Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Was the crisis just a mistake? (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission set up by the US government reported at the end of January. They concluded that the crisis of 2007 and 2008 was the result of “human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire”, but “of human mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds” and so avoidable (http://www.fcic.gov).

Obviously, the crisis was the outcome, even if unintended, of decisions by humans to behave in particular ways, but that’s not at issue. We need to know why the economic decision-makers involved took the decisions they did. What was the context of their decisions? What were the constraints acting on them?

The driving force of capitalism is the pursuit of profits by competing enterprises. As the Commission put it, “in our economy, we expect businesses and individuals to pursue profits…” If there is a chance to make a profit from some activity then the businesses in that field will go for it. If the profits are high enough then other businesses will enter the field to share in the bonanza.

This is what happened in the US. From 1997 until 2006 there was a boom in house building and buying. Big profits were to be made from lending money either directly to housebuyers or to businesses that did so. Easily able to borrow funds at relatively low rates of interest, the Wall Street investment banks decided to get in on the act, and in a big way,

“The large investment banks and bank holding companies,” the Commission reported, “focused their activities increasingly on risky trading activities that produced hefty profits.” The prospect of making “hefty profits” out of lending money to build and buy houses led them to borrow more and more money to take part in the chase after them:
“In the years leading up to the crisis, too many financial institutions, as well as too many households, borrowed to the hilt, leaving them vulnerable to financial distress or ruin if the value of their investments declined even modestly. For example, as of 2007, the five major investment banks – Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley – were operating with extraordinarily thin capital. By one measure, their leverage ratios were as high as 40 to 1, meaning for every $40 in assets, there was only $1 in capital to cover losses.”
Note the matter-of-fact acceptance here that banks cannot create money out of thin air but are dependent on themselves borrowing the money they lend.

The Commission criticised the investment banks and other financial institutions for taking such risks but could those involved in making these decisions have decided otherwise? Could they have decided to forgo the chance of making the ‘hefty profits’ that were there to be taken? No, because if one of them decided not to pursue these profits, the others would have enthusiastically taken their place. It wasn’t a mistake on their part. Given the competitive, profit-seeking nature of capitalism they had to take the decisions they did. In that sense the financial crisis was not avoidable.

It was outside the remit of the Commission to examine the housing boom whose collapse in 2006 triggered the financial crisis. They merely recorded that “when housing prices fell and mortgage borrowers defaulted, the lights began to dim on Wall Street”. If they had gone further into the housing boom and why it ended, they would have discovered that it was a classic case of the pursuit of profits leading to overproduction (too many houses being built in relation to what people could afford to buy) and perhaps revised their view that “the profound events of 2007 and 2008” were not “an accentuated dip in the financial and business cycles we have come to expect in a free market economic system.”

Look back, move forward

Cross-posted from the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

Two things are utterly predictable whenever there is a mass protest, or a demonstration of significant size, and the anti-cuts demonstration organised by the TUC on 26 March was no exception. The first is that the police will do their best to turn it into a riot and to intimidate all present with violence. The second is that, regardless of police actions, most people will come away with a new sense of purpose and meaning in their lives – awake and invigorated, full of the collective joy that spontaneously arises when human beings get together to show their strength of feeling or merely their urge for festivity. After many decades of a relatively lonely and boring struggle to survive, a struggle that those in power have faithfully promised us will get worse in the coming years, people will have come home on 26 March at the least relieved that "I'm not alone".

That's the positive side. Unfortunately, with the decline of the traditional left and trade unions in this country and around the world, and the accompanying lack of faith in democracy and political parties, it's hard to know what exactly to do with those feelings – how to transform a feeling of solidarity and commitment to opposition into something that will last, something capable of delivering long-term, lasting change for the better.

