‘Recovery’: Whose Recovery?

The article which follows is the editorial for Revolutionary Perspectives 03 which appeared at the end of January 2014 (to receive the printed magazine or subscribe see side panel on this page).

Five years ago capitalism experienced its biggest-ever financial crash. Thanks to central banks (particularly the US Federal Reserve) conjuring up unimaginable amounts of capital to cover financial losses and protect the banking system, the world capitalist economy was saved from complete breakdown. The threat of currencies collapsing, banks and businesses going under and economic life in general seizing up, gave way to the ‘Great Recession’: a period of ‘negative growth’, state spending cuts and drastic ‘austerity measures’, which now, we are assured, is turning into the ‘hoped-for recovery’. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride”, of course. “There’s still a long way to go.” Nobody knows, for instance, what effect the US Fed’s steady withdrawal of the monthly billions of dollars life support machine will have on either the domestic economy or the rest of the world. [Despite all the forewarning about the ‘taper’, when the $85bn monthly cash injection was reduced to a mere $75bn in December there was financial panic in some of the favoured destinations for the Fed’s ‘easy money’. As we write Argentina is joining countries like Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and India as the victims of ‘capital flight’.] One thing is certain: the outlook for the working class is anything but rosy.

In the first place, as is well-known by now, the net result of so-called Quantitative Easing programmes is that central government debts have increased while stock markets have risen and financial assets have been protected. So the rich have become even richer at the expense of wage workers whose share of the wealth pie has dropped substantially just about everywhere. In the United States the Occupy movement coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ in response to the fact that since 2009 the richest one per cent has received 95 per cent of all income gains. Here in the UK the Bank of England calculates that 40 per cent of the QE benefit has gone to the top 5 per cent which includes top bankers and financiers in general.

Attack on Workers

Of course that’s not the end of the story. Workers have faced an onslaught of attacks which leave them substantially worse off than previously. With an enlarged pool of unemployed (it’s nonsense to imply that nobody lost their job in the recession) — real wages have fallen. Working class households in the US and the UK have seen their income drop by an average of 7 per cent since 2009. These two are the countries supposedly leading the way out of the recession. Elsewhere — from Turkey to Mexico, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — wage labour’s share of the pie has diminished even further. On top of this, just as more and more people are in need of support, the process of dismantling post-1945 universal welfare services has accelerated in the so-called advanced areas of the world. As state debts (and the cost of servicing them) ballooned while national income declined governments — encouraged by the ratings agencies — have played on the need to ‘reduce the deficit’ as a way of pushing through so-called austerity measures. Capitalist politicians have conveniently turned their system’s debt crisis into a ‘national problem’ about the cost of welfare when the real issue behind the debt overload is capitalism’s declining ability to generate new value. This decline is right at the heart of what makes capitalism tick: the drive to maximise profits (the rate of return on capital) by increasing the amount of new value (wealth) created by workers over and above the value of their wages.

In truth this structural crisis has been in evidence now for more than four decades. Once upon a time the reigning ideology was that the advent of consumer capitalism meant that life-threatening economic crises were a thing of the past. Now though, both Keynesianism and Friedmanite monetarism are out of the window. They have been replaced with out and out speculation and knee-jerk policy reactions. Regardless of everything the working class has forfeited over more than four decades: the hundreds of thousands who were ‘left on the scrapheap’ in the Eighties after once key industrial sectors were dismantled and capital rushed to transfer manufacturing to areas of the globe with much cheaper labour power; the millions more who have grown up or become accustomed to considerably worse “conditions of service” to the point where they see the 1960s and 70s as some kind of golden epoch; still we are told the problem is “low productivity”. And from the capitalists’ standpoint this really is a problem. Never mind the gargantuan amount of revenue being generated, all over the world the rate of production of new value is declining. The capitalist pundits are running scared. Many are wondering whether capitalism can survive and betray their fears by allusions to Marx. For instance in a parody of Marx’s the Communist Manifesto a Financial Times article in January began with ‘A productivity crisis is stalking the global economy…’ It sure is. No wonder the allusions to Marx. Despite all the decades of crisis management, technological innovation, globalisation, and so on, that crisis of falling profitability will not go away and capitalism is more and more reverting to what it does best: milking as much as possible out of the existing workforce in a frantic bid to up ‘total factor productivity’.

