Category Archives: Economics

Osborne’s budget: revenge of trickledown economics

George Osborne’s budget shows that we are not ‘all in it together’, writes Eddie Ford (first published in the Weekly Worker)

Budgets ain’t what they used to be. Once upon a time the chancellor and his colleagues were expected to maintain a state of strict purdah. Every chance meeting between a treasury official and a journalist had to be formally reported during the weeks before the statement. Hugh Dalton, the Labour chancellor, was forced to resign in 1947 because, whilst walking to the House of Commons to give the autumn budget address, he made an off-the-cuff remark to a journalist hinting at some of the tax changes to be made – which were then printed in the early edition of the evening papers before he even had time to complete his speech and while the stock markets were still open. Scandal. Dalton resigned.

Whether sadly or not, those days are almost certainly long gone. Pre-budget leaking is now a long established political pastime, almost an obligatory ritual. This year though the numbers of leaks was unprecedented. But the reason for that is fairly obvious: the scramble for credit within the coalition government, as Liberal Democrats and Tories both try to show their supporters they are fighting their corners. The Liberal Democrats want to prove that they are not Tories and the Tories want to prove that they are not Liberal Democrats. Also, when it comes to anything that might potentially impact upon the wealthy, the Tories find leaking a useful way of discovering what their backers think – not least those individuals who donate so generously to the Conservative Party.

Distorted

George Osborne’s budget was essentially one for the wealthy – hardly astonishing, given that over 20 cabinet members are millionaires. The basic assumption was that those at the top of society are the wealth-creators and hence need to be incentivised – lots of carrots – to encourage them to create yet more ‘wealth’ (ie, make larger profits and grow even richer). Given this grotesque premise, tax cuts – personal and corporate – are a vital necessity if we are to unleash a wave of entrepreneurship that will in turn create jobs for those languishing at the bottom.

Meanwhile, the working class and the poor find themselves at the wrong end of below-inflation increases to the minimum wage, less generous tax credits, regional differentials in public sector pay, and so on. In other words, the budget saw the unwelcome return – or revenge – of trickle-down economics. Not that it had ever gone away, of course.

The budget flagship, at least for the Tories, was the reduction in the top-rate of tax from 50p to 45p – so party time for Britain’s richest 300,000 households. Indeed, it would have been further reduced to 40p if Osborne had got his way – he told the treasury select committee on March 27 that he had not assigned a “special status” to the 45p rate, which would be kept under “review”. But the idea was blocked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the latter saying he would only accept a 40p rate if a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth more than £2 million was introduced – something rejected out of hand by the prime minister. Cameron likes to look after his buddies.

Osborne disingenuously argued that the 50p rate had “distorted” the economy by “encouraging” tax avoidance. Presumably the poor, downtrodden super-rich had no choice but to employ armies of extremely well remunerated accountants and financial advisers to exploit every tax loophole (but it hurt them to do so). Osborne surely missed an opportunity to develop this logic to its fullest extent and declare that from now onwards the rich would not have to pay any income tax at all. That way, no more ‘distortions’ would be introduced into the economy and the rich could finally enjoy guilt-free sleep.

Cutting the top rate of tax down to 45p, Osborne argued, would only cost the exchequer £100 million – given that the current rate “raises at most a fraction of what we were told” and, in fact, “may raise nothing at all”. But a recent HMRC report he referenced indicated that the 50p tax rate raised £1 billion in its first year (2010-11) – far less than the £2.6 billion originally predicted, admittedly, but this was mainly due to people ‘forestalling’; that is, being paid early ahead of the introduction of the 50p rate in April 2010 in order to avoid paying it. But “nothing at all”?

Further defending top-rate reduction before the treasury select committee, Osborne posited that “dynamic modelling” suggested the 45p rate was likely to lead to a smaller loss of revenue than retaining the current rate. His calculation is based on the economic model known as the Laffer Curve, which hypothesises that under a 0% rate no tax is paid and at 100% no tax is paid either because no-one will bother working: therefore the trick is to locate a midway point that will optimise income.

According to basic arithmetic, the cost of cutting the top rate will be £3 billion in the first year, rising to £4 billion by 2016-17. But Osborne would have us believe that the net cost would fall to just £100 million or so thanks to the extra revenue from wealthier people working harder and harder – by the sweat of their brow – and gratefully bringing ‘home’ their monies stashed away offshore now that we have a “competitive top rate of tax”. Voodoo economics, UK-style. Straining credibility even further, Osborne asserted that, taking into account such calculations, the rich (people like himself, for instance) would end up paying five times more tax as a result of all the measures taken in the budget. Naturally, the chancellor said that his budget was “unashamedly” pro-business and would help the country “earn its way in the world”.

Another major plank of the budget was the imposition of a 7% stamp duty on properties worth more than £2 million – with immediate effect. Currently the tax is levied at 5% for all properties over £1million. Additionally, the duty on residential properties over £2 million which were purchased via an offshore company would increase from a paltry 0.5% to 15% – leading some to describe it, approvingly or not, as a “workable” mansion tax. Yet, obviously, this new rate would only affect a small number of properties, owned by the likes of Sir Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr – or Russian oligarchs.

For example, the latest statistics from the Land Registry showed that in November 2011 there were 121 homes sold for more than £2 million in England and Wales – accounting for just 0.2% of the 57,967 homes sold that month. Under the current system, if all those people paid stamp duty – a highly unlikely eventuality – it would raise £142.2 million. At 7% it would raise to £198.8 million, an additional £56.8 million. Not exactly staggering amounts of money. In reality, it is extremely doubtful whether the treasury will be able to collect the extra stamp duty from the Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs, bankers, private consultants, rock stars Hollywood actors, footballers, etc – famous for their creativity when it comes to avoiding tax.

And, of course, what the chancellor takes from the rich with one hand he gives back with another. Hence on page 63 of the red book he sneaked in an inheritance tax exemption for non-domiciled individuals. Presently, a taxpayer domiciled in the UK can transfer their entire £325,000 inheritance tax allowance to their spouse if they are also based in Britain. This figure is reduced to £55,000 if a UK taxpayer makes a transfer to a spouse who is not domiciled in the UK. Osborne said he would increase this, though has so far declined to set a figure.

‘Granny tax’

Just about the biggest budget fuss has been over the so-called ‘granny tax’. Citing the need to “simplify” pensions, Osborne intends to freeze age-related allowances (ie, the amount of income that is tax-free) for half of Britain’s pensioners by the end of the parliament. The treasury says this will bring an extra 230,000 into the income tax system, saving the government £1 billion by 2015.

Currently, the allowance is £8,105 for those under 65 (changing to £9,205 in the 2013-14 financial year), £10,500 for those aged 65 to 74, and £10,660 for those aged 75 and over. However, this ‘extra’ allowance is gradually withdrawn from those pensioners with a taxable income of between £24,000 and £29,000 – about 10% of all pensioners – and anyone with an income of more than £100,000 has all their personal allowance gradually withdrawn regardless of age.

Practically meaning that from now on anyone turning 65 after April 5 2013 will get the same personal allowance as the under-65s, but someone who turns 65 just before the same date will still get the £10,500 personal allowance. As for people on the basic state pension and pension credit (some 50% of all pensioners), they do not earn enough to pay income tax, so will be unaffected by the changes. They constitute about 50% of pensioners. Therefore that leaves a middle stratum of pensioners whose income is likely to be made up of a combination of state and private pensions, as well as some money in savings accounts – the near mythological decent, hard-working, ‘responsible’ pensioners who have ‘done the right thing’ all their lives. Prudently saved a bit each month and loyally voted Tory each election – possibly. This large grouping might well feel the tax goalposts have suddenly been moved, leaving them with less than they might have expected. The treasury’s own statistics show that, taking inflation into account, Osborne’s measures will leave 4.41 million people worse off by an average of £83 a year come 2013-14.

