The Letter From Europe column from the March 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
If you are reading this article after 16 March you will already know the results of the general elections in France: Mitterrand's so-called Socialist Party (PS) will have lost its overall majority in the National Assembly, the National Front will have won a parliamentary representation for the first time, the previous opposition leaders will be arguing over what to do, and so on.
But this is only the tinsel of politics. The real issue in these, as in all elections everywhere in the world, is whether or not the wage and salary earning class is once again to put political power into the hands of the capitalist class that exploits them. Unfortunately, given the level of political consciousness in France, as elsewhere, the result is a foregone conclusion: these elections are going to be won by the capitalist class. Their control of political power will be confirmed by the re-election of a National Assembly composed exclusively of politicians pledged to support the continuation, in one form or another, of the money-wages-profits system that is capitalism.
The differences between the contending parties — whether the so-called communist and socialist parties on the Left or the RPR. UDF or National Front on the Right — are purely superficial, a question of which particular gang, or combination of gangs of place-hunters is to have responsibility for managing the governmental affairs of the French capitalist class. In short, who — the Left or the Right — is to have the privilege of turning the screws on the wage and salary earning class in France.
At the last general elections, held in June 1981 following Mitterrand's election as President. the Left won a landslide victory and a coalition government dominated by the PS — but with the participation of Communist Party (PCF) Ministers came into office. It promised to restore full employment by nationalising the banks and a few key industries so as to be able to plan economic growth, which would also be used to finance improved wages and social benefits. Naturally, as was predictable from a knowledge of the economic laws of the capitalist system, it failed utterly to achieve these goals.
After an initial increase in certain social benefits for the lower paid, within a year — by June 1982. to be exact — the new government had imposed a wage freeze and cut social benefits. Despite the nationalisation of the banks and the conversion of a number of firms from private to state capitalist enterprises, unemployment continued to rise and poverty to grow, as the workings of capitalism made a mockery of the Ministry of Plan's paper projects to expand production in the face of the world-wide capitalist depression.
In the end. the new government settled down to administering capitalism in the only way possible: as a profit-making system operating in the interest of the profit-taking class. The PCF participated in this anti-working class administration of capitalism for a full two years after the government's U-tum in June 1982. since its ministers did not resign till Laurent Fabius took over from Pierre Mauroy as Prime Minister in July 1984.
The outgoing government — essentially composed of members of Mitterrand's PS — is fighting the election not on what it has done to honour the promises it made in 1981 (how could it?) but on the negative theme of "we were not as bad as a right-wing government would have been". Thus, in one newspaper advertisement comparing the rise of unemployment under the pre-1981 governments with what had happened since 1981, the PS declared that unemployment had "only" risen 38 per cent since it came to power — the reader was assumed to have forgotten that the Left government had come to power on a promise to reduce unemployment, not preside over its rise to over 2.5 million. And one televised debate between the Prime Minister. Fabius. and the main opposition leader. Jacques Chirac, turned into an argument as to which of them had been the more successful in holding down wage costs — Fabius claiming that his government had been more successful than that of Chirac in the early 1970s but forgetting the PS's promise to increase, not decrease, "popular consumption"!
Since the Labour Party in Britain has a programme of vote-catching promises very similar to the pre-1981 PS — basically, trying to plan the expansion of production by the same mixture of state control and increased consumer purchasing power — it is worth examining exactly why the Left-wing government in France failed so utterly and ended up trying to transfer money from the poor to the rich (from wages to profits).
Why reformism fails
The classic reformist programme of trying to correct the evils of capitalism in the interests of the workers has never succeeded because the system just cannot work in the interests of wage and salary earners. It is based on their exploitation and functions according to definite economic laws which are beyond the control of governments, however well-intentioned or resolute.
Of course, there are certain things which governments can do. They control the armed forces and the other means of coercion. They can pass laws and apply them. In the economic sphere they control the issue of the currency. But they do not and cannot control the economy. Certainly, they can pass laws and make plans concerning economic matters but this does not mean that these can be put into effect or that, if they are, they will have the intended results. Capitalism, as we said, is an economic system subject to its own economic laws which governments ignore at their peril. These laws can be summarised as:
★ capitalism is an integrated world economy; there is no such thing as the "British economy" or the "German economy" or even the "American economy". There is only the world capitalist economy, which exists in all countries.
★ as government activity does not of itself produce wealth, all the resources allocated by governments (whether on "defence", social reforms or subsidies to nationalised industries) have to come out of the profits made in the productive sector of the economy, whether private or state-owned.
★ the private sector of the economy is exclusively motivated by profit-seeking, since profits are the main source of the finance it needs to continue to engage in productive activity. Indeed, in the end, achieving a monetary profit is the only reason the private sector has for producing.
In a depression the government — whether left, right or centre — has to pursue a policy of austerity for the working class because the logic of the capitalist system demands that priority be given to profit-making by capitalist enterprises. As a matter of fact, even in periods of prosperity governments must abstain from taking measures that threaten profits. In times of slump, however, they must do all they can to restore profitability: they must cut back and restrain both their own expenditure (which ultimately can only come from taxes and other charges on profits) and the wages of the workers (which are a direct cost to enterprises).
It is because capitalism cannot function in any other way that the outgoing reformist government in France ended up pursuing basically the same policies as openly conservative governments in Britain. Germany and America. The political colour of the government makes no essential difference; what counts are the economic laws of capitalism which these governments are obliged to apply.
In time, as the world capitalist economy recovers, markets will gradually re-appear but there is nothing that any government can do to hasten the process. They can help industry prepare for the recovery by encouraging it to "modernise" — to eliminate the least efficient enterprises — but this is what tends to happen anyway in a depression, whether or not the government intervenes. So all a government can do — and all the so-called "Socialist" government in France did — is to work with the economic laws of the capitalist system. This has been the fate of all past and present reformist governments in the world which have set out to make the capitalist system function in the interests of the workers and will inevitably be the fate of any future Labour government that comes to power in Britain.