That lack of faith is not just confined to the mass of people who are not ordinarily involved in politics. It is sometimes declared to be a positive thing from those committed to radical change. The thinking is that the traditional political parties and trade unions and so on have held us back – their ideas have been tried and failed and defeated, and their hierarchical structures and outmoded ideas are boring and not fit for purpose. Instead, we are to celebrate spontaneity and freedom – to get together in small groups and do exactly whatever we want.

There is something to the argument, but it has lost its appeal in the face of a major attack from the ruling class and its representatives who control the state machine. An extremely serious economic crisis that started with the banks has changed the game. The rich were rescued by huge state bail-outs. The costs of the crisis were shifted instead to the state – and the state intends to shift the burden to us, by slashing our jobs, pensions, social services, benefits, and so on. The attack is organised and centralised – shouldn't the opposition be too?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and we don't pretend there are. But perhaps it's time to hear once again a voice that has been marginalised for over a century. From the formation of the Labour party in 1906, and then the Russian revolution in 1917, socialism has come to mean either state management of welfare capitalism, or state dictatorship over a centralised economy. But these rightly discredited ideas marginalised a previously existing conception that it might be worth reviving. The word socialism was already beginning to lose its original meaning by 1894, which caused William Morris, one of the Victorian age's greatest polymaths, to say:
"I will say what I mean by being a Socialist, since I am told that the word no longer expresses definitely and with certainty what it did ten years ago. Well, what I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master's man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH."
The 20th century did its best to let the curtain fall for ever on this vision of socialism, but a small number of dedicated activists have done their best to keep it alive. We in the Socialist Party count ourselves among their number. We say that it is right that people have lost faith in traditional politics – it has proved by its actions what it is all about. But to say that therefore we must give up on a vision of the future, and an organised commitment to attaining it, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The inspiring struggles for democracy and against austerity we are seeing emerging around the world have a common cause – they are the divided and isolated battles of workers against the relatively united attack of the world's ruling class in its attempt to resolve its economic crisis. We need to follow the ruling-class example – come together and organise in order to resolve the crisis in our way. That is, by organising a political party dedicated to taking state power out of the hands of the ruling class, and to establishing socialism. And given the extremely serious nature of the ecological catastrophe we are all facing, this is not just a nice idea. Increasingly, it's a matter of survival.

Stuart Watkins

Monday, March 14, 2011

Egypt: The hard road to political democracy (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

What will happen in Egypt now? Will the army keep control until a new leader acceptable to the West emerges?

At the time of going to press, the “revolution of anger” in Egypt seems to be entering a new phase. Tahrir Square has been reopened to traffic and commerce. Massive political demonstrations are over, at least for the time being, but strikes and protests by various groups of workers continue. The employees of the National Bank of Egypt have forced the resignation of its chairman, a Mubarak ally. Ambulance drivers, public transport workers, and even the police are demonstrating for better wages and conditions.

Many Egyptians are dissatisfied with what has been achieved so far, and with good reason. Mubarak has gone. But what sort of democrat is the man who took over from him on 31 January – Omar Suleiman, assassin and torturer-in-chief of the dreaded Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Service)? The demand to suspend the emergency law that permits detention without charge has not been met, nor have political prisoners been released. The ruling military council has set no firm timetable for elections and transition to civilian rule. They have made plenty of promises, but who is na├»ve enough to trust them?

To understand what is happening in Egypt, we must first understand the nature of the ruling regime.

A military oligarchy
The regime is not a personal dictatorship. It can survive the removal of Mubarak or any other specific figure. It is a military oligarchy. The main power centre is the supreme command of the armed forces (the eleventh largest in the world). In addition, there is a ruling party – under Nasser the Arab Socialist Union, renamed by Sadat the National Democratic Party – but its role is secondary.

The military regime has its origins in the Free Officers’ Movement, which overthrew the British colonial puppet king Farouk in 1952. Its domestic and foreign policy has changed over time, under the successive leadership of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, but the regime itself has remained the same. It has never been in the least bit democratic.

