Sunday, June 1, 2014

Material World: The World Cup for Whom? (2014)

The Material World column from the June 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The upcoming mega sporting events and multi-billion dollar businesses, this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, are drawing many rural migrants from Brazil’s poorest regions, as well as neighbouring countries, to the cities in search of work. Slave labour remained largely a rural phenomenon in Brazil, where it occurs on cattle ranches and the sugar cane plantations but now many new victims have become trapped into forced labour. There are widespread abusive labour recruitment practices in Brazil which lead to debt bondage and deprivation of liberty. There are an estimated 18 million victims of forced labour worldwide, including 25,000 to 40,000 in Brazil.

Luiz Machado, national coordinator of the International Labour Organisation’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour said the United Nations is worried about a sharp increase in slave labour ahead of and during the World Cup and the Olympic Games. ‘These major events draw workers from around the country, and immigrants, for the construction of stadiums,’ he explained. ‘Major infrastructure works also have a social impact, in terms of sexual exploitation and even child labour...’

Of more concern to others is the mobilisation of the military, with checkpoints at the entrances to the favelas and patrols on foot and in armoured personnel carriers to maintain ‘law and order’ and ensure a ‘safe and peaceful’ festival of football. A new so-called pacification police unit, the UPP, has been created and has already been in action with prolonged gun battles with the many powerful criminal gangs, such as Comando Vermelho (Red Command), who often took on the role of legislative, executive and judiciary lawgivers in the areas where the state has been absent during previous decades. According to a Financial Times report (27 March) common crimes such as robberies have risen in ‘pacified’ slums as the police are largely less feared than the former drug gang leaders.

People are enraged that their lives were being sacrificed for the sake of sport which will enrich the lives of speculators seeking the gentrification of the favelas. 500 families live in Vila Autodromo, once a fishing village now turned favela, and they are now threatened by eviction because of government plans to build the Olympic Park nearby, and documents reveal a plan to build a 1 million square meters luxury condominium in its place. ‘Why is that the rich people can live here, but the poor ones who already live can't stay?’ asked Altair Guimarães, of the resident's association. This is the third time he has been forcibly removed from a home. This time, he says, he and his neighbours will fight. And stay put.

People are angered at the billions of reals being borrowed and spent on the World Cup and Olympic Games infrastructures, knowing it will be they, the Brazilian working people, who will have to suffer the consequences. The government is investing huge amounts of money in stadiums while women give birth in hospital corridors and waiting rooms. In January, police opened fire on residents of the Morro São João Mill neighbourhood, in New North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, who were protesting a lack of electricity for weeks in their community. The World Cup still remains the priority. The poor are paying a heavy price for money-making international sporting events.

While Brazil was playing a warm-up friendly against Spain, police were firing tear gas at demonstrators not far away. Brazilians are football fanatics so why are they so anti-World Cup? Is it the price tag for the six-week tournament which is expected to be $11 billion (a very conservative estimate)? Or because at least nine people died in the construction of the country's 12 stadiums, where observers have said corruption and incompetence permitted the contractors to line their pockets? Perhaps it is because the government has relocated more than 15,000 families from favelas across the country. By the time the Olympics arrive, that number could rise to more than 100,000.

Or might it be the fact that police in Rio de Janeiro killed one suspect for every 229 they arrested last year. In the United States, police killed one suspect for every 31,575 they arrested, or that in 2008, police in Rio killed 1,137 people, whereas in the entire United States police killed 371 people. In fact, the murder rate in Rio de Janeiro has declined. But it appears to be offset by the dramatic increase in missing persons. Last year nearly 5,000 people went missing. Many people blame the police.

Enjoy the games, those sporting spectacles that are supposed to appease and placate the masses.

Editorial: In the Recovery Position? (2014)

Editorial from the June 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

The newspapers that have been full of talk about the economic crisis since 2008 have all of a sudden decided that an economic recovery is under way. Government statistics show that after falling sharply, GDP in the UK is just about back to where it was before the slump began. Average wage increases have now almost caught up with inflation, after lagging prices for years.  And on an almost daily basis newspapers like the Express and Mail trumpet the recent rises in house prices, rather like a child excitedly waving about a toy they’ve found in the lucky dip.

