Thursday, July 2, 2015

Keeping us down (1970)

Book Review from the October 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Irrational in Politics by Solidarity. 2s.

This short pamphlet largely consists of verbatim extracts from, and summaries of, the works of Engels, Freud, Reich, Michael Cattier and others, and it would be better to read their works yourself to draw your own conclusions. For those without the time or inclination to do this, however, the pamphlet is quite useful.

It sets out to give a partial explanation of why, given the availability of revolutionary propaganda and the logic of establishing Socialism, workers in general still reject, often violently, this alternative to the insoluble mess of capitalism. The smallness of revolutionary propaganda set against the capitalist monopoly of the mass media is accepted as a major factor in the conditioning of workers , but further reasons are sought to explain the contradiction between the self-evident economic logic of abolishing capitalism and the acceptance of this system by the mass of the people.

The crude outlook of many "left-wingers", who see a working class naturally revolutionary being thwarted by incompetent and bureaucratic leaders and the physical repression of the state machine, is from the start rejected:
It is obvious that if large sections of the population were constantly questioning the principles of hierarchy, the authoritarian organisation of production, the wages system, or other fundamental aspects of the social structure, no ruling class could maintain itself in power for long. For rulers to continue ruling it is necessary for those at the bottom of the social ladder not only to accept their condition but eventually to lose even the sense of being exploited. Once this psychological process has been achieved the division of society becomes legitimised in people's minds. The exploited cease to perceive it as something imposed on them from without . . . Only at times of occasional insurrectionary outbursts do the rulers have to resort to force, as a kind of reinforcement of a conditioning stimulus.
According to Solidarity it was left to Wilhelm Reich to explain " . . . the lag between class consciousness and economic reality, and the tremendous social inertia represented by habits of deference and submission among the oppressed". The explanation lay in the sexual repression of people and in the whole authoritarian upbringing of children associated in particular with the patriarchal family. Reich expressed it this way:
As the economic basis (of the family) became less significant, its place was taken by the political function which the family now began to assume. Its cardinal function, that for which it is mostly supported by conservative science and law, is that of serving as a factory for authoritarian ideologies and conservative structures.
From this examination of family relationships Reich concludes pessimistically that revolutionary propaganda seeking to explain the social injustice and irrationality of the economic system falls on deaf ears, because if people realised they were wasting their lives in the service of an absurd system they would either go mad or commit suicide:
To avoid achieving such anxiety-laden insight they justify their existence by rationalising it. They repress anything that might disturb them and acquire a character structure adapted to the conditions under which they live.
The writer of the pamphlet is aware of the inadequate nature of this conclusion since it implies totally malleable individuals in whom total sexual repression has produced total conditioning. It does not allow for the possibility (dictated by man's sexual needs themselves)  that a fight against sexual repression may well loosen this "character-structure". We might say furthermore that the choice depicted by Reich between madness and submission to capitalism's authority would only be real to the extent that the individuals who have begun to break loose remained isolated. The socialist organisation would enable a group-identity to be formed as a force against this. There are now also healthy signs that young people in struggling to achieve free-sex life are denting the repressive ideology of capitalism. The pamphlet outlines two main reactions to this movement. One is open, outward opposition, the other is an attempt at absorption and control through commercialising sexuality. Solidarity correctly describe the process whereby this is done but appear to attribute to it the status of a conscious capitalist policy which it definitely is not. Making profits from "consumer sex"  is not done for ideological reasons.

The last part of the pamphlet is an attack on the inner conservatism of Bolshevik ideology in relation to sex and family relationships. Unfortunately Solidarity are still handicapped in their examination of this subject by their acceptance of the myth that the 1917 Russian revolution was socialist. The material provided can nevertheless be used to the greater advantage by others.
Michael Bradley

Hull Students Debate: Is Russia Capitalist? (1968)

From the March 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Can nationalisation be socialist? And should the workers put their trust in leaders? These two crucial questions were raised during a recent confrontation between a Socialist and a Trotskyist.

Over 50 students attended a debate staged by Hull University Marxist Society and titled "Is Russia Capitalist?" Yes, said A. Buick for the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain. No,  said Tom Kemp (economics lecturer at Hull) on behalf of the so-called Socialist Labour League.

Mr. Kemp opened. He said that there were those who thought Russia was socialist, those who found it an enigma, and those (including the Socialist Party) who maintained a "sectarian aloofness." He disagreed with all of these. He didn't think Russia was Socialist, and he denounced the Russian government's crimes against the working class. But, he maintained, these crimes were not caused by the nationalised economy. They were alien to it. He thought there was a number of features of capitalism which did not exist in Russia: a disproportion between production and consumption goods; a falling rate of profit; financial difficulties of the sort which led to the 1929 crash.

Referring to the recent sterling crisis and devaluation he commented: "No international speculation against the rouble could conceivably affect the Soviet government's policy in that way. That would be utterly fantastic." Mr Kemp also thought there was no expansionist tendency in Russia—at least not of the imperialist sort as in the West. The ruling bureaucracy, though it lived in high style, was not a class, as it was so limited by the political set-up.