Why then does the Trotskyist International Socialist Review tell us that Egypt “has been ruled by a dictatorship for 30 years, with arrests and torture a constant occurrence” (socialistworker.org/2011/02/11)? Only 30 years? Didn’t Nasser too jail thousands of political opponents? Ah, but those were “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” jails – and that makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

Before regaining independence, Egypt was ruled by a succession of empires. Before that it endured the despotism of the pharaohs. Mubarak too was popularly known as “the Pharaoh”. Egypt has been a dictatorship for 11,000 years.

From Nasser to Sadat and Mubarak
This is not to deny important differences between the Nasser and post-Nasser periods.

Nasser conducted a protectionist policy on behalf of national capital. A state-owned iron and steel industry was created. The Aswan Dam was built. In 1956 the Suez Canal was nationalised, leading to armed invasion by Britain, France and Israel. Social reforms were undertaken. Land was redistributed and rents paid by tenant farmers controlled. A minimum wage was established. There were also reforms in the areas of housing, health, education, women’s rights and family planning. In foreign policy Egypt was formally non-aligned; in reality it became a client state of the Soviet Union.

Nasser’s successor Sadat expelled Soviet advisers, realigned Egypt with the West (and eventually with Israel), and replaced protectionism by an “open-door” policy. Currency controls were loosened and foreign companies invited to invest in tax-free “enterprise zones”. Mubarak went further in the same direction. Cheap food imports were allowed to flood the country, ruining Egyptian farmers. The gap between rich and poor widened. The country fell deeply in debt to the international financial institutions and became financially dependent on US aid.

Much of state industry was privatised. As was later to occur in post-Soviet Russia, valuable state assets were acquired on the cheap by a handful of businessmen with inside connections. That is how Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of Mubarak’s son Gamal, emerged overnight as a wealthy steel tycoon.

Another lucrative scam was the legal requirement that a foreign investor must give (not sell) a local partner a 20 percent stake in his venture. The “local partner” always happened to be a general or high official.

Mubarak and his family were themselves the greatest beneficiaries of this “crony capitalism”. The family fortune has been rumoured to be as much as $70 billion (£43.5 billion). Both of Mubarak’s sons are billionaires in their own right. Most of this money is held in British and Swiss banks or invested in American real estate.

It should be noted that under Mubarak the regime did not serve the interests of the whole capitalist class. Some businessmen did very well, while others lost out. For example, Ezz used his political clout to force other businessmen to buy his steel rather than importing cheaper steel from China. Similarly, it was difficult for businessmen lacking inside connections to obtain bank loans. This helps explain why some businessmen back the opposition.

The clan and the regime
While most Egyptians want an end to the military regime, the immediate target of the “revolution of anger” was the “Mubarak clan” – Mubarak, his family and their closest allies and associates. The demonstrators wisely took care not to offend the military as an institution. According to some analysts, the Mubarak clan had powerful enemies inside the regime (resentful, perhaps, that they were not getting their fair share of the loot) who used the protests to mount a “half-coup” – meaning a coup against the clan but not the regime. Perhaps this is to overstate tensions inside the regime. It is clear, however, that there were people in the ruling group who did not belong to the Mubarak clan and who were prepared to sacrifice it in order to save the regime. (Apparently they were encouraged to take this step by the Obama administration.)

This was one reason why no attempt was made to use the army to suppress the protests. Another likely reason was that the generals judged that the soldiers and junior officers could not be relied upon to obey orders to shoot into the crowds. The security police – the “thugs” who mysteriously appeared “out of nowhere” riding horses and camels – could be used, because they were more isolated from ordinary people and more effectively under clan control, but there were too few of them to scare off the enormous masses of demonstrators.

Youth movements and trade unions
The key role in organising the demonstrations seems to have been played initially by the April 6 Youth Movement. This organisation began as a Facebook group set up to call on all workers to stay at home on 6 April 2008 in solidarity with striking textile workers. (There has now emerged a new umbrella organisation called the Youth Coalition for the Revolution of Anger.)

