Challenging capitalism in practice
By Len Arthur at Nov 13, 2009
International Socialism Discussion & Network [post-Katarsis]
Comrades and Colleagues
As a result of being involved in discussions in the Katarsis project a number of colleagues suggested that they might like to maintain contact by sharing thoughts and information about the continuing relevance of the prospect of socialist analysis and the its relationship to a radical form of social innovation. During the course of discussions around the last Katarsis meeting in
This is the start and whether it continues or proves worthwhile will depend on the value that we collectively sustain. So here are some preliminary if rather over long thoughts.
1. The importance of understanding the context.
The last 12 months have the potential to be seen by historians as a major global turning point. The crisis of finance capitalism which surfaced as the ‘credit crunch’ last September not only revealed factually serious structural and systematic weaknesses in the markets for banking and investment but also revealed real limitations on the extent of de-regulated and supposedly self adjusting market systems. Moreover, the crisis is a paradigmatic one for the hegemony of neo-liberalism which has as its basic assumption a progressive reduction for the role of the state. Without the intervention of national states and inter-state cooperation since last September a large proportion of the world’s banking system would have terminally shut down through bankruptcy.
As it happens possibly $7 trillion dollars of real value has been taken out of the world’s economic system by the crisis. In historical terms this is possibly the largest deflationary impact which has so far been experienced and has only been modified at present by the state filling the gap – even to the extent of printing money euphemistically known as ‘qualitative easing’. The social and political consequences will now be experienced as state supported services are cut back to reduce the consequent public debt. This need not happen – but will as capitalist supporting governments make the working class pay for the crisis of finance capital leading to a consequent worsening of the already increasing international social and economic inequalities. I cannot find the quote, but I’m sure Lenin argued that capitalism will always survive so long as the working class can be forced to pay the cost. That is what we are about to experience.
Climate change has taken a back seat while the crisis of finance capital has hit the headlines: but it remains one of the most remorseless and deadly threats to human society and survival. The effects of global warming and the speed of its taking effect through our own actions have convincingly been argued in the IPCC reports. States are being looked to provide a lead but, through a combination of national survival and an unwillingness to challenge the neo-liberal free market, international agreements are failing to have an impact.
There is clearly widespread concern and a search for answers among the world’s population about these issues: the incredible inspiration and hope that lay behind Obama’s election; the steady increase in the green vote in the Euro elections; and the volatility of voting patterns. However, with the capitalist system exposing its own failings it seems the left has singularly failed to provide an analysis or an answer and has failed to score even at an open goal. The European elections are worth evaluating in some detail and, if it is possible to do so, setting aside the issue of a low turnout, they reveal national concerns coming to the fore and frighteningly being expressed in an increased vote for the extreme right and fascists. Just look at the
2. The continuing relevance of Marxism
As socialist we have become very timid. I’ve tried to read widely about how the left has responded to the crisis we humans face and I seem to find an extreme reluctance to try to apply a Marxist analysis. Mostly the debate revolves around broad statement about neo-liberalism which are merely a weak euphemism for something radical instead of any further analysis.
I’d like to suggest that this analytical weakness underpins the left’s understanding of the context of the capitalist and climate change crisis we face and its consequent failure to offer a political project that can renew the international socialist project.
I’ve tried to engage with a Marxist analysis since the mid 1960s through a variety of political organisations and academic discourses and an historical understanding of capitalism as a particular epoch still seems to me to provide a way forward. Now this is a very personal statement but is not one of faith but one of constant experimentation in struggle and analysis, but I do accept and understand what a weak argument that is. However, bear with me as I’m prepared to go through the debate in more detail later.
What does Marx seem to offer as an understanding of the current dual crisis? Well it goes something like this.
1. Capitalism is essentially system that is driven by competition between units of capital to maximise - through accumulation and sustaining of the value of that accumulation - as dominate control of world economic activity as possible. The rate of profit from any investment is critical in sustaining the process of accumulation. The rate of profit is derived from the application of labour power in the commodity production process, the rate of exploitation of that labour power and the ability to realise this productive output as exchange value in the market. Really it revolves around Marx’s classical formula M-C-M1 . Recently I think Chris Harman has been sound on a contemporary application of this analysis (www.isj.org.uk/?id=340).
2. Marx explores in great detail how capitalism acts to counter the falling rate of profit through both absolutely and relatively increasing the rate of exploitation of labour. For the purposes of this contextual discussion I’d like to suggest the usefulness of considering some of the key international patterns of aggregate activity that has emerged as capitalism as a system has tried to preserve the rate of profit:
- Finance capital: where speculation in creating money and packaging risk and debt has sustained profitability by a form of withdrawal from the messy business of commodity production. It has been easy lending money and then passing the responsibility of the risk to someone else – increasingly resulting in a toxic game of ever faster passing CDOs onto the next major sucker. It is really rather a simple but extremely dangerous game like those that children play of ‘pass the parcel’ where the one that is left holding the parcel when the music arbitrarily stops has to withdraw from the game. Ultimately the one left has the monopoly but it is worthless as money is only made whilst the game is being played. That is where we are now and the state has to pick up the parcel of debt.
