Monday, January 4, 2016

Socialism and Politics (1997)

From the January 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

A prominent American capitalist once declared during an election race that Americans should vote for the man who promises them the least - in that way they would be voting for the one who would disappoint the least. For socialists the only way for workers to avoid disappointment is not to vote for anyone but themselves

Socialists hold that government, or the practice of people being governed, is peculiar to class society. The function of government is to run the state, to organise its laws and maintain the required degree of persuasion or coercion necessary to ensure that those laws are obeyed by the public. Additionally, of course, the state has to protect the external interests of its ruling class; which means that it falls to government to maintain armed forces to protect or extend the interests of that ruling class.

Conventional politics is about political parties putting forward candidates in elections and trying to convince as many people as possible to vote for those candidates on the ground that the individual candidate is not only capable of looking after their interests but also that he or she is a member of a political party that can be trusted with running the affairs of the state.

In practice it is more complicated than this. Generally, the existing political parties have built up a following of public support over a period of time. Like the core support of a prominent football team, these supporters display a tribal loyalty, largely uncritical and rarely concerned with any conception of reasonable consideration of the opposition. Effectively, it is the less committed, the floating voter, probably some ten percent of the electorate, who determines the outcome of elections. Those who make up the floating vote are probably those who perceive their interests to have been adversely affected by the party or parties in power and/or those who have been convinced that the policies of one or other of the parties will harm their interests.

In local government candidates are usually returned on the minority vote—frequently a small minority vote—of the electorate because the majority are not sufficiently concerned about the outcome of local government elections to want to come out and vote. In parliamentary elections, too, substantial minorities, sometimes as much as 25 percent or, even, 30 percent see no point in voting. The number of those who vote for a party, not because they support that party but because they are opposed, or concerned about, the party or parties opposing it, is substantial.

With the exception of the Socialist Party, all the political parties contesting elections, whatever name they use to describe themselves or whatever claims are made for them in respect to their position on the Right/Life spectrum of capitalism, put forward policies firmly rooted in the economics of capitalism.

In Britain the major political parties hold their annual conferences in the autumn and each of these is given major media coverage. These exercises have nothing to do with democracy, of course, for all the political parties—again, with the exception of the Socialist Party—believe in having leaders, and a party with leaders is not one run on the democratic mandate of its members.

These conferences are stage-managed to ensure that anything that may rock the boat is emaciated or exorcised and that verbal formulae are found to keep the faithful in line without provoking rebellion. Should Conference accept a motion that the leadership is embarrassed with, they simply dismiss it or circumvent it. Labour leaders are famous for paying scant attention to Conference resolutions and, remarkably, those who believe in the undemocratic principle of having leaders, are frequently infuriated when leaders do what they are supposed to do—lead.

Common policies
There is one central theme running through the policies of all these parties however they may appear to differ. That theme forms the basis of contemporary capitalist politics. That theme is the argument about where the money is to come from to fund social welfare legislation. In the post-war decades it was argued, and generally accepted by all the parties, that capitalism would be more efficient if the working class, who produce all the real wealth, were more closely integrated into the system. Capitalism’s economic experts claimed they had found a formula for ending the boom/slump syndrome; unemployment would be a thing of the past, unemployed workers would no longer be a drain on the system and a fully subscribed national insurance scheme would provide general health care and other social welfare benefits.

These ideas may have concretised the aspirations of the Left but they originated with people like Beveridge and Keynes who were both committed not only to retaining capitalism but to building a bulwark against the threat of change by making the system more user-friendly for the working class. It would be fair to say that for a few decades after the war these ideas dominated the entire political spectrum.

Complex changes in the global economy, sharper competition, a decline in the rate of profit, and unemployment, attended by inflation as governments chased the Keynesian will-of-the-wisp, clearly demonstrated the inability of capitalism to support even the modest postwar reforms of the system.

But, in the world of capitalism, such reforms have to be met out of taxation and in practice, all taxation is ultimately borne by capital; on that point both Adam Smith, the patron saint of capitalism, and Karl Marx, originator of scientific socialism, agreed. That means that there is truth in the arguments of the now-dominant Right that taxation impairs the competitive ability of one group of national capitalists to compete with the capitalists of another area who bear a lighter burden of taxation. Translated into the current political philosophy of Blair and Major, the argument runs that low tax defends existing jobs and promotes new sources of employment.

This, then, is what is at the core of contemporary politics. Which party can be trusted to reduce or, at least, not to increase the overall tax burden on the managers and directors whose function is to maximise the profits of the owning class? That task involves funding the shrinking remnants of the social welfare provisions, maintaining the state’s military capacity, and meeting the increasing need to deal with awesome social problems, like crime, vandalism, and a youth culture of alienation, which characterise a society in decay.

These are the problems which the major political parties say have to be addressed and all of them accept the framework, the restrictions and limitations which capitalism imposes, as the only permissible arena in which to address them. These restrictions and limitations impose their own logic on the party leaders whose principle task now is to embellish policies which bear a tawdry similarity. It all adds up to the arrogant assertion by political leaders that they, by virtue of their superior abilities, are better equipped to handle the brutal priorities of the system than their opponents.

The Socialist Party takes a different approach from that of all the other political parties, indeed it could be said that, if the common strategies of all our opponents represents the definitive elements of a political party, the Socialist Party is not so much a political party as an organisation intent on abolishing politics.

Rendered absurd by history
Firstly, we do not seek a mandate to take over the existing social system and to attempt to organise it in such a way as will benefit the majority class of wage and salary workers. Capitalism, we affirm, is based on the exploitation of the working class and we would be as absurd as those Leftist organisations who promulgate acres of reforms if we were to assert that we could administer that system in such a way as would benefit the class on whose exploitation its entire fabric rests.

We can share with some elements of the Left a detestation of politicians who make a career out of lying to the majority working class but we do not blame these politicians for their persistent failure to rationalise capitalism—in fact we readily admit that if the Socialist Party accepted a mandate to run capitalism in the interest of society as a whole we would fail every bit as ingloriously as those who make the assertion—rendered absurd by history— that they can perform such a miracle.

Our purpose in all that we do, from producing this journal, running public meetings, fighting elections, is to bring the case for socialism to the attention of the working class; our message is the patently obvious truth that capitalism has fulfilled its historic mission and is now a really frightening impediment to further progress. That progress we define as socialism: a way of organising the affairs of humanity that is not dependent on, or influenced by, the interests of a class that owns and controls society’s means of producing and distributing its needs.

The case for socialism is based on the incontestable fact that there exists on this planet the potential to provide adequately for the whole of the human family. Further, and equally incontestable, is the fact that the overwhelming majority who are forced to endure the awful inadequacies of capitalism have the power now to abolish capitalism by democratic means and institute a new era of real peace and real prosperity.

The last hundred years has witnessed the exhaustion of all the many schemes put forward to make capitalism a civilised system. For a time it seemed that some slight changes would make the system a little more tolerable but the experiment, puny as it was, has obviously failed and socialism is now the only feasible way to go.

Finally, we should say that with the achievement of socialism, the socialist movement will disappear, its historic mission completed. So, too, will the state, the government and the politicians. There will no longer be separate interests to be pursued, no longer a need to cut the cake in such a way as will benefit some at the expense of others. Government of people will give way to a democratic administration of the needs of society.
Richard Montague

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