So the demonstration organisers appear to have been closely connected with the workers’ movement and, in particular, with the campaign to create independent trade unions to replace the old state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. The textile workers tried to establish an independent union in 2006–2008, but large-scale arrests of activists made this impossible at that time. One of the major gains of the “revolution” was achieved on 30 January, when an independent trade union movement finally emerged in the form of the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions.

An important point that media coverage fails to convey is that the mass political demonstrations are only part of the upheaval. There are also numerous strikes and protests over “bread and butter” issues. That is not surprising when you consider the rising prices of staple foods and the fact that 40 percent of Egyptians have to survive on under $2 (£1.30) a day. While political demands are uppermost in Cairo, it seems that material demands are much more prominent in other cities. In Port Said, for instance, crowds angry over the shortage of housing set fire to the local state security headquarters, the governor’s office and the main post office.

The opposition parties
The regime selectively and intermittently allowed opposition parties to exist but restricted their activity. As a result, these parties are all very small – except for the Moslem Brothers, who despite being illegal were able (like Islamists in other countries) to take shelter in the mosques. Observers estimate that only 5 percent of Egyptians support any of the parties.

Almost all of the opposition parties belong to one of three categories.

First, there are several liberal capitalist parties that advocate civil rights and “free enterprise.” An example is the New Wafd Party. These parties are backed by a number of prominent businessmen.

Second, there are various Islamist parties. The Moslem Brotherhood is the largest of these, but not the only one.

Third, there are parties that regard themselves as leftist or socialist. What this usually means in the Egyptian context is loyalty to the legacy of Nasser, so it is more accurate to call these Nasserite parties. Thus, the National Progressive Unionist Party (known for short as Tagammu) “defends the principles of the 1952 revolution”.

Some parties combine Nasserite with Islamist ideas. For example, the Umma Party stands for “socialist democracy with Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source of legislation” (!). Finally, there is also an environmentalist Green Party.

It is hard to see what can come out of the negotiations that Suleiman is conducting on behalf of the regime with leaders of various opposition parties. None of the parties played any part in organising the “revolution” and few demonstrators regarded the parties as representing them. In fact, due to popular suspicion the negotiations may further weaken the parties’ base of support. A report from Suez mentions mass resignations from the parties participating in the negotiations, including Wafd and Tagammu, and connects this development with the creation of a Council to Protect the Revolution in Al-Arish (near the border with Gaza).

Who would win free elections?
The weakness of the parties makes it very difficult to predict who would win free elections if they were held today. As the theme of social justice has been prominent in the upheaval, the popular appeal of the liberal opposition may be limited. Social protest can work to the advantage of either Islamists or the left. Given the secular nature of the protests (not only were Islamic slogans conspicuous by their absence: there were also slogans in support of Moslem-Christian unity), the left may do quite well. The Moslem Brothers obviously have considerable support, but they themselves apparently do not think they are strong enough to gain power at this stage.

The existing left-wing opposition parties, however, are handicapped by their Nasserite orientation. To the extent that the demonstrators are against the military regime and committed to democracy, they might hesitate to vote for parties that hark back to an earlier form of the same anti-democratic regime. And, of course, only the older generation has direct memories of the Nasser period. So conditions may be favourable for the emergence of a new democratic left, possibly linked to the independent trade unions. There may even be potential for the spread of genuine socialist ideas.

Dragging out the transition
The uncertain outcome of elections is one reason why the generals aim to delay the transition to democracy as long as they can. They may also seek to retain a power of veto and other prerogatives even after a civilian government takes office, as well as an ability to reassert control whenever they consider it necessary – as in the “Turkish model”.