Under the budget we can see that we are not “all in this together” – always a cynical lie. While the top 10% of earners and the super-rich with their Mayfair pads will certainly gain, the poorest will lose the most. A living insult to the unemployed, disabled, poor pensioners and the 200,000 part-time workers, who are having their tax credits snatched away this April. That is when the qualification threshold is raised from 16 hours to 24 hours – at a time when the bosses are slashing employees’ hours due to the economic environment. Resulting in a grim situation where low-income families with parents in part-time work, more often than not because they could not find full-time employment, could lose nearly £4,000 per year. How are they in the same boat as Elton John or, for that matter, everyone sat round the cabinet table?

The entire budget is a monument to the government’s blatant failure to deliver its central promise. The coalition commitment to getting rid of the deficit within its first term was premised on a 2%-3% growth rate, but that now looks like a fantasy figure. The recession in the US and Europe, combined with the government’s own suicidal austerity programme, has seen government spending increase, as it forks out ever more money in the form of unemployment benefit, housing benefit, etc (even after the cuts in these areas).

Bluntly, it is almost a statistical fluke that the UK is not technically in recession. Outside of Osborne’s fiscal Alice in Wonderland, the prospects for the economy are bleak – something confirmed by figures published by the Office for National Statistics on March 28. The economy contracted by 0.3% between October and December last year, more than the 0.2% drop previously estimated by the ONS and other economists. That left growth for the year as a whole at just 0.7% – down on the 0.8% originally pencilled in. Furthermore, the ONS said real household disposable incomes in 2011 as a whole fell 1.2%, the biggest drop since 1977.

Not exactly a sign of roaring success, George.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Reading Marx’s Capital in Milton Keynes

A small group of activists and academics in Milton Keynes are coming together to undertake a collective study of Karl Marx’s important work on the functioning of the capitalist system, Capital. Anybody else who is interested in joining us in studying this book can email milton.keynes@cpgb.org.uk for more information. Our first meeting will take place at 5.30pm in the Cellar Bar at the Open University on Thursday 9th February.

To get a feel for the sorts of issues we could be discussing you could have a watch of this video introducing a series of video lectures by David Harvey on reading Marx’s Capital.

Fundamentals of Political Economy – weekend school January 21-22

Fundamentals of Political Economy, January 21-22, 11am-5pm. Room 2b, University of London Union, Malet Street, London. Cost: £10 waged, £5 concessions. Email office@cpgb.org.uk to reserve your place.

In 2008 the banks crashed. States round the world bailed them out by borrowing money. Inevitably, this did not get rid of the crisis but rather gradually transmuted it into a crisis of the creditworthiness of individual states: today the crisis of Eurozone state creditworthiness threatens a new bank melt-down (which may already have happened by the time of this weekend school).

The ‘solution’ demanded by governments and the media is austerity. Creditors – ‘savers’ –  must not be made to accept the losses: the working class, both in and out of paid work, must do so. Predictably, the result is an economic downward spiral – as seen in Greece, but coming now to the rest of Europe.

The ‘Occupy’ movement has represented a cry of rage but not put forward a clear alternative. The broad left, including the far left, has committed itself to Keynesian ideas – that states should borrow more and spend more and hope by doing so to grow ‘their way out’ of the crisis.

Understanding the unfolding crisis and proposing real alternatives requires us to grasp Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. But while education in the basics of Marx’s ideas was commonplace on the far left in the 1970s, today it has withered away: there are academics and theorists who ‘do’ political economy, while left activists and groups ‘do’ only campaigns.

Our school aims in a small way to contribute to beginning to overcome this gap in the education of the left. We are therefore seeking to address fundamentals rather than to tackle the analysis of the crisis directly.

Fundamentals of Political Economy, January 21-22, 11am-5pm. Room 2b, University of London Union, Malet Street, London. Cost: £10 waged, £5 concessions. Email office@cpgb.org.uk to reserve your place.

Topics and speakers:

Moshé Machover

1. The Labour theory of value – Moshé Machover

The labour theory of value and how it should be understood is the fundamental centre of Marx’s critique of political economy: the basis on which all else is built.

Academic and long-standing militant Moshé Machover coauthored with Emmanuel Farjoun Laws of Chaos: a probabilistic approach to political economy (1985), pioneering an approach which has been used by some Marxist theorists and criticised by others. He gave a paper explaining the approach to the Historical Materialism Conference this year, which is recommended reading.

2. Money and finance capital – Hillel Ticktin

Hillel Ticktin

The financial system is at the centre of the present crisis. But what is the underlying basis on which the luxuriant overgrowth of financial institutions and instruments has grown up?

Hillel Ticktin is the editor of Critique journal. He has written numerous articles on finance capital and the ‘financial turn’ of the 1980s and its consequences and on the shape of the present crisis.

Werner Bonefeld

3. Political economy and the state – Werner Bonefeld

Keynesian and nationalist ‘solutions’ to the present crisis rest in the last analysis on the illusion that the nation-state stands above classes and can ‘manage’ the monetary and financial system so as to overcome the crisis. How does the state relate to the capitalist economy?

Werner Bonefeld is one of the founders of the ‘Open Marxism’ school of Marxist theory. His work on the state and political economy has been published in Critique, Capital and Class and elsewhere.

Mike Macnair

4. Against Keynesianism – Mike Macnair

John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) was a muddled partial critique of the ‘orthodox’ economics of his day while remaining within the fundamental ‘orthodox’ ideas of marginal utility and equilibrium – though full of striking phrases. Its assumptions are deeply nationalist. Keynesianism is popular among opponents of the policy of austerity because it seems to have ‘worked’ in the 1950s and 60s. It seemed to do so, in reality, because of the results of World War II.

Mike Macnair is a regular writer for the Weekly Worker, among other issues on the present crisis and its implications.

Marx’s spectre haunts the wealthy and powerful

The ruling class has no workable strategy for rescuing the system, argues Hillel Ticktin (originally published in the Weekly Worker)

Worshipping the market

The depression – called some years ago the ‘third great depression’ following on the long depression at the end of the 19th century and the great depression of 1929 onwards – is now official, as it were. Martin Wolf ’s recent article in the Financial Times produced a series of statistics showing that the present downturn has already lasted longer than previous downturns in the last century. His arguments are, of course, statistical and bound within orthodox economics, even if he leans to a moderate Keynesian analysis.[1]

Engels had predicted that downturns would become worse at the end of the 19th century, but he was proved wrong because of the turn to imperialism on the part of the great powers. However, it is clear that his observation of the underlying tendency was basically correct. In turn, the various depression-era economists of different persuasions now look more credible. The Keynesians, however, may have had their day, given the refusal of governments and a section of the ruling class to move in their direction.

The earlier interventionist policies in 2008-09 have now been replaced by stringency and austerity. It is not that the insights of the Keynesians have not been recognised, but their policies are regarded as too dangerous to follow. Hyman Minsky has had his moment. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Keynesians since the adoption of the Bretton-Woods agreements has been the recognition that their policies would work, but are so dangerous to capitalism itself that they have to be avoided at all costs.

It is paradoxical that the situation is so dangerous that the rich have to pretend that their wealth is playing no role in capitalism. We not only have the absurdity of trillions of dollars being held privately in various banks, but we now have one bank, the Bank of New York Mellon, charging for the trillions it holds, knowing it cannot be invested anywhere.[2] “It is the world’s largest custodian serving the world’s largest investors.”[3]

The problem the Keynesians attempted to solve lay in the difficulty of selling due to low incomes. Today, the rich are not even spending their money on yachts or luxury cars or castles, but saving it, and the amounts are so great that governments cannot compensate for their lack of investment without taxing the rich, who are financing political movements against taxation. Finance capital itself has been so concentrated that in the USA six investment/commercial banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman-Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo – hold assets worth 60% of US GDP, and “dominate the financial industry”.[4] At the same time, the government is implementing austerity measures directed against the majority of the population. The rich have got richer and the government is making the poor poorer. In the USA, at least, it is abundantly clear that the government could solve its fiscal problem through a rise in taxation on the wealthy.