Our comrade Buick began by defining Socialism: a world without frontiers, democratically controlled, where production would be for use, not for profit. The Bolshevik coup of 1917 was neither a Socialist revolution nor a working-class takeover. The Bolsheviks used Marxist phrases but were really descended from a long line of Russian insurrectionaries who were conspiratorial and elitist. Their ideas could be traced back to the Jacobins.

State control did not mean that there was no ruling class. There were several cases in history where state ownership had been a form of class rule. The Catholic Church in feudal times was a ruling group which was not hereditary, from which people could be easily dismissed, and which was not based on individual ownership. All the same, it was still a property system with class rule.

Buick said capital was not a thing, but a social relation. It meant there was wage labour, massive production of commodities and accumulation out of profits. All these existed in Russia, and so did the falling tendency of the profit state.

In the open discussion session, supporters of the "Communist" Party argued that the government had done all it could, considering Russia had been so backward. It was pointed out, however, that Socialists didn't say the government ought to have a change of heart. On the contrary, they couldn't introduce Socialism. Only the majority of the working class could do that, and the Russian workers still wanted capitalism, like most workers of the world.

Some economics students, apparently unused to political argument, seemed amazed that anyone should think the workers were exploited anywhere at all. Shouldn't entrepreneurs be rewarded? Buick pointed out that wealth was produced by human labour. In capitalism, profit was derived from paying workers less than what they produced. In Socialism there would not be a "fair return" to workers. On the contrary, wages would be abolished and all goods and services would be free.

One student thought Russia was an "anti-capitalist bureaucracy," because of its Leninist ideology. However it was explained that since 1917 the ideology had not determined the social structure, but had been continuously altered to suit current policies.

On the whole, the open discussion was very poor, despite the good attendance. Winding up, the speakers agreed that the argument was not just a matter of applying labels to Russia. Deeper issues were involved.

The debate showed up two of these issues very clearly. First, the Trotskyists are convinced that state ownership has something to do with Socialism. Second, they place great emphasis on the concept of an elite, the "leadership" or "vanguard," to whom the workers are supposed to turn in time of crisis, whereas Socialists say that since Socialism will be democratic it can only be established democratically—when it is the will of the majority.

As a result of the debate, there was a lot of argument among students, which is all to the good. At Hull a growing number of students realise that Russia is capitalist—though there are many other falsehoods to be fought.

People often point to the rather slow growth of the Socialist movement so far. But, although the Socialist case in its entirety hasn't a very big following, certain parts of it are gaining ground fast. The blaze of publicity in celebration of 50 years' state tyranny in Russia has given added impetus to the view that Russia is not Socialist, nor a "workers' state", nor bureaucratic collectivist—but state capitalist. To encourage clear thinking about Russia is to help the spread of this truth.

The Underwhelming Theory of Underconsumption (2015)

