportunities of resistance. The questions posed are how we fight and what we fight for. The International Communists believe that we need to respond on two levels, combining defensive and offensive elements. Defensive in that our movement needs to protect the basic conditions of our class, and offensive in that these gains can be only temporary – we need to totally uproot capital.

Our starting point must be recognition that we have no common interests with the employers and that the crisis flows directly from the logic of capitalism. The response of the TUC, the body supposed to lead the working class, has been to help capitalism. In Wales along with the CBI they advance a “pragmatic, non-political” joint programme with such demands as the “public sector needs to pay its bills more swiftly”. TUC leader Brendan Barber says the Government “should make the recession as short and shallow as possible” and “increase statutory redundancy pay”. Some of the counterfeit union left are no better, as seen in the sabotage of the London bus workers’ strike by UNITE, and the GMB agreement with JCB on 170 redundancies and a £50 per-week pay cut.

The inadequacy of the existing labour movement is well known. There is a need to build a united workers’ front from below. Numerous plans for the crisis have been thrown up, not to help workers but for vying sects to recruit. Some form of Workers’ Charter could be a unifying element, but it would have to be one that arises organically from the working class. We are not proposing reliance on spontaneity any more than waiting for amelioration to be enacted from above – we need to organise. On key problems we pose the following:

Job cuts and redundancies: Fighting job cuts is not the responsibility of individual workers but of the movement. They threaten the living standard of whole sections of our class. It is not unrealistic to fight; the movement needs to draw a line on all cuts voluntary and compulsory.

Revive occupations: Occupations and sit-ins were widespread in the 1970s and still are in other countries. If employers have given advance notice of redundancy or closure then it is advance time for preparation. Occupations have immense potential to challenge the bosses, their ownership and their system.

Rising cost of living: It is always easier to fight for a wage rise than to resist price rises, but to secure a wage raise which is written off by the cost of living is selfdefeating. We need a movement to force price freezes or reductions, such as targeting supermarket chains with direct action to reduce prices as done in Greece.

Unemployment: The unemployed are part of the working class. It is the responsibility and in the interests of all workers to defend their rights to decent benefits rates. The movement needs to end its abdication from fighting reactionary welfare reforms.

Rebuild workplace strength: Workplace organisation and union membership needs to be re-built. If the officials will not fight then we need to take control, to combine and gain the confidence to act independently – and defy of the anti-union laws. The familiar methods of the ‘broad lefts’, of machine politics and intrigue have had their day. This is part of the process of reforging our movement.

Recomposition of the movement:

So far the entire debate on the crisis of our movement has been within the parameters of recreating some form of electoral body or reclaiming the existing Labour Party, when what we require is a recomposition of the entire movement. The movement needs to be captured, transformed and restructured by the rank and file. If there is no prospect of reform, then we need to consider splitting the TUC and creating a new body that can truly advance the interests of workers.

Communism and self-management:

The financial crisis has given us a snapshot of how the whole system can be brought onto question. The only way that workers can make a safe, secure, and better life is to uproot the capitalist system. The International Communists believe that the alternative is a free communist society. Communism is not a form of politics, it is an emancipatory movement. Drawing on the lessons of the past we believe workers’ self-management is central to our vision of a 21st century communism. Self-management is the opposite of state-socialism with its bureaucratisation.

The organisations of self-management can be the means to transform the economy – to end value production. Communism is a co-operative society based on social ownership and a classless society. Instead of a state we shall have self-government of, by and for the workers themselves. Communism abolishes wage labour and eliminates alienated labour and capital itself. This conception of communism has nothing in common with the so-called “communism” that has been proclaimed to exist in several nations. No nation in the world today is communist, for there is no nation where society itself owns the economy and the workers themselves control it.

Communism from below:

The communist revolution is not carried out from above by an elite party or Parliament: it pushes up from below, challenging the power of the bosses and their state. Developing workers’ self-management is one of the steps in this revolution, taking over our workplaces and removing the capitalist class from power, laying the basis for workers’ self-government in society. By organising and uniting in our workplaces, we are developing the means and power to gain greater workers’ control, by which to eventually secure workers’ self-management. To assist in effecting the communist revolution, communists need to be organised – we are one such organisation. We are a new organisation and through The Commune will be advancing ideas of working class emancipation, which must be the conscious act of self-organised workers themselves. Our aim is to help to generate amongst the working class a consciousness of its position in society and the necessity of creating a new society.

Despite the many threats to our lives today, a new society based on participatory democracy; collective ownership; and an economy organised for the well-being of humanity, stands within our grasp. The potential to create such a society already exists, but that potential can be realised only if workers act to gain control of their own lives by organising for communism, not the graveyard of state-socialism.

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