The riots in Britain – preceded as they were by student protests and semi-riots – were rationalised away by the Conservative government, loyally supported by a rightwing press. No level of state repression, under the British prime minister’s name of ‘tough love’, against a recalcitrant population will alter the growing, though inchoate, demand for ‘regime change’ under conditions of growing inequality. The question is not whether there will be a powerful movement for the replacement of the market by a society rationally planned in the interests of the ordinary population, but how much longer it will take to develop. Marx’s spectre of communism is very much the ghostly presence feared by the wealthy and powerful, even if they do not understand what shape it will take.

No doubt the crisis will continue to take on a series of forms, from the initial financial implosion to the present-day threat of sovereign default and continued low growth. The present euro crisis is insoluble because it is a microcosm of the general crisis, which itself has no solution. However, its forms are specific. We have the expression of German nationalism, representing the first time that the German bourgeoisie feels it can shake off the heritage of the last world war and Nazism, and express its interests directly and clearly. The clash between France and Germany, Sarkozy and Merkel, has been relatively low-key, but it is there nonetheless. However, the Germans have found that it is not easy. The less prosperous countries of the euro zone are not prepared to accept German dictation of the economic terms of survival.

There is no obvious reason, in any case, why the terms of trade between Germany and any particular country in the European Union should be what they are. Why are agricultural goods relatively cheap, compared with machinery or automobiles? Only believers in the market accept market prices as fair, just or somehow correct. The commentators effectively argue that those countries whose industry is less developed should adopt a tight fiscal policy, given their need to import industrial goods from Germany. Such a policy cannot work under any circumstances. The only result, to be welcomed, will be the establishment of a uniform policy of economic repression sufficient to proletarianise the ‘middle class’ and drive the working class across the euro zone to forms of direct action.

The persistent failure of the euro zone to adopt a credible policy is indicative both of its divisions and of the real lack of a solution.[5] However, the German bourgeoisie really has no choice, unless it wants to lose the common market, stable economic relations with its neighbours and a relatively low-value currency. The proposed expulsion of Greece with its subsequent default would impoverish the population even further and create havoc among European banks, and is therefore a crazy solution. Even if the banks are saved before that event, and the default cauterised as a result, the knock-on effect on the bonds of the other countries – by now including practically all the Mediterranean members, plus Ireland – will be enough to make Germany avoid that way out. Apart from anything else, it will force the formation of a French zone, as opposed to a German one. As the country which will lose most, apart from Greece, the German bourgeoisie cannot take that line.

In reality, because a default or an exit from the euro zone will be globally destabilising, Greece is in a strong position and its government could have taken a much stronger line. Its government, however, is pusillanimous, reflecting the nature of its bourgeoisie, which has sent its money out of the country. Indeed, the way the bourgeoisie uses tax havens to shelter its money or to avoid tax or both plays a big role in the destabilisation of much of the world economy.

India and China

There is little that is politically more absurd than the constant reference to the importance of China and its role as the next big power. The similar reference to India is equal nonsense. It is argued that China and India or perhaps one or the other can save the world from its crisis. If it was not so commonly held, one could ignore it.

As regards India, we hear that “per head energy and protein intake has been falling for the last two decades, as the majority of the population is unable to afford enough food”.[6] Pankaj Mishra argues that the propaganda about India is closer to the myths produced by another country (presumably the USSR), “where statistics were shamelessly manipulated and a tiny, privileged elite dominating both political and economic life lorded it over the rest”.[7] The fact is that levels of productivity in China or India are a fraction of that in the USA, and they have no chance of catching up with the west, under capitalism.

In the case of China, it seems that it cannot now play the role that it did in 2008-09, when it expanded the money supply in order to avoid a contraction and so played an important role in avoiding a deeper downturn. Its growth rate is predicted to halve. “Finance is not the only area in which Beijing’s ability to launch a counter-cyclical economic stimulus has ebbed. The ability of local governments, if asked again by Beijing, to boost investments is questionable.”[8]

Divisions

On the one hand, the capitalist class thinks that it has dispensed with a communist/socialist alternative with the end of Stalinism. On the other hand, it also knows that the despair of the white- and blue-collar workers can and will turn to action in order to overthrow a social system which has outlived its time, in order to replace it with one controlled from below. The ruling class prefers to believe that such a society will be worse than capitalism, though there have always been some who are realistic enough to realise that the current inequality of wealth in the midst of massive poverty is insupportable.

In other words, the ruling class is divided, but all sections are concerned with the need to defend the system. At the same time, as in any time of global change, parts of the ruling class or its employees have begun to question their positions. In the UK, Marx has been quoted and some of his words supported by a series of establishment figures. None of them have become Marxist, and all would perhaps find reasons why Marx was wrong to want socialism, and indeed, no doubt, is still fundamentally wrong. Charles Moore,[9] biographer of Lady Thatcher and former editor of the rightwing Daily Telegraph, George Magnus of UBS, [10] former advocate of the new right in the 80s, John Gray,[11] philosopher and leading light in the founding of a new private university in London, and Sam Brittan,[12] long-time leading commentator at the Financial Times, are some of the figures reported in the press commenting on Marx or the left. Lord Skidelsky, biographer of Keynes, wrote: “as more and more people find themselves with enough, one might expect the spirit of gain to lose its social approbation. Capitalism would have done its work, and the profit motive would resume its place in the rogues’ gallery.”[13]

When the present crisis was in its earlier phase, we previously quoted an advice from JPMorgan,[14] to the effect that Marx might have had a point. The News International newspaper, The Times, wrote a sneering editorial in October 2008 in which it said that the world moves in mysterious ways and the fact that Marx’s Das Kapital had become a bestseller in Germany was particularly mysterious. It referred to the fact that Sarkozy, president of France, was photographed reading that work and that Pope Benedict had praised Marx’s analytical skills. The then German finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, as befits a social democrat, was apparently less taken with Marx, but was prepared to concede that some of his thinking was “not that bad”.[15] However, it was implied that this was little more than a fashion which was bound to pass. Three years later, it seems that Marx has come to the fore yet again and News International is suffering its own crisis.

The fact that they are looking at Marx shows, in the first instance, a collapse of confidence, first displayed in 2007-08. This, in turn, can have three possible meanings. The first is that Marx is simply a convenient icon to express their fear of the long-term damage done to the system. It does not necessarily indicate anything about their support for the market. The second is that they recognise that the market has had its day, though they do not necessarily see an alternative. The third possibility is latent in the other two. It is that they have begun to shift politically towards the left, without supporting any party, but it is yet to show itself. Here the problem is the absence of any significant Marxist party, to speed up the process.

Murdoch scandal

The ruling class has lost confidence in areas of life beyond the economy, however basic that is. The whole ‘Murdoch scandal’ is much more than a question of the illegal hacking of phones.

One of the prime movers in the British parliament, Labour MP Tom Watson, had this to say in an interview on the question: “When I was first elected I was a completely naive and gauche politician. You look at the pillars of the state: politics, the media, police, lawyers – they’ve all got their formal role, and then nestling above that is that power elite who are networked in through soft, social links, that are actually running the show.”[16] This could have come from Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara and the sentiment is very much at the heart of any Marxist political understanding of modern society, which now stands vindicated through a direct investigation of one of the threads the ruling class uses to rule. The involvement of the police, civil servants, members of parliament and journalists, all apparently connected to the Murdoch family, simply confirms a picture long held by Marxists, and often regarded with contempt by liberals.

It is clear that both bourgeois ideology and the parliamentary political system are in trouble. In one country after another, scandals of various kinds are rocking the system. One has only to look back at Marx’s description of Europe in 1848, France in particular, to realise that the eruption of so-called scandals today is part of a more general discontent in society, which is leading to increasing division in the ruling class and an increasing loss of confidence.