- Monopoly capital where the rate of profit is sustained by trying to gain a monopoly position in any sphere of commodity production and in other spheres through vertical and horizontal integration. The power of international monopolies has been somewhat neglected of late, possibly as they are not as stable as they were in the late 60’s when the analysis was more dominant. This is a mistake as we ignore their power at our peril. Currently just three companies control the whole of the world’s supply of iron ore and it is possible that two of those will merge over the next 6 months. They are difficult to subject to any democratic control and clearly have a major influence on the price of the ore.
- Third and more controversial, state capitalism, where the power of the state is purposively used to in conjunction with public or private capital to maintain the rate of profit through power in the market place.
I recognise these trends but I’m not too sure of how it all works together but it does seem to provide a building block to understanding the dynamic of capitalism and the operation of political power in the world. The power that is involved in the processes seems to lie behind the dual crisis of capitalism and climate change. Action to combat climate change comes up against the interest of maintaining the rate of profit and accumulation and clearly the power is used to restrict labour costs and any tax used for welfare benefits. As ever the system is self contradictory as the spending power of labour provides the source of real demand to realise produced commodities – now the financial crisis is upon us the debt based money escape from the contradiction has been closed.
3. What can be done?
A blueprint has and will fill many libraries so this is not another attempt just to suggest some ways forward and perhaps key issues.
Unity of means and ends – I remember a guiding phrase from my union activities: ‘workers control is the answer and workers control must be the way’. Essentially that the means of changing society must also involve those changes in practice: creating the future in the present as forms of struggle. It is a guiding principle that places an emphasis on self activity and direct action as a method of social change helping to ensure that those who resist will also inherit the outcome. It clearly is a different notion to the party being the sole depository of consciousness and strategy and at the same time is a rejection of the social democratic notion that assumes change comes takes place through elected representatives doing things on behalf of the people they purport to represent.
Ends? – to put such a unity into practice requires a debate and some agreed understanding about the ends among those who wish to resist. Many specifics answers evolve that resistance, but I’d to suggest that the outline analysis of the capitalist context has implication:
- Power. Power is concentrated in the hands of those who own the means of production and use this to attempt to sustain the rate of profit, the value of accumulated wealth with the consequences identified above. Changing society is about re-distributing that power. Power over the means of production through ownership means that it is possible to identify members of society who have a monopoly access to power resources: economic, political, social and symbolic. Consequently it is also possible to identify the processes through which they can use these power resources to shape the future in their interests.
- The challenge. To achieve a redistribution of power, control and wealth to all citizens to try to start to ensure that the value that is created is used for the long term purposes of a ‘use value’ reducing need, inequality and arresting climate change as opposed to an ‘exchange value’ as a commodity in the market process of realising the rate of profit. At the same time the change has to ‘work’ be credible and sustainable in terms of delivering improvements in the quality of life for all.
- The exercise of all power has to be subject to regular and re-callable democratic control. Democratic ownership of the means of production and wealth are central to this as well as the re-distribution of state power and its democratic control locally and internationally.
- Contradictions and tensions remain but the key is having the power to think and act to cope with or resolve them: praxis.
- The future can does already exist in part but is under attack:
o Services provided for the public good by the state that have the effect of redistribution
o Collectively controlled spaces through trade unions and social movements such as cooperatives
o Acts of resistance and exposure to the use of arbitrary power
o Areas of autonomy and activity that exist outside of commodified exchange value and the market
Means – a key concept that links the end with means is that of transitional demands and actions. Transitional demands and actions link the grievances and concerns of the present with answers that relate specifically to these concerns but if put into practice systematically challenge existing power and its use. Transitional demands are those social movements place on those with existing power to act in a different way – trade union leaders to support defence of all jobs in a recession; governments to improve public services, redistribute wealth and fix early targets for carbon reduction; constitutional changes to make the state more open and directly accountable. Transitional actions are those which social movements can take now to create the future in the present – create work through green cooperatives; occupy factories; establish consumer cooperatives; create democratic space and good conditions at work through active trade unionism; the kind of activity that has inspired the transitional towns movement. In another paper I have used the concept of deviant mainstreaming to suggest a way of capturing this process.
To Party or not to?
