Thursday, November 12, 2009

Will Hutton tries to defend capitalism

From the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

Went to hear Will Hutton speak last night on “Them and Us: how capitalism without fairness is capitalism without a future”. It was a lecture at the London School of Economics in the “Ralph Miliband series on the Future of Global Capitalism” (yes, he is related to the two Labour Cabinet ministers; he was their father though he’d probably disown their political views). Former Guardian and Observer journalist Hutton has converted himself into a left-of-centre political philosopher. He started by claiming that all humans have an in-built concept of fairness and that present-day capitalism didn’t live up to it.

The whole idea of a “fair capitalism” is of course a contradiction in terms since capitalism is based on the exploitation of those forced to work for a wage or salary. And as the chairman of the meeting pointed out, even if humans did have an “instinct” for fairness this tells us nothing about what any particular group of humans considers to be fair. In fact Hutton himself criticised the arrogance of the “financial oligarchs” (the “Them” of the title of the talk) for considering themselves to be the “deserving rich” and that it was therefore unfair that they should be taxed and not be allowed big bonuses.

He’s one of the “blame the bankers” school. His version of a “fair capitalism” is one where the banks are broken up into smaller units and where the state intervenes to ensure highly competitive markets so that no enterprise or non-financial entrepreneur gets too big an income for too long. Their profits would be fair because they would have been earned - they would be getting “due deserts for discretionary effort”. He claimed that the “early Marx” supported this and proceeded to quote from his Critique of the Gotha Programme - which was in written when Marx was 57 and eight years before he died. An elementary mistake for a would-be political philosopher who wants to be taken seriously.

Hutton’s claim was that Marx thought that “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” would not be realisable for “decades and decades and decades” and that in the meantime people should be rewarded “according to their contribution”. It is true that Marx did envisage, had socialism been established in 1875, that there couldn’t have been distribution according to needs and went along with the view that in the meantime there’d have to be distribution according to hours worked. But this was because he considered that the means of production weren’t then developed enough, not because this was what humans instinctively considered to be fair. And there is no evidence that he thought such a system would have to exist for a hundred years. As a matter of fact, that was Stalin’s distortion of the Critique of the Gotha Programme when in the 1930s the rulers of state-capitalist Russia officially relegated free distribution according to needs to the distant future and insisted on payment according to work done and praised piecework and high salaries for managers (and themselves). But of course Hutton wouldn’t have wanted to call in Stalin to defend his position.

If this is the best that left-of-centre champions of a reformed capitalism can come up with, it confirms that it’s just not possible to put up a credible intellectual defence of capitalism. It’s the idea of a fair capitalism, not of a socialist society where people would have free access to what they need, that’s unrealistic.

Adam Buick

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain 121

Dear Friends,

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    Socialist Party of Great Britain

    Choosing an occupation (2009)

    Book Review from the October 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    Reports & Reflections on the 2009 UK Ford-Visteon Dispute: a Post-Fordist Struggle. Past Tense, June 2009.

    “On 31st of March 2009 Ford/Visteon announced the closure of three factories in the UK and the sacking of 610 workers... No guarantees were given concerning redundancy or pensions payments. The management had made the workers work up to the last minute, knowing that they would not even receive any wages for their final shifts.” In response, workers from the Belfast plant spontaneously occupied the sites and in a few hours were joined by several hundred local supporters. On hearing the news, workers from the Basildon and Enfield plants went into occupation the following day. This pamphlet concentrates mainly on the Enfield occupation, which lasted for 9 days, and is written by a supporter of the workers.

    Of particular interest is the author’s analysis of the role of the union during the occupation, particularly their role “as mediators and defenders of capitalist exploitation”. It is true that the unions’ role is one of mediation and as such does nothing to challenge the material basis of the relation between workers and employers. However as the existence of the wages system is only questioned by a tiny minority this can be of no great surprise; the unions do not work to establish socialism because their members are not socialists. To write off unions as defenders of capitalist exploitation is a step too far, as the author of the pamphlet accepts, “to be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions.”

    The real question is one of internal democracy and the extent in which the union is run by and for its membership. Whilst all unions do have a certain amount of democratic framework the amount of member participation is often lacking, perhaps not surprising when “unions are generally run today primarily as financial service brokers – "negotiating deals on insurance, mortgages and pensions, medical cover, holidays and car breakdown services" etc – and investment funds with a sideline in industrial arbitration.” Unions, sometimes under the well entrenched leadership of full time officials, have at times acted against the interests of the working class but such occurrences should not be understood as a fault of the union form per se but as an expression of the contradictions of the position of workers under capitalism.