In this situation, the UK leads the pack, though demonstrations and organised forms of protest may be more frequent and more powerful in other countries. The nature of the student demonstrations and the English riots over the summer of 2011, whatever their immediate background, are unprecedented in English history. As the former global imperial power and junior partner to its successor, the United States, the British ruling class has propagated an ideology based on the view that it has been the founder of modern democracy, taking it over, as it were, from the ancient Greeks (by contrast, the ruling class ideology in the United States rests more on the so-called ‘American dream’, of meritocracy winning out, even though there is much made of democracy). Hence the recent scandals of members of parliament enriching themselves through claims for expenses, and the clear connections between politicians, policemen, journalists, private detectives and the Murdoch empire have struck at the heart of that ideology.

Under increasingly harsh economic conditions, with the media constantly talking about reckless and consequently illiquid and insolvent banks, whose executives, unbelievably still earn millions in annual salaries, the ruling class and government have to find arguments to support the existing socio-economic system. Yet every day seems to provide reasons for changing it. The immediate implications of the ongoing Murdoch scandal lead to a demand for a more open and democratic political system, the control of companies and indeed the press by those who do the ordinary work, rather than a dictatorship of a single individual, like Murdoch, or the CEO of a bank or industrial firm. This is not socialism and it is not viable, or likely to happen, under capitalism, but it is the kind of question that arises and blows open the ruling ideology, in however inchoate a way.

Terminal?

It is almost as if the ruling class has decided to commit suicide. It is going for an economic policy which is at best utopian and at worst catastrophic. Austerity for the vast majority and increasing riches for the ruling class is only a viable policy under conditions where there is absolutely no challenge to the system, and ordinary workers are so weak, both healthwise and in terms of organisation, that they pose no threat.

There really is no alternative to the replacement of the capitalist system by a genuine socialist system, which in the end is the only rationally ordered or planned system, in which decisions are made and controlled from below, not decided from above, however benign the ruler. Twist and turn as the beneficiaries of the system might, they have run out of strategies to delay change. As we have argued before, the ruling class has used finance capital/imperialism, world wars, cold war-welfare state and finance capital again as modes of survival. Finance capital has now imploded, while the colonies are now politically if not economically independent, the cold war is over and world war is no longer possible. The return to the welfare state without the cold war and Stalinism would only be the first step to loss of control, as became evident in the 70s of the last century.

Furthermore, it is clear that the global reach of the American empire is shrinking. The imperial power of the United States is in decline – and the decline of the leading capitalist power, without a successor in sight, can only herald the more rapid decline of the social system.

One might have predicted that there would have been a successor. There has been one such eventuality, after all, with the USA replacing the UK. However, Europe is engulfed in its own crisis, which is only expressing on a national scale the kind of inequality which exists in the society as a whole. There is no prospect of another country conquering the world, whether by force of arms or through finance capital, even if it had the industrial and military might of the United States without its debts. China, the country usually cited in this connection, is not in that position, and it does not even have the same drives or the same intensity of those drives, as modern capitalism.

So are we now witnessing the last days of the greatest empire the world has seen, the last days of a system which brought the world to a level of productivity so great that it made abundance for all a real possibility? The system was overthrown in Russia in 1917, and the world has been waiting for the potential replacement to show itself in a form other than Stalinism ever since. Delay is as good as a temporary defeat. In the end, Stalinism has been crucial to the preservation of capitalism, but it is no more and cannot be resuscitated. It is true that it is playing a negative role in Greece at this time and in a number of other countries, including China. It is less true of western Europe, however.

Subjective

As we approach the socialist future, the subjective plays an increasing role, as one might expect. In socialism, society is increasingly transparent and planning decisions are made by the population. The economy ceases to stand above mankind, and turns into the administration of things. Although we still live under capitalism, in spite of itself the ruling class has to rule and not leave the economy and society to an apparently impersonal market. However it is done – through governmental administration, through the parliamentary system, through the bureaucracy of the firm or through partially hidden ruling class institutions – the system is increasingly controlled.

In other words, before it comes to an end, there has to be a social-political form which stands in opposition to current political-economic forms. That does require a socialist party with intimate links to the working class. It has to be part of the majority of the society. It has to be trusted and it has to be internally democratic. There has to be a shift in consciousness towards socialism, in which the various doubts and slanders are discussed and dealt with.

As this shift has not occurred, capitalism is not directly threatened at this time. It is clear that there are threads leading to such a movement, but they are as yet only weak and easily broken. In the 1930s Trotsky spoke of a crisis of leadership. In a sense that is what is needed today, but the leadership has to be based on the will of the majority and that is yet to show itself. In the 30s, socialism had more support, making Trotsky’s analysis more understandable, but he was only right in so far as one could say that there was no socialist party to lead. He had underestimated the power of Stalinism.

Where are we?

If there is no direct challenge to capital, that does not mean that it is not in systemic trouble. One cannot read a commentary on present political economy which does not speak of ‘lack of confidence’. This use of the word ‘confidence’ is understood to mean that capitalists do not see how to make money by investing in the economy, as opposed to keeping their money in the bank or under a mattress. Above we discussed the question of confidence in another context – that of the system itself – and I will look at the two meanings and their relation.

Today, cash is king, even though inflation is reducing its value. This is not the usual situation in a depression, when deflation increases the value of the money held, even if no interest is paid. There appears to be no short-term or long-term solution. After all, money could be invested in a long-term project, expecting a return in 15-20 years, if the rich had confidence in the system. Whereas the short term concerns immediate issues, most of which will be resolved one way or another within a finite time, the long term concerns the health of the system, whether it survives or not. In the post-war years there have been relatively long periods when the stock market was depressed, but then revived, as occurred under Thatcher.

The result is that the usual advice given by stockbrokers to middle class, as opposed to rich, clients is to work on a 20-year perspective, which is pretty useless to many of their customers, who are often over 60. There is confidence in the capitalist system, on the one hand, and confidence in the possibility of making money by investing in the economy, on the other.

However, some sections of the capitalist class – small- to medium-size businessmen – do not invest and attribute their market problems to trade unions, government regulation and particular monopolies strangling the market. They see the solution in a long-term clean-out of workers’ organisations, a reduction in the role of the government and the protection of the national market. The financiers of the Tea Party seem to be of this ilk. Their intellectual allies are often fanatical supporters of the capitalist system, which they see as being damaged by its enemies. To a degree their lack of confidence is exaggerated by their ideologically based belief in the market and the threat supposedly posed by others.

The more serious section of the capitalist class, which controls finance and industry, recognises the lack of opportunity and the limits to demand at a time of mass unemployment and the increasing proletarianisation of the middle class. Its problem is that its investments are longer-term and require a limited reflation, but this section is worried that such reflation would become more general and could not be controlled. In other words, it continues to uphold its strategy of the last 30 years, in which it turned to finance capital, and so low growth and anti-welfare state measures. Finance capital, however, has imploded and hence the strategy is no longer viable. This section has been talking, therefore, of investing in industry, but it is worried that this could increase the confidence of the working class, and hence is holding back.

Today, more than ever, business confidence, so-called, is dependent on confidence in the capitalist system itself, even though the individual investor may not think like that. There is no strategy available to the capitalist class which has any kind of realistic chance of success, other than going for the growth of productive industry, but the bourgeoisie is afraid that this will produce a return to the 70s, with a powerful working class demanding concessions, and ultimately the supersession of the system.

As a result, the capitalist class is not only divided, but at sixes and sevens, with no real solution in sight. No leadership is possible because there is nowhere to lead other than to failure, disaster and possible catastrophe for the capitalist class itself. The most successful leader at this time will be the one who is able to understand the dilemma before him or her and takes the longest road to that result.

Conditions mature

The logical outcome of the present impasse is that the rightwing parties in government will lose their majorities. In a relatively short time we may expect that so-called centre-left parties will be in government in Italy, Germany and France. The Greek and Spanish ‘socialist’ parties’ willingness to accept the instructions to go for austerity sets the pattern for all such parties. Their discrediting, en masse as it were, will deepen the general dissatisfaction with the parliamentary-style democratic process, given that existing alternative parties will have cut the standard of living, supported by the media. There are already a number of countries with substantial far-right parties and no doubt there will be more.