The reality is that this feeble ‘recovery’, which no-one is pretending will reverse the decline in workers’ living standards, is not going to change capital’s drive to increase productivity by the most ruthless and advanced means of absolute exploitation. The article on working for Amazon here is a cautionary example of how the world of work is shaping up for more and more wage workers as millions of infinitely flexible workers face the prospect of becoming part of the ‘precariat’, possibly on zero hour contracts, working for ‘Mac wages’ and subject to all of present-day capitalism’s mischievous psychological ploys based on the personal isolation of each worker from another.

More Capitalist Contradictions

Here is the rub. In economic terms capitalism is caught up in a web of its own contradictions. The more it grows the more labour’s share of the pie diminishes and the more consumer capitalism is threatened. The more capitalism introduces labour saving machinery and equipment the lower the rate of profit and higher the rate of growth required to employ the same number of people. Eventually — as now — capitalist firms are faced with trillions of dollars of accumulated capital with fewer and fewer places to invest (hence the turn towards speculation) while a growing portion of young people in the world find themselves facing the abyss of a lifetime of little or no paid employment. If there were anything remotely rational about capitalism as a means of organising human beings’ social existence then logic would dictate that instead of upping the work rates and lowering the wages of people with jobs, people without jobs would be absorbed into the workplace and everyone would enjoy a reasonable standard of living without being worked to death. Instead capitalism has its own profit-driven logic which drives it to create more and more misery, depriving people of the means of existence and destroying their quality of life even as the ‘rich get richer’ and the very existence of human life on the planet is threatened by capital’s cavalier attitude to climate change and general environmental degradation. The article Climate Change: Social Collapse or Socialism in this issue spells out yet again how capitalism’s profit based ‘development’ has also been at the expense of short-term plundering of natural resources with little or no regard for wider and future consequences. Despite all the talk, the global communiqués, the target-setting, the fact is that the present economic crisis and sharpening of global competition is set to reverse what little progress had been made towards the elusive goal of ‘sustainable development’. (The EU, for example, has just watered down its carbon reduction programme in the face of industrialists’ lobbying in the light of competition from US companies employing the windfall of cheap shale oil and gas.)

So it goes on: social and environmental needs sacrificed on the altar of profit. It doesn’t have to be so. As the article on the UK housing crisis mentions, in a world where the purpose of work was to directly meet social need, no-one would be without a roof over their head. In such a world, however, neither would growing millions be without a job or obliged to work in old-fashioned sweat shops or grotesque ‘fulfilment centres’ such as Amazon. Instead we would all be involved in deciding on the what, how and when of production and distribution to meet the needs of a global human community unhindered by capitalist commodity production and archaic state borders.

These are not far-fetched, utopian goals even if the capitalist crisis is making them more compelling. However, the goal of communism — because that is what we are talking about — not only cannot be achieved without a revolution on the part of the world’s working class; communism cannot be achieved unless at least a part of the working class understands the lessons of our own class experience, lessons which will have shape the political programme that revolutionaries put forward to the working class as a whole. There is no escaping it. Spontaneous uprisings and revolts will surely occur but we cannot avoid the need for communists to face a political struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider working class against all kinds of elements claiming to be on the side of the working class. When it comes to a worldwide working class movement that has a clear idea of how to overthrow the capitalist profit system, including wage labour and commodity production; how to replace existing state set-ups with a global network of organs of direct democracy ready to organise production for human needs, there is no place for the Micawber tendency. No, it is an abdication of political responsibility to wait for ‘something to turn up’. Times are hard. Working class consciousness is at a low ebb. But the conditions for the re-shaping of working class identity and the search for a real alternative to capitalism are growing by the minute. We make no apology for publishing debates from the past or for rectifying misinterpretations of what we are saying today. We do so, not in the spirit of dry scholasticism but in the hope of recovering the basis for a collective development of a revolutionary programme for today.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Revolutionary Perspectives

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