    The assumption – which is not explicitly stated in the pamphlet but hinted at in certain passages – that capitalism can be overcome through industrial action alone and that this occupation was part of such a process, is not one that should go unquestioned. Workers who struggle to maintain and better their conditions should be commended, but until the working class consciously and politically organise to end the wages system the same battles will have to be fought over and over again. It is true that the bitter experience of the Visteon workers may lead some of them to question the basis of capitalist society, but from start to finish all this struggle was attempting was to get the best from a bad situation, not to bring about world socialism.

    A myriad of experiences from everyday life can provide enough motivation for the disenchanted to ask themselves ‘why do I have to do this every day?’ To steal a pithy phrase from the Socialist Party of Australia “it is Capitalism itself, unable to solve crisis, unemployment and poverty, engaging in horrifying wars, which digs its own grave. Workers are learning by bitter experience and bloody sacrifice for interests not their own. They are learning very slowly. Our job is to shorten the time, to speed up the process”

    The workers at Visteon secured a deal ten times greater than the original offer, their (and our) position as materially dependent sellers of labour-power continues.
    Darren Poynton

    What class are you in?

    From the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back.

    Chris Harman, one of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party died last week. He had a mistaken idea of who the “working class” were.

    What class you are in is defined by the position in which you stand with regard to the means of production. In capitalist society there are two basic classes: those who own and control the means of production and those who own no productive resources apart from their ability to work.

    The working class in capitalist society is made up of all those who are obliged through economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary. If this is your position then you are a member of the working class. The job you do and the status it might have, the pay you receive and how you chose to spent it, are irrelevant as long as you are dependent on working for a wage or salary in order to live.

    In Britain over 90 percent of the population are members of the working class. Of the rest only about 2-3 per cent are members of the exploiting, capitalist class who enjoy a privileged non-work income derived from the surplus value produced by the working class over and above what they are paid as wages and salaries. The others are the self-employed – small shopkeepers, independent workers, professional people – whose income is derived from selling some service or other directly to the consumer rather than from selling their labour power to an employer. And many of these can be assimilated, in terms of income, to the ordinary worker.

    What this means is that essentially we are living in a two-class society of capitalists and workers. But what about the “middle class”? The existence of such a middle class is one of the greatest myths of the twentieth century. In the last century, the term was used by the up-and-coming industrial section of the capitalist class in Britain to describe themselves; they were the class between the landed aristocracy (who at that time dominated political power) and the working class. Eventually, however, the middle class of industrial capitalists replaced the landed aristocracy as the ruling class and the two classes merged into the capitalist class we know today. In other words, the 19th century middle class became part of the upper class and disappeared as a “middle” class.

    The term, however, lived on and came to be applied to civil servants, teachers and other such white-collar workers. But there was no justification for this, as such people were clearly workers just as much obliged by economic necessity to sell their ability to work as were factory workers, miners, engine drivers and dockers. The only difference was the type of job they were employed to do – and a certain amount of snobbery attached to it. .

    It is not just the Daily Mail persists in believing that there is a middle class. So does the SWP which has come forward with a theory of the “new middle class”. This “class” is said to be composed of higher-grade white collar workers and to make up between 10 and 20 percent of the workforce (The Changing Working Class by SWP leaders Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, p. 37). The reason given for excluding these people from the working class is that they exercise some degree of control over the use of the means of production and/or authority over other workers; in short, because they perform some managerial role.

    To adopt this view is to abandon the relationship-to-the-means-of-production theory of class for one based on occupation. Socialists have always maintained that, as far as the actual production of wealth is concerned, the capitalist class are redundant. They play no part in production, which is run from top to bottom by hired workers of one sort or another. This means that all job, including those concerned with managing production and/or disciplining other members of the working class, are performed by members of the working class. To exclude from the working class workers with no productive resources of their own who are paid, among other things, to exercise authority of behalf of the employing class over other workers is to give more importance to the job done (occupation) than to the economic necessity of having to sell labour power for a wage or salary which for Marxists is the defining feature of the working class.

    Of course not everybody who receives an income in the form of a salary is necessarily a member of the working class. Some capitalists chose to manage their own businesses and pay themselves a “salary” for doing this. Although a part of this might correspond to the price of labour power (the part corresponding to what the capitalist would have to pay to hire a professional manager to do the same job), usually most of it is only a disguised way of distributing some of the surplus value at the expense of the other shareholders. What makes a salary-earner a member of the working class is not the mere receipt of a salary but being economically dependent on it for a living.

    Having to work for an employer was not only how Marx defined the working class. It is also, and more importantly, the view of many workers who have never heard of Marx. When asked, as in a number of recent radio broadcasts, a surprising – and pleasing – number have replied that anyone who has to work for a living is a worker. Which makes them more sensible than both the Daily Mail and the SWP.

    Adam Buick