Unfortunately, the left has not been able to establish itself anywhere, thus far. In Portugal, where it made a substantial breakthrough in previous elections, its vote halved in the middle of 2011, during the general elections. The attempt by the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) in France and also the United Secretariat to dissolve itself as a Trotskyist formation and form an anti-capitalist left has failed in France and Portugal. They have, no doubt, learned their lesson.

It is clear that the ruling class has no strategy for the maintenance of the capitalist system. It is not able to rule in the old way. The first condition for revolution, as enunciated by Lenin, is in place.

Notes

1. M Wolf, ‘Britain must escape its longest depression’ Financial Times, September 1.

2. BNY Mellon, according to its own website has $1.3 trillion under management and $26.3 trillion under custody or administration: http://www.bnymellon.com/about/companyprofile.html.

3. Ibid.

4. J Cassidy How markets fail London 2010, p354.

5. Wolfgang Munchau argues that the optimum solution is a fiscal union, but that it may not happen or happen in time. Instead he argues that there could be a minimal political solution, but it would be monstrous (‘A euro zone quick fix will create a political monster’ Financial Times October 10).

6. Quoted in P Mishra, ‘India’s Tommy Hilfiger utopia is a bluff that will soon be called across the globe’ The Guardian September 10.

7. Ibid.

8. J Kynge, ‘The cracks in Beijing’s edifice’ Financial Times September 10.

9. C Moore, ‘I’m starting to think that the left might actually be right’ The Daily Telegraph July 22.

10. G Magnus, ‘Financial bust has bequeathed a crisis of capitalism’ Financial Times September 13.

11. J Gray, ‘A point of view: the revolution of capitalism’ BBC News Magazine September 4.

12. S Brittan, ‘Mistaken Marxist moments’ Financial Times August 25. Although Brittan takes a critical line on Marx, he appears to appreciate his depth.

13. R Skidelsky, ‘Life after capitalism’ Project Syndicate 2011: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/skidelsky37/English.

14. M Cembalest and H Olsen, ‘Eye on the market’, item 6 – a commentary written for JPMorgan clients, October 7.

15. The Times October 20 2008.

16. Interview in The Guardian G2, August 3.

Marx’s Capital – a book for our times?

The Labour Party Marxists group are hosting a meeting entitled ‘Marx’s Capital – a book for our times?‘ in Northampton on Thursday December 1st. Their speaker will be Mike Macnair, a leading member of the CPGB and author of Revolutionary strategy. He will discuss what we can learn from Marx, in particular volume one of his seminal work Capital. The meeting is on Thursday 1 December, starting at 7.30pm in Room 17, Sunley Conference Centre, Park Campus, University of Northampton, NN2 7AL. You can download a flyer from the LPM website: http://www.labourpartymarxists.org.uk/?page_id=12. We’re promised plenty of time for debate and discussion. Hope to see you there.

Arming the resistance

What lies behind the ruling class cuts offensive and what strategy do we need to defeat it? This is an edited version of the speech given by Mike Macnair to the November 28 CPGB aggregate


There are two ways in which the question of fighting the cuts has to be approached. The first is to look forwards from where we are, starting from the immediate tasks facing the movement. The second is to look backwards, starting from just what it would take to actually defeat the cuts, as opposed to having large protests against them.

Looking forwards from where we are now, our aim is a mass campaign. It is not about small campaigns or about ‘thinking global and acting local’, and it is not about focusing on one particular campaign for a particular hospital or school which is being closed down and so on. In this cuts process, partial victories on single services which do not break the framework of the budget cuts would be like workers in a car factory winning no redundancies in the paint shop – on the basis that the same number of people would be made redundant on the assembly line. Our immediate aim is therefore to have united campaigns at local level. There are all sorts of anti-cuts campaigns springing up, and there needs to be coordination in the localities, and not just a multitude of ‘my own backyard’ bodies.

In addition to this, there needs to be a united national campaign. Judging from comrades’ reports from the November 27 Coalition of Resistance event, it looks as if this campaign is going to leap substantially ahead of the Socialist Workers Party’s Right to Work campaign. It also looks as if it will marginalise the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which seems unable to decide between national initiatives through Youth Fight for Jobs (merely a SPEW front) or through the National Shop Stewards Network, which is only slightly more than a SPEW front. But it looks as though these two campaigns have been very much pushed into the shade by COR.

But at the same time, COR runs the risk of not being the sort of campaign which can function at the level of the masses, but of a repeat of the Stop the War Coalition. That is, a central apparatus controlled by a particular coalition, which organises a series of national events of a grand old duke of York character (march them up to the top of the hill and march them down again). The political character of the project and an emphasis on ‘breadth, breadth breadth’ would mean that you cannot propose anything which the centre-left of the Labour Party would disagree with, or even (part of) the Liberal Democrats, given that the Labour leadership seems to be looking to break the Lib Dems from the coalition.

It is not that the alternative to this is a ‘hard left’ campaign. What we want to see is a democratic campaign, which means that the national organisation and leadership has to be based on delegates from the united campaigns in the localities and be answerable to them. To put it in a rather crude way, imagine that the local cuts campaigns are soviets and the central campaign is a congress of soviets. Obviously, this is a rather misleading way of putting it, because we are not talking about a situation where the working class is in short order going to take over towns and cities through its elected representatives. But in terms of the basic principles of organisation, we are talking about a mass campaign both in relation to the localities and in the character of the organisation at the centre, making the leadership answerable to the base.

Alternative politics

The second question which is immediately posed is not a task for a mass anti-cuts campaign as such. What is posed is the need for an alternative general policy. Of course, the COR statement talks about the necessity of an alternative vision, but in essence the leadership’s vision is British nationalist, with Britain following a Keynesian policy, printing more money and letting the deficit rise on the basis that the country’s economy will improve as a result. They might tack onto this a policy of fair trade with the third world; cuts in arms expenditure; ending the wars and so forth. But at the end of the day, the policy remains a British nationalist policy.

What is missing is a communist alternative policy, a Marxist alternative policy, which tackles head on the fact that these cuts are the product of an international crisis of capitalism and that they are a product of the choices which capital has made.

I stress capital because the cuts are not merely the choices of David Cameron and George Osborne. They are not about ideological blindness, nor are they simply about contributors to the Conservative Party wanting to do well. There have been enormous losses in the global financial sector and now the question which is posed after the numerous governments have carried out large-scale nationalisations, printed and borrowed huge quantities of money and bailed the banks out is: who is going to pay?

This question is not one which is simply posed within individual countries. It is also posed between individual countries. The fact that this is the character of the cuts decisions is reflected in the fact that the Conservatives are constantly able to say two things to dismiss Labour’s criticisms over this or that cut.

The first, which is a total lie, is that the deficit level is largely attributable to Labour’s ‘reckless spending’ in the period before the crash. The reason why it is a lie is that the turn which Labour took in spending more money was in response to international agreements to stimulate the economy in the wake of the east Asian crisis of 1997 and the dot-com crash of 2001. So the bubble and the structural deficit of the last period is not the result of the errors of the Labour Party in spending more money. It is a consequence of the recessions and house price crashes which should have followed either the first or the second of these financial crises (a serious recession after 1997 would probably have meant that 2001 would not have occurred), but which were averted by Keynesian deficit spending after 1998-99 and again after 2001-02.

The second thing which the Tories can say in relation to Labour opposition to the cuts is true. It is to point out that Labour was also going to carry out serious cuts. In the last months of the Brown government, Alistair Darling et al were talking about a serious reduction in public expenditure. So these cuts are not solely an ideological commitment of the Tories. There are features of some Tory donors benefiting from the proposed cuts, but the overwhelming bulk of what is going on is that something which a Labour government would have been doing too, had it won the last election.