We’ve been here before of course. This is how all economic recoveries happen. The big fish that dominate things eat the little fish and get even bigger and stronger as a result. Their growing confidence is such they may even try to gobble up other big fish too – we can see this by the recent attempt from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to buy AstraZeneca. Both profits and wages start to rise again and so demand for goods and services starts to pick up. And the politicians that had been so obviously impotent to tackle all the pressing issues during the slump claim that it is their unique foresight and mastery of the economy that has brought about the feel-good factor.

In truth, it is very rare for slumps to be caused by politicians and even rarer for them to have any real, discernible impact on a recovery. Ever since its development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the market economy has always suffered periodic crises and slumps, whether under Tory, Liberal, Labour or Coalition governments. Slumps are part of the market’s internal renewal and survival mechanism, right across the world. Far from governments running the market economy, it is – for all intents and purposes – the ups and downs of the economy that fundamentally influences what governments can really do.

George Osborne hasn’t yet been quite as foolish as Gordon Brown was when he claimed Labour had ‘abolished boom and bust’. But he is still foolish enough not to realise that the economic recovery – such as it currently is – will yet again lay the foundations for profit-hungry over-investment during boom times, and an over-expansion of key industries and services in relation to paying demand for them. And linked with this, of course, more unsustainable financial bubbles too as the ‘innovators’, ‘entrepreneurs’ and speculators move in. These classic market forces will all serve to trigger the next slump – and no doubt the rise of yet another gang of political tricksters claiming, against all the evidence of history, that they can fix it.

What about the workers? (1990)

From the October 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

With his Goodbye to the Working Class André Gorz achieved a shock effect which probably owed more to the arresting title than to the content of the book. Not that it was without merit, for example his ruthless analysis of the relations of production in capitalism—that lines of control are from the top down, military style, which makes the idea of taking them over and converting them to production for use, with voluntary labour, completely ludicrous.

He went on to fall into traps he had dug himself. There will always be jobs needing some element of compulsion, he argued (old class-warriors will recognise this as the Who Will Do The Dirty Work question); these jobs will be shared out so that everybody gets some free time, while technological developments have made it possible for it to happen without a fall in production. But as we have pointed out (see "New Economics, Old Errors", World Socialist No 6), it is difficult to imagine compelling anybody to work if they access to everything they need for free. So that Gorz's proposal for extra monetary rewards as encouragement adds another bizarre contradiction.

But his main theme, which gave the title to the book, was that changes in the character of the market economy due to automation had rendered traditional Marxist thinking and practice totally irrelevant. The masses of workers who had trooped into the steelworks, the shipyards, the mines and the factories, were a vanishing race. Strikes had been broken, men sacked and a select few re-engaged and put to work with labour-saving equipment to do the jobs that had previously taken many. The remainder of the workforce, generally speaking the less skilled and qualified, had been hived off to do menial or casual or part-time work, and had been rendered marginal in their work and their social life.

Thus working class solidarity had been destroyed, loyalties replaced with a new ethos of competition to get on the gravy train of well-paid guaranteed jobs, and consumerism was providing the spectacle to keep those so privileged in a zombie-like trance of soap-opera following and gadget-buying.

Changing patterns of work
Gorz returns to this theme in a new book, Metamorphoses du travail (Paris, 1988), a translation of which is about to be made available over here. It is unfortunate that he spends a certain amount of time disposing of the Soviet system. The final collapse of state capitalism has rendered this excursion totally superfluous. This comes of keeping bad company. He had been in the group of Stalinist fellow-travellers around Sartre and Les Temps Modernes which had taken an unreasonably long time to discover the irrelevance of Russia after 1917 to libertarian socialist thinking. Eventually for him however:
The Soviet system represented a gross caricature of capitalism pursuing accumulation and growth as main objects.
Once that matter is out of the way, his dissection of contemporary society is thorough and frequently illuminating. He draws freely on those 20th century thinkers who have attempted to bring Marxist analysis up to date—Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, the Frankfurt School, Habermas, Baudrillard, etc. There are many provocative images:
Social disintegration extends to politicians, who increasingly resemble salesmen.
The Welfare State replaces services which people provided for themselves . . . this leads to a continual extension of public administration and state power while parliament becomes a shadow theatre presided over by a charismatic leader. This is the end but arrived at by different means, predicted in the nightmare of Orwell and the "führer mit maschine" of Weber. 
Gorz identifies stages in the evolution of production beginning with the simple division of labour as in Adam Smith, which he argues was introduced to facilitate control rather than production. He claims that the difficulty experienced by early factory owners in getting former peasants to work all day and every day led to the search for child labour, usually obtained in plentiful supply from the orphanages. The new proletariat had, virtually, to be bred.

