Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What’s the alternative?

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)

RD