On 22 June a People’s Assembly Against Austerity is being held in central London, with the support of various leftwing groups, trade unions, and Labour and Green Party politicians. Its aim is to ‘mobilise’ people to oppose the present government’s austerity policies. But to what end? To get the government to change them? To elect a government that would reverse them? Or to get rid of the system which, when in an economic downturn, requires the government to impose austerity?
Given that we are living in a period of capitalist crisis, what are the chances of any government being able to abandon austerity? Some of those present seem to think that this is feasible. The Communist Party of Britain, for instance, are proposing a ‘people’s budget’ to ‘stimulate economic growth and reduce growing social inequality,’ involving such measures as ‘invest in health, education, housing, public transport and the environment,’ ‘launch a massive public sector house-building programme,’ ‘nationalise the banks and direct funds into manufacturing, small businesses, cooperatives and housing,’ as well as renationalising the railways and utilities and increasing pensions and state benefits.
This assumes that capitalism can be reformed into a system responding to people’s needs instead of a system geared to accumulating capital out of profits. That they are thinking in terms of capitalism, even in its private form, can be seen from the answer they give to the question they themselves pose of ‘where would the money come from?’
‘Introduce a 2 per cent Wealth Tax on the super-rich’; ‘Reverse the recent cuts in corporation tax for the biggest companies’; ‘Impose a financial transaction tax on the City bankers and speculators.’ So, the super-rich, profit-seeking big companies and City financiers are to continue to exist but be taxed more.
This is pie-in-the-sky reformism. It’s not going to happen and wouldn’t work anyway. Any government which tried it would, by putting profits and profit-making under pressure, provoke an even bigger economic crisis. If you accept to work within capitalism (as does the ‘People’s Budget’ and similar proposals to ‘Tax the Rich’ and ‘Make the Bosses Pay’) then you have to accept that profits have to be made and capital accumulated (with its by-product, the rich getting richer). You can’t make the capitalist leopard change its spots and it is futile – in fact counter-productive – to try.
The main problem with such proposals is not that they are not going to work, but that they spread the view that they could work and so reinforce reformist illusions about capitalism being able to be reformed to function other than as a profit-driven system where profits have to be put before people. What this does is delay people coming to understand that capitalism can’t be reformed in these sorts of ways and that the only way forward is socialism. It helps prolong capitalism.
As socialism will be based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources there will be no obstacles, as there are under capitalism, preventing production being oriented towards satisfying people’s needs, as for housing, healthcare, education , transport and other services.
It is all very well being ‘against austerity’ but the cruel fact is that, when capitalism is going through one of its recurring crises, there is no alternative within the system to austerity. It is not the government that is to blame but the capitalist system. In imposing austerity all that governments are doing is what is required by the way capitalism works.
Of course austerity should be resisted to the extent that it can be – that’s what trade unions and such organisations are for – but without illusions. The most that can be achieved is a few mitigations here and there or a different distribution of the cuts, but they cannot be avoided.
This is not defeatism. It is realism. The only alternative to the present austerity is neither a change of economic policy nor a change of government. It is a change of system, from minority ownership and production for profit to common ownership and production directly to meet people’s needs, in a word, to socialism.
Socialism is, quite literally, the only realistic alternative to the present austerity. That’s what those who call themselves socialists should be advocating. Enough of ‘People’s Budgets,’ ‘Tax the Rich,’ ‘Make the Bosses Pay’ and other such reformist nostrums. Let’s campaign for socialism.