There is a consequence of this. Because where the cuts are coming from is not a combination of stupidity on behalf of the Tory leadership and the Orange Book Liberals, because the cuts are not simply about a series of corrupt payments to the Conservative Party, addressing them on the level of a Keynesian alternative is not a realistic proposal. Because the actual overthrow of the existing regime of capital is not on the agenda, the Keynesian solution is presented as a realistic one – Britain can adopt an ‘alternative economic strategy’ and adjust its position in terms of the global world order.

But it is actually not a realistic proposal. The reason is that underlying the decision to go for cuts is a sense of a non-hegemon power having reached its limits – the limits of the Keynesian interventions of 1998-2001. Now the losses have to fall on somebody, and any government which pursues British ‘national interests’ and seeks to maintain Britain’s standing in the world, or to maintain the enormous role of financial services in the British economy (one of the biggest sources of income to Britain from foreign economies) is going to have to implement something like these cuts.

We need broad mass unity to fight them. But if this broad mass unity is to require the far left, which in theory does advocate the overthrow of the existing capitalist system, shutting up about this for the sake of unity, and serving as bag carriers for those who advocate national solutions, it is actually a waste of time. It is true that people may be mobilised and so forth. But at the end of the day it will not prevent the cuts or result in the political defeat of the cuts project. It will be mere protest, ultimately ineffective: what columnists in The Times and The Daily Telegraph are calling ‘nostalgia for the 1970s’.

The consequence of that is that, although we want a unified, democratic anti-cuts campaign which is not in and of itself committed to the overthrow of capitalism, it remains the case – and becomes more the case than under Labour – that we need a Communist Party as an alternative to Labourite politics. The question of party unity is not posed to the cuts campaign as a whole in the sense of an ‘anti-cuts party’. After all, people can be quite genuinely and sincerely opposed to these cuts and be Labour rightwingers who would defend Labour cuts. So can nationalists and advocates of Keynesian demand stimulus. But those people who are already theoretically and in principle in favour of the actual overthrow of capitalism and its replacement need to organise on a party basis and not on the basis that we currently have – ie, the various competing sects, and their competing fronts which attempt to unite one sect with a section of the social democratic bureaucracy to gain leverage at the expense of other sects.

Winning strategy

The second approach is to work backwards from the question of what could defeat the cuts. This question is posed in a sense by the (in my opinion largely futile) debates about direct action amongst our own ranks. I say futile debates because it seems to me that there are not any substantial differences. The line which the CPGB Provisional Central Committee took after the occupation of Millbank Tower was to say, ‘Great, we celebrate the fact that people were militant, but we cannot count on making two, three, many Millbank occupations.’ We celebrate militancy – though, of course, we criticise somebody throwing a fire extinguisher off the building, which amounted to ‘friendly fire’ on demonstrators below. We also celebrate that, by sheer luck if nothing else, the occupation came off and that it made the media.

After Millbank, education secretary Michael Gove has argued the need to deny the students the “oxygen of publicity”. By and large, the press and the BBC have concurred, particularly in relation to the student occupations which are springing up all around the country. In Millbank we saw the tactical advantage of the ‘spectacular’. But this will not be repeated.

We have seen this before with the first anti-capitalist demonstrations on May Day in the 1990s. They also hit the media, also were a trigger and also caused a very big deal. But, as the event was repeated every May Day, the police were not only ready to deal with it: it ceased to be real news any more. So, yes, it is great to be militant and to be creative, but it is not a strategic way forward. I think differences in our ranks have been largely centred around nuance in how to assess the event.

However, there is an important issue which lies behind this discussion: namely that protest in the simple sense of grand old duke of York marches through the streets of London is not going to stop these cuts. Witness the big demos against the Iraq war. But equally attempts to repeat Millbank are not going to stop these cuts. Nor are student occupations. So what is going to stop them?

The struggle against cuts is like struggles against redundancies and unlike disputes over wages and conditions of employment. In disputes over wages and conditions, the employers do actually want the work done; they just want to pay less for the same amount of work – whether directly, by speed-up or by dumping accident costs on employees. Strikes therefore hit the employers where it hurts: in their pockets. Nor is it like the poll tax. There the government’s aims included reducing taxes on business and the rich, cutting local expenditure and trying to get working class voters to blame Labour councils. But its immediate means was to try extract more tax from the poor, and direct resistance to paying could therefore defeat the project.

The cuts, on the other hand, amount simply to the government refusing to provide money for various purposes for which it has provided it in the past. That means that the government is not desperately concerned if things do not get done. Protest strikes are useful, but all-out strike action in the public services will have no coercive effect. Moreover, the coalition partners have deliberately ‘front-loaded’ the cuts. They expect to be massively unpopular and to face a certain degree of public disorder for the first three years of the five-year parliament they plan. They hope that after this they will be able to give out enough tax bribes, etc, to win the next election. If that fails there is always the possibility that some third-world nationalist will invade UK overseas territory in a repeat of the Falklands war or that the Blairites will wreck Labour as an electoral alternative by ‘doing an SDP’.

Capitalist crisis

Think about what lies behind the cuts. There has been an international capitalist crisis with massive sums of money lost in the financial markets. The question follows: who is going to pay for these losses? In the first instance, it is the masses in Iceland, Greece, Ireland and elsewhere who are going to pay. We are seeing a process by which the central imperialist powers use their control of the financial system (plus, lying behind that, US power and the implied threat of military action in the case of a default) to offload the crisis onto the masses of these peripheral countries.

So in essence what we see is the US and other top-dog powers using their position in the global order to dump these losses – onto the broad masses of their own countries to some extent, but also to a much larger extent onto weaker countries, which can be made to carry the can: loan capital is withdrawn back into the central core, which leads to a global debt crisis, and this then transmutes – as it has in Greece and Ireland – into a state debt crisis. This now looks likely to hit Portugal and Spain too.

The US would also very much like to externalise losses onto China by forcing Beijing to float its currency. If the Chinese currency is allowed to float freely and Chinese capital controls are removed, then there will be a very large asset bubble leading to a rapid crash à la Japan. After all, in the 1987 crisis floating currencies allowed the US to externalise the losses made in the financial system onto Japan, creating a slump in that country which has persisted to the present day.

In this situation, states are manoeuvring in complex ways against each other. My impression of the recent crisis over North Korea and the north-south borders is that it is really part of the same process. It seems that the hand of the US may lie behind this, rather than pure adventurism by the North Korean leadership: the US has found a reason to bring its fleet right up to Chinese territorial waters, which is what is involved in the current military exercises, and thereby remind the Chinese that they are not (yet) ready to embark on armed confrontation with the US in defence of their own freedom of action.

So states can externalise losses to the extent that they and their currencies remain high up in the pecking order. In this situation the UK government is making cuts, and shifting costs onto the poor, women and onto the north on a large scale. It is doing so not because it is absolutely out of money, but in order to stabilise its ranking in the global pecking order.

The point is to keep money flowing through London, because at the end of the day the material productive element of the British economy is not that strong. Money in global transactions flows through London, and this is skimmed off in the form of salaries and bonuses paid to workers in the city, and then these salaries are in turn skimmed through income tax. This is one of the most taxable parts of the economy, as opposed to corporate profits, which to a considerable extent have been made de facto tax-free by various scams, schemes and offshoring operations. So funds which derive from international flows of money actually make up a very substantial part of the state budget. The resulting income is then redistributed in the form of public sector expenditure, contracts for private finance initiatives and so forth, which keeps the rest of the economy going.

This is not a previously unknown situation. In a sense it rather resembles the 17th century Venetian economy or that of the Dutch the 18th century. That is to say, it reflects a former world hegemon which is no longer dominant militarily and has lost a large part of its material productive base and primarily become an offshore financial operation, skimming off the financial transaction flows in the world economy. (Like the 17th-18th century Venetians, but unlike the 18th century Dutch, Britain also gains significant income from tourism …)

But in order for that to continue it is necessary, from the point of view of capitalism, for the British government to be seen as a strong government vis-à-vis its own debts, and to some extent internationally (hence the fuss about cuts in military expenditure within the elite, in a way that cuts in welfare simply are not of any substantial controversy in this milieu). It is also necessary to maintain the alliance with the US: just as the 18th century Amsterdam financial market existed thanks to British toleration and was rapidly crushed when the Netherlands acted against British interests, so today Britain’s ability to live off financial services exists thanks to US toleration and support.

