Thursday, September 17, 2015

Marx's economics (1989)

Book Review from the December 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx's Capital. By Ben Fine, Macmillan, Third Edition, 1988.

Harold Wilson's comment that he couldn't get past the footnote on the first page of Marx's Capital echoes a concern felt by some newcomers to Marx that they really do find this work daunting.

This is probably in part due to some of the genuinely difficult economic analysis involved, but no doubt also to the sheer bulk of the thousands of pages which comprise the three volumes. However, this problem should be seen in a proper perspective. If you think Marxian economics is difficult, you should see what orthodox economics is like. Replete with its own technical jargon and mathematical formulae, bewildering to all but the initiated, orthodox economics tries desperately to pass itself off as a science. But it isn't; it's an ideology in which economists ("hired prize-fighters" Marx called them) defend the claims of capital against the claims of Capital.

There are easier ways into Marx. For instance, his own Value, Price and Profit is fairly clear and concise. But for those who want to know what he is saying in Capital itself there is this book by Ben Fine. In a substantially revised and expanded edition of a work first published in 1973, Fine sets out to give an introductory account of Capital in a remarkably short space (102 pages).

Overall he succeeds in this attempt although the sheer brevity in itself causes some problems. With only a few pages devoted to each, there are chapters on Marx's method, commodity production, the labour theory of value, capital accumulation, exploitation, the transition to capitalism, crises, and more besides. For this new edition there are new chapters on controversial issues such as the transformation problem and the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. These, in addition to the new and longer chapters on interest-bearing capital and rent theory, will, as Fine admits, require careful reading.

Marx's theory of inflation is not mentioned at all. There is also a passing reference (on page 4) to Marx holding that in a socialist society "classes would eventually disappear". Eventually? Surely socialism is the abolition of class society. Despite these, Fine's treatment of Marxian economics is true to Marx. It should help many to prepare for tackling the real thing.
Lew Higgins

Ecology and the abolition of the market (1988)

Book Review from the December 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ecology and Socialism by Martin Ryle, Radius, £5.95

This short book—it is only 100 pages—is written by a member of the "ecosocialist" wing of the Green Party. The Green Party's official position is that it is neither of the Right nor the Left but, like the SDP and Liberals, appeals to the so-called classless centre. This means that in practice it accepts capitalism and seeks to obtain reforms aimed at protecting or repairing the damage it does to the environment (what might be called "Green reforms", hence our description of them as Green reformists").

Ecosocialists, sats Martin Ryle, are Greens who recognise that capitalism, with its built-in mechanism of seeking profits to accumulate as more and more capital, is the cause of environmental problems and that therefore no solution can be found to these problems within it. Ryle criticises, in the same terms as us, the Green Party's much vaunted Basic Income Scheme as merely an attempt to redistribute income within capitalism: profits are to be taxed to provide cash handouts for everybody, but this assumes the continuation of a "profitable market sector" that "would remain the source of all money"; the continuation, in other words, of the economic mechanism that is capitalism. This scheme, says Ryle, is both "useless even as a transitional tactic" and "untenable as a long-term strategy". Such criticism is all the more devastating coming from someone who played a prominent part in drawing up the Green Party's manifesto for the 1987 elections in which this scheme was given pride of place.

So far, so good, but what does Ryle mean by "ecosocialism"? He speaks of a "non-market society" and of breaking with "the law of value". Even better, but unfortunately when he goes on to flesh out the sort of non-market economy he would like to see replace capitalism one of its features is to be . . . the market! Needs are met, either directly on a free basis (water, sewage, energy, transport) or indirectly through allocating everyone a monetary "social income" (a basic income?):
Beyond this, and again evolving out of what we have, a 'market-type' sector would produce a range of commodities and services between which people would choose according to preferences . . . here the feedback of market-type mechanisms is an effective means of allocating social labour to meet demand, and of encouraging the necessary expansion and contraction of the productive and retailing enterprises concerned. This is the rationale for the pseudo-market and the use of money. The monetary form, moreover, as opposed to some utopian visions in which the citizenry simply help themselves from a cornucopian socialist abundance, implies the possibility, which in ecological terms is a necessity, of exerting collective control over levels of overall individual consumption.
Such a society (were it viable) might not be capitalism, but it wouldn't be socialism either. Socialism is a non-market society in the strictly literal sense of the term: a society without markets, buying and selling and money. The reason for this is that buying and selling presupposes separate owners of the goods that are exchanged, while in socialism both the productive resources and the products are commonly owned and so directly available for people to take rather than buy.