Almost as night follows day a systematic crisis of capitalism rightly leads to a debate about party projects and who has the answers. Parties are a key feature of democratic activity and the current range of organisations reflects the class struggle and political history of the last 150 years. The arguments for party organisation when setting out to mount a systematic challenge to capitalism remain relevant and persuasive: countervailing forces need to be maximised; there is a need to build on the experience of past struggles – as the history of the class; campaigning needs organisation and coordination; a method of agreement on a programme or manifesto is required. However, the history of party tradition weighs heavily on the present and establishing and building a new party that is about an alternative future as opposed to defending a reactionary present is very difficult, even in periods of crisis. The results of the Euro elections reflect this. Moreover, the discourse on the left keeps falling into the divisive reformist or revolutionary trap.
An implication of uniting means and ends in an ongoing challenge to capitalism is to raise questions about the adequacy of the current conceptualisation of the role of parties. It is not to take what is possibly a parody of the anarchist position of no parties, but to suggest that a more open discourse is required about party building and the relationship of existing organisations.
Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks and elsewhere developed the dichotomy between a war of position and a war of manoeuvre in an attempt to understand and come to terms with failure of the 1917 – 1923 revolutionary period in
The dynamic envisaged here needs a little more explanation. Degeneration and renewal constantly emerge as themes in the analysis and research of social movements. The pattern that social movements can start out as a challenge to the hegemony of existing power structures and then gradually degenerate in radical direction and become incorporated is well documented. The process of renewal of regaining the critical edge and the willingness and ability to challenge is similarly, though less well recognised.
What Gramsci seems to have been suggesting and what is being proposed here in terms of the uniting of means and ends and transitional demands and actions, is that the dynamic can have a trajectory of constant challenge if this transgressive potential in all forms of resistance is recognised. It is possible for social movements to break away from degeneration and what some commentators have called ‘contained contention’ and move toward ‘transgressive contention’ by paying constant attention to the relationship between means and ends through transitional demands and actions. Through transitional actions it is possible to envisage social space, with identifiable boundaries operating as close as possible in a way that is an alternative to capitalism. These would be more than contained prefigurative examples or of the future or working utopias, they could operate as examples and networks to inspire others to act and establish a form of contention that could be seen as a process of incremental radicalism that could amount to having the transgressive impact of a war of manoeuvre and in so doing link with more direct collective mobilising organisations such as trade unions.
How is such a trajectory developed and sustained? This returns to the considerations of the party. Instead of thinking about social movement organisations as entities in themselves that are either contained or transgressive, incorporated or renewed, reformist or revolutionary, they can be conceived as sites of struggle with their own terrain. So for example in the trade union movement rank and file movements have been developed to shift the balances of forces through changing and making the leadership more accountable and to lead collective action; in cooperatives renewal movements similar pay attention to democracy, leadership and actions such as on climate change and fair trade; in the transitional towns movement the focus has been on peak oil but on how people can act now to make a difference for the future. It is a question of helping define and relating to the grievances and issues that people experience and linking these to the wider context of capitalism and climate change through transitional demands and actions. It is also important to note that people can participate in these activities in different ways and intensity. It should not longer be acceptable to define political activity as being a member of a party. If participating and making a contribution to an issue that has transitional impacts is the limit that someone can give their time to – this should be recognised and a way found to maintain contact if they wish to take the involvement further.
But how is the process facilitated? It has to be recognised that forms of leadership are important. No new movement takes place in an historical or conceptual vacuum. Drawing on past experience, on different ideas, on making links with and understanding the context are all essential features of whether a social movement wishes to challenge the existing hegemony or can understand that his is possible or relevant. Sustaining a transgressive trajectory of transitional demands and actions requires constant work and is only possible if some members are prepared to sustain this type of discourse through what must be facilitative and democratic leadership: unity of means and ends has also to apply to leadership as well.
Hence enter the party again. Only this time as a network of those who are interested in challenging capitalism on a constant basis and all social movement terrains, as well as challenging with the democratic process: the party becomes in a sense an anti capitalist social movement!
Is this possible or even desirable? Well perhaps the current way forward is to start to work at red – green alliances at all levels. The transitional towns’ movement is an excellent example of how a discussion around what are transitional demands and actions aimed at specific problems posed by climate change and capitalism – though it is not necessarily seen in these terms by the initiators or participants! – can result in large scale collective mobilisation. Clearly the direction of the internal discourse is going to be critical to the sustaining the trajectory. All those interested in an anti-capitalist alliance should take note. An anti-capitalist red-green network would not mean expecting parties to merge, a new part being established or members to leave and join a new organisation, although this may be an outcome. Networks can exist in all forms of communication like this blog, but it is more than just a coming together of ‘progressives’ - whatever that may mean – an anti-capitalist perspective and the need to challenge is the basic parameter but focussed on transitional demands and actions on issues at all levels whether within a local community or workplace or challenging GATS and the role of the IMF.
Well people did ask me to put thought down – apologise for the rant, but I hope it is the first contribution to purposeful and useful dialogue and exchange of information.