Let us go down a level in the explanation. The global crisis reflects the problem that – by retaining capitalism – society opts for coordination of labour and resource allocation on a global level – and on a national level through the money mechanism. At the end of the day, it is this mechanism of resource allocation which produces the cycle of boom-bubble-crash-slump and then gradual recovery leading to boom.[1]

To escape the imperatives of that situation it is necessary to carry out resource allocation in a different way: ie, to move very substantially towards direct planning in use-values and very substantial demonetisation of economic decision-making. That is the highest level at which the cuts could be defeated: we could defeat the cuts by overthrowing capitalism.

Obviously the problem with this, as we have seen in the Soviet Union, is that it cannot be done in a single country – not even one as enormous as the USSR in terms of population, resources and expansiveness. But it certainly cannot be done by unilateral action in the UK, which is not able to feed itself and is dependent on food imports just to keep its population alive – leave aside everything else in terms of the productive economy and the dependence on the financial services sector. So the overthrow of capitalism needs to taker place at an international level.

We could begin the overthrow of capitalism at a European level. We should certainly aim to prepare for such a project. That is why we have on our masthead “Towards a Communist Party of the European Union”. But, even short of this aim, we can aim for and fight for coordinated Europe-wide demonstrations, strikes, etc, against cuts and ‘austerity’.

Aims and outcomes

Level two: we could defeat the immediate cuts by overthrowing the present government without overthrowing the state and capitalism. This would be a tough job in itself, but it could perhaps be done if enough Liberal Democrat MPs lost their nerve. But then what do we put in its place?

Inevitably at present it means we put in its place a Labour government committed to cuts! Indeed, suppose we put a left Labour government in its place (who knows where the Labour lefts are going to come from, given they are so thin on the ground). But suppose we have a government – say, headed by Tony Benn dragged out of retirement, along with some Communist Party of Britain types, etc. We then introduce a policy which is based on the Labour left and CPB ‘alternative economic strategy’. What happens? Simply and obviously we will see capital flight on a very large scale, which in France the first government of François Mitterand was subjected to after making some ‘unwise concessions’ to the working class. The result will be that a left Labour government would be forced to more severe cuts than those now being imposed by the Con-Dems.

Level three: we persuade the state elite and the capitalist class that there are worse alternatives than concessions. Now, it may be that we can do this, as happened in 1945. The response of an important section of the elite in Britain to 1940 was to head to Kenya or the Caribbean. But across Europe in 1945, in France post-1968, and to some extent in Britain in the 1970s, the capitalist class was persuaded by working class political action which amounted to less than overthrowing the government and less than overthrowing capitalism, that the actual overthrow of capitalism was in prospect. Because they were persuaded that this was in prospect, they were also persuaded that it was a better option to make big concessions in order to head it off.

The problem we are in at the moment is that the state elite and the capitalist class is not persuaded of anything of the sort. The phenomenon of generational replacement means that the people who lived through the 1930s and the 1940s are now out of politics and deep into retirement. It also means that those who lived through the 1960s and 70s are also getting on. Those who remember the rise of the shop stewards’ movement and militant action from the 1960s are also getting towards retirement age. The people who are forming this government remember Thatcherism from their youth. At the moment they cannot imagine being confronted with really serious resistance.

It might be possible that with sufficiently serious resistance and a political alternative – even a very imperfect political alternative, like the Left Party in Germany – that the capitalist class will back off from these cuts and make concessions, even if it is not really the case that we are about to take power. (After all, it was not really the case that the working class was about to take power in France in 1968 or in Britain in 1974.) We might scare them sufficiently to force concessions.

But in order to do that we need mass action on a European scale. The reason is that, as long as the austerity consensus holds across Europe, any individual country which makes concessions to the working class will face a flight of capital. Mass action on a European scale could break the consensus. This idea is not at all unrealistic: we have already seen widespread mass action in individual countries across Europe. The obstacle is the nationalist character of the social democratic and ‘official communist’ leaderships.

But we also need people to be positively arguing for the overthrow of capitalism. Why the capitalist class perceived the overthrow of capitalism to be on the agenda in 1945 is obvious: Soviet troops reached the Elbe. The reason they perceived it to be on the agenda in the 1960s and 1970s is also due to international considerations – while the USSR was militarily very much weaker than America, the US had not attained the capability it sought of a first strike without effective Soviet response; the US was being defeated in Vietnam, the UK had been defeated in Yemen, and the insurgencies in Mozambique and Angola brought down the Portuguese regime. Also the mass actions of the late 60s and early 70s, though nationally limited, were global in range. And they took place in the context of there being large-scale ‘official communist’ parties, large Maoist splinters to their left, and beyond that substantial Trotskyist organisations, all arguing at least formally for the overthrow of capitalism.

As far as this is concerned, the problem we have at the moment goes back to the absence of a party in relation to the anti-cuts movement. Because they are all trying to get an inch ahead of their left competitors by making a bloc with the social democrats, Martin Smith, John Rees, Hannah Sell and co are not arguing for the overthrow of capitalism. They are arguing for a nationalist and Keynesian policy. Thus working backwards from what is needed to defeat the cuts, we arrive at one of the points we reached from the point of view of what the anti-cuts campaign immediately needs: a united Communist Party.

Of course, we in CPGB consistently argue for this, but the party is objectively the real link between a mass anti-cuts protest campaign and the actual defeat of the cuts. Without a real party arguing for the overthrow of capitalism, we are unlikely to get beyond the phenomenon of marching up and down the hill.

As for direct action, it is entirely morally justified. After all, the Con-Dems have come to power through fraud and corruption, and using occupations and even employing force against them is totally acceptable.

But the moral justification is not the issue. The issue is, what can inflict a defeat on this cuts project? This problem is one of politics, not of direct action tactics

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.org.uk

Notes

1. More in my articles ‘From boom to war?‘, Weekly Worker October 2 2008, and ‘Responding to the crisis‘, October 16 2008.

Osborne budget: war on the working class

The ‘nasty medicine’ served up by George Osborne and the coalition government will provoke resistance and pull the Labour Party to the left, predicts Eddie Ford


When the capitalist economic-financial system went into near global meltdown, and catastrophe was only narrowly averted by frantic and massive state intervention, it was always going to be the working class that would have to pay the price. We would have to carry the can, not the capitalists and bankers – the supposed masters of the universe – who lost control of their system. Well, we are now getting our first glimpses of what the new age of austerity will be like – when, to use the words of David Cameron, the “rubber really hits the road”.

So this week chancellor George Osborne delivered his first ever budget, widely described as a “defining moment” for the new coalition government and the country as a whole. He was the man, of course, who last year hypocritically declared that “we are all in this together” – unless you happen to be wealthy, that is. Like the 23 cabinet ministers who have assets and investments worth more than £1 million, who will hardly have to apply for a crisis loan from social security. Naturally, Osborne’s “tough but fair” budget was anything but “fair” – representing an assault, albeit just the initial wave, on the jobs and living standards of the working class. Yes, the age of austerity is going to be extraordinarily nasty.

As predicted, the budget delivered an aggressive mix of anti-working class spending cuts and tax increases – all with the aim of ‘balancing the books’ by 2016. Hence, as from next January the main rate of VAT will rise from 17.5% to 20% – which, of course, will clobber ordinary workers and the poor, as will the £11 billion cut in overall welfare spending. This will include measures to freeze child benefit for three years, and curtail disability living allowance. Particularly vicious are a raft of proposals to crack down on housing benefit. Quite vindictively, after April 2013 the unemployed will see their benefit cut by 10% after 12 months of claiming Jobseekers Allowance – presumably on the basis that if you make the lazy bastards suffer even more, threaten them with potential homelessness, then that will ‘incentivise’ them to get off their backsides and find a (non-existent) job. Housing benefit will also be cut for people who are in larger homes than their family size officially “warrants”.