The sort of society advocated by Ryle would not, as he believes, destroy "the law of value". On the contrary, it would still involve commodity-production and so the creation of wealth as exchange value. Indeed, the free basic services he envisages would have to be financed, just like the cash handouts in the Green Party's Basic Income Scheme, by syphoning off some of the exchange value created in the commodity-producing sector which would thus remain the key sector of the economy.

Production for sale without profit or capital accumulation, which is what Ryle (and many other Greens) seems to be advocating, is something similar to the "simple commodity-production" which Marx analysed as the logical starting point for the development of capitalism. Were it possible to establish such a society today (which it isn't), then it would inevitably tend to develop into capitalism a system of commodity-production where the aim of exchange on markets was not simply to obtain money to buy useful things but to obtain money as profits to be re-invested and accumulated as capital.

Ryle and the "ecosocialists" can perhaps be allowed to describe themselves as anti-capitalist but not as socialist. They want to go back to pre-capitalist market forms instead of forward to the abolition of the whole market on the basis of common ownership and democratic control and its replacement by production directly for use and free access to goods and services according to need.
Adam Buick 

Gels in pearls and all that (1987)

From the December 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

What have Jenny Greene, Marcus Binney, Michael Clayton, Deirdre McSharn and Sally O'Sullivan in common? You probably have never heard of any of them. They are rivals of the ten million pound advertising revenue on offer for the increasing number of "Country" magazines on sale. Interest in the countryside is booming and 500,000 copies are sold each month.

Of course, the type of country life featured is selective. Small farmers, working hard to feed their families as well as paying off their mortgages and various hire purchase commitments don't feature much on their pages. Although occasional genuflections are made in the direction of conservation, the main preoccupation of the well established Country Homes, Horse and Hound and Country Life, as well as the newcomers Country Living and Landscape is the homes and lifestyles of the affluent owners of country mansions. 

"You have to be be of a certain class to get in [the magazine]" says Jenny Greene of Country Life. "There's always been a joke that no-one who lives at a numbered house is ever featured." Of course, mistakes do happen. Once the magazine printed an engagement portrait of "the lovely Honora Lineham of Mendip House, Woodberry Down". It just so happened that the lady's name was Noreen, her mother did household cleaning and Mendip House is a council block of flats in North London. Still, Noreen was wearing pearls.

Who are the 500,000 purchasers of these magazines? They certainly are not members of the executive country set—there aren't half a million of them around! Then who are they, apart from patients reading back numbers in doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms? Again, Greene " . . . would think the magazine is a great badge for people in the suburbs. It's got the tremendous glamour of top people about it". Your "point to point" may be negotiating a trolley round the local supermarket but for £1.20 an issue you can impress your friends and let your imagination go into overdrive.

Of course, this type of vicarious living is not confined to visions of how others live "graciously" in the country. Women buy glossy magazines which may carry less romantic fiction than some years ago but instead talk of dresses costing hundreds of pounds, "beauty" improvements costing thousands and recipes calling for the use of game, fresh river trout and smoked salmon. Magazines for men peddle a dream world which is different in substance but not degree. The owner of a second-hand Vespa reads about motorbikes of thousands cc, costing the related thousands of pounds, while the often unhealthy under-exercised office worker reads about body-building contests. The sex situation is so frequently covered elsewhere that it does not need more than a mention.

Why are those purveyors of fantasies so successful? Soap operas like EastEnders and Coronation Street present a world in which "ordinary" people are supposed to be able to see a reflection of their own lives. These glossies want the same people to imagine they could inhabit the world of the wealthy minority.
Eva Goodman

The wasted years (2002)

From the October 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ten years ago at the Rio Earth Summit a 12-year old schoolgirl from Vancouver, Severn Cullis-Suzuki, made a speech to delegates that astonished them. It is worth repeating part of that address :
“I am only a child, yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be. In school you teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words.”
That speech had such an impact that she became a frequent invitee to UN conferences. She is now 22, with a BSc in biology from Yale University and she attended the recent conference in Johannesburg as a member of Kofi Annan's World Summit advisory panel. So what does she make of the progress in the last 10 years?
“I spoke for six minutes and received a standing ovation. Some of the delegates even cried. I thought that maybe I had reached some of them, that my speech might actually spur action. Now, a decade from Rio, after I've sat through many more conferences, I'm not sure what has been accomplished. My confidence in the people in power and the power of an individual's voice to reach them has been deeply shaken” (Time, 2 September).
Cullis-Suzuki's pessimism is well founded when you compare some of the figures over the last 10 years :
  • Then 17 million refugees, now 20 million refugees.
  • Then 5,000 species threatened, now 11,000 species.
  • Then rainforests being depleted at 17,000 sq.km a year,now speeding up to 1 percent depletion per year.
  • Then carbon dioxide omissions 356 parts per million in the atmosphere, now 370 parts per million.