The wish to delay democratisation is clearly shared by the American and European governments on whom the Egyptian generals depend. These governments are great champions of elections, but only provided that the outcome is predictable and acceptable to them. They need time to prepare the ground for such an acceptable outcome – in particular, to select parties and politicians who can be trusted to respect Western interests and then give them financial, PR and other aid to help them win. Candidates for this role – El-Baradei, for instance – are well aware that pleasing Egypt’s Western patrons is at least as vital to their prospects as pleasing their fellow citizens.

How much time is needed? Statements from the ruling military council hint that six months may not be enough. German chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn a parallel between the transition in Egypt and the process of German reunification, suggesting that a whole year may be needed. And just in case the results of political engineering are disappointing, the generals and their patrons probably want to keep open the option of dragging out the transition indefinitely, perhaps co-opting a few handpicked opposition figures into what remains basically a military regime.

In the meantime, it is the job of the regime to restore and maintain “order” and “normality”. Ordinary people must stop making trouble and get back to work! To achieve that, the regime can be expected to combine – or perhaps alternate between – sweet talk and arrests, appeasement and repression. Neither approach will easily succeed.

As socialists, we do not regard political democracy in itself as sufficient to emancipate humanity. But we do recognise that it provides by far the best conditions for the development of the socialist movement. That is why we wish those well struggling for political democracy in Egypt – and, indeed, throughout the world

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kropotkin (2011)

Book Review from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mutual Aid. An Introduction and Evaluation. By Iain McKay. AK Press.

Socialists have always recommended Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, including it on lists of books for sale. Kropotkin was an anarchist, but had been a scientist (geographer) himself and in this book was writing as science writer. It was originally written as a reply to T. H. Huxley, the biologist known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, who had argued that both in nature and in human society “life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence”.

Huxley was a biologist and an expert on Darwin’s views, but here was expressing a popular prejudice; in fact, more than this, a view that justified the division of society into rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed. As Iain McKay puts it in this pamphlet:
“In its most extreme form, this became ‘Social Darwinism’ which (like much of sociobiology today) proceeds by first projecting the dominant ideas of current society onto nature (often unconsciously, so that scientists mistakenly consider the ideas in question as both ‘normal’ and ‘natural’). … Then the theories of nature produced in this manner are transferred back onto society and history, being used to ‘prove’ that the principles of capitalism (hierarchy, authority, competition, etc.) are eternal laws, which are then appealed to as a justification for the status quo!”
Kropotkin produced the evidence from scientific studies to show that this was not the case, neither in nature nor in society. In nature a “struggle for existence” certainly went on, but cooperation (“mutual aid”) was just as much “a factor in evolution” (the book’s subtitle) as competition. It wasn’t just a struggle of members of the same species against each other to survive and so leave more offspring; in many species cooperation was a survival strategy with the less cooperative having less chance of survival and so leaving less offspring.

McKay goes into detail to show that many sociobiologists, including Dawkins himself, accept this, even if on the basis of mathematical models. Kropotkin can be seen as a bit of a sociobiologist himself in that he too argued from animal behaviour to human social behaviour. Only two of his book’s eight chapters are devoted to biological evolution, the rest dealing with human social behaviour and social evolution. However, these are governed by quite different factors that have nothing to do with genetics. But Kropotkin did at least turn the tables on the Social Darwinists by arguing that it was capitalism, not socialism, that was against human nature.

McKay’s 60-page pamphlet is a useful account of the background, significance and influence of Kropotkin’s book.
Adam Buick

Brooker's Bile (2011)

TV Review from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Television is a “flickering fibbing machine”, according to uber-critic Charlie Brooker in How TV Ruined Your Life (BBC2). Using a snappily-edited mix of archive clips, flippant sketches and scalpel-sharp observations, his six-part polemic describes how manipulating and distorted television has become.

Brooker bases his argument on ‘Cultivation Theory’. This claims that if we spend too much time gawping at the goggle-box, then our expectations, morals and fears are more likely to be influenced by what we see on screen than what we experience in real life. For example, television has conditioned us to be frightened of dark city streets because this is the setting for so much televised violence. And, he argues, production companies have got away with this by presenting violence in a glossy, titillating way through public information films (“government-approved mini horror movies designed to fear you into not going all dead”) and scare-fests like Crimewatch and Wire In The Blood.