Furthermore, from next year – excluding the state pension and pension credit – benefits, tax credits and public service pensions will rise in line with the consumer price index rather than the retail price index, which is generally higher. There will be a two-year pay freeze for public sector workers earning over £21,000, even if last year Osborne was talking about making it £18,000 – presumably a Liberal Democrat-brokered ‘compromise’. The government will “accelerate” the increase in state pension age to 66 and Osborne also revealed – a real sting in the tail – that all government departments apart from health and international aid, which are ring-fenced, will face an average 25% cut in their budgets over the course of the parliament, the exact details to be determined by a sweeping “spending review” in the autumn.

George Osborne stated that the UK “can look to a brighter future”, thanks to the budget, while even less convincingly the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the treasury, Danny Alexander, declared that proposals his party had previously denounced with righteous fury as a “Tory VAT bombshell” were a “necessary” response to the “big gap” in public finances the new government had inherited. Similarly, Vince Cable said his party had helped secure some “very big and progressive steps”, such as raising tax thresholds for the lowest-paid and a £150 annual rise in child tax credits for the poorest families.

So, Lib Dem emollients and flummery aside – we have the expected cuts, cuts, cuts. But communists have to ask the basic question, why are they doing this? Indeed, some elements within the establishment think that an austerity drive under today’s concrete conditions is tantamount to madness. After all, the UK has only just come out of recession officially – though more on a statistical technicality than in substance. The UK’s ‘growth’ barely registers, having expanded at an average rate of 0.30% in the last quarter. In fact, according to the Global Economics Research unit, this “upturn in production may be short-lived, as it was the result of inventory adjustments and a rise in exports prompted by the weak pound”. That is, rather than “trying to increase market share by lowering foreign currency prices”, exporters instead “have been rebuilding their profit margins” and this – in connection with “weak growth” in Europe, which imports 50% of UK products – “may sooner or later erase the advantage of a lower exchange rate”. Furthermore, as a result of the cuts, VAT increase, etc announced in the budget, “we should anticipate an additional drop in consumer spending, which in turn may make companies postpone investments and hiring and slow down the recovery”.[1]

Hence, it fundamentally goes against all post-war bourgeois orthodoxy – Keynesian economics, in a nutshell – to cut rather than spend when attempting to crawl out of a recessionary hole. A state in debt is not the same as an individual in debt – quite the opposite. Rather states need urgently to spend, spend, spend in order to stimulate demand and avoid an even deeper recession: keep on spending, keep on investing, so they can eventually recover. And capitalist states have always borrowed to finance their spending and generate economic growth.

However, the Osborne budget signals the opposite approach – to drive down spending and dampen demand. To sit in your hole and just keep digging. So a sharp rise in the number of unemployed therefore means more spending on unemployment benefit and social security – money straight down the drain, in that respect. The unemployed have less ready cash, so obviously spend less. Therefore demand drops, which in turn means there is less incentive for capital to invest in production. The UK could spiral down into the much feared double-dip recession, making George Osborne’s “tough” budget an exercise in suicide economics. And, of course, we have seen intimations of this downward spiral in Europe – not just in semi-basket-case economies like Greece or Portugal, but in a ‘powerhouse’ like Germany, which is now experiencing its own austerity drive.

In fact the budget was driven far more by a political agenda than an economic one. Clearly, the coalition government – and those it represents – sees a golden opportunity to roll back the welfare state and tilt the balance of class forces in favour of capital, the ‘deficit crisis’ making a perfect excuse for such an offensive. Hence, except for some paltry concessions here and there to those sections of the working class deemed to be the ‘worthy poor’, what we are confronted with is a naked attempt to shift the deficit burden onto the backs of the working class by ruthlessly driving down living standards. Work longer for less, retire later and poorer – if you have a job at all, of course, as it is an absolute certainty that unemployment will sharply shoot up as a direct consequence of the approach outlined by Osborne.

Which will please The Times, to name but one rightwing rag. Last week it implored Osborne to restore the UK’s “credibility with the markets” – by “going further” and “faster” with regards to cuts, meaning that the chancellor “needs to be ambitious with the nasty medicine he offers”. For the Times, this logically meant that the “greater part of the burden” has to come from “spending cuts”, not rises in taxation – therefore “tough action” is required on public sector pay, pensions and benefits, as part of the endeavour to “scale back the middle class welfare state” and set the UK on the glorious path to a “low tax economy”.[2] Sections of the ruling class resent spending money on the working class and have said enough is enough. Osborne’s budget represents this declaration of war, this desire for red-in-tooth-and-claw class revenge.

Now, the same Times editorial noted what it called Labour’s “raucous opposition to everything” – ie, to the budget cuts in particular. Of course, when in government, the Labour Party was committed – to all intents and purposes – to the same basic programme as outlined by George Osborne. But, now enjoying the ‘luxury of opposition’, the Labour leadership is making loud anti-cuts noises. Thus Harriet Harman, acting Labour leader, described the budget as “reckless” – it would stifle economic growth, “throw people out of work” and “hit hardest those who can least afford it”. Just as angrily, John Prescott condemned ex-Labour cabinet minister John Hutton – appointed by the coalition government to head a commission into public sector pensions – for being a “collaborator”.

Indeed, senior Labour figures are now talking left. The language of resistance. Militancy. Even a whiff of political cordite in the air. Leadership candidate Ed Balls, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, condemned “the callousness of the cuts which are being proposed” and the “unfairness” of the VAT rise, as well as the undermining of the recovery and jobs. Balls also slammed Osborne for turning to the likes of Norman Lamont, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson – “the people who gave us the deflation and the unemployment of the 1980s”.[3]

Needless to say, union leaders have reacted with anger. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis accused the coalition government of “declaring war” on public services, to the extent that the budget would “raise the spectre of breadline Britain” in some parts of the country. Public sector workers, Prentis spat, “will be shocked and angry that they are the innocent victims of job cuts and pay freezes”. Prentis is quite right, of course. In reaction, it is inevitable there will be mass fightbacks, including strikes and demonstrations – with left bureaucrats like Prentis, Derek Simpson, Tony Woodley, Mark Serwotka, etc making fiery speeches from the podium denouncing the manifold evils of the Con-Lib government. And, of course, they could well be sharing a platform with the likes of Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and the Milibands – all presenting a new-found left face to the working class.

Herein lies the danger. If form is anything to go by, the comrades in the Socialist Party in England Wales and the Socialist Workers Party, for example, will act as loyal lieutenants of the trade union bureaucracy – which will lend them a spurious legitimacy. Which, of course, was precisely why the SWP’s May 22 invasion of the talks between British Airways and Unite negotiators was such a spectacular, and idiotic, own goal. How did such a stunt – which saw a furious Tony Woodley shouting at the comrades – further the SWP’s self-professed project of forming a ‘united front’ with brothers Prentis, Woodley, Simpson, etc?

It is not the role of the left to simply constitute itself as an adjunct of the union bureaucracy – no mater how left it might be posing at any one time. Nor is it our role just to be the most militant proponents of strike action – strikes in and of themselves are not enough – no matter how much we communists fight to build, support and give them direction. Look at Greece: call the general strike, then what? No, we need a strategy leading to an alternative society. First and foremost we need to fight for the only political vehicle that can take us there – a united Communist Party, guided by a principled Marxist programme.

As we have seen in the Netherlands and Belgium – which disastrously is on the verge of breaking apart – so far it has been the far right which has benefited from the economic crisis. But with the correct tactics and strategy – the right programme – it can be the revolutionary left in Britain and elsewhere which can take leadership of the struggles.

eddie.ford@weeklyworker.org.uk
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Notes

  1. www.tradingeconomics.com/Economics/GDP-Growth.aspx?Symbol=GBP
  2. The Times June 19.
  3. For the full transcript, see news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/andrew_marr_show/8750245.stm