The list is long and horrifying, for instance the Antarctic ozone hole is now three times the size of the United States. Cullis-Suzuki has now retreated from her schoolgirl world view into organising locally to get people to cut down on household garbage, consuming less and using their car less frequently. What a dreadful commentary on this awful society of capitalism that it turns youthful zeal and enthusiasm into pathetic and petty reformism.

Socialists don't make the mistake of appealing to the governments of the world to stop polluting our world, because we know that is futile. Instead we call on our fellow workers to join us in the struggle to rid the world for ever of the cause of these problems, world capitalism. Only then will we be able to attain that 12 year old's beautiful vision . “What a wonderful place this would be”.
Richard Donnelly

Divide and rule (1986)

From the December 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

Divide and rule is a classic political tactic of a ruling class fearful of a threat to its power from discontented workers. Give certain sections of the working class enough material comfort to feel that they are getting something out of the system — that they are "middle class" — and they will make sure that there is no working class revolution.

This is a strategy that the present government is pursuing vigorously. Make sure that workers who have skills that capitalism needs at present get reasonable wages and salaries. Give them mortgages and tax relief. so that they can "buy" their own homes. Let them take out private medical insurance and buy shares in British Telecom or TSB. In short convince them they are part of the "property and share owning democracy".

By contrast give the unemployed and others who are marginal to the needs of capital as hard a time as possible. Cut their benefits, subject them to intrusive investigations and means testing. Force them to love on what is left of the council housing estates — usually high rise slums that councils sell off because no one wants to buy them. Give them second-rate health care after waiting months for NHS treatment.

In addition make sure that those who are comfortably off have little sympathy with the plight of those less fortunate by spewing out a steady stream of propaganda that blames the obvious ills of capitalism on selected vulnerable groups. Unemployment is high because the unemployed don't want to work; greedy workers are pricing themselves and others out of jobs by asking for too much pay. Claimants aren't poor they're just "bad managers" and therefore deserve to have their electricity cut off when they can't afford to pay their bills. Young people are undisciplined, promiscuous and degenerate so no wonder AIDS is spreading and drug abuse is rising. Violent crime is on the increase in inner city areas because that's where blacks live. Blacks should therefore be sent home or not allowed into the country at all.

Throw in a few appeals to the "national interest", some references to the threat of international terrorism, "enemies within", or political subversives and then use all of this as a justification for increased expenditure on the police and security forces (at the same time claiming that there is no money for homes, health care, welfare benefits . . . ). Then give the police increased powers to harass people and prevent demonstrations or other expressions of political discontent or opposition. Finally curtail the legal rights of trade unions so that they find it more and more difficult to defend the pay and conditions of work of their members.

The government can get away with this kind of coercion of selected groups within the working class because such groups within the working class because such workers, since they are marginal to the needs of capital, have no political or industrial muscle. Without the support of other workers the feeble protests of those at the sharp end of government policy will continue to go unnoticed. What is so depressing is the fact that this divide and rule strategy has been so successful. Many workers who are relatively well off don't believe that any of these attacks on the working class and civil liberties have anything very much to do with them. They don't have to worry about homelessness because they've bought their own house. They don't have to worry about waiting lists for medical treatment because they can go private. They don't have to worry about increased police powers because they don't commit crimes or go on demonstrations or take strike action.

Those with "good" jobs and a decent standard of living can continue to delude themselves that they are  middle class and have a stake in the capitalist system and don't have to worry until it's their teenage children who can't get jobs; until they themselves are made redundant because their particular skill is no longer needed by the capitalist class and are forced to try to subsist on state handouts; until they get chronically ill and then discover that their health insurance doesn't cover them for serious, long-term illness; until they get harassed by the police because they stepped out of line.

All workers, white-collar and blue-collar, skilled or unskilled, manual or non-manual, wage earning or salary earning, lead insecure lives in capitalist society. Robbed not only of the fruits of our labour we also have little control over our own lives irrespective of whether we have a few shares in BT or live in a house that we've "bought". Poverty, insecurity and lack of control, as well as state coercion and harassment of the most vulnerable workers or those who refuse to accept the status quo, will continue so long as we allow ourselves to be divided politically by petty distinctions engineered by the ruling class for their own political ends.
Janie Percy-Smith