From the July 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Reformists are calling on workers to fight against ‘austerity’ (not capitalism), based on the flimsy old theory of underconsumption.
An economic theory can—and very often does—live on even after it has been debunked. Over a century and a half ago Marx exposed the fallacies underlying the theory of underconsumption, but the brains of living Leftists—as in a zombie film run backwards—continue to feed off that ‘undead’ theory. The most recent example of the doctrine’s continued influence can be seen in the views of the ‘anti-austerity movement’ on how to overcome the current economic crisis.
The theory of underconsumption posits that a root cause of crisis is the inability of workers to ‘buy back’ what they have produced. The spending power of workers, as represented in their wages, is far below the value of the commodities created.
So an obvious remedy, from this perspective, would be to boost consumer demand through government spending and wage increases. This would bring consumption and production back into a sort of equilibrium. Conversely, austerity policies are doomed to fail because they put downward pressure on consumer demand at the very moment it needs to be stimulated.
This viewpoint seems almost commonsensical. During a crisis, we can see examples of unsold commodities. And workers are well aware of their own limited spending power. The theory also appeals to anyone disgusted by the sight of the rich telling us to tighten our belts as they continue to live in luxury. No wonder that the theory of underconsumption is so compelling.
So what’s the problem with it?
That there is a problem with the theory might occur to anyone who considers why capitalists would not eagerly embrace a simple remedy for crisis that would have the added benefit of easing workers’ discontent. Are capitalists too greedy? Or just stupid?
All hail the consumer
As commodity sellers, capitalists obviously appreciate the merits of increased consumer spending. Producers of everyday consumer goods, in particular, would be able to sell more commodities if workers had higher wages. Any capitalist firm, in fact, would welcome wage increases that result in greater sales of its own commodities.
But the wages that a capitalist would like to see rise are those paid by other capitalists. Marx explains that capitalists would of course ‘like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest possible consumers of his own commodity’ (Grundrisse). Higher wages for those workers is all fine and good. But no capitalist is eager to raise workers’ wages to benefit other capitalists. Whenever wages are raised it usually is the result of pressure from workers or the labour market.
The hypocrisy of capitalists only wanting higher wages for workers other than their own probably does not even cross their minds because those other workers are grouped under the reassuring mental category of 'consumer'. Apart from the capitalist’s own workers, Marx explains, ‘the whole remaining working class confronts him as consumer and participant in exchange, as money-spender, not as worker’.
Reformists might be encouraged when capitalists express approval for boosting consumer spending, spotting potential allies in their anti-austerity crusade. But capitalists are simply daydreaming about having more customers for their products, not fretting about the state of the working class.
The contrast between the capitalists’ deep and abiding love for the consumer, and their attitude toward their own workers, is stark. There is no room for illusions when it comes to the production process they oversee. ‘Every capitalist knows this about his worker,’ Marx wrote, ‘that he does not relate to him as producer to consumer and [he therefore] wishes to restrict his consumption, i.e. his ability to exchange, his wage, as much as possible’.
In the end, that attitude of capitalists toward their own workers is decisive—because capitalists are not in a position to influence the wages of other workers, whereas they are quite capable of limiting the consumption of their own workers.
For this reason alone, the ‘simple remedy’ peddled by advocates of the underconsumption theory is going to remain on the shelf like an unsold commodity.
The premise of profit
The basic reason capitalists aren’t going to buy the wage-raise remedy is that capitalism itself is premised, in an important sense, on workers’ ‘underconsumption’. That is, profit depends on the value of wages paid to workers being less than the value of the labour workers expend in production. If workers were paid enough to ‘buy back’ all the commodities they produced, the source of profit would dry up.
That doesn’t mean that capitalists are incapable of paying workers a ‘fair wage’. All that the term really means, when used in a precise way, is that workers have been paid a wage more or less equivalent to the value of their ‘labour-power’, a term Marx defined as the mental or physical capabilities that a worker possesses.
The value of labour-power, as in the case of commodities in general, is determined by the labour-time necessary to produce it. More specifically, labour-power’s value is determined by the value of the commodities (or ‘means of subsistence’) consumed by the worker to reproduce the capacity to work: such as food, clothing, and housing, as well as more intangible things like education. 
But the value of a workers’ labour-power and the actual labour the worker expends in the production process are two separate quantities (comparable when reduced to ‘socially necessary labour time’). Profit stems from the value of the labour expended in production being greater than the value of the worker’s labour-power. This exploitation of the worker’s labour is concealed by the wage form, where workers are paid ‘fairly’ (sometimes, at least) according to the value of their labour-power.
This brief excursion into Marx’s theory of surplus-value was necessary to refute the basic assumptions of the theory of underconsumption. Understanding the source of profit reveals that ‘underconsumption’ is hardwired to the capitalist system. Capitalism is a system of production for profit, and profit is only possible through the extraction of what is essentially ‘unpaid labour’. If this relative underconsumption is a problem, the only solution is to do away with capitalism.
Consumer demand is important in capitalism, certainly, but profit is the system’s lifeblood. No commodity—however useful to society—will be produced unless that production is a potential means to profit. An increase in wages is tolerated up to a point—but there is a limit beyond which capitalism will not go because relative underconsumption is integral to the profit system.
A cure for crises that would effectively drain the system of profit would be as useful to capitalism as the ancient practice of bloodletting was once to the sick.
Useful idiocy
Capitalists are not going to introduce policies concocted on the basis of the theory of underconsumption. But the theory is still useful to them ideologically.
In presenting underconsumption as a cause of crisis, rather than a precondition for profit, reformists suggest to workers that capitalism can be improved to the point where the system adequately meets their needs. They also blur the reality of class conflict by saying that capitalists, too, would benefit from the increased demand that wage raises would bring.
Capitalists shouldn’t mind too much that they are ridiculed by reformists for resisting this simple solution. Far better for workers to imagine that their problems stem from a few boneheaded billionaires, than from a profit system that can never meet their needs. The irony, of course, is that the reformists themselves are the system’s useful idiots.
Reformist ideologues also can be trusted to misinterpret the criticism that socialists make of their theory of underconsumption. If a socialist points out the real limits under capitalism to expanding workers’ consumption, as we have here, it sounds ‘defeatist’ to their ears—or even like an argument in favour of austerity.
So let’s make the following point quite clear: Socialists recognize the importance for workers to continually struggle for better wages and working conditions. As wageworkers, we know only too well how capitalists are exerting the utmost pressure in the opposite direction. To abstain from that struggle—the class struggle that continues and will continue as long as capitalism exists—would be suicidal.
But socialists aspire to more than just winning the fairest possible wage under an unfair system. We think that workers should not only resist the efforts by capitalists to drive down our standard of living but also organize ourselves politically to end capitalism. The reformists dismiss this standpoint as ‘unrealistic’.
But they are the ones who have lost touch with reality. They ignore the limits of capitalism. The basic problem with their standpoint is not that they call for higher wages or reject austerity, but that they pursue those aims while treating capitalism as if it were just a mechanism for producing social wealth, rather than a system powered by profit. They spread illusions about the nature of capitalism in offering the enticing idea that there’s a ‘win-win’ solution out there for workers and capitalists alike—a simple way to expand consumption while surmounting crisis.
The theory falls flat—squashed by the reality of capitalism. And the sooner workers recognize just how thin and lifeless this theory is, the better for the socialist movement.
Michael Schauerte