In his second episode, Brooker focuses on how different demographic groups are portrayed on television. Young adults are “mindless jigging gits”, dads are “tragic shuffling pitiful individuals”, and older people are “hilarious irrelevances”. TV encourages us to perpetually look youthful – and makes us feel inadequate if we don’t – through dross like the “devastatingly mean makeover show” Ten Years Younger. This trend manifests itself as ‘aspirational television’, where Brooker’s bile is focused in episode three. The theory behind aspirational programming is that “if you watch beautiful fun-loving people on TV you’ll somehow feel like they’re your friends, whereas in reality of course you’re essentially just a tramp staring at them from the other side of the room”. Some of his examples are jaw-droppingly unedifying, like My Super Sweet 16 UK. This docu-soap follows slappably-spoilt brats, including one who stages an X-Factor-style audition to judge which of his sparkly-eyed acquaintances are fit enough to attend his birthday party. How our relationships are influenced by television is the target of Brooker’s next episode. With hilarious bitterness, he shows us how television perpetuates the myth of ‘the perfect relationship’ through adverts that turn toothpaste into an aphrodisiac.

On first impression, it’s easy to dismiss Charlie Brooker as misanthropic and sneering. But his acerbic tone is really just a way of filtering out those viewers he would consider too shallow to appreciate his arguments. Buy into his style, and Brooker’s work is refreshingly perceptive, even exhilarating.
Mike Foster

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Capitalism will not be controlled (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Gordon Brown will go down in history as a failure. Politically, as a prime minister who never won an election. Economically, as the man who arrogantly and pompously announced that his policies had led to the end of the boom/bust cycle, only to find himself a year or so later presiding over capitalism’s biggest slump since the 1930s.

Philip Collins commented on this claim in his column in the (London) Times on 7 January:
“Weirdly, the Labour Party appeared to have concluded that capitalism had become stable, ordered and pliant. They need to read their Marx again, They’ll find a picture of capitalism as creative, destructive, radical, disruptive and prone to cycles of boom and bust, even when commanded to behave by Labour chancellors.”
But had they ever read Marx in the first place? Not that the Labour Party has ever accepted Marx’s analysis of capitalism. They haven’t even used the word “capitalism” for years. A previous Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once famously declared that he had never got beyond a long footnote on page 2 of Capital.

Brown, on the other hand, as a leftwing student leader in his youth and as author of a book on the ILP leader Jimmy Maxton, would probably have read some Marx. As would his successor as chancellor, Alistair Darling, if he really was once a member of the International Marxist Group (though he might have therefore been more familiar with Lenin than Marx). The Miliband brothers would have heard of Marx and his ideas from their father and perhaps even read some.

Collins used to be a speechwriter for Blair but he doesn’t seem to have made Blair make this criticism of Brown. They, apparently, had other things to argue about. But his description of Marx’s view of capitalism is substantially correct.

If Harold Wilson had persisted he would have found (some 500 pages later) Marx’s description of the course of capital accumulation:
“The life of industry becomes a series of periods of moderate activity, prosperity, over-production, crisis and stagnation” (chapter 15, section 7).
In a boom the competitive struggle for profits leads to overproduction (in relation to its market) of one sector of the economy that then spreads to other sectors. Capital accumulation stalls. During the resulting slump the conditions are created (through lower wages, interest rates, and asset values and the elimination of unprofitable businesses) for a slow recovery and eventually another boom which, like the previous one, will eventually bust. And the cycle continues.