Then at the turn of the century came Fordism and the assembly line. This was followed in the 1950s by what the French call Taylorism, i.e. time and motion study. But this created new problems: the extra compensation demanded by workers, accompanied by bad quality, bad timekeeping, absenteeism, even arson.

The new tack is to restore some independence, with small groups completing each process and determining the rhythm of their work. Work is "subbed out", a privileged 25 percent are kept on. Line workers are replaced by robots supervised by a highly adaptable elite. The subcontractors absorb the business cycle. There is flexibility of function for the elite, and flexibility of numbers for the subcontracting workers.

This, says Gorz, has broken up the working class, who can no longer be looked to for liberation from capitalism. A new coalition is needed, based not on sectional interests but on ethical considerations. People are increasingly turning to alternative, marginal groupings as an answer to the disintegration of society and the spiritual emptiness of work. Increasing numbers are choosing quality of life before money and success at work: "The autonomy being born, unsure of itself, hesitant, menaced by industrial culture and the merchants of leisure, is where we must turn to survive".

The answer, he argues, is the reduction of the working day, week, year. With increased leisure, people can and are replacing bought-in items with home-produced ones. There is a turning away from consumerism among a significant minority. People are turning from "more is better" to "enough is enough".

As in Goodbye To The Working Class Gorz repeats his argument that replacing control-by-others (heteroregulation) by voluntary co-operation is impossible with all industrial activity; some compulsion will always be necessary, and for this, monetary rewards will have to remain. Clearly, money notions stick to these former Stalinists (and Keynesians) like shit to a blanket. Gorz gives no explanation why compulsion should be necessary.

If unpleasant and dangerous jobs were always avoided by the voluntary sector, then the argument might be plausible, but there never seems to be any lack of volunteers for the lifeboats, or cave and mountain rescue. And of the argument is that only spectacular activities call up such responses, how about the nurses who volunteer to care for AIDS victims, Legionnaires' Disease, and similar horror? Are they all crazy, Jesus Christ characters, or Superwoman? Or are they just in it for the money?

Shift to money-shuffling
While there has been an acceleration of the shift from heavy industry and agriculture in particular, and from wealth-producing activities in general toward functions peculiar to a market economy-banking, insurance and money shuffling, the sales effort, advertising, public relations, security, defence of markets—the drift is not entirely new.

It was noted as far back as the 17th century by Sir William Petty ("Political Arithmetic"). In 18th century France, Quesnay in his "Tableau Economique" calculated that the burden of the non-producing aristocracy on the peasants could reach unsustainable levels. And, in England again, in the 19th century, the redoubtable William Cobbett carried on a campaign for decades against the reduction in the numbers of the wealth-producers and the multiplication of "stockjobbers", bureaucrats, and the Civil List.

There is little evidence that those moving from productive work into "service" activities always move down the social or economic scale as Gorz argues. Some do, of course, but that is nothing new. He quotes Marx to the effect that in the middle of the 19th century, 14 percent of the labour force in England were skivvies of one kind or another. There is little evidence that the new servant class has reached that proportion.

But there has been a significant increase in banking and insurance activities. There appears to be 150,000 accountants in Britain—more than in all the other developed nations outside the US. It would be difficult to believe that these workers and bureaucrats are financially or otherwise worse off than those retained in industry, yet they outnumber and are increasing faster than the unemployed and part-time workers who are the object of Gorz's concern.

Neither are they lacking in willingness to organise themselves for the defence of salaries and conditions. There have been bank strikes; one in Ireland in the 1960s lasted six months, and there was a strike of half a million local government workers in Britain in 1989. Professional associations like the Law Society and the British Medical Association are increasingly beginning to resemble and behave like trade unions. They are not affiliated to the TUC but who knows? The announcement of the death of the working class is, to borrow an expression of Mark Twain, an exaggeration.
Ken Smith