Brown’s Tory opponents forget that he wasn’t the first chancellor to have claimed to have ended the boom/bust cycle. Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor from 1983 to 1989, also believed he had done so. David Smith, the economics editor of the Sunday Times, recounted in his 1991 book From Boom to Bust:
“Even before an economic miracle was being proclaimed in the late 1980s, the Conservative Party’s boosters had declared that Nigel Lawson had achieved something, without explicitly trying for it, that had eluded all previous post-war Chancellors. He had, it was said, abolished the business cycle, a boast that Lawson was happy to live with…” (p. 196). “…until,” Smith added, “it proved to be woefully misplaced,” when the recession of 1990-91 broke out.
So, it’s not just commands from Labour chancellors to behave that capitalism ignores. It does the same to commands from Tory chancellors too. In fact, to commands from any government, including Tory-Liberal coalitions, as the decline in GNP in the last quarter of 2010 showed.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What’s the alternative? (2011)

Editorial from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

“What’s the alternative?” As capitalism remains mired in crisis, and criticisms of the system become more commonplace and compelling, expect to hear this question asked more and more. It is often used politically and rhetorically – because every sensible person is supposed to know the answer. The idea that “There Is No Alternative”, or TINA, is one of Thatcher’s enduring political legacies. It will often be asserted angrily in political debate, which is revealing. No one feels the need to angrily assert the truth of the law of gravity. No one, then, should feel the need to angrily assert the fact that there is no alternative if there isn’t one. They do because there is.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), a federation of Britain’s main trade unions, has organised a national demonstration against the government’s spending cuts, which will take place on 26 March. The demonstration has been called a ‘March For The Alternative’. Which sounds great. At last, after decades of ‘TINA’, an alternative! Unfortunately, the TUC’s alternative looks much the same as ‘business as usual’. The alternative, according to them, is ‘Jobs, growth, justice’. This is indistinguishable from what every political party in this country, whether of the left or right, promises every election time. We should not be too surprised by this. The TUC, like all trade unions, exists to win a better deal for wage-slaves. This is a laudable aim, and we support it.

But we do not just want to win a better deal for wage-slaves. We want to abolish slavery. We are wage-slavery abolitionists. As one socialist famously put it, we ought not to exaggerate to ourselves what these trade-union struggles and demonstrations and ‘actions’ can achieve. “We ought not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.” Instead, we need to organise for something new.

That was Marx in 1865. Unfortunately, his advice has been mostly ignored, including by those counting themselves as his followers, ever since. As the linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky puts it, “the effort to overcome ‘wage-slavery’ [has] been going on since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, [and] we haven’t advanced an inch. In fact, we’re worse off than we were a hundred years ago in terms of understanding the issues.”

Chomsky is right, and it’s the reason we in the Socialist Party devote so much of our time and energy to promoting an understanding of the issues. We seem, in fact, to be the only political organisation in this country to take this task at all seriously.

The alternative, then, is not the amelioration of our suffering under the wages system. It is the abolition of modern slavery – the emancipation of labour. Under slavery, you are sold to a master once and for all. Under wage slavery, you hire yourself out by the hour or the week or the month. The basic relationship between master and slave has not changed. We need to get rid of the master, take the means of making a living under our collective ownership and control, and organise our own lives, democratically, and on the basis of freely organised, freely given work. In a word, the alternative is socialism.

Lazy workers?

Cross-posted from the Socialist Courier blog

A defense of capitalism often heard by socialists is that socialism would be impossible because without the goad of the wages system workers would be too lazy to work, but recent statistics seem to contradict that argument:

"A record 5.26 million people worked unpaid overtime last year, clocking up an average of more than seven hours a week without pay, according to a new study. The TUC said workers were missing out on almost £5,500 a year, worth £29bn to the economy. One in five employees regularly put in extra unpaid hours last year, with public-sector workers most likely to work unpaid overtime,said the TUC. The number of workers doing unpaid overtime was the highest since records began in 1992, the research found, with 5.26 million people clocking up an average of seven hours 12 minutes unpaid overtime every week